"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: September 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reader Feedback and My Responses

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Over the past few weeks, I've received some insightful email and Facebook responses to my previous articles. Most of these came in the form of contestations or request for elaboration on some of my claims. I have reproduced some of these below. My responses follow in italics.

It’s "treated tanker water," not "treated water tanker"

Just saw your column on The Politics Of Grammer [sic]. That question "treated water tanker" or "treated tanker water"? The correct one is actually "treated tanker water," not "treated water tanker."

'Water tanker' means you're talking about the tanker, but using the water it carries to qualify it. So, it's like 'the tanker that carries water'.  'Tanker water' means you're talking about the water, but using the tanker to qualify the water. That's to say, 'the water inside the tanker'. So, 'treated water tanker' means treated tanker carrying water. While 'treated tanker water' means treated water inside the tanker.

Please cross-check in dictionaries and other materials to clarify. And thank you for your efforts in up-grading the fast declining English grammer [sic] of the Nigerian populace.

My Response

Thanks for your feedback. Well, it all depends on what you mean. If, as you rightly pointed out, your point of reference is the water, then “treated tanker water” could be defensible, although, as I will show shortly, it’s unidiomatic. However, if you’re talking about the carrier of the water, then “treated water tanker” is the only correct way to say it. I understood my questioner as asking about the tanker, not the water.

 Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that there is no where in the English-speaking world where people use the phrase “treated tanker water.” It’s not because it’s grammatically inaccurate; it’s because it’s functionally purposeless and unidiomatic. Note that the usual phrase for a tanker that carries water is “water tanker.” It’s a collocation, that is, a grouping of words that almost always co-occurs in a sentence. The word “treated” (that is,subjected to a chemical treatment, action or agent”) is the only real adjective in the phrase and it functions to qualify the collocation “water tanker.”  Again, my sense is that when people think of a truck carrying water, they think in terms of the whole vehicle (thus, “treated water tanker”) rather than the water and the vehicle in isolation (which could justify the phrase “treated tanker water”).

But more than that, type the phrase “treated tanker water” on Google, insert quotation marks around it and see if anything will come up. Well, when I did, the only results that came up were my columns on the subject. On Yahoo! search, there was zero result. But “treated water tanker” generated three results on Google (not including the result from my columns) and six matches on Yahoo! search.

What does all this tell us? First, that both phrases are rarely used outside Nigeria and that the phrase “treated tanker water” is, in fact, never used anywhere, although it’s not grammatically wrong. It is easy to tell why this is the case: people in native-speaker English environments have no need for tankers that carry drinking water; that’s a Third World peculiarity. Tap and bottled water are the usual sources of drinking water for people in these environments. In cases where tankers carry water, it’s mostly for purposes other than drinking. As I've stated here many times, there is always a relationship between people’s language and their material reality.

Sierra Leoneans also call black-eyed peas beans

“If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?”

Well, once in Ghana, I told JC a fellow student that I needed “some bread” whereupon he betook himself to take me all the way from the dining Hall to his room in Commonwealth Hall and there he handed over to me a few slices of bread. But a little bit of cash [was] what I had really meant, and so all my hopes were dashed. JC the generous later joined the Ghanaian military.

Soul food has its own special language and one has to be specific. As a first-timer I would have fallen into the same error as your big shot.

“Nigerians are about the only people in the English-speaking world who call black-eyed peas beans”? You're almost right about the only people and could include the people of Sierra Leone too for whom black-eyed peas belong to the category of “binch” ( Krio/ Creole word meaning beans) and the Sierra Leone cuisine has incorporated some of  the Yoruba delicacies such as moin-moin ( my favourite) and a kind of bean cake called “akra” or “Akara” which dear Doctor  of Etymology, I don't think derives from Accra, which is the capital of Ghana, although it is also consumed in that city...."

My response

Thanks for letting me—and my readers— know that Sierra Leoneans also call “black-eyed peas” beans. I guess it’s a West African thing. Plus, Sierra Leone (especially Free Town) and Nigeria are intimately interlinked historically, linguistically, and culturally.

I was emboldened to say that Nigerians were about the only people who called black-eyed peas beans because several of my Ghanaian friends assured me that in Ghanaian English the two legumes were often clearly differentiated. Since Ghanaian and Nigerian English share so many common features, I thought Nigerian English was in lonely company this time around. But I am now dubious of my Ghanaian friends’ assurances. 

