"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Gullah: The Fascinating African-Inflected Black American English Dialect

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In line with my tradition to highlight aspects of the linguistic culture of Black America in February, which is celebrated as “Black History Month” in the United States, I want to introduce the reader to a truly charming African-inflected Black American English creole called Gullah (pronounced something like gah-lah) or Geechee. It is spoken by people who live in the sea islands of the southern coast of the United States in such southern US states as Georgia (where I live), South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida.

The Gullah were, for more than 300 years after being enslaved in the United States, insulated from the dominant cultural and linguistic currents of the rest of the country principally because the sea islands in which they were forced to work on rice plantations by their enslavers were malaria-infested, and white people didn’t have the genetic immunity that the Gullahs had to survive the devastation of malaria on the islands. This insulation enabled them to retain some of their African cultures and to develop a distinct form of the English language that creatively combines the syntactic and lexical features of various African languages and English.

In William Pollitzer’ absorbingly informative book titled Gullah People and Their African Heritage, we learn that slave records of the Port of Charleston in South Carolina show that most Gullah people are descended from west and southwestern Africa. About 39 percent of them, records show, were enslaved from what is now Angola (from where some scholars say the term Gullah is derived), 23 percent from what is now Sierra Leone, 20 percent from what is now Senegal and the Gambia, 13 percent from what is now Ghana, and 5 percent from what is now (coastal) Nigeria, Madagascar, and Mozambique.

When these divergent African ethnicities converged in the sea islands of southern United States, they lost their linguistic singularities but forged a new collective linguistic identity that combines a substrate of their various African languages and a superstrate of early modern English to form a unique English creole that has captured the imagination of researchers of varying disciplinary orientations.

 However, it is only relatively recently that the African linguistic heritage of the Gullah dialect has come to light. For several decades, Gullah was described as nothing more than a fusion of the surviving remnant of archaic British English dialects and “baby talk.” Others simply called it “broken English” or a “debased form of Elizabethan English.” It wasn’t until 1949 when African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner’s magisterially game-changing book titled Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect was published that the world learned of the enormous phonemic, lexical, and syntactic similarities between Gullah and several west and southwestern African languages.

Turner caused the world to see Gullah not as an incompetent mimicry of Standard English, but as a complex, well-ordered, grammatically self-sufficient language that blends features of several African languages and English. As Katherine Wyly Mille and Michael B. Montgomery noted in their Introduction to the 2002 edition of Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, the book “provided, for the first time, concrete, comparable, and measurable correspondences between Gullah and African languages, tangible objects for those wanting to substantiate speculations about the history of this unusual variety of language, which H.L. Mencken characterized as the only type of American speech not intelligible to outsiders” (xii).

In researching the African heritage of the Gullah language in the 1930s, Turner first recorded the folk stories, chants, songs, speech patterns, etc. of the people, then went to the University of London to study with scholars of West African languages and cultures, where he learned and gained working mastery of Sierra Leonean Krio, Twi (spoken mostly in Ghana), Kimbundu (spoken in Angola), Efik (spoken in the southern Nigerian state of Cross River), Fante (spoken in Ghana), Ewe (spoken in Ghana, Togo, and parts of Benin), Yoruba, Mandingo, and other African languages.

 He also studied Arabic at Yale University because, after interviewing scores of (French) West Africans in Paris in 1937, he realized that languages such as Mandingo and Yoruba were heavily influenced by Arabic, an influence that was transferred to Gullah, which I will discuss next week.

In addition, Turner visited and lived in Africa, notably in Sierra Leone and in Nigeria, where he was a Visiting Fulbright Lecturer between 1950 and 1951 at the then University College in Lagos, which later became University of Lagos. That means he came to Nigeria a year after his book was published.

Anyway, in Turner’s book, from where I will draw examples of African influences in the Gullah language next week, we read of the fascinating story of a family in coastal Georgia that had preserved and handed down a folk song called “A waka” relatively unchanged for more than 200 years. It was later discovered that, that song is in Mende, a Niger-Congo language spoken Sierra Leone.

More than 40 years after the publication of the book and 20 years after Turner’s death, three researchers by the names of Joseph Opala, Cynthia Schmidt, and Tazieff Koroma found a rural Mende community in Sierra Leone where people still sing that very song—with the same diction, rhythm, and cadence. The story of the uncanny congruence between the centuries-old “A waka” folk song in the Gullah language in the United States and in the Mende language in modern Sierra Leone inspired the compellingly enthralling documentary film titled The Language You Cry In. (Click on the link to watch the 57-minute documentary for free).

From the 1990s, the Mende people in Sierra Leone and the Gullah people in the US have established formal linkages. They send representatives to each other’s’ cultural festivals. In 2007, I ran into a man,who later told me his name was Suleiman, at the International Your Delkab Farmers’ Market here in Atlanta. I was looking for Nigerian food and found someone who struck me as distinctly Nigerian, so I stopped him to ask for help. He told me he was Sierra Leonean, not Nigerian. Of course, from his accent I could tell that he was Sierra Leonean because I was around Sierra Leoneans a lot during my undergraduate days in Kano.

But I was intrigued when Suleiman told me he was in the US to represent a Mende community at a Gullah cultural festival in Savanah, Georgia. He said it wasn’t the first time he represented the king of some Mende community, and that Gullah people also send representatives to Mende cultural festivals in Sierra Leone. It was through him I first learned about the Gullah people and their cultural and linguistic affinities with the Mende of Sierra Leone.

Seven years later, in 2013, I took my family to Savannah, Georgia, for a conference. While we were having dinner at a hotel, we overheard a barely audible conversation that struck us as distinctly and unmistakably West African, although we couldn't tell what West African language it was. I decided to go ask the people what West African language they were speaking. The closer I got to them, the more it sounded to me like they were speaking some dialect of what linguists broadly call West African Pidgin English. I concluded that they were probably Sierra Leonean (Krios). I was wrong. They were Gullah!

That encounter reminded me not just of Suleiman from Sierra Leone who told me of the connections between the Gullah people of Savannah, Georgia, and the Mende of Sierra Leone (who also speak Krio, an English-based creole); it also reminded me of my then 6-year-old daughter's teacher in 2010 who taught her students that "Kumbaya" (the title of a popular campfire spiritual song here in the US that has origins in Gullah) was an "African word." My daughter came home to ask me what the word meant in "African." LOL! Although the word does sound West African, it is actually the Gullah idiosyncratic phonetic approximation of the English "come by here."

