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It was more for buffoonery than intellect that Iddi Amin, a one-time president of Uganda, was known. At the height of his tyrannical rule, Amin gave the edict that all Asians must leave Uganda. Those who wanted to make some money from clearance sales before fleeing Uganda hurriedly put up ‘for sale’ signs in their shops.

During a tour of Kampala City after the edict, ubiquitous ‘for sale’ signs caught Amin’s attention and prompted him to ask: “Who is this sale?” Amin did not recognise the signs for what they were. To him, the preposition ‘for’ seemed to declare that almost everything in Kampala belonged to, or was reserved for an individual called 'Sale'.

Not versed in the English language, Amin latched onto the syllables ‘sa’ and ‘le’ and confused the English word ‘sale’ (single syllable pronounced as ‘sel’) with the Muslim name ‘Saleh’ (two syllables ‘sa’ and ‘leh’; consonant ‘h’ at the end is silent). The word ‘sale’ denotes a period of time in which a trader or a group of traders opt to sell their wares at discounted prices.

To recap, syllables are units of enunciation that produce a single vowel sound. Vowels, as we know, are alphabetical letters ‘a, e, i, o, u’.  The remaining 21 letters from a total of 26 that make up the English alphabet are known as consonants. Words that begin with vowels or vowel sounds are normally preceded by the determiner ‘an’. Thus, ‘an egg’, ‘an apple’, ‘an orange’ and so forth.

Our grasp

However, even though the words ‘utensil’, ‘euro’ and ‘uniform’ begin with vowels, their pronunciations take on the consonant ‘yu’ sound at the beginning. We cannot, therefore, say ‘an utensil’, ‘an euro’ or ‘an uniform’. These words must be preceded by the determiner ‘a’ that usually comes before consonants and words beginning with consonant sounds.

While African languages that tend to intrude on our grasp of the English language are phonetic (rely heavily on syllables), the English language is semi-phonetic. At times the pronunciation of some words bears no relation to the way the letters of the word are arranged. A few of the words, mostly borrowed from the French language, include ‘Bourgeois’ (pronounced syllabically as ‘bu-jwa’), ‘yatch’ (yot), ‘cognac’ (Ko-nyak), and ‘rendezvous’ (ro-nde-vu).

My recall of the shenanigans that made Iddi Amin so notorious was prompted by a notice taped on the inner side of the rear windscreen of a saloon car that read; ‘Car on sell’. As we waited at a red traffic light, I read the notice distractedly but something registered on the sub-conscious mind. It took me several seconds to put a finger on what was amiss. The car owner had used the word ‘sell’ instead of ‘sale’.

Make reference

The two words fall in the category of homophones; words that sound the same when pronounced but whose spellings differ. Sell (verb) is the act of handing something to a buyer in exchange for money. Sale (noun) is the process that leads to the exchange of merchandise or commodities with money (sell). Sale also refers to the occasion on which things are sold at cheaper prices. Thus, while you can sell your car in a sale, the reverse is not true.

In some cases, homophones not only bear the same pronunciation, they carry the same spelling. Let us take the word ‘bear’ as an example. It can be used to make reference to an animal, or to imply that one is forced to put up with something. Sometimes the word ‘bear’ is used to indicate punishment that one endures for the mistake of others. Bear also means to give birth to a baby. Often, we hear of women who claim to bear with husbands who are not worth their while.

A doctor can be sacked (bear the burden) for an operation gone wrong because nurses messed up after the process. This introduces homophones ‘whose’ and ‘who’s’. For example, ‘whose mistake caused the patient’s death?’ and ‘who’s to blame for the death of the patient?’ Let us use a sentence culled from social media to explain the words ‘whose’ and ‘who’s’. It reads; “Many people have shared and continue to share with me the story of the Finnish Prime Minister whose 34 and female”. The writer should have used the word who’s; a contraction of ‘who’ and ‘is’ and qualified 34 with the word ‘years’ to be understood. With the word ‘whose’ in place, one wonders, '34 what?' ‘Whose’ is used to show belonging.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent for The Standard. [email protected]

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Language use Syllables Pronunciation
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