"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 12/31/09

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Of the major parts of speech of traditional grammar—nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions and conjunctions—the ones that Nigerians probably abuse the most are adverbs and adjectives, outrivaled perhaps only by our pervasive misuse of prepositions.

But, first, what the heck are adverbs and adjectives? A straightforward, communicative definition of an adverb is that it is a word that answers the questions “where, why, when and how.”

So words like “here,” “there,” “everywhere,” etc would qualify as adverbs because they answer the question “where.” Grammarians further call such words “adverbs of place” because they signify location. Words/phrases like “because,” “due to,” “in order to,” etc answer the question “why.” So they are “adverbs of purpose/reason” because they indicate intention. Words like “now,” later,” “soon,” etc answer the question “when.” Grammarians call them “adverbs of time” because they signify temporalness. And words that end with the “ly” suffix such as “energetically,” “nicely,” etc answer the questions “how.” They are called “adverbs of manner” because they indicate mode or style.

There are several other types of adverbs, but because I don’t want to bore the reader any further with a juiceless and lifeless treatise on adverbs I will leave them for now. Well, the kinds of adverbs that Nigerians routinely murder are adverbs of manner, that is, those words that end with “ly.”

Chief among these are the words “outrightly” and “downrightly.” They are probably not strictly Nigerian inventions, but native speakers of the English language don’t say “downrightly” or “outrightly.” These adverbs don’t take the “ly” form. So where a Nigerian would say “Yar’adua’s handlers are outrightly lying to us,” a Standard English speaker would say “Yar’adua’s handlers are lying to us outright.” Where Nigerian speakers would say “he is downrightly hypocritical,” a Standard English speaker would say “he is downright hypocritical.” So, although these words are adverbs of manner, they don’t usually admit of the “ly” suffix.

Perhaps the trickiest of the adverbs we misuse is the word “severally.” We often use the word as if it meant “several times.” It is typical for Nigerians to say “I have told you severally that I don’t like that!” or “I have been severally arrested by the police.” In Standard English, however, “severally” does not mean “several times”; it only means individually, singly, independently, without others, etc, as in “the clothes were hung severally.” This means the clothes are apart from each other and don’t touch each other. Strikingly odd, not so?

One other adverb of manner that Nigerians have invented but that does not exist in any variety of Standard English is "instalmentally," as in "I will repay the debt instalmentally." Standard English speakers say "in installments" rather than "instalmentally."

What of adjectives? Well, they are usually defined as words that modify or qualify a noun or that express an attribute of something. But that definition is unhelpful. The most practical way to recognize an adjective is to understand it as a word that is capable of being expressed in comparative and superlative forms, that is, in the “er” “est” or “more” “most” formations. Examples: big, bigger biggest; beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful, etc. Only adjectives and adverbs of manner are capable of being expressed in these forms.

The commonest way adjectives are misused in Nigerian English is to mistake them for nouns. A notable, oft-repeated example is the word “mediocre,” which is an adjective meaning “second-rate.” It is customary for Nigerian speakers of the English language to describe someone as “a mediocre” or to describe a group of people as “mediocres.”

But only nouns can take singular and plural forms; adjectives can’t. So, since “mediocre” is an adjective and not a noun, instead of calling someone “a mediocre” it is more correct to simply say that he or she “is mediocre.” Note the omission of the article “a.” To call someone “a mediocre” is analogous to calling someone “a stupid” or “a foolish” instead of saying he is “stupid” or “foolish.”

I think, though, that it is entirely understandable, even justifiable, that many Nigerians misuse the adverbs I’ve highlighted above. English is a notoriously quirky language with many arbitrary, illogical exceptions to its rules. It is therefore perfectly excusable that anyone who has not grown up or lived in a native-speaker linguistic environment—or who has not immersed himself in a systematic study of the rules of the language— would miss these pesky exceptions especially because most other languages, including our native languages, have regular, predictable grammatical rules.

But my whole motivation in these grammar exercises, as I’ve always said, is to improve intelligibility in international communication in the English language. It doesn’t hurt to know that some usage patterns that we have been wedded to for years are, in fact, peculiar to us; that we shouldn’t be shocked when native speakers or other proficient users of the language are clueless when we use words in our own peculiar Nigerian way.

In our rapidly globalizing world made even more so by the ubiquitous instrumentality of the Internet, this knowledge won’t hurt one bit.


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