 I will find out from my Gambian and Liberian friends if they too call black-eyed peas beans. I know that we call many foods by the same name in Anglophone West Africa. For instance, we all call pea nut “groundnut.”




Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2.
 
Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. 
Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 
10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. 
Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. 
Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. 
In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. 
Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. 
American English or British English?
10.
 Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. 
Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. 
Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. 
Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. 
On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. 
Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Before President Jonathan’s Men Murder Another Journalist

By Farooq A. Kperogi


I thought I would not comment on Nigerian politics for a long time. I have become so thoroughly disillusioned with the astonishingly overwhelming vulgarity, intolerance, and lack of self-reflexivity that have taken over our country’s politics in the past few weeks that I’d resolved to block out Nigerian politics from my mind.

But when I read the truly terrible and shuddery column of Hajia Zainab Suleiman-Okino's, the Sun’s new Editor-at-Large and Daily Trust’s former Managing Editor, where she narrated the death threats she has received from Jonathan’s men for daring to opine that by repudiating PDP’s regional power-sharing arrangement Jonathan was jeopardizing the political aspirations of politicians from minority ethnic groups who, because of their numerical disadvantage, would always need some sort of positive discrimination to rise to prominent elective positions, I couldn’t resist coming out of my self-imposed moratorium on Nigerian political commentary.

I am not concerned here with the merit or demerit of Hajia Zainab’s argument; I am only concerned that an opinion as innocuous as warning the president to be mindful of the implications of his overweening ambition for people from minority ethnic groups (Hajia Zainab is Ebira and therefore from a minority group both in Nigeria at large and in her home state of Kogi) is sufficient to earn her death threats. I didn’t know that our politics had degenerated to this low-water mark of primitive, murderous intolerance.

In her weekly column called “Rendezvous” in the Sun newspaper, Hajia Zainab wrote:  “At exactly 10:08pm on Wednesday, September 8, I received a call from this number, 08037408669, and the man at the other end began to intimidate me. He poured venom on me and added for good measure: ‘Zainab, if you don’t stop your Rendezvous column, I will deal with you. I know your office and your house. So, stop that column before it is too late.’”
Hajia Zainab Suleiman-Okino and her daughter, Nabila
Intimidation of journalists for doing nothing more than comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, as Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne famously characterized the job of journalists nearly one hundred years ago, is not new, especially in transitional societies such as ours that are still wracked by a “deliberation deficit.” But threatening to cold-bloodedly murder a mother of 5 children, who less than a month ago lost her son to brain tumor, for expressing a legitimate, if controversial, opinion is truly perturbing. This should concern not just journalists and law enforcement agents but everyone who has any milk of human compassion running in their veins.

Look, this is no idle, impotent threat. These despicable, homicidal thugs in politics can do anything to silence alternative perspectives. We all know that in the recent past several journalists in Nigeria have been savagely murdered in mysterious circumstances. Bayo Ohu, Guardian’s assistant news editor, whom I knew very well when I worked in Katsina, was murdered in the course of his journalistic duty. Godwin Agbroko, the gutsy ThisDay columnist, was also brutally murdered by people who couldn't stand his searing critiques of the politics of Nigeria. Edo Sule Ugbagwu, a journalist with the Nation who was my senior at Bayero University, Kano, was similarly murdered by hired assassins. The list is much longer. 
Bayo Ohu

Godwin Agbroko
Edo Sule Ugbagwu
It’s entirely imaginable that before these journalists were murdered they had received death threats from their would-be killers. But they probably dismissed the threats as the pitiful wails of people who were merely discomfited by their critical journalistic work. Thankfully, Hajia Zee has chosen to let the world know what Jonathan’s minions have in store for her should she continue to express opinions that are critical of their boss’ ambitions. Only God knows how many more journalists they have threatened and marked for elimination.

This is unacceptably crude and barbarous. Nobody deserves to die for merely expressing a different opinion. Unfortunately, journalism in Nigeria is becoming progressively more dangerous than it even was during the dark era of viciously absolutist military regimes, prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists to note that, “Reporting in Nigeria has become an increasingly hazardous profession as the list of unsolved journalist murders in the country continues to grow.” We mustn’t allow Hajia Zainab to be an addition to this growing list.