I brought this anecdote to make the point that Gullah definitely does sound West African. Today in American English, the expression “sing kumbaya” is used, often with a sarcastic undertone, to mean “engage in a show of unity and harmony with one's opponents or enemies,” as in, “Don’t think you can undermine and insult me and I’ll ignore all that and sit in a campfire with you singing Kumbaya. No, I will pay you back in your own coin.”


Next week I will explore in more depth African linguistic influences in the Gullah language. Keep a date.

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Re: Those Annoyingly Fake Transatlantic Accents at Nigerian Airports

I normally don’t publish reactions to my articles on language and grammar, but I’ve decided to break with tradition this week because, apparently, Nigerian airport announcers’ atrocious accents have been an enduring concern for so many Nigerian and foreign airport users. I only gave words to this concern. I have decided to share a sample of readers’ reactions to last week’s column in hopes that airport authorities in Nigeria will be persuaded to encourage their announcers to speak in everyday Nigerian accents— or learn to speak in proper British or American accent if they insist on speaking with non-Nigerian accents.

I have always known that something had to be wrong with our airport announcers’ accents when I discovered that although I don’t understand a lick of what they say, I have no trouble understanding CNN and BBC  newscasters, Obama, David Cameron, American movies, etc. But your article gave me the intellectual validation I need to know that I am not stupid for not understanding what airport announcers and radio DJs in Nigeria say. Now I know it is the airport announcers and radio DJs that are stupid. What buffoons! Why speak to a public audience in an accent NO ONE but you understands? I am frankly not even sure that these buffoons understand their own “blare of nasal cacophony,” to use your apt description! Thank you so much for always being a breath of intellectual fresh air. Don’t stop please.
Lawrence Kerume


I am so glad I read this article. I had thought that I didn’t understand the accents of airport announcers because I have never lived abroad before and have only little familiarity with foreign accents. So, I used to be ashamed to ask anybody for help lest they should laugh at me and call me a “bush man.” Reading you, a professor who teaches English people their own language, saying our airport announcers’ accents are incomprehensible not only to you but to even white people themselves made me feel so good with myself. I may be a “bush man” but at least I now know that my inability to understand the accents of our airport announcers isn’t because of my lack of foreign exposure. It is because of their “pronunciational imbecility” (to use your powerful choice of words). I hope airport authorities will read this article and save Nigerian and foreign airport users from airport announcers’ “abominably inaudible babbles that mindlessly grate on the hearer’s auditory sensibilities….,” to use your beautiful words again. Thanks for so much for a refreshing article.
Boniface Chukwu

Your piece is at once humorous and instructive. I am an American born of Nigerian parents. My parents insist I go with them to Nigeria at least once every 5 years—sometimes more. Because my parents always speak to me in their Nigerian accent, I am not only familiar with Nigerian accent, I can switch to one when the need arises. Of course, being born and raised in America, Nigerian accent doesn’t come to me naturally, but I think I do a pretty good job of switching to it when I speak with Nigerians.

 But I’ve noticed that when I relate to Nigerians in Nigeria, they like to speak to me in what they think is an American accent, which is frankly unintelligible to me. I usually have not the slightest clue what they are saying. Your description of the affected accents as “tediously fake and exaggeratedly nasalized” is so spot on. That’s precisely what they are.
 I once told a relative of mine to please speak to me like a Nigerian, and he took offense. He thought I was being a snob or something. But I simply wanted us to have a communication. I didn’t understand what he was saying in the “nasalized babble” he thought was American accent. And since I perfectly understand even the “thickest” Nigerian accent, I pleaded with him to just be himself.

You’re absolutely right that the airport announcers’ accents are particularly awful! I have learned to never even pay attention to them because it is impossible to understand them. I hope some higher-up in Nigeria’s airport administration has read your column and will work to fix this “nasal babbling” problem at Nigeria’s airports. But most importantly someone should let Nigerians know that Nigerian English accent is beautiful. There is no reason to be ashamed of it. I am glad you called attention to the CNN article that rated Nigerian English accent as one of the world’s top 10 sexiest English accents. If you publish this please don’t use my real name.
Toyin Olumide (not real name)

I missed my flight last two weeks (from Abuja) even though I had been at the Airport Departure Lounge two hours before departure. When I didn't hear anything 40 minutes after the scheduled time, I went and asked Arik Airline officials who told me that the flight had already left. When I went to the ticketing office to reschedule my journey and complained about how I missed my flight because of lack clarity of the announcements and how three of my colleagues also missed theirs in December, I was advised to be asking people on the boarding queue anytime am travelling. It was painful but I now humbly accept the advice. I do frequently ask the officials or queuing passengers the moment my flight time hour sets in.

Your essay aptly captured the way and manner they speak - particularly the lady at Abuja Airport. I believe it is a product of nepotism, because there are millions of Nigerians (some even jobless) who can do the job flawlessly if given the opportunity.
Aminu Ibrahim

You really spoke the mind of our facilitator for a course entitled “Phonetics and Phonology” in the person of Prof. Andrew Haruna of the University of Maiduguri who is on sabbatical leave at Bayero University Kano. He used to draw our attention to the irksome phenomenon of lack of adequate phonetic training by Nigerian airport announcers. He even once narrated to us one incident in which one airport announcer nearly caused an accident with his botched foreign accent because the pilot of the plane happened to be a foreigner who couldn’t understand him. This piece will indeed catch linguists’ and phoneticians’ critical attention in particular, and it will serve as the foundation for any thorough academic research on this subject matter. I really enjoy reading your educative column. A weekend without your column is like a food without soup. The sky will be your limit, our distinguished, transcendental, versatile scholar and professor without borders.
Bashir Uba Ibrahim

Your piece made my day. It is so down-to-earth and hilarious but it is the reality. I was alone in the room but you got me ROFL! Thank God for the 'plight' which rescued you from your plight with the airport announcers!
Sabi Ibrahim
Thanks Prof. You have said it all. I have also noticed that these annoyingly fake accents are creeping in to Nollywood movies. Most of the actors, especially the young ones, try to speak like foreigners. Sometimes one has to play back before making out what they are saying.
Auwal Gambo

It is indeed becoming trendy for particularly FM continuity announcers and presenters to fake American or British accent when they evidently hardly understand the basics of, nor ever had close interactions with, either of the native-speaker accents. It is surely good to try and approximate native accents but certainly ludicrous and laughable if that is done with ignorance. Over to you airport and FM radio announcers.
Usman Zakari Ibrahim

Corrections:
In last week’s column, babbar riga was misspelled as “babar riga” and rhotic was auto-corrected by my computer’s spell-check to “rhetoric.”

