Nigerian English has evolved over decades to become a badge of pride
Words: Eromo Egbejule, image: Am I Collective.
TO THE UNINITIATED (READ NON-NIGERIAN), the headline of the Daily Times of February 17 2015 was an exposé of illicit sexual relations between Nigeria’s first lady and the powerful governor of her oil-rich state, a sideshow during a bout of political violence. “Blasts, gunshots at APC rally in Rivers: Amaechi fingers Patience Jonathan,” it screamed in true tabloid style. Except there was no affair and the headline was a contraption drafted by an overzealous editor reporting that the governor was blaming Ms Jonathan for a problematic situation.
Foreigners could also be forgiven for alerting the police to what they consider a possible assisted-suicide case when they hear an instructor at a driving school scream animatedly at his ward, “Cut your hand to this side. Cut it! I said cut it and stop wasting the bloody time!”
Otherwise called Nigerianisms, both are examples of an English peculiar to Nigerians, either at home or in the diaspora. Many wear it like a badge of honour, almost as much as a man who provides the best things of life for his spouse while proudly proclaiming that she can “chop my money” all the time.
Tomike Alayande, an undergraduate of the University of Lagos and DJ at its radio station, says Nigerians can appear to be a clique,“especially when we travel abroad and get along with fellow Nigerians overseas. It is really amazing how we grab (Nigerian English for ‘understand’) each other’s remix of English.”
In Nigeria a phrase can be a question as well as its answer, says Nathan Oteguono, a banker from the Niger Delta region, noted for its oil and its concentrated pidgin English. “Light dey (is there light)? Light dey (there’s light).”
Africans were exposed to foreign languages including English long before the advent of formal Western education on the continent. In the 18th century, the slave trade along the coast of West Africa brought with it more than just Christianity. Cultural interference was introduced by contact with the missionaries and colonialists. Along the coast of the Niger, an adulterated version of English, punctuated by and infused with bits of the domestic languages, came into vogue. This gave rise to what is today called pidgin English, with different varieties spoken along the coastline, one of the most popular being Creole of Sierra Leone. The pidgin became even more popular after freed slaves returned home.
With increasing members of the lower and middle classes having access to education over the years, Nigerians began to speak an English that was a blend of traditional British English, American English, pidgin English and cultural expressions from the potpourri of more than 250 indigenous languages in the country. Eventually, some acquired the ability to speak both unrefined pidgin and Nigerian English, as many do today.
Variations of the language exist across Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones and the traditional divides of north, east, west and south. Tonal and cultural differences appear from ethnic group to ethnic group. Farooq Kperogi, a newspaper grammar columnist and Assistant Professor of Journalism and Citizen Media at the US Kennesaw State University, has written for years on the subject. According to him, there are four fundamental sources of Nigerian English.
The first is linguistic improvisation to account for unique Nigerian socio-cultural thoughts that simply cannot be expressed in standard English. “So we either translate our local languages to take care of this lack, or we appropriate existing English words and phrases and imbue them with meanings that serve our communicative purposes. When Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart, for instance, that ‘proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten’, he was consciously appropriating English lexical items to express a uniquely Igbo cultural thought which doesn’t make any sense to a native English speaker.”
Secondly, says Kperogi , the loads of innocent grammatical blunders committed by the media are repeated until high-profile users get ahold of them and they become part of the spoken and written English lexicon of the country. Additionally, old-fashioned British English idioms and expressions, such as “more power to your elbow” (usually rendered as “more grease to your elbow”in Nigeria), became part of Nigerian English.
The fourth and last source, Kperogi theorises, has its root in “Americanisms interspersed with British English to create a unique paradoxical identity that is both American and British, and in a sense neither American nor British”.
All of these combine into one melting pot that is essentially a showcase of Nigeria’s diversity.
Pop Culture Influence
Osisiyenemoi Tafa, writer and art enthusiast, admits to using Nigerian English even in formal situations. “It’s what makes me Nigerian”, he stresses. “At the end of the day, what is that verbal affectation a foreigner could mimic to show your uniqueness? From my Indian to my Korean friends, [all] have certain phrases that make their English unique.”