I have known Hajia Zainab for more than 11 years. She isn’t just a former colleague to me; she is also a family friend. I know about her triumphs and her falls, her joys and her sorrows, her struggles, her battles, her dreams. I know her to be an exceptionally kind-hearted woman, an exceedingly hardworking journalist, and an uncommonly caring and nurturant mother and wife who always wants the best for her family. She is one of the most harmless, tolerant, and obliging human beings you can ever wish to meet. And she’s still grieving the loss of her son. Fear of the assassin’s bullet is the last thing she should be worrying about now.

President Jonathan’s men should not only OFFICIALLY dissociate themselves from the death threat to this gentle, benign woman but should implore the security agencies that they control to investigate the issue. The caller’s phone number, 08037408669, is the first lead. Thankfully, a new law requires every mobile phone user in Nigeria to be registered with all identifying information.

If Jonathan’s people don’t publicly disavow this threat and thoroughly investigate it, the only conclusion we would draw from their insouciance would be that the death threat has presidential imprimatur. In that case, we should all watch out!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The African Origins of Common English Words

By Farooq A. Kperogi

A distinct feature of the English language is its extensive borrowing from other languages. According to some sources, only about 30 percent of the vocabulary we use in modern English is derived from the native tongue itself, that is, from Anglo-Saxon—as English prior to 1100 is called. The rest is derived from an amalgam of different languages, leading some to call the English language a “loaned language.”

So what contributions have African languages made to the vocabulary—and perhaps the syntax— of the English language? As I will point out shortly, the contributions of (black) African languages to the lexis and structure of the English language have been minimal at best and inconsequential at worst.

 In researching this topic, I realized that a lot of work has already been done in this area. Notable books written on this topic include Newbell Niles Puckett’s Black Names in America: Origins and Usage, which was published in 1975; Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The Bantu Speaking Heritage of the United States published in 1979; Gerard Matthew Dalgish’s A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language published in 1982; Joseph E. Holloway’s Africanisms in American Culture published in 1990;  and Joseph E Holloways and Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The African Heritage of American English published in 1993.

I haven’t read all of these books yet. When I do, I will update this entry. Perhaps some of my conclusions will change. However, there are several online resources that detail the African heritage of many English words. In this write-up, I am concerned only with common words in everyday English, by which I mean words that are so usual and so actively used in modern spoken and written English that one doesn’t need to consult a dictionary to know their meanings.

A good but by no means entirely reliable starting-point to find out about the African origins of common English words is Krystal.com, which lists several English words that are borrowed into modern English from other languages, including African languages.

Some common words that trace their roots to black Africa include the words “juke” and “jumbo.” Krystal.com says these words are of Bambara origin. Bambara is a Niger-Congo language spoken mostly in the West African nations of Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso.

Most people know that “voodoo” is African. But probably few people know that it’s derived from the Gbe languages (the most widely spoken of the Gbe languages are Ewe and Fon), a Niger-Congo language cluster spoken in parts of Ghana, Togo, and Benin Republic. The word is originally rendered in these languages as “vudun.” 

A related word is “juju.” Both Krystal.com and Dictionary.com claim that the word originates from the Hausa language. I doubt that this is true. The word sounds more Yoruba than Hausa to me. I should know because I have a limited working proficiency of both languages. Someone pointed out that the word is probably French.

“Tango,” the rhythmic ballroom dance often associated with Latin America, is said to owe its etymological provenance to Ibibio, a Benue-Congo language spoken in southeastern Nigeria. It’s said to be derived from the Ibibio word “tamgu,” which means “to dance.” However, my Ibibio friends doubt the authenticity of this claim. They say if "tamgu" existed in the language in the dim and distant past, it no longer does. “Merengue,” another popular Caribbean dance, is reputedly a distortion of the Fulani “merereki,” which means “to shake or quiver.”

Okra ( known to us as okro in Nigerian English) is said to be derived from the Igbo word “okuru” or “okworo,” which refers to the shrub used to make “gumbo” (a southern U.S. delicacy; the word “gumbo” itself is of African origin, but it’s not clear what African language it’s derived from) or other kinds of “slimy” soups. There is a popular folk etymology here in the United States that suggests that “okuru”—or its many dialectal variations— is Igbo for “lady’s fingers.” However, many of my Igbo friends couldn’t confirm this.
  