In my January 17, 2016 article titled “Body Language,” “Screen Touch,” and “Say Me Well”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage and Expressions,” I suggested the following to a questioner: “You could have written something like, ‘Please kindly provide the reagents listed above.’” Although “please kindly” is grammatical, it is unidiomatic, perhaps over-polite, and even tautologous. The phrase appears mostly in India English, which is noted for being fawningly deferential. Either "please" or kindly" would serve the same purpose. I meant to delete "kindly," but forgot do so.

In the same article, I wrote “slip of tongue” instead of “slip of the tongue.” Well, it was caused by a slip of the keyboard.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Re: Gere: Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s Real Ethnic Group

Last week’s column with the above title generated more buzz than I anticipated. Several people wrote to me to add to our understanding of the ethnic and linguistic identity of the Gere people and of their most prominent son, the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Unfortunately, I can only feature a few here because of the constraints of space. But before I reproduce a sample of the letters I received, I want to point out that, contrary to what has been insinuated in some quarters, Alhaji Ahmad Yakubu Wanka did not say that the Gere people became Muslims “fairly recently.” That was my interpretation of what he said.

 His exact words to me were: “Gerawa are not related to ‎Shuwa Arabs in any manner whatsoever. They were an animist tribe that were Islamised and their culture has now been subsumed by the dominant prevalent Islamic culture in Bauchi.” I refused to use the expression “animist tribe,” preferring instead the expression "adherents of traditional African religions" because “tribe” and “animism” are unflattering words native English speakers use to connote primitivism and backwardness when they describe non-Western people and their modes of belief.


I took the liberty to characterize the conversion of the Gere people to Islam as “fairly recently" because I interpreted Wanka as saying that the Gere people became Muslims after the people of Bauchi. “Fairly recently” is a relative and elastic time limit. It merely implies that the Gere people went from being what Wanka called an "animist tribe" to being "subsumed by the dominant prevalent Islamic culture in Bauchi." That means, as I said, they became Muslims AFTER the people of Bauchi, thus "fairly recently” considering that Islam is at least 1200 years old in Nigeria and at most 600 years old in Bauchi. Throughout last week’s article, I took care to put Wanka’s direct words in quotation marks to differentiate them from my own editorial interventions. I frankly think people are being a little too sensitive, but I understand.

The Baghirmi, or Bagarmi, are an ethnic group in Southern Chad. They are not related to the Shuwa Arab. The Baggara is a corruption of Baqqara, meaning cattle owning Arabs, as distinct from the camel owners. Both are represented in the Shuwa Arab group. The Baghirmi had an ancient Kingdom that lasted until colonial conquest. They, the Mandara, and Borno were the powers of the Eastern Bilad as Sudan from the 15th to the end of the 19th century. The Gerawa of Bauchi claim origin from Baghirmi, not from among the Baqqara Arab.
Garba Ibrahim

The Bagarmi may be a reference to the Baghirmi/Bagirmi of today's Chad. They are not Shuwa Arabs, though there has been a lot of assimilation with them as there is between the Hausa and the Fulani. An urban dialect of Shuwa Arabic is their lingua franca.
Isa Muhammad


I don't know why we, especially people from Bauchi, like to be linking ourselves to Fulani or Shuwa Arabs. When Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was offered [the position of] district head of Tafawa Balewa, he refused and it was given to my father 'Dallatun Bauchi Aliyu Dadi' who replaced Ajiyan Bauchi.
Yusuf Dadi

Our great grandfather (the Yakubu Dadi) and those who came after him, in truth, came from a distinctly Gere ancestry, which has roots in the old Ngazargamu dynasty of the old Borno Empire. It is reasonable to assume that after the collapse of the dynasty many migrated further afield, among whom are the Gerawa, Bolawa, Terawa, Jarawa & some [ethnic groups] in the Pankshin area of present-day Plateau state. We all have certain characteristics and similarities in our dialects. If in doubt, one can go to those places including Pankshin to see the relics of our common ancestral link with the old Borno Empire. Indeed, sometimes when I listen to our Gere language on the radio and then tune to Bolawa, Jaramci, Teranci or Kanuri, it's very easy to understand a few phrases!
Abubakar Sadiq Ajiya

I am very much interested in such kinds of discussions: histories, lineages, origins, early lives, ethnic heritages, linguistic affiliation, and what not. I sometimes want to join in the debate but my 'fear' of the outcome or the repercussions when you are discussing in a world where there are no boundaries or referees of 'matured' nature keeps me away.

In my area of study, literary history, we have discussed extensively on Abubakar Bauchi, (that was his original name, no relation what so ever with Tafawa Balewa, until later in life). We got most of our information from his novel Shaihu Umar, (which, if given the required scrutiny, will tell us more on the person and his ancestry.)There are so many things 'hidden' about ATB and which most biographies, 'deliberately' fail to mention or skip, to make their 'stories' more 'juicy', acceptable or adaptable to the 'current status' of the Right Honorable Gentleman. I saw some 'truth' in the remarks made by Wanka....'his father was a domestic servant.....,' The Gere are part of Bauchi, and they have their identity and subsumed within the hierarchical worlds of the 'rulers' and 'servants' as found in many areas of the 'core North.' Thanks once again.
Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi

I just read your column on Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa's real ethnic group with a special interest. I am Bole. I teach General English, Literature in English, and Language Teaching at FCE Tech, Potiskum, Yobe State. I did some linguistics as part of my BA Ed / English training back in UNIMAID. Potiskum and Fika towns are the two towns in which most Boles or Bolewa live in Yobe. Neighbouring Gombe State has an even bigger number of Boles, I think. Information from your column now makes me want to go to Bauchi and find out from those who speak Gere.  Thank you, Prof. Your columns are always useful.                                                                                     

Naser Jangas Mohammed

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Those Annoyingly Fake Trans-Atlantic English Accents at Nigerian Airports

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I developed a heightened sensitivity to the frustratingly incompetent affectation of a trans-Atlantic English accent (that is, an awkward hybrid of American and British accents) among Nigerian airport announcers when I traveled to Nigeria in November 2015 at the invitation of the British Council to train journalists.

