English and Other Gambian Languages

Each tribe in the Gambia has its own language and every child starts off speaking, literally, his mother’s tongue, be it Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Krio, Serer or one of the other languages spoken here. Then they will pick up their father’s language (inter-tribal marriage is normal) and the language that most people in their village speak. A 3 year old (with a Mandinka mother and Dutch father) once told me he could speak three languages – Mandinka, Dutch and Wolof. Impressive, but he couldn’t count because he told me this in English! It is quite common for Gambians to speak 4 or 5 of the local languages. The official language of the Gambia is English so most children learn some at school and all Gambians think they are fluent. There are some strange uses of English, for example:

“Off” is a verb. You do not turn off a tap, you off the water.

“On my way, coming”. When you phone someone to find out why they are late for an appointment they will tell you that they are on their way, coming. It means they are still at home and will come to you when they get round to it.

“Tomorrow” means some time in the future; it hardly ever means the day after today.

“Off day”. Doesn’t mean someone isn’t feeling well but is a non-working day, or day off.

“Push-push”. A wheelbarrow. Also used for sack trucks and wheelchairs.

“Gelli-gelli”. A mini bus running a fixed route.

“He”. Pronouns have no gender. As in “My wife, he go to market and him buy some rice”

“GMT”. Gambia Maybe Time. Don’t expect anyone to turn up on time. People turn up hours late and don’t think they have inconvenienced anyone.

“Allah will provide”. Or if He doesn’t, a European will. It also means that if a Gambian sees something that he wants he can take it because it is a gift from Allah. It doesn’t matter if it belongs to someone else.

“Breakfast”. A meal taken as soon as you arrive at work.

“Small” can mean anything from not quite as big as usual to microscopic. “Small” wood is sawdust.

Men who build walls are “masoners”.

Finally, barbers do something called “barbing”.


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