The words “chimpanzee,” “funky,” and “zombie” are also said to be derived from Kongo, a Niger-Congo language spoken in the Central African nations of Angola and the Congo. And “milo,” a type of maize from which Milo drink is made, is derived from Sotho, a Niger-Congo language spoken in the southern African nations of Lesotho and South Africa. “Tsetse,” the bloodsucking fly often called “tsetse fly,” is from Tswana, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Botswana and parts of South Africa. A nd “cola,” from which Coca-Cola derives its name, is from Temme, a Niger-Congo language spoken chiefly in Sierra Leone.

“Banana,” “jazz,” “jive,” “yam” are of Wolof origin. Wolof is a Niger-Congo language spoken mostly in Senegal, the Gambia, and parts of Mauritania. Note, however, that some people claim that yam is derived from “nyami,” the Fulani word for the tuber; others said it’s derived from “anyinam,” the Twi word for yam. But it’s important that Wolof, Fulani (spoken in most West African countries) and Twi (spoken in Ghana and Ivory Coast) are descended from the same Niger-Congo language family—in common with most languages in southern and central Nigeria.(Isn't it ironic that, linguistically speaking, Fulani has no familial relationship with Hausa, the language with which it's often grouped in Nigeria's political vocabulary?)

Other common English words with African roots are “kwashiorkor” (from Ga, a northern Ghanaian language where the word literally means “swollen stomach”), mumbo jumbo (i.e., gibberish; unintelligible talk; derived from Mandingo, a West African language spoken mostly in the Gambia, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea), “jamboree” (possibly from Swahili), “gorilla,” “zebra,” etc.

There is a lot of debate over whether the word “OK”-- aptly described as “the best-known and widest-travelled Americanism, used and recognised even by people who hardly know another word of English”-- is of African origin. People who support a theory of African origins for the word say it’s derived from the Mandingo phrase “O ke,” which stands for “certainly.” Others say it is derived from the Wolof “waw kay,” which translates as “yes indeed.” But this is folk etymology.

Many other languages have some version of the “OK” sound in their lexicons, which incidentally share semantic properties with the English OK. Speakers of such languages also lay claim to being the sources of America’s most popular linguistic export. In the Finnish language, for instance, the word oikea means “correct, exact.” In the Native American Choctaw-Chickasaw language group, “okah” means “yes indeed.”

I am persuaded by the evidence, which I shall present shortly, that OK has no African origins. As linguistic researchers know only too well—and as the examples above illustrate—the possibility for “accidental evidence” in glottochronological research is often immense. (Glottochronology is the study of the evolution of languages from a common source). For instance, what the English people call “sun” is called “son” in Batonu, my native language. The Hausa word for the English “sixty” is “sitin.” This in no way, of course, suggests that Batonu, Hausa, and English are cognate languages; these are just linguistic accidents. English is an Indo-European language, Batonu is a Niger-Congo language, and Hausa is an Afro-Asiatic language.

 Sometime ago, a Japanese professor of linguistics went to Plateau State in central Nigeria to investigate the link between any of the Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in China and the Chinese-sounding local languages spoken in Plateau State. He found about 20 percent (?) lexical similarities between the Plateau and Sino-Tibetan languages. He dismissed his finding as “accidental evidence” and as insufficient basis to establish cognacy between the languages.

Untrained, “feel-good” researchers often hold up accidental gluttochronological strands of evidence as inviolably self-evident empirical proofs of their preconceptions. So what is the true origin of the word “OK”?

 The Online Etymology Dictionary says—and this has been corroborated by many authorities— that OK is actually a slangy and jocular abbreviation of the humorous phrase “oll korrect,” which emerged in Boston in 1838. During this period, there was a trend to humorously spell words as they sounded, what one might call “pronunciation spelling.” The word "OK" would have died like other jocular abbreviations of the time had the New York re-election campaign group for Martin Van Buren, America’s 8th president, not created a group called the “OK Club.” This was in 1840, two years after the word was first invented in Boston. Buren lost his re-election bid, but America—and the world— gained a new word.

Now back to the contribution of African languages to the English language. It’s obvious that the words that black African languages have contributed to the English language fall into four categories: names of plants that are originally native to our soil, names of animals that were exclusively found in Africa, names of material and immaterial artifacts that trace their provenance to Africa and, finally, derogatory terms in modern English that arose out of the deep-seated disdain that the first English people to set foot on Africa had for us.

