Here in Uganda, I am the one with the accent, and I know that people have trouble understanding me. I am trying to modify my speech without sounding super-phony or ridiculous. The more I imitate the Ugandan accent, the more people seem to understand me, but the more obnoxious I feel.
One of the reasons Americans are so hard to understand is that we jumble our syllables together, whereas Ugandans pronounce each syllable individually – which is sort of how Swahili (and I think Luganda) are. For example, when I say, “You are here,” it comes out as “Yerheer,” and when a Ugandan says it, it is “Yooo ahhh hee-ahhh.” I am starting to think that my speech is kind of ugly in comparison.
I really like the Ugandan pattern of speech. It is very musical – which is what people say about the Colombian accent in Spanish. People vary their tone expressively as they speak, and it’s very endearing. One of the ways is by speaking in a higher tone when expressing “very” or “high up.”
When walking around Kampala, we were looking for the National Theatre, and to find it we had to make a left and walk up a block. We asked a security guard, and she was very helpful, telling us to make the left at the corner, “and then you walk UUUUUUUP THERE! and you will find it.” – using the higher tone for the ”up there” and pronouncing “there” like the British “theh – ah.”
I also like how people use express surprise or amused emphasis, by uttering “eh!” in a ghih-pitched tone. It seems to always go with laughter.
Apparently, “r” and “l” are often confused here, because one or the other (I can’t figure out which) doesn’t exist in Luganda. (Someone told me a story of going to karaoke in Malawi. Her favorite songs that she heard there where 'Cly Me a Liver' and "I Bereave I can Fry'.)
To add to that, the pronunciation of Ugandan English is based on British pronunciation. Most British people (and Australians, etc) can figure out what we are saying because they know how we speak. But here, people aren’t used to it, and are bewildered by our speech.
This weekend, we were speaking to a mechanic who was called what sounded like “Puli” by everyone around. I even called him that to make sure, and it was right. But when I asked him to spell it, he spelled out “P-O-R-Y.”
Scott asked Pory a question about a filter. Pory didn’t understand. “Filter,” we repeated “Filter!” Trying to enunciate more and more. The thing is, when you are American, enunciating only makes it worse, because we overpronounce the “r.” Finally I cringed at my own obnoxiousness and said “Filta.” And Pory said “Oh, the ‘filta’! Yes, it is hee-ah.” He didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary (or even that I had changed my accent), he just seemed glad to know what we were trying to say.