Like most languages, Acholi is deeply complex. Unlike languages like English or Swahili, however, its complexity does not lie in a massive and greatly varied vocabulary. Relatively speaking, Acholi vocabulary is limited, with single words taking on several different meanings depending on context and pronunciation. Using cultural clues to determine contextual meanings is one of the most difficult aspects of Acholi for many language learners to master, and nowhere is it more difficult than in Acholi literature, both spoken and written. In this chapter, I will use a handful of sample passages from the novel Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wilobo by perhaps Acholi’s greatest literary luminary, Okot p’Bitek, to illustrate the complex layers of meaning . Although the following passages are taken from p’Bitek’s novel, the style of lyrical, proverbial language that they exemplify can often be found in everyday spoken Acholi, and it’s therefore useful for any more advanced Acholi learner to develop a familiarity with the Acholi literary tradition helmed by p’Bitek.
- Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wilobo
- This is the title of the novel, and translated literally, it means, “White teeth make the whole world laugh.” P’Bitek’s own translation of the phrase is, “Are your teeth white? Then laugh!” A more idiomatic translation, however, would be, “Smile through the pain.” This phrase refers to the outlook of the novel’s protagonist, who, despite enduring one misadventure after another, continuously proclaims that, for as long as he has white teeth, he will continue smiling.
2. “Anyira kwene ma loyo Anyira Acoli?…Anyira Acoli ka i beco ci giracu.”
- The literal translation of this phrase is, “Which girls can surpass Acholi girls?…If in matters of beauty, then Acholi girls are bad.” The true meaning of the phrase, however, is the opposite; this passage comes from a section in which the young male protagonist is describing the beauty of the girls gathered at a village dance. Thus, in this case, giracu, or “they are bad,” is used to emphasize the incomparable beauty of the girls being described.
3. “Zo mi Abas gin zo maboso, ento lakini gin so matek, kwa sababu Abas i mony kikome pe gitwero ngwes…Kila mutu tye ki beneti ki jemi me pigana.”
- This passage reads, “The people of Abas are tall, but they are strong people, because the Abas never flee from battle…Every person has a bayonet and weapons.” As any student of Acholi will be able to tell, the above passage is far from standard Acholi, and a Swahili speaker will recognize a number of Swahili words (e.g. lakini, kwa sababu, pigana, etc.) interspersed throughout. This is because the character who delivers these lines is an Acholi soldier in the King’s African Rifles (KAR), who is regaling the protagonist with tales of his days at war with the British army. The lingua franca of the KAR was Swahili, a tradition that survives in the present-day Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), in which many soldiers still speak a unique patois of Swahili and local Ugandan languages.
4. “Bor pe bor, cek pe cek ento pwot; kwar pe kwar, col pe col.”
- At first glance, this line appears contradictory. Translated literally, it means, “Tall not tall, short not short but slim; red not red, black not black.” However, this passage is intended to show that the person being described possesses these traits, but not to an extreme degree. So, the more accurate translation would be, “Not too tall; not too short, but slim; not too red, not too black.”