In fact, to call the accents I heard on airport announcements—and on FM radios—inept affectations of a hybridized Anglo-American accent is to undeservedly humor them. I know most people who travel through Nigerian international airports—and listen to Nigerian FM stations— know what I am talking about. The accents are neither American nor British. Nor are they, for that matter, Nigerian—or anything; they are just abominably inaudible babbles that mindlessly grate on the hearer’s auditory sensibilities with their exaggerated but spectacularly incongruous nasalization of every sound. 

Apparently, Nigerian airport announcers and radio DJs have led themselves to believe that all you need do to sound “foreign” and “cosmopolitan” is to speak every English sound through the nose.

I don’t care for the bungling, babbling disc jockeys on our FM stations who speak through their noses like people with bad respiratory infections. I do care, however, about airport announcers because their pronunciational imbecility has far-reaching consequences for both Nigerian and foreign users of our airports. Many people have missed their flights because they couldn’t figure out what the heck the announcers were saying. As you will read shortly, I also almost missed my flight recently because of Nigerian airport announcers.

On all occasions I was at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja last year, I found many Westerners, for whose sake airport announcers speak through their noses, asking Nigerian passengers what the airport announcers were saying; they couldn’t make sense of the irritating blare of nasal cacophony that passed for announcements.  But they got no help from Nigerians who thought affected nasalized accents were a competent mimicry of Western accents, which should be comprehensible to Westerners. One Nigerian who was approached for help encapsulated this sentiment when he said: “Na wa o. See as Oyinbo dey ask me to interpret him language for am. The way the announcers dey speak, no be so una people too dey talk—through una nose?”

 I would have rolled on the floor laughing (to use Internet lingo) if I wasn’t insanely incensed at my own inability to make out “Kano” from “Cairo” from the announcer’s voice. Yes, it was that bad: Cairo and Kano sounded exactly alike in the announcer’s nasalized babble. I would have missed my flight to Kano if I didn’t trust my instincts to go ask a group of resplendently babbar riga-attired gentlemen in a queue if they were going to Kano. Of course, the pilot’s announcement welcoming us to the “plight” to Kano assured me that I was indeed on the right plane and that my plight with the airport announcer with tediously fake and exaggeratedly nasalized accent was over—at least for that day.

I talked about this issue with several people at the airport who told me barely audible, affected airport announcers’ accents are becoming a desperate menace. Someone even jokingly called it “a grave national security threat.” But this isn’t a joke. I heard stories of Nigerians and foreigners alike who missed their flights because they couldn’t figure out what the announcers were saying. And since passengers can neither see the announcers physically to seek clarification nor have access to even a basic digital airport signage that shows flight itinerary, they are often condemned to the tyranny of the pretentious but incomprehensible accents of illiterate airport announcers.

There is one other important reason why the Nigerian airport announcers’ accents are irksome: they don’t represent the range of accents in Nigeria. There are at least three types of accents in Nigeria. At the top of the totem pole of Nigerian accents is what I call imported but authentic foreign accents. These are the accents of foreign-born (or foreign-educated) Nigerians in Nigeria (such as the crisp British accents of former House of Representatives speaker Oladimeji Bankole, Minister of Environment Amina Mohammed, human rights activists Ayo Obe and Ayesha Imam; the American accent of former NAPEP coordinator Magnus Kpakol, etc.). You also have what I call the Nigerian broadcasters’ accent, fully realized in the mellifluous, articulate accents of broadcasters like Cyril Stober, Kalu Otisi, Yusuf Aliyu Addy, Eugenia Abu, Ruth Opia, etc.  And then there is what I call demotic Nigerian English accent, which has regional variations.

A September 18, 2014 CNN article that identified Nigerian English accent as the world’s 6th “sexiest accent,” obviously prefers demotic Nigerian English accents to the first two because it chose the accents represented by King Sunny Ade and Omotola Jalade Ekeinde as its examples of “famous tongues” in Nigerian English accent. “Dignified, with just a hint of willful naivete, the deep, rich ‘oh's’ and ‘eh's’ of Naija bend the English language without breaking it, arousing tremors in places other languages can't reach,” the article said.

But it doesn’t matter even if others don’t like our accents. Our accents define us, and it is foolish to run away from them. As phonologists say, “a man without an accent would be like a place without a climate.” I admit, though, that there are occasions when it makes sense to speak in foreign accents, if one can, to make oneself comprehensible to foreign hosts. When I teach my students here in the United States, for instance, I try to speak as close to how Americans speak as is possible, but they still think I “have an accent,” and they are right. But I often joke that most Nigerians won’t recognize the way I speak to them as “Nigerian accent.” “If I were to speak to you exactly as I would speak to a Nigerian, we would probably not be having this conversation,” I often say to laughter, especially when I switch to what they call my really “thick accent.”

The way I involuntarily switch to an American accent when I speak to Americans is the way I automatically switch back to my “natural” Nigerian accent when I speak to Nigerians, except that these days, because of many years of continuous stay in the US, it’s becoming hard for me to remain non-rhotic, as linguistics call the act of not pronouncing one’s “r’s.” Americans and Canadians are rhotic because they pronounce their “r” wherever it appears in a word.

Nonetheless, each time a Nigerian tries to speak to me in a foreign accent and I sense that their accent is affected, I have a hard time keeping a straight face and speaking back to them in a foreign accent. I recall an encounter with a US-based Nigerian professor when I visited Nigeria some 5 years ago. A mutual friend introduced us and pointed out that we were both American university teachers. Then the man started speaking to me in a ridiculously affected American accent. I felt like saying, “We are in our country, my brother; why can’t we speak like Nigerians at least while we are here.” Of course, that would have been rude. So what did I do? I just switched to Pidgin English. It threw the man off. No Nigerian can speak Nigerian Pidgin English with an American or British accent and not sound ridiculous even to himself!

I am saying all this to point out that this new trend to affect foreign accents in places that attract Westerners is just plain dumb. It is dumb because everyone who travels to another country prepares him or herself to hear the accents of the people of that country. They don’t expect to hear accents they are used to at home. (I traveled to Paris recently and the airport announcers and members of the cabin crew on Air France spoke English with an unapologetically French accent). It is also dumb because neither Nigerians nor foreigners understand the affected accents, so it is wasted effort.

