By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Is it true that the greeting “how was your night?” is strictly Nigerian English and that it has a sexual connotation if said to native English speakers?
The short answer is yes. Scores of people have asked me this question these past few weeks even though I answered it in my March 1, 2015 column titled, “Q and A on Nigerian English Salutations, Pronouns, and Usage.” Here is what I wrote:
“I have never heard any native English speaker say ‘how was your night?’ to anybody as a form of salutation, and certainly not as casually as Nigerians say it. It's a uniquely Nigerian English salutation that has the potential to lead to disastrous communication breakdowns across cultures.
“For one, it is a very personal and intrusive question, although in the Nigerian context it's mere phatic communication to which most people simply say ‘fine’ or, more curiously, ‘thank God!’ (Phatic communication is defined as ‘conversational speech used to communicate sociability more than information,’ such as the fact that no one expects you to tell them exactly how you feel in response to the greeting, ‘how are you?’).
“Because ‘how was your night?’ isn’t phatic communication in native varieties of English, it can connote unwelcome and invasive curiosity about someone’s intimate private moments the previous night. In other words, it has sexual undertones.
“But it can also be a legitimate question to ask someone you’re close to who had, for instance, returned from a long trip the previous night, or who had been battling insomnia or other kinds of illnesses, that justifies wanting to know how their night was, etc. But I would personally prefer ‘did you have a good sleep last night?’—or something along those lines—to ‘how was your night?’
“This transgressive salutation is relatively new in Nigerian English. It certainly wasn’t widespread when I lived in Nigeria. Interestingly, I first heard of it from my then 2-year-old second daughter, Maryam, when she lived in Nigeria. Each time I spoke with her on the phone, the first thing she usually said to me was ‘how was your night, daddy?’ At first, I misheard her as saying ‘how is your life?’
“There isn’t any legitimate socio-linguistic explanation I can think of for this strange salutation. No Nigerian language I know of has its cultural equivalent. So it’s unlikely that it’s a calque. (A calque is defined as ‘an expression introduced into one language by translating it from another language.’ A good example would be the salutation ‘two days!’ which is common in northern Nigeria. It’s derived from a translation of ‘kwana biyu’ from Hausa, which means ‘long time, no see,’ itself a calque from Chinese but now idiomatic in English).
To ask a stranger ‘how was your night?’ in my Baatonu language would be considered unacceptably transgressive of the bounds of civility and decency. I suspect that the greeting was initially the argot of a small group of people, perhaps university students, before it made its way to popular usage in Nigeria. I would appreciate it greatly if anyone would be kind enough to share with me what they know about the origins of this expression.”
Dr. Ahmed Umar, a brilliant, well-regarded linguist who teaches at the Federal University, Dutse’s Department of English, shared the following insight on the possible origins of the expression:
“As usual, your grammar column in the Sunday Trust of March 1, 2015 was enlightening. I write to answer your invitation for elaboration on the possible SOURCES of the expression ‘How was your night?’ in (Nigerian) English.
“A possible source could be a SOCIOLINGUISTIC one. If we consider most alternatives to the English ‘Good morning’ in many Nigerian languages, we discover that they connote the nocturnal/dusk-dawn period. Consider these few examples: HAUSA: ‘Ina KWANA?’ [KWANA= night time, sleep]; IGBO: ‘IBOLA ci?’ [=dark hours]; YORUBA: ‘e KARO?’ [=same]; BABUR-BURA: ‘g3r PI ya?’ [=sleep, night time]; KANURI: ‘nda WATU?’ [=dawn phases; FULBE: ‘AWALI jam?’ [=same].
“So even from these examples, we can see how the sememe ‘YOUR NIGHT’ got eventually ‘smuggled’ into Nigerian English. In those Nigerian languages, asking about a friend's/neighbour's NIGHT may have performed some phatic function deep rooted in native sociocultural antecedents on NEIGHBOURLY CARE/COMMUNAL UNION. I hope you find these explanations significant.”
This makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s safe at this point to say that “how was your night” is becoming idiomatic in Nigerian English. It is futile to even attempt to discourage it. Non-Nigerians simply have to learn to understand it as mere phatic communication that shouldn’t be understood literally. I –and many Nigerians who live in America, Britain, Canada, etc.—have also learned not to be offended when native English speakers say “are you OK?” when we are hurting, when we need “sorry.”
Here is what I wrote in my December 9, 2012 column titled “More Q and A on a Variety of Grammar Usage Issues” in response to a question on the appropriate response to give to the expression, “are you OK”:
“Native speakers understand ‘are you OK?’ not as a question but as a courteous expression of concern. It’s their equivalent to our ‘sorry!’ So they don’t give a ‘no’ response to that expression. A common response is: ‘I’m fine. Thank you.’ They say this even when they are hurting from their accident.
Even after living here for [over] a decade, I still find that really strange. Like you, on many occasions, I am often tempted to say ‘no, I am not OK!’ People who are clearly not fine and don’t want to lie in the name of courtesy often say, ‘I’ll be fine. Thanks.’
“As I said in my previous articles on this subject, many non-native English speakers are often mystified by what strikes them as the cold detachment in the manners and salutations of native speakers of the language.
“Saying ‘are you OK?’ to someone who is obviously not OK seems a little insensitive. But that’s the rhythm and flow of the language. It’s just like Nigerian languages’ peculiar greetings that are directly translated into English, which make no sense to native speakers of the English language.”
The title of Senator Dino Melaye’s recent book is, “Antidote for Corruption.” Many people think it should be “antidote to.” Which is correct?
I can’t count the number of people who have tagged me and sent me private messages over this. I hope this answer gets to all these people to whom I was not able to personally respond because of my unusually busy summer schedule.
Both “antidote for” and “antidote to” are legitimate. Educated native speakers use both. But one usage school of thought says “to” is preferred when reference is to literal antidote, that is, medicine that helps cure poison, and that “for” is permissible when “antidote” is used as a metaphor, which is the case with the title of Melaye’s book.
Nonetheless, the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes only “to” for both literal and metaphorical references to “antidote.”
I need to ascertain the grammaticality of this expression which I have found in a JAMB recommended text. The expression is, "He was a big man in Lagos, recently returned from abroad..." My problem is with the presence of "from" before the adverb "abroad". I learnt that a preposition cannot precede an adverb. But in the context above, the absence of "from" will alter its meaning. What is your verdict on this?
"From abroad" is legitimate usage. Although “abroad” is mostly an adverb (which is why we should say “I am going abroad,” but not “I am going to abroad), in a special case, "abroad" can be a noun that means "a foreign land or lands." So "from abroad" means "from a foreign land.” It is not a grammatical error.
Politics of Grammar Column
Politics of Grammar Column