By Farooq A. Kperogi
There is probably no more misused word in Nigerians’ demotic speech than the word “sentiment”—and its many inflectional variations, such as “sentiments,” “sentimental,” “sentimentalism,” etc. In popular discourses, both at home and in the digital diaspora—and in blissful ignorance—Nigerians routinely do so much semantic violence to this harmless word.
For instance, in everyday political conversations, it is customary to hear Nigerians enjoin their interlocutors to eschew “sentiments” and instead consider the merit of an argument. An explicitly partisan argument is usually condemned as being mired in “sentiments.” Writers and speakers who want to insulate themselves from charges of bias and prejudice declare their points of view as being free from or not inspired by “sentiments.” Any opinion that is adjudged to be “full of sentiments”—or “sentimental”— is often rhetorically marginalized. And so it is typical for Nigerians to preface potentially controversial or divisive remarks with phrases like “sentiments apart,” “this is not about sentiments,” I’m not being sentimental but…,” etc.
This solecism is not the sole linguistic perversion of illiterate or barely educated Nigerians; it’s a widespread usage norm among even some very educated Nigerians. So why is “sentiment” such a bad word in Nigeria? Why do Nigerians strain hard to avoid even the remotest association with the word in their quotidian discursive engagements?
Well, it is obvious that many, perhaps most, Nigerians understand the word “sentiment” to mean scorn-worthy prejudice that is activated by visceral, unreasoning, primordial loyalties. That is why in Nigerian English, expressions like “religious sentiments” and “ethnic sentiments” are synonymous with what Standard English speakers would recognize as “religious bigotry” and “ethnic bigotry” or, in a word, ethnocentrism.
It also explains why, sometime ago, a reader thought I was being unfair to myself by describing my point of view as a “sentiment.” In my weekly column, I had written something about readers who “shared my sentiment” on an issue and this faithful reader wrote to assure me that my position was “NOT a sentiment at all”; it was “objective,” he insisted. Problem was: it was just my personal judgment.
This permeative Nigerian (mis)usage of the word “sentiment” has no basis in either the word’s etymology or its current Standard English usage. There is nothing even remotely dreadful about “sentiment” in and of itself. Sentiment is, of course, a polysemous word (that is, it has a multiplicity of meanings) but, in all of its lexical ambiguity, it does not denote or connote bigotry or prejudice. In its most habitual usage, especially when it is used in the plural form, it merely means personal judgment, opinion, thought, view, etc, as in, “does anyone else share the sentiment that Nigerians widely hate and misuse the word “sentiment”? So, stripped to its barest essentials, “sentiments” simply means opinions.
The other popular usage of the word is as a synonym for emotions, that is, strong feelings not informed by rationality, as in “patriotic sentiments,” “anti-American sentiments,” “revolutionary sentiments,” etc.
But the word also has usages of disapproval. It can, for instance, mean being mawkish, that is, effusively or insincerely emotional (as in, “he got all sentimental about the death of his cat”) or susceptibility to tender, delicate, or romantic emotion (as, “she has too much sentiment to be successful”). These meanings derive from the notion of sentimentality or sentimentalism as indulgence in exaggeratedly gushing expression of tender feelings, nostalgia, or sadness in any form.
I have gone to this length to tyrannize the reader with these trite and banal definitions just to illustrate that in the range of significations the word “sentiment” encapsulates, prejudice or bigotry isn’t one of them.
So how did we come about this distortion of the meaning of “sentiment”? Why do most political, especially overtly partisan, articles in Nigerian newspapers and on Nigerian websites proclaim to be devoid of “sentiments” when, indeed, that is precisely the stuff they are—and should be— made of?
From my admittedly hazy and therefore unreliable recollections, it seems to me that this phobia for “sentiments” has roots in military-era slogans of the 1980s. Remember the “Say No to Corruption; Say No to Tribalism (sic); Say No to Nepotism,” etc slogans? I think one of the slogans was “Say No to Sentimentalism”—or something like that. From then on, it became fashionable to label “sentiments,” “sentimental,” “sentimentalism” as lexical items of disapproval in the class of “parochial,” “tribalistic,” “tribalism,” “nepotism,” etc.
Now, let me be clear: I am a strong advocate for Nigerian English, as my previous writings on the subject show. However, my sentiment (hmm… that dreaded word again!) is that Nigerian English is most justified where it invents or creatively contorts words to express unique Nigerian socio-cultural experiences that are not lexicalized in current Standard English.
Clear cases of usage errors that are the consequence of ignorance should not be dignified as Nigerian English. They needlessly distort intelligibility in international communication in English, and in a world where time-honored spatial and temporal boundaries are collapsing at unimaginable speeds we can’t afford that kind of self-limiting linguistic insularity.