But if our airport announcers insist on speaking in accents foreigners would understand, they have at least three options. The cheapest option is to go for training at our TV and radio colleges where polished Nigerian broadcasters like Cyril Stober, Kalu Otisi, etc. trained. If that isn’t good enough, they should enroll for “accent neutralization” training in places like India and Kenya where call-center business has birthed a massive accent modification industry. Or they can buy accent neutralization software and self-train.

If that is still not good enough, they can emulate South Koreans and commit to what is called lingual frenectomy, which is the removal of certain tissues in the tongue that hinder the ability to speak English with native-speaker accents. Yes, I am not making this up; you can look it up. Some South Koreans cut the skin of their tongues so they can have perfect American accents. According to a January 18, 2004 Los Angeles Times article, Koreans are increasingly turning to surgery to correct what they perceive to be their accent deficit, “underscoring the dark side of the crushing social pressures involved in getting a highly competitive society in shape for a globalized world. The surgery involves snipping the thin tissue under the tongue to make it longer and supposedly nimbler.”

I am being tongue-in-cheek, of course, when I said Nigerian airport announcers should undergo lingual frenectomy like South Koreans. I don’t wish that on anybody. But anything is better than the pervasive but exasperatingly unnatural accents of our airport announcers.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Gere: Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s Real Ethnic Group

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Last week I requested that a family member of the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa should reach out to me to set the records straight on their patriarch’s ethnic identity. The son of the late Prime Minister’s oldest surviving daughter, Alhaji Ahmad Yakubu Wanka (who holds the traditional title of Sarkin Dawaki Mai Tutan Bauchi), graciously contacted me a day after my column was published.

But before I share what he told me, it’s good to recapitulate the context of my interest in the ethnic heritage of Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister. In my January 9, 2016 article titled, “Is There Such a Thing as Hausa-Fulani?” I pointed out that “the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was and still is often called a ‘Hausa-Fulani’ by the southern press even though he was born of a Shuwa Arab father and a Fulani mother.”

 Many people wrote to contest the accuracy of my ascription of “Shuwa Arab” ethnicity to the late Prime Minister. While some said he was of Sayawa ethnicity, others said he was Jarawa. Both the Sayawa and the Jarawa live in Tafawa Balewa town in Bauchi State from where the late Prime Minister derived his last name.

In response to the objections to my description of him as half-Shuwa Arab, I pointed out that biographies of the late Prime Minister (such as Trevor Clark’s  A Right Honourable Gentleman: Abubakar from the Black Rock) identified his patrilineal ethnic group as Bageri, which some people thought was a variant spelling of Bagara or Baggara. Since Bagara is the name by which Middle Eastern and North African Arabs often call sub-Saharan African Arabs, I chose to describe the late Prime Minister as “Shuwa Arab,” the ethnic descriptor by which most people (at least in northern Nigeria) know the Bagara in Borno and Chad.

It has now come to light that this is not entirely faithful to the facts. The Bageri are different from the Bagara. Alhaji Ahmad Yakubu Wanka said his grandfather’s ethnic group is Gere, but that when Hausa people make reference to the ethnic group, they prefix “ba” to it to indicate a singular form and suffix “awa” to pluralize it. So the singular form of the ethnic group’s name in Hausa is Bagere, which later became Bageri, and the plural form is Gerawa. But the people themselves self-identify as Gere. Anyone with even a faint familiarity with Hausa syntax should understand this. For instance, in the Hausa language, a single Yoruba person is called a Bayarbe and several Yoruba people are Yarbawa. One Hausa person is Bahaushe, and several Hausa people are Hausawa.

Interestingly, according to Wanka, who is completing his doctoral studies in the law of maritime safety, the Gere are not native to Tafawa Balewa. In fact, they have not the remotest ancestral connection with the town. The late Prime Minister’s father, Mallam Yakubu Dan Zala, Wanka said, “hailed from Zala village in Tirwun on the outskirts of Bauchi,” pointing out that “Tirwun is a Gere town which has now been subsumed as a satellite town of Bauchi” because of urban sprawl.

So how did the late Prime Minister end up in a town his ethnic group has no ancestral affinity with, even going so far as to bear the town’s name as his last name? Ahmad Wanka responds: “If you read the Right Honorable Gentleman, you will discover that his father was a domestic servant of the then Ajiyan Bauchi who was the District Head of Lere, then headquartered in Tafawa Balewa. That was how they went there, and he was enrolled in school at Tafawa Balewa, thus the name, since he was deemed to be from there. But he had nothing to do with the town.”

In addition, contrary to what many biographies state, Ahmad Wanka told me that the late Prime Minister’s mother, Hajiya Inna, wasn’t Fulani. He said she “was also a Gere having hailed from the Zaranda area of Bauchi,” but he added that the woman “was reported to have had a Fulani mother.” Until relatively recently, Wanka said, the Gere didn’t embrace Islam; they were mostly adherents of traditional African religions, but whose “culture has now been subsumed by the dominant prevalent Islamic culture in Bauchi.”

Gere, unfortunately, is one of minority languages in Nigeria that are in imminent danger of extinction. Hausa is gobbling it up, and only a few older people speak it now. A 1905 Journal of the Royal African Society article by a G. Merrick titled “Languages in Northern Nigeria” said the Gere are “closely related to the Bolewa [a minority language spoken mostly in Fika Emirate in Yobe State] and living to the west of them. They claim to have originated in a district called Gere in Bagarmi situated about 18 Long. and 120 Lat.” (p. 44).

 I don’t know how accurate this information is, but it’s interesting that Merrick mentioned Bagarmi, which Alhaji Ahmad Wanka, in my correspondence with him, mentioned as the alternative name for Shuwa Arabs. “The Bagara, or Bagarmi as we call them, are a Chadian stock whom migration brought to some parts of the North East; they are different, look different and their language differs from the Gere completely,” he said.

I was never aware that Shuwa Arabs or the Bagara were also called Bagarmi. But now that a 1905 article by a British researcher claims that the Gere claim descent from Bagarmi, my curiosity is provoked. Maybe Bagarmi was (or is) the name of an area in or near present-day Bauchi, which has no relationship with the local name for Shuwa Arabs in the Bauchi area. I don’t know. It is significant, though, that the Bolewa language (or Bole) is an Afro-Asiatic language—in common with Hausa and Arabic.


 If the Gere are indeed linguistically related to the Bole, my initial description of them as “Shuwa Arabs” may not be as far-fetched as it seems.