What became obvious to me in the course of researching this topic is that so-called sub-Saharan languages have collectively made the least contribution to the vocabulary of the English language, leading someone to note that “Africa isn’t sharing its words.” According to him, “Africa, especially Sub-Sahara Africa, despite having been known and explored for thousands of years, has not given us nearly so many words as the Native Americans, discovered only five centuries ago.” But is Africa deliberately hoarding its vocabularies?

Well, it isn’t just our vocabulary that the English language has been reluctant to accept; our languages have also not made any significant impact, as far as I know, on the idioms and structure of English. To appreciate the point I am making, consider the fact that Sino-Tibetan languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese have not only enriched the vocabulary of the English language, they have also influenced its idioms and structure. For instance, the phrase “pidgin English” is China’s gift to English. It was originally the Chinese (mis)pronunciation of “business English.”

 Similarly, the phrase “long time no see” (which is really non-grammatical by the standards of Standard English, but which is now so integral to the English language that no one thinks of its grammatical awkwardness) is China’s gift to English idioms. In proper English syntax, the phrase should have been rendered as, “We have not seen in a long time.” The Oxford Dictionary says “long time no see” started as a humorous imitation of Chinese English in the United States. Now it has stuck. 

And such ungrammatical but now perfectly acceptable idiomatic phrases as “have a look-see,” “no-go area,” “to lose face,” etc are direct translations from Chinese, sort of like “you and work” becoming an accepted form of greeting in English in conformity with how that greeting is literally rendered in many Nigerian languages such as the Yoruba “eku ise” and the Hausa “sanu da aiki,” which we instead render as “well done” in Nigerian English.

I think it bears repeating that it isn’t Africa that isn’t sharing its words; it’s the English language that isn’t accepting Africa’s words. This is probably a linguistic manifestation of the ice-cold contempt the Brits had and still have for us. Or it could be the consequence of the time-honored unequal, exploitative, one-dimensional cultural exchange between Britain and Africa, which has resulted in Africa’s low symbolic and cultural power in global cultural politics. African languages certainly have more to offer to the English language than simple names and derogatory phrases.

 Perhaps, the popularization of West African and East African English is one way Africa can make inroads into the lexis and structure of English. But even that isn’t very promising for now.

Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation


The Strange Bedfellows America Makes

Farooq A. Kperogi

When on January 6, 2007 I wrote about Keith Ellison, the first American Muslim to be elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives, an angry Nigerian reader wrote back to tell me that I had misled my readers. He protested that Mr. Ellison, who is also African-American, wasn’t a “real Muslim.” What kind of Muslim, he said, would be endorsed, supported, and campaigned for by Jews and homosexuals?

The reader checked out Ellison’s Web site and realized that the man he thought was a Muslim in the mold of Muslims in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East had received endorsements from many prominent Jewish and gay-rights organizations, groups he had been brought up to see as “enemies” of Islam. (For the record, Ellison is a Sunni Muslim who practices the same kind of Islam that Sunni Muslims in other parts of the world practice. He, in fact, has once been asked by a conservative newsman called Glenn Beck to “prove” that he is not “working with [America’s] enemies.”)
                                       Keith Ellison and President Barack Obama
But America makes strange bedfellows. Here, blacks, Jews, gays, Muslims, women, and other historically oppressed minorities tend to identify with the “liberal” strand of American politics. That is the big tent that gives shade and comfort to people whose identities don’t fit the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) label, people who fall outside the orbit of historical “white privilege.” (Liberals predominate in the Democratic Party.)

This alliance of the oppressed and sympathizers of the oppressed can be confusing to first-timers in America—or to casual observers of American politics. In moral and cultural politics, white conservative Christians actually share a lot in common with conservative Muslims. For instance, both groups are united in their common resentment against homosexuality, Jews, abortion, and the radical versions of women liberation. But it’s also the case that in America’s domestic politics, cultural conservatives, who predominate in the Republican Party, define themselves and are defined by their hatred of and contempt for anybody who isn’t WASPish. And that includes conservative Muslims who would have been solid allies in conservative white Christian Americans' “culture wars” with liberal Americans.

In 2000, George Bush, a conservative Republican who campaigned on the platform of “culture war” issues like gay marriage, which appealed to the cultural sensibilities of conservative Muslims, won more than 70 percent of the American Muslim vote. Some analysts say the percentage was actually 90 percent.  This massive Muslim support for Bush led conservative commentator Grover Norquist to proclaim in a 2001 American Spectator article that "Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote." Suhail Khan, an American Muslim commentator, went so far as to declare Bush “America’s first Muslim president” in a recent article in the influential Foreign Policy magazine.
President Bush and American Muslims
American Muslims, who had just come of age politically in 2000, would later realize that they were naïve. Concordance of emotive cultural beliefs with a group, they later found out, isn’t a sufficient basis for an enduring political alliance with that group, especially in America. 