Tafa, whose creative fiction novel 60% of a True Story is “subtitled” in the dialect, says he writes in it because “there’s something not stilted about it. I can just have a constant, unbreakable thought stream and put it onto paper without worrying about filters … It helps us garnish gist.”
It is no surprise then that the language has found its way into the mainstream lexicon and is now fully entrenched in pop culture as well as folklore. The platform for Tafa and others was laid years ago. Afrobeat legend and human rights activist Fela Anikulakpo Kuti was a big fan of Nigerian English, preferring to ditch the British and American versions he had come into contact with in the course of his schooling, living and touring in the UK and the US.
A statement credited to the late novelist Achebe has him asserting that “any language that has the cheek to leave its primordial shores and encroach on the linguistic territory of other people should learn to come to terms with the inevitable reality that it will be domesticated”. Achebe and his contemporaries, including the also revered Cyprian Ekwensi, employed the technique in their books, interspersing their lines with formal English.
Over the last two decades contemporary entertainers have done more to institutionalise Nigerian English as a rm favourite of the youth. Three in particular – Falz, Jenifa and Chigurl – have created and reinforced a playful style that is the current fad and resonates with the 0-40 age group. Infusing shibboleths with humour, the rapper, actress and comedienne have created a fan movement for their faux Yoruba or Igbo-corrupted diction. A December 2014 release by veteran rapper Ruggedman titled I Can’t Come and Go and Kill Myself (a roundabout way of saying “I can’t overexert myself ”) was well received by the public.
Nollywood, with its soapy scripts and recurring themes, has popularised Nigerian English too. As Oteguono discovered on a recent trip to Togo, fellow West Africans now give the thumbs-up to friends and colleagues with the greeting “More grease to your elbow”.
The seeming consensus among academics and intellectuals, however, is that Nigerian English is detrimental to standard diction. Lecturers penalise students for writing in it and look condescendingly on advocates
of pidgin English as the national lingua franca. Tomike, whose lecturers mostly think this way, agrees with them: “Too much of anything is bad. When one speaks too much Nigerian English it affects your reasoning and how you comport yourself. You can’t sit with dignitaries and all you have to offer when you open your mouth to speak is pidgin, it just doesn’t seem right.”
As usual there are exceptions, like Kperogi, who see things differently. “It is important to stress that Nigerian English is not bad or substandard English,” he says. “It is a legitimate national variety that has evolved, over several decades, out of our unique experiences as a post-colonial, polyglot nation … It has identifiable stylistic imprints, idiosyncratic vocabularies, distinctive turns of phrase, and is spoken and written habitually by our intellectual, media, and political elites.”
Diction and Contradiction
Sama Awa notes, in a 2008 essay titled The Grammatical Features of Nigerian English, that the most common type of shift identifying Nigerian English and its sub-varieties is the reclassification of a noun, adjective or adverb as a verb. Tautology is also a popular feature: recalled back, reverse back, surgical operation, mass exodus.
Differences exist between pidgin English and Nigerian English. While the latter approximates the linguistic styles of British and American English, pidgin or broken English is a reconstructed language bridging other Nigerian languages, one that uneducated and semi-literate people can speak and understand. What the dialects have in common are intensifiers. “Pay me my money” becomes “Pay me my money o” and “You dey enter market?” becomes “You dey enter market abi (You are o to the market, right)?”
With President Muhammadu Buhari having ridden to power on the back of a campaign that spun his previously dictatorial image, positioning him as a reformed democrat, the pervading atmosphere in Nigeria is one of change. Nigerian English could benefit from similar PR.
A standardised format could be admitted to the global community of national dialects, and the world could have its fill of the language’s richness, or as they say in Nigerianese, be belleful.
Nigerian English popularly repurposes words
ADJECTIVE TO VERB
- He minused ten naira from my salary.
NOUN TO VERB
- They have rubbished all our efforts.
- When hunger wires you.
- I have not been chanced to do it.
PREPOSITIONAL PARTICLE TO VERB
- He offed the light
ADJECTIVE TO NOUN
- He is a mediocre. She is a talkative
NOUNS FROM NON- COUNT TO COUNT
- My aunt deals in ladies underwears
- He was using a lot of slangs
VERBS FROM INTRANSITIVE TO TRANSITIVE
- Let’s die the matter