Postscript:
I have been informed that the Bagarmi are an ethnic group in Chad who are not related to Shuwa Arabs. However, it has also been pointed out that although the Bagarmi are not ethnically related to Shuwa Arabs, they speak an urban dialect of Shuwa Arabic as their lingua franca and that their native language is in decline.

Similarly, I've learned that Baggara isn't an exclusive label for sub-Saharan African Arabs; it refers to all cattle-herding Arabs as opposed to camel-herding Arabs. Shuwa Arabs are composed of both cattle-herding and camel-herding groups.

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

“Body Language,” “Screen Touch,” and “Say Me Well”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage and Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Enjoy this week’s Q and A, which features answers to questions on Nigerian English expressions like “Buhari’s body language,” Nigerian English salutations like “say me well to,” and emergent telephonic expressions like “screen touch.” Also find the difference between “read a course” and “study a course”— and much more.


Question:
In Nigeria it is now usual to talk of President Buhari’s “body language” to mean fear of what he stands for and can do. We say things like, “the civil service is getting better now because workers fear that Buhari’s body language shows that he doesn’t tolerate corruption and laziness.” Is that standard usage? I wonder you haven’t written about it. Maybe it’s because you haven’t noticed it?

Answer:
I have noticed it. No one who pays attention to Nigerian politics will fail to notice the incipience of the expression at around the ascendancy of the Buhari presidency. Nonetheless, I had assumed that people who used “body language” in the way you pointed out weren’t ignorant of the Standard English meaning of the expression; I thought they were merely intentionally contorting and expanding the expression’s traditional meaning.

As a communication scholar, I teach body language, which we call kinesics or kinesis in the scholarly literature. It basically means the communication of messages, both subtle and overt, through the movement, in part or in whole, of the body. If I shake my head to show disapproval, I am using body language. If I spread my five or ten fingers to call someone a bastard, as we do in Nigeria in moments of inflamed passions, I am using body language. And so on and so forth. That’s how the expression is understood in international Standard English.

The notion of “body language” as the deterrent effect that the fear of a person inspires is uniquely Nigerian. You can’t read a person’s “body language” if you don’t physically see the person and observe their bodily motions. I had imagined, perhaps incorrectly, that people who talk of “Buhari’s body language” know enough to know that no one would have any clue what the heck they are talking about outside Nigeria.

My own sense is that whoever came up with the expression was consciously imbuing an existing English expression with a new meaning in the service of a new, unlexicalized reality. But then many people started using the expression with no consciousness that the meaning associated with it is intentionally nonstandard; that it is a strictly made-for-Nigeria expression.

 I am not, by any means, discouraging the use of the expression. I actually think the re-semanticization of the expression is evidence of linguistic creativity.

Question:
"This is to confirm that the above named has been offered Provisional admission into [name of university] in 2015/2016 Academic Session. The Candidate has been admitted to read: Doctor
of Human Medicine 100 level in the Faculty/College/School of College of Health Sciences."
Sir, I quoted this from the letter of confirmation of admission I received. But a friend of mine said "The candidate has been admitted to study" is more appropriate than "to read".  Is he
right?

Answer:
He is wrong. In British English it is usual and perfectly permissible to use “read” to indicate the act of being a student at a university—or at any higher education institution. I typed “admitted to read” on Oxford University’s website and came across several matches, including this: “The number of undergraduates admitted to read Chemistry at Pembroke over the last few years has typically been around six per year.” A recent obituary in the UK Telegraph also contains the following: “After leaving school, she was admitted to read Chemistry at London University…”

American English speakers, however, don’t use “read” in the way British English speakers do. In America you are “admitted to study” a course, not to “read a course.” Maybe that is what your friend was hinting at. However, since British English is the standard that Nigerians privilege and emulate, I don’t understand why your friend thinks “read a course” is wrong.

Question:
Is it “screen touch” or “touch screen?

Answer:
Until I received this question I was never aware that Nigerians call touch screens “screen touch.” Your question prompted me to search “screen touch” on search engines and on such social media networks as Facebook and Twitter. I found the phrase only on Nigerian-themed websites and by Nigerian social media handles.

The use of “screen touch” in place of “touch screen” is an example of a kind of error linguists call lexical metathesis or spoonerism; it is a kind of slip of the tongue in which the usual positions of words in a sentence are transposed. Another common lexical metathesis in Nigerian English is the use of “plate number” in place of “number plate,” the British English term for vehicle registration plate—or what American English speakers call license plate.

Question:
Recently, I said “say me well to your wife” to a friend of mine, but he laughed at me. When I asked why he laughed, he said you once wrote that the expression was wrong. But isn’t “say me well to…” an American English expression? Please clarify.

Answer:
First of all, I think it’s impolite to laugh at people because you think they’ve committed an error in speech. And, no, “say me well” is not an American English expression. Here is what I wrote in my November 11, 2012 article titled “Top 10 Peculiar salutations in Nigerian English (I)”:

“1. ‘Say me well to him/her/your family,’ etc. Nigerians use this ungainly verbalism when they want to send expressions of good will to someone through another person. This uniquely Nigerian English expression would be puzzling to native speakers of the English language because it is structurally awkward, grammatically incorrect, and unidiomatic. I have no earthly idea how it emerged in Nigerian English. But it certainly isn’t a British English archaism or a literal translation from native Nigerian languages, nor is it Biblical English or a distortion of contemporary British or American English—four of the dominant sources of Nigerian English that I have identified in earlier write-ups here. 

“Whatever it is, the expression has attained idiomatic status in Nigerian English and should probably be patented and exported to other parts of the English-speaking world as Nigerian linguistic invention in English. 

“Some examples of fixed phrases that native English speakers use to express the same sense Nigerian English speakers convey when they say ‘say me well to…’ are ‘give my hello to him/her,’ ‘tell him/her I said hi,’ ‘give him/her/your family my (warm) regards,’ ‘give him/her my best wishes,’ ‘say hello to him/her for me,’ etc.”

Question:
Distinct people still spell that name as "Mohammed” or “Muhammad,” or “Mohamed," yet they are all referring to the same person in their write-ups. I am not even talking about Muhammadu Buhari. I mean the prophet. Does it mean they're not talking of the same man when they choose any of the variants? Usually abused by non-Muslims?

