I have been fascinated with slang for a long time. The idea of language as an impermanent thing, shifting and changing with attitudes and events, interests me.
As with every other country, the Rwandan youth has its own slang. Of course, being a few years short of thirty myself, I am not witnessing this phenomenon as a completely detached observer. Many might think this is a trivial subject, but I think it is an interesting reflection of social trends and norms.
In the Anglophone circles which I am more familiar with, there is a whole new language that would leave most of the elder generation completely baffled if they listened in.
Often slang expressions originate from Uganda and occasionally from Kenya, but the net is often cast wide and the adoption of new language respects no boundaries.
Sometimes the expression is a bit baffling because it is somewhat disconnected from the event that may have inspired it. When people say something or someone ‘is for World Cup’, it is a shorthand for something being very significant.
However the expression persisted long after the 2006 world cup where one assumes it started. Grammatical incoherence aside, it was a useful expression to suggest something that was major enough to draw comparisons with the biggest sporting event on earth (although obviously not literally) even though it has largely faded from use, it is still interesting to ponder why it was so widespread at one point.
Sometimes this disconnect is not with an event but with a way of life. Why is talking referred to as ‘jazzing’ even though jazz as a music genre is not a music genre that the youth know anything about?
Equally as strange is ‘batting’ used as an expression for studying hard. Presumably this is a reference to batting in baseball- the act of hitting the ball with a bat sets in motion a team’s attempt to increase its runs, and hence its score.
And yet of course baseball is a sport that is only vaguely familiar to Rwandans, even to the plugged-in ‘Facebook’ generation’. Frequently these expressions achieve a kind of poetic elegance- turning ‘melee’ into a verb and describing something small or insignificant as ‘one-one’ or ‘cartoon’ being just a few examples.
There are however plenty which have a more regional flavour- ‘zale’ for cigarettes and ‘kara’ for electricity being two examples.In other instances, slang usually means just shortening words or twisting them a little.
‘Fruss’ has been known to be used in place of ‘frustration’ (and it sometimes give rise to baffling sentence construction like ‘He was chewing fruss’).
In this vein some slang terms are almost rendered redundant because the new term is almost identical to the old one- why for example is ‘fithe’ (pronounced fee-thay’) used instead of ‘father’? And occasionally it actually relies on vagueness to achieve its objectives- using ‘these ends’ and ‘those ends’ as geographical expressions might seem counter-productive but it works somehow.
Somehow this vagueness is actually the key to the expression working.
Alcohol provides an interesting reference because as a social lubricant, it provides an interesting forum to watch the development of language. Beer is refered to as ‘a swallow’ and the act of drinking has many expressions, including ‘sending’ and ‘pushing’.
Thus you can say things like ‘I was sending a swallow last night’. If the ‘swallow’ in question is envisaged as a brief one, then it is refered to as ‘polite’. Buying drinks for someone is ‘housing’ them- presumably offering shelter from sobriety.
So no, slang is not trivial- it is an interesting window into any generation. Of course there is always the danger of slang becoming so pervasive and omnipresent that it destroys the ability to communicate formally.
However slang is, in essence, an attempt by the youth to own language in their way and experiment with it.
Language is not sacrosanct, and as long as the informal expressions co-exist with formal language, there is nothing wrong with having this unorthodox means of expression.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer