"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Q and A on Word Usage and Confusing Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Should it be “iron clothes” or “press clothes”? What is the difference between “uninterested” and “disinterested” and between “climatic” and “climactic”? Is there a difference between “relatives” and “relations” and between “slippers” and flip-flops”? Why is “clap for him/her” wrong and “clap him/her” right? Find answers to these and other questions in this week’s column.

Between “iron clothes” and “press clothes” which is more correct? We use these terms interchangeably in Nigeria, but “press clothes” seems to be preferred by not-too-educated people. Any thoughts?

Both terms are synonymous. That’s what all the dictionaries I consulted said. The use of either expression is more an indication of preference than of level of education. My own preference is “iron clothes.” That also seems to be the preference of Americans among whom I live. I don’t recall ever hearing an American say they’d “press their clothes.” They tend to prefer “iron” to “press.”

 Out of curiosity, I searched the Web to see if I’ve been missing something. I found a website called “Daily Writing Tips” where an Indian asked to know the difference between “pressing” and “ironing.” There was no consensus among native English speakers about what differences, if any, exist between the two terms. They were all over the place. But two things stood out boldly in their responses. One, “iron clothes” is the choice of most young people. Two, the older generation uses “iron clothes” and “press clothes” interchangeably.

Is there a difference between uninterested and disinterested? I had always thought they were synonyms but someone I respect said they are different words. I believed him until I read why a native speaker used the words interchangeably in the same write-up. I’ll appreciate your take on these words.

Uninterested and disinterested are not synonyms. Uninterested means “not interested” (as in “the students were uninterested in mathematics”) while “disinterested” means impartial, unbiased, not affected by self-interest, etc. (as in “he is a disinterested judge”). Many people, including native English speakers, confuse these two words. Every year, about 90 percent of my students, who are native English speakers, fail my question that tests their knowledge of the difference between these two words.

 I have also read well-regarded writers mix up these words. But no dictionary I know of treats “uninterested” and “disinterested” as synonyms. This could very well happen in the near future since most users of the language, including native speakers, can’t tell the words apart. But, for now, it’s safe to stick to the distinction between the words.

Someone just shocked me by saying it’s wrong to say “clap for him.” What’s wrong with that expression?

Several other people called my attention to a Nigerian lady on Twitter (I can’t recall her handle) who said “clap for him” as a synonym for “applaud” is wrong, and that the correct expression is “clap him.” This isn’t the first time this discussion has come up in Nigerian English grammar circles. Many other people have pointed out that “clap” doesn’t admit of the preposition “of.” They are partly right. All major English dictionaries support them. For instance, Oxford Dictionary defines “clap” as follows: “Strike the palms of (one’s hands) together repeatedly, typically in order to applaud.” It gives the following usage examples to illustrate the definition:

“Then strolled out of the airport with my cousin who was clapping me on my performance.”
“Cars hooted approval, crowds cheered and clapped the heroes.”

“His father Gordon, a former York City star, asked the congregation to stand for a minute to applaud and clap Thomas, and ‘say thank you for knowing him’.”

However, the pragmatics (i.e., actual use) of the expression is different from its dictionary definitions. American English speakers certainly say “clap for.” This is attested to by the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the definitive record of English usage in the United States. I will give a few examples from the Corpus of instances where “clap for” appeared in prestigious publications.

The first example is from a 2012 New York Times article titled “Assad Accepts Cease-Fire; Opponents Are Skeptical.” In the article, this sentence appears: “They bring people on buses to clap for him and say that he killed all the Free Syrian Army…”

Another 1996 New York Times article titled “Name a New Musical Star” contains the following sentence: “And, in the theater, they clap for Ms. Channing, Ms. Andrews and Ms. Burnett as if they'd never seen a star before.

A 1994 San Francisco Chronicle article also contains the following: “The fans began to clap for an Astros rally.”

I found numerous other examples in popular media and well-regarded academic journals where “clap for him/her,” not “clap him/her,” is used in place of applaud. In fact, not only have I never heard any American say “clap him/her,” the Americans I spoke with before writing this column told me “clap him/her” sounds “weird” to them—as it does to most Nigerian English speakers.

Now, does this mean the Twitter grammar lady is wrong? Absolutely no. My checks at the British National Corpus shows that British English speakers prefer “clap him/her” to “clap for him/her.” The corpus bought up only one match for the expression “clap for,” and it appeared during a TV  chat where a host, on March 12, 1992, said: “ah let's all clap for Neil, er, er what's he gon na do go off and have a boxing match?”

So this looks like a dialectal variation.

What is the difference between relative and relation? It seems to me that native English speakers prefer “relative” to relation. Is “relation” Nigerian English?

Both terms are interchangeable. But I realize that when I say “my relations,” my American friends have a hard time understanding me. Americans, especially in the South, almost always say “my relatives.” I guess it’s because “relations” has several other competing meanings, such as sexual intercourse, dealings, act of narration, etc. “Relatives” has no such semantic burden, so it’s easily associated with one’s flesh and blood.

But “relations” is not a uniquely Nigerian English word. Nor is it wrong.

What is the difference between climatic and climactic?

Like “uninterested” and “disinterested,” “climatic” and “climactic” are often confused with each other. But, although they kind of sound alike, they have different meanings. “Climatic” is the adjective related to “climate” (as in “climatic changes will affect the eco system) while “climactic” (notice the “c” after “a”) is the adjective related to “climax,” that is, the highest point of anything, or the decisive moment in a work of fiction, or orgasm.

What’s the difference between slippers and flip-flops?

The simplest way to answer this question for a Nigerian is to say American English speakers use “flip-flops” where Nigerian and British English speakers would say “slippers.” What Americans call “slippers” is completely different from what Nigerians know as slippers. In American English slippers don’t have a string between the big toe and the second toe. See pictures below:
These are called flip-flogs in American English; Nigerian (and British) English speakers know these as slippers

What you see above is what Americans call slippers
I just recently learned that Hawaiians (Hawaii is a state in America that is located outside the contiguous United States) use “slippers” the way Nigerian and British English speakers use the word.

I was conversing with a friend and I said “if to say." He said I was wrong, that I should have said "had it been." Is he correct and why?

Yes, your friend is right. "If to say" is Nigerian Pidgin English expression for “if I had” or “had I.” Interestingly, “if to say” has made its way to mainstream Nigerian English. That’s probably why you didn’t recognize it as odd.

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Re: Wole Soyinka’s Ignorant Statement on Ebiras and Fulanis

Many readers weighed in on my last column with the above title. See a sample of their thoughts and insights below:

Good observation, Prof. My observation and contribution on this is the way non-native Hausa speakers use such words like Dan'Iyan. Like you rightly stated, the word is Hausa and not Fulani. But native Hausa speakers normally pronounce the word as "Dan'Iya" and not Dan'Iyan, if it is used as a stand-alone word. But it is only when the word is used as a compound word that you add the suffix 'n' to the word, as in Dan'Iyan Katsina (Dan'Iyan-Katsina). And it is used as a stand-alone word usually as a name in itself. But where it appears as a compound name, it is usually a traditional title, like Dan'Iyan-Katsina. The suffix shows possession, meaning, Dan'Iya of Katsina.
Ahmed Abdulkadir, Sokoto
I had always thought "Igbira" was an alternative spelling form for "Ebira". It is not surprising if the professor of fiction fails to get some facts right! Now, we can go ahead and make our share of mistakes which should be much bigger than Soyinka's. The Nobel laureate once wrote that Muslims fast for "forty" days during Ramadan. There are mistakes he should be excused for, excluding misuse of "tribe" and muddling up tenses.

The letter "n" after such traditional titles as "Turaki", "Dan Iya", "Jagaba" should not be added unless the name of the place where the title is held is mentioned, but many of our southern compatriots routinely add "n" to such titles. For examples, Atiku is wrongly called Turakin, Tinubu is Jagaban, etc. The "n" is a suffix" that is equivalent to the English "of". It shows possession, ownership, affiliation, etc. Sarkin Kano can be called "Sarki" alone but not Sarkin". If you must add "n", you must add the place name or subject name, e.g. Farooq Kperogi Sarkin Turanci!!!
Abdulrahman Muhammad, India

It’s simply amazing that you wrote an entire article based on just one sentence from Professor Soyinka’s book. I agree with you that the prof., whom I’m a great fan of, erred in accusing someone of self-hatred just because he added an apostrophe and a capital letter to the same name. You hinted at this but didn’t quite nail it: Daniyan is itself a borrowed name in Ebira. It is borrowed from Yoruba. So if bearing the name of another ethnic group is self-hatred, the self-hatred actually came before the person changed the spelling of his name to look like a “Fulani aristocratic” name. Maybe Professor Soyinka was angry that the man changed a Yoruba name to a “Fulani” name!
Abdullahi Mustapha, Lokoja

We learn every day, and no man, no matter how highly read, is an all-encompassing-fountain of knowledge.

(1) You have just taught me that it is "Ebira" and not "Igbira" which most people from the South West call others from that part of the country. I don't think Soyinka can be castigated on that account.
(2) In the world of political science, there is still an argument ongoing on whether it is ethnic group or tribe. That argument has not been laid to rest even though most people now use "ethnic group" on the basis of the argument that tribes has been derogatorily used to describe us in Africa in comparison to similar social formations in the western world that are referred to as ethnic groups.

(3) Soyinka obviously had an issue with a particular individual to have made that comment. And that comment as I read and interpreted it when I bought that book 5 years back, has to do with that specific individual, and not the ethnic group.

My dear friend, Soyinka may have erred by calling Ebira "Igbira" (just like many of us also called the Igbo "Ibo"). But for once, you may be guilty of hasty generalisation (as my then logic lecturer would say), by extrapolating Soyinka's assessment of one individual to mean reference to 1 million Ebira people.
Kunle Ojeleye, Canada

Iya was a very powerful princess of Kano during the reign of Muhammadu Kutumbi I. It was as a result of her influential political position that her son was appointed a traditional ruler with a title to immortalised her as "Dan iya" (son of iya). It is common in the history of Hausa land to have such immortalised titles like: Danmaje, (Maje was a head of smiths during the time of Barbushe) , Dan akasan, Dan Darman, among others. Kano Chronicle is the authoritative reference I can give you.
Fatuhu Mustapha, Abuja

Thank you for another pleasurable read. Firstly, a disclaimer: I am one of Professor Soyinka’s greatest fans.  He amuses as well as inspires me—so you may read my comment as that of a biased fan. But I'll be as honest as I can.

I'll be a lot kinder to Professor Soyinka and excuse his "ignorance," if that's really what it is, not because I'm not a Nigerian and may not understand the cultural nuances and significance of these different appellations. I wonder if it has the same minor subtleties as in the words "Ibo, Igbo and Ndigbo," -- which to a foreigner still means the same place or peoples. Sometimes, place-names are translated, to accommodate the natural proclivities of the practised tongue. I can therefore see a Yoruba native like Prof. Soyinka favouring the Yoruba orthography of that name “Igbira,” and a Fulani man like You-Know-who, taking the other route—“Ebira”. Other times, a difference in language simply means that some names like “The Bay of Biscay to the English” is translated as Golfo de Vizcaya to the Spaniard or la Golfe de Gascogne for a Frenchman. In other instances, war makes people change the name completely; like between Britain and Argentina, the Falkland Islands to the Brit is stubbornly called Isla Malvinas to the Spanish favouring Argentinians.
Samira Edi, London

Phew! Farooq picking holes in Soyinka's grammar!? This is novel but not Nobel. I can't afford to miss the likely hysteric reactions from Soyinka and his intellectual family to this below the belt hit by a young KPerogi. This will definitely bite more than the Mazrui's coinage of "strange case of Nobel schizophrenia". The Jekyll and Hyde prescription! The floor is now open. Let the debate start.
Ibrahim Musa, Texas, USA

Definitely Soyinka's foot soldiers will come for you. It's an interesting analysis. Hope it'll generate a healthy debate and more analysis.
Waziri Garba Dahiru, Abuja

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Anglophilia and Dying Nigerian Languages: A Personal Narrative

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I have expressed concerns many times here about how wrongheaded Anglophilia (i.e., excessive admiration for English) is causing a decline in the acquisition of Nigerian languages by Nigerian children. (See, for instance, my two-part series titled “The English Nigerian Children Speak” published on September 2, 2012 and on September 9, 2012. Also see my July 7, 2013 article titled “Multilingual Illiteracy: What Nigerian Can Learn from Algeria’s Language Crisis”). 

Millions of Nigerian children, especially in urban areas of southern and central Nigeria, are growing up with an avoidable linguistic handicap. They are monolingual in a nativized non-native English variety. Nigerian English, with all is strengths and limitations, is the first and only language of a large proportion of our children. As people who follow my column, especially the last few columns, know only too well, a monolingual proficiency in Nigerian English isn’t the choicest asset any parent can bequeath to a child. But this is not the subject of this column.

In this week’s column I want to explore how Nigerian parents’ ignorance of time-honored linguistic theories about language acquisition may be contributing to the continuing loss of Nigerian languages. Many parents incorrectly think that allowing their children to learn and speak their native languages will detract from their children’s ability to speak fluent English. 

A recent interview that Femi Oke, the British-Nigerian former CNN news anchor and current host of Al Jazeera’s “The Stream,” granted a Nigerian news source on why she doesn’t speak Yoruba rekindled my interest in this issue. Oke said her parents discouraged her from speaking Yoruba when she was little because they thought Yoruba would interfere with her English and cause her to be discriminated against in London.

Her insightful recollection is worth sharing in some detail. She said: “When I was younger and was speaking Yoruba, my family would laugh at me, which made me want to stop. Also, my family decided they were not going to teach me properly because they didn’t want me to have an accent. That was in the 60s and early 70s, when there was more racism in the United Kingdom and they didn’t want people to pick on me or to pick me out as having a Nigerian accent. Really, the truth is that when children are bilingual, they may not have an accent. They would speak Yoruba or they would speak English without in fact having Yoruba accent. But parents didn’t know that. We are now at a time when it is fashionable to have more than one language. I have on my desk at home two Yoruba courses.

“I have enough to read on my workbook for the book club, let alone taking my Yoruba course. So, it’s really upsetting for me that my parents didn’t teach me at a time when it would have been fun.” 

Incidentally, I had cause to discuss this same issue with Femi Oke here in Atlanta when I briefly met her at the CNN Center. This was in December 2007 when my late wife, Zainab, visited me from Nigeria. Zainab was Okun Yoruba, born and raised in Ilorin, and studied English at the University of Ibadan. When we went to CNN, Zainab said she wanted to meet Femi Oke—and other top CNN International anchors like Jim Clancy, Ralitsa Vasileva, and Jonathan Mann—which she did, courtesy of my good friend who was a top editor at CNN at the time.
Jim Clancy, Femi Oke, Zainab, me and Sinani at CNN Center, Atlanta
My late wife spoke Yoruba to Oke, although she guessed that she might not be proficient in the language. Sure enough, Oke politely said she couldn’t speak a word of Yoruba. “Why can’t you speak Yoruba even though both of her parents are Yoruba?” Zainab asked. She said her parents thought Yoruba would contaminate her pristine British accent and make her stand out among her peers in the UK.

Of course, this isn’t true. As Oke herself said in the interview I quoted above, children have an innate capacity to learn multiple languages without one language interfering with the other. This fact is supported by decades of research in linguistics. Famous American linguist Noam Chomsky was perhaps the first linguist to discover that all languages share a commonality at a “deep level.” He calls this principle “Universal Grammar,” and uses it explain why children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds effortlessly acquire any and all languages they are exposed to. 

I can attest to this from personal experience. My last two children, who are now 6 and 4, learned to speak my native Baatonu language after only six months of living with my mother. After my wife’s unexpected death in 2010, they lived with their aunt in Kaduna for about two years and spoke only Nigerian English. In 2012 I decided to take them to Baruten in Kwara State to live with my mother, who doesn’t speak English. I initially had some anxieties about how my mother would communicate with them, especially in the first few weeks of their stay with her. 

“Well, one of two things would happen: they’ll either teach me English or I’ll teach them Baatonu,” my mother said in Baatonu, half-joking and half-serious. She was right. After just six months of living with my mother, my children started speaking Baatonu with perfect mother-tongue proficiency! (My mother also learned some broken English in the process). When my mother first told me this I thought she was making it up. I thought six months was too soon for anybody to acquire native proficiency in a language. I was wrong.

The next time I called my children after my conversation with my mother, I decided to speak to them in Baatonu. I was blown away: their facility with and mastery of a language they couldn’t speak a word of six months earlier just overwhelmed me. What was even more remarkable was that their mastery of the new language didn’t cause any form of subtractive bilingualism. That is, their proficiency in Baatonu didn’t subtract from their proficiency in Nigerian English because they attended a private primary school where English was the dominant language. After one and a half years of living with my mother, my children acquired a solid, admirable grasp of the idioms, turns of phrase, proverbs, cadences, and deep grammatical structures of my native language.

They have been living with me here in America for nearly a year now and still speak Baatonu with native proficiency. Because language is a living thing that endures only when it is nourished, I work hard to sustain their proficiency in the language in three ways: I never speak English to them at all, they don’t speak English to each other at home and in school, and they speak with their grandparents and cousins in Nigeria at least every weekend either by phone or by Skype. 

I also make a conscious effort every day to teach them even more about the language. And it’s paying off. Each time my mother speaks with them, she commends the richness of their vocabularies and the sophistication of their expressive repertoire. She, in fact, says their Baatonu grammar and vocabulary are ahead of their peers in Nigeria. In the midst of all this, their English has become completely Americanized. When Adam, my 4-year-old son, speaks English nobody believes he has been in America for only 11 months. You can detect a little Nigerian accent in my 6-year-old Maryam’s English if you listen intently.

What is even more fascinating is that my 10-year-old daughter who has never lived in my hometown longer than a week—and who speaks English with a perfect American accent, having lived here for over 4 years— now speaks Baatonu, although with less proficiency than her siblings! Their mother, who was a big advocate for Nigerian languages, would be proud if she were alive.

I am sharing my personal story to serve as a lesson for Nigerian parents who think exposing their children to their native languages would interfere with their children’s proficiency in English. Bilingualism isn’t a handicap; it’s a strength. Research has shown time and again that bilingual children are smarter than monolingual children.

Except in Hausa-speaking northern Nigeria, it’s now becoming increasingly rare to see children from middle-class homes speaking native Nigerian languages. It’s so rare that I became something of a spectacle in Abuja late last year each time people found me speaking Baatonu to my children. You know you have reached a crisis point when the sight of middle-class children speaking a language other than English to their parent is now cause for curious stares and questions.

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