Mind your Language

Mind Your Language 

Language is a very interesting thing. A word, phrase or statement can mean different things to different people depending on culture, context and other factors. I think the English language especially lends itself to a myriad of interpretations depending on who is speaking, who is listening and in what context it is being spoken or interpreted. 

I remember when I was younger, (I’m now in the late 4th decade of my life) we used to watch a show called “Mind Your Language” It is a comedy from the late 70s and 80s about a teacher trying to teach English to foreign students (wonder how they defined foreign then, because today, in this global village we call home, nothing is foreign).

Being a great lover of language and linguistics, I enjoyed watching the show. And now, in hindsight, I dare say, maybe watching the show made me love language and linguistics. I don’t know which came first…watching the show, or loving the language. It’s sort of like the chicken and egg scenario. 

2 funny real life examples.

Sleeping Around?

This first one is different meanings based on culture?

My cousin(my real cousin) lives in the United States of America and he recently married a beautiful  American lady of Caucasian descent. The marriage wasn’t considered complete until they had a ceremony in Kenya. So, after their American wedding, my cousin, his newly wed and quite a few of her affluent relatives hopped on the plane and flew to Kenya for the Kenyan wedding. I did not personally attend the wedding but was well briefed by those who attended. Everyone had lots of food and fun, and the couple had planned for an overnight reception aka evening party. There was going to be free booze and dance all night long for the young and old alike.

When the daytime festivities were completed, one of my nephews who had helped coordinate events grabbed the microphone and cleared his throat purposefully.

“Ahem! Attention. Attention everyone.”

Everyone was silent as a very important announcement was about to be made.

My nephew continued, 

“All those who are sleeping around, please join us for the evening party at such and such a place.” 

While all the Kenyan guests cheered excitedly at the prospect of free booze and dance, the American guests dropped their jaws in utter shock! I wasn’t there, but I have pictures in my mind of white women choking on their chai moto (hot Kenyan tea typically served at weddings)  in complete dismay. 

One of the white ladies, her face ashen, leaned over to another of my myriad cousins and asked her shockingly “Do you people talk about such things openly?”

“What things?” My cousin calmly replied wondering why the white woman was so shocked. 

“Sleeping around.” My cousin let out one of those deep, long African Woman laughters and said matter-of-factly, “Oh, no. Sleeping around here means spending the night in the area.” 

“Oh, I see.” Relief was evident on the woman’s face. 

I however can’t help but wonder what the other white guests thought…those who didn’t have the courage to ask why anyone would specifically invite sleep-arounders to attend an evening of booze and dance. 

Are you Bipolar?

The following incident/exchange happened in 2009 between our then 7 year old daughter and myself. 

I am not sure how to categorize it.

Two weeks ago, my neighbor and  good friend whose son is in the same class with Liza, our 7 year old daughter was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. I dont remember us talking about it in front of the children, but the word “bipolar” was at the forefront of my mind when the following conversation took place at our house last Sunday as we were positioning ourselves for family movie night.

“I am Bipolar”, Liza announced.

“No, you are not,” I told her, matter-of-factly. Thoughts were racing in my mind.

“Mami, I AM Bipolar”. She almost shouted.

“NO YOU ARE NOT BIPOLAR” I shouted back.


I was starting to get exasperated. “Liza, do you even know what “Bipolar” means.?”

“Yes, I do. Look! I am sitting by Paula (our 3 month old daughter).”

Your guess is as good as mine.  I sighed with relief, as I am sure you just did.

(So all this time she was saying that she was sitting next to Paula…Talk about “cross-purpose conversation”)

Later, we talked about bipolar and what it means. It was hard to explain…even after using many different ways to describe it, at the end of it, she said, “I dont understand”.  Which is ok with me, at least I was glad she was “by Paula” and not “Bipolar”

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