Answer:
Well, it's because they are all using Roman orthography to write a name that is originally Arabic. Every time you use a different orthography to spell a name that was originally written in a different orthographic tradition, you often have several variants. It's normal. Names originally written in Latin alphabets also have different variants when they are written using different scripts such as Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese, Thai, etc.

Having said that, it helps to note that, over the years, “Muhammad” has emerged as the preferred rendition of the name in English. Even in the Oxford English Dictionary the name is written as Muhammad. Much older variants like Mahound or Mahomet are now considered offensive and are avoided by careful writers, except when references to the dim and distant past (when the variants were in vogue) are inevitable.

Question:
Is it in appropriate to say "please make sure" in a formal letter? I wrote a letter to my principal asking him to provide reagents for practical examinations, but when I said "please make sure you provide the actual reagent listed above" he was annoyed and said I wrote in a commanding tone. Is it true? I thought the “please” in my sentence suggests politeness.

Answer:
Saying "make sure" to your superior is inappropriate, even imperious. That's the language adults use when they talk to children. It's a command, not a polite request. You could have written something like, "Please provide the reagents listed above."

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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Re: Is There Such a Thing as “Hausa-Fulani”?

Before I publish some of the reactions to last week’s column, I want to clarify that when I referred to the late Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as being half “Shuwa Arab,” I was only using a familiar Nigerian ethnic descriptor to refer to his paternal ethnic heritage. Many sources said he was descended, patrilineally, from the Bageri or Bagara ethnic group, who share linguistic similarities with the Shuwa Arabs of Borno and Chad.

I took the liberty to describe his paternal ethnic heritage as “Shuwa” Arab” because I thought people will relate more to that label than Bageri/Bagara.  “Bagara,” by the way, is the Arabic word for cattleman, and is used by Middle Eastern and North African Arabs to refer to sub-Saharan African Arabs, including Shuwa Arabs in Borno and Chad.


But someone who claims to have personal familiarity with the late Tafawa Balewa’s family disputed claims of the late prime minister’s Bageri/Bagara ancestry; he insisted the late prime minister was Jarawa/Gerawa. Other people, nonetheless, said the late prime minister’s patrilineal ethnic heritage was actually Sayawa, not Jarawa or Bageri/Bagara. If any family member of the minister is reading this, I would appreciate an email from them to set the records straight.

Well, read below a sample of the responses I received.

Thanks for your yet another interesting column. I am Hausa from Kano. As far as I know, I don’t have a drop of Fulani blood in me. I have never understood why people would call me “Hausa-Fulani.” That name puzzles me to no end. As you rightly said, in all Nigeria cultures, including Hausa AND Fulani cultures, people’s ethnic identity is determined by the ethnic identity of their father. We would never call a person who is the product of an intermarriage between an Igala and an Idoma (and there is a lot of that) an “Igala-Idoma.” If the label “Hausa-Fulani” is justified because you said our integration is “on a scale of intensity that is unexampled anywhere in Nigeria,” would we start hyphenating other ethnic identities once the “scale of intensity” of their integration equals that of the Hausa and Fulani? I doubt it. Well, you’re really spot on when you said the label is “meaningless.”
Sabi’u Umar, Kano

In Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah’s PhD thesis from SOAS London, “Religion and Politics in Northern Nigeria since Independence”, Kukah analysed the Hausa-Fulani issue in terms of “power relations.” He wrote:  “When I asked Umaru B. Ahmed, former Director of the Centre for Nigerian Cultural Studies, Zaria, himself a Hausa with Fulani blood in him, he said: "The romance over Fulani blood among many Hausa people is purely because of the Sarauta (traditional power) benefits. If you do away with the Sarauta in the political system today, no one will be bothered about their Fulani lineage, because the lines are already blurred through very many generations of intermarriages."
Mohammed Dahiru Aminu, London

I think we need to really get to the origins of the term Hausa-Fulani. Who invented? Or, better still, who first used it? Professor Jibo’s claim (via John Paden) that the term was invented by Barewa College students in the 1920s is too simplistic to be taken seriously. Even if this were true, which is frankly unlikely, it requires someone or some people with symbolic power to make the term stick and used as widely as it is today. That’s why I like your point (via Benedict Anderson) about the power of the media to create imagined communities. In the modern world, without the active participation of the media, no name or label or identity can travel beyond its place of origin.
Kamaldeen Olatunbosu, Ilorin

I am Fulani. To me, you are either Hausa or Fulani. Simple. I too am not fluent in Hausa because I learnt it for the first time in my university days. I only spoke Fulfulde and English in my youth. In Nigeria, you are your father's ethnic group.
Aishatu Suleiman

Talking about the non-existence of labels like Yoruba -Fulani despite the existence of Fulanis in Yoruba land reminded me of an encounter during my NYSC days. I came across some Fulani settlers in some parts of Saki East LGA in Oyo state. Being a Fulani myself, we easily became used to each other and related freely. In the course of our conversations, each time I chipped in some Hausa words, as Fulanis up north here do, they didn’t always get what I was saying. I later realized that these people knew nothing about Hausa language and its speakers. But they were fluent in Yoruba language. This kept me wondering whether they're the Yoruba –Fulanis (that is, if anything like that does exist). So, to be frank, I hate being referred to as Hausa-Fulani.
Abubakar Algwallary

I served in Okeero LGA of Kwara State, and I related with the Fulani there, although I am not a Fulani. I am a Hausa from Zaria, Kaduna State. But the only Hausa the Fulanis I met in Kwara could speak was 'Sannu.'
Abdulkadir Muhammed Yahaya

I think you are right that what the southern media mean by Hausa-Fulani is any person from Northern Nigeria that is a Muslim irrespective of the ethnic group he or she comes from— as long as they speak and appear Hausa. I read one of Femi Fani-Kayode's articles where, in trying to establish a relationship between Fulanis and Yorubas, he said he too, as a Yoruba, has Fulani grandparents in his lineage and, as such, coined the appellation "Yorulani."

Sadisu Abubakar Dangoggo

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Q and A on Grammar, Usage, and Naming Conventions in Nigeria, America, and Britain

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In this week’s Q and A, I answer questions on last-name cultures, differences in the usage of the terms “indisposed” and “ill-disposed,” and what the term “turn of the century” means.

Question:
I stumbled upon a seriously hot debate among students of your alma-mater, BUK, about a simple but difficult and complicated topic. As we all know, if a person has two names, his father's name is expected to be his surname. But the debate is if the person has three official names. Which one should be his surname? Is the last or the middle which will remain his father's name? Answer to this question from you will bring an end to this debate.

