Generally, Malawians tend to associate technology with the foreign world. Ask the average Malawian to name examples of technology and they are likely to mention such items as a digital camera or a cellphone rather than a hoe or a charcoal stove although both sets are technological inventions.
Not surprisingly, Malawian vernacular names for electronic gadgets are not only scarce but are also often shunned. For example, a person that visits a phone shop and asks for lamyayoyendanayo, meaning a cellphone, may easily be considered backward or even weird.
The language of phone marketing in Malawi is, however, changing the way Malawians perceive and interact with technology. For some years now, marketing departments of the country’s phone companies have been showing notable interest in the use of vernacular terms, especially Chichewa ones. Think about such words as macheza, chezani, zachangu, machawi, mtolo, yanga, kupakula, and muli bwanji.
The growing use of vernacular terms in phone technology marketing has important implications to Malawi’s socio-economic development. First and foremost, it demonstrates the richness of Malawian vernaculars as media for communicating important technological concepts and ideas which tend to help improve the livelihood of society and communities around the world.
The trend also has potential to enhance the visibility of certain taken-for-granted cultural attributes of Malawians as language is a form of cultural identity. For example, zachangu and machawi imply that Malawians, or at least a section of them, consider time as a precious resource while mulibwanji, chezaniand macheza highlight friendliness as an important cultural attribute of our Malawian being.
Thus, the trend is also a creative approach to overcoming linguistic barriers that tend to slow down or even prevent technology transfer in society. There is no way a people can easily adopt or adapt a technological invention into their culture when they do not even have appropriate vocabulary for naming the invention. It is in this regard that translations of the term bundle such as phukusi and mtolo, may be argued to be more user-friendly to Chichewa speaking cellphone users than is the direct English borrowing, bandulo.
Last but not least, the fact that phone companies are using vernacular terms to conduct multi-million kwacha marketing campaigns demonstrates the confidence and pride which they have in the vernaculars and cultures in question. This is a positive attitude which needs to be encouraged because it has potential to encourage Malawians develop or renew their interest in the country’s vernaculars and cultures.
The increased use of Chichewa terms may, for example, encourage pupils to perceive Chichewa as an important school subject that may help them pick careers in the technological world. One may also rightly claim that a good section of grown-up Chichewa speakers discovered the term machawi only recently through phone marketing, yet the word may be as old as Chichewa language itself. Similarly, Malawian children growing up in homes and attending schools which prohibit the use of vernacular to enhance learners’ mastery of English may be thanking phone marketers for the word kupakula after years of seeing chipande being used for serving nsima in their home.
It has to be pointed out that this is not the first time phone companies are using vernacular terms to market their products in Malawi. Not long after cellphones were introduced in the country, fish names such as sanjika, chambo and kampango were used to market cellphone services.
The difference, however, is that in those days vernacular use was minimal and probably less creative because of lack of competition for customers. Thus, now that the environment seems to encourage competition, phone companies may do well to intensify their creative use of vernaculars in their marketing campaigns to benefit the nation linguistically and culturally even more.
Malawi’s phone companies, however, need to guard against compromising linguistic standards as evidenced in some translations of automated voice phone customer service in the country. For example, it is incorrect to translate the English instruction, ‘please enter your pin number’ as chonde lowetsani nambala yanu yachinsinsi. In standard Chichewa, the word, chonde, is used for advising, or pleading with someone as opposed to instructing them.