Answer:
I am not quite sure I understand your question, but I will take a stab at answering it nonetheless. I have written about naming conventions in International English in the past (see, for instance, my October 15, 2010 article titled “The Grammar of Titles and Naming in International English”).

In English naming conventions, surnames (also called family or last names) are NOT the same thing as one’s father’s first or middle names. Typically, sons, fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers, great-great grandfathers, etc.—including all paternal relatives— have the same surname. That’s why surnames are also called family names. I was reading up on former President George Bush’s family tree the other day and discovered that his ancestors, stretching back to more than 500 years, have been bearing “Bush” as their surname.

Surnames help family members to easily trace their genealogies and make sense of the sometimes labyrinthine network of familial relationships we have.

But we don’t have a systematic surname culture in Nigeria. Most people, especially in northern Nigeria but also in the south, bear their father’s first names as their surnames, thereby erasing their appellative association with their fathers—and with other members of their patrilineal family. For instance a Muhammed Babangida gives birth to a boy whom he names Umar Faruk. Umar grows up, goes to school, and registers his name as Umar Faruk Muhammed because teachers typically ask “what’s your father’s name?” not “what is your family name?” His “surname” is taken from his father’s first name thereby eclipsing his connection with his father—and with his father’s family members who bear Babangida as their surname.

I, too, used to be known as Farooq Umar Adamu even though my father is Adamu Kperogi. I used my father’s first name as my surname. I was a student in the primary school where my father was an Arabic teacher, and you couldn’t tell that we were related based on our names—unless you knew us. I adopted my family name, Kperogi, which connects me to a much larger, illustrious family heritage, only in 1998. Now, my children’s last name isn’t “Farooq”; it is Kperogi. My children’s children’s surname will also be Kperogi. This way, they will know that anybody anywhere in the world whose last name is Kperogi is likely related to them either by blood or by marriage, and they can easily map their genealogy and familial heritage.

I am not by any stretch of the imagination making the case that this is the best naming convention in the world. It’s the English naming convention, which just happens to make a lot of sense to me.

But there are equally many sensible last-name conventions that abound. For instance, it used to be customary for northern Nigerians to bear the names of their hometowns as their last name. Although this hometown surname convention doesn’t make genealogical connections possible, it connects otherwise distant people that share the same geo-cultural, and possibly familial, ancestry. This practice was adopted from Arab/Muslim culture. For instance, the name Bukhari (which we render as Buhari in Nigeria), is derived from Bukhara, which is the name of a city in what is now Uzbekistan in the former USSR. The person who popularized the name is a 9th-century author of hadith collections known as Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl ibn Ibrāhīm ibn al-Mughīrah ibn Bardizbah al-Ju‘fī al-Bukhārī.

While all surname traditions are valid as long as they work for people, I personally think bearing one’s father’s first name as one’s surname isn’t a helpful naming custom.

Question:
I have noticed that when women get married they change their names and publish the name change in national dailies. For example one sees things like, “I formerly known as Zainab Umar now wish to be known as Zainab Umar-Ismaila." My question now is whose name is “Umar-Ismaila?" From my little knowledge of word morphology, Umar-Ismaila should be the name of a particular person which, in this case, belongs to nobody. I think the best way to go about it is to make the former name compound and leave Ismaila as the family name to have "Zainab-Umar Ismaila" I don't know if  I  am right because even well-respected journalists, academics, and technocrats are ignorant of this word formation.

Answer:
No, they are not ignorant. You are describing what is called "double-barrelled surnames" or "hyphenated surnames," and Nigerian women who practice that naming tradition inherited it from our former British colonizers. Moneyed, aristocratic, upper-class women in Britain never want to give up their family names when they get married. So they devised naming conventions that ensure that they don’t lose the social status that comes with their family names even after marriage.

The first known convention is the use of the term “née,” which is French for “born,” to indicate the former surname (or maiden name) of a married woman. So, to use your example, if Zainab Umar got married to Musa Ismail, she will write her name as Mrs. Zainab Ismaila née Umar. This practice is no longer as common as it used to be.

What is now common is for the woman to combine her former surname (Umar) with her husband's surname (Ismaila) and hyphenate the names to show that they are separate yet connected. That way, she has connection both to her family and to her husband's family. Your suggestion that married women hyphenate their first and maiden names and leave their husband’s surname as a standalone name wouldn’t make any sense. I know of no naming tradition in the world that countenances that.

It is rare for American women to hyphenate their last names upon marriage; they simply use both names, such as Zainab Umar Ismaila, without a hyphen. A good example is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who used to be known as Hillary Rodham before she married Bill Clinton. President Obama’s wife, too, is officially called Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama. In her case, she still retains her middle name.

It's also common for American women to give up their former last names entirely and adopt their husband's upon marriage. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, recently told the American media that she wants to be simply known as Hillary Clinton.

 What is also becoming increasingly common is for women to never adopt their husband's surnames upon marriage, so that if didn’t ask, you wouldn’t know from last names if a man and a woman are married. This has been part of Muslim culture for ages. In Islam there is no expectation that women should adopt their husband’s surnames when they get married, and many don’t.

Question:
Is the word “indisposed” not suitable when one is trying to say he is ill? I am asking because I told my HOD that I was indisposed and would not be able to attend a meeting, and his response was that I should tell him why I was indisposed.

Answer:
That’s funny! Well, your usage of “indisposed” is correct. The first and most widely understood meaning of “indisposed” is to be ill. So you’re absolutely correct. But “indisposed” can also mean not willing or inclined. The more regular word for that, though, is “ill-disposed.” Maybe your HOD understood you as referring to the second meaning of “indisposed” or, in fact, “ill-disposed.” I should mention, too, that “ill-disposed” is also sometimes used to mean ill, not in good health, but that was initially considered a usage error. Many people still think it is.

Question:
What does the phrase “turn of the century” mean? John Grisham (that American novelist) used the phrase thus: “The streets were lined with turn-of-the-century rowhouses, all of which were still inhabited...” Are the rowhouses of the beginning of the century or of the end?

Answer:
It can mean both the beginning and the end of the century. The turn of the century is typically defined as 10 years before the end of a century and 10 years following the start of a new century. But because it is such a slippery, imprecise term, many careful writers avoid it and simply mention the years they are referring to.

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