Since the 1960s, the Republican Party has turned itself into a sanctuary for hate-filled conservatives of all hues. And the one thing that defines American cultural conservatism, as I pointed out earlier, is its visceral, deep-seated hate for and alienation of people who aren’t white male heterosexual Christians. That, of course, means that blacks, Hispanics, women, Jews, Muslims, and gays are not welcome in the Republican Party.

And that is why the unhinged Pastor Terry Jones of “International Burn a Qur’an Day” infamy is as Islamophobic as he is anti-Jewish and anti-gay. For instance, on August 2, about the time he was planning to burn Qur’ans, he also organized what he called a “No Homo Mayor” campaign to protest the election of an openly gay mayor in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, where the pastor also lives. This would be sweet music to the ears of many Muslims, except that the same man says “Islam is of the Devil.”
Now, consider the fact that some of the greatest and most vociferous defenders of the right of American Muslims to build the so-called “ground-zero mosque” in New York are Jews. Michael Bloomberg, New York Mayor and America’s 8th richest person, not only vigorously and uncompromisingly supports the “ground-zero mosque,” he also says its opponents should be "ashamed of themselves," And he is a practicing Jew. 

In fact, a prominent pro-Israeli lobby group called J Street collected over 10,000 signatures in support of the “mosque,” which it delivered to New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “Appalled by the opposition to plans by American Muslims to build a community center in lower Manhattan modeled after Jewish Community Centers all over the country, J Street is collecting petitions in support of religious freedom and against anti-Muslim bigotry,”  the group announced on its Web site. It also unequivocally condemned Pastor Jones’ planned Qur’an burning.

So, although in international and religious politics, Jews and Muslims are supposed to be sworn enemies, they are forced to align in America. Note, too, that Jews were at the forefront of the civil rights struggles for black people here in America and that although African Americans can be some of the most devoted Christians you can ever meet anywhere, they are also about the most tolerant group to Muslims that I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps these groups are only exteriorizing the empathy they have come to develop for unjustly suppressed peoples from their own histories of brutal oppression on account of their identities.

So, in general, liberal politics in America encompasses every historically disadvantaged group. That’s why Jews, blacks, women, gays, and now American Muslims tend to be liberal. It’s in liberal circles that they find acceptance and comfort, although the individual cultural and religious beliefs of people in this alliance may be diametrically opposed. Call it unity in adversity, if you like.

Nothing in what I am saying by any means suggests that every Jew, black, woman, gay, and Muslim in America is liberal. Or that every white heterosexual Christian male is conservative. Or even that every conservative American is a hater. There are virulently anti-Muslim, anti-black, and anti-gay Jews, for instance. Characters like David Horowitz and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman immediately come to mind here. A traditionally liberal Jewish group called the Anti-Defamation League sent tongues wagging here when it opposed the “ground-zero mosque.” And there are black conservatives, tolerant conservatives, racist “liberals,” etc. But they stand out like sore thumbs precisely because they displace the norm.

It’s noteworthy, too, that there are many white heterosexual Christian males who are liberals. In fact, the bulk of liberals in America come from this demographic category. But they are different from their conservative counterparts because their politics is animated by the ideals of tolerance, inclusion, and empathy for and defense of the weak and the vulnerable. So it’s the same sentiment that drives a liberal American to fiercely defend Muslims that also drives him to defend gays and Jews and women and Hispanics.

When you are aware of this, you tend to also learn to respect and defend the differences of others—or to strategically seek their alliance if only to defend your own self-interest. It’s all about self-preservation.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Q and A on grammar

By Farooq A. Kperogi


I have resumed the question-and-answer portion of my column that I suspended for some time. This will henceforth be a regular feature of this page. I encourage readers to send in their questions and I will be sure to answer them. Next week, I will write on the African origins of some common English words.

Question:

Let me start by saying I really enjoy reading your pieces on the English language and I am turning into a fan of yours. I would like to ask for your opinion or rather the correct phrase to use to express the name one would give to a tanker carrying water which has been treated.

Currently here in Kaduna between my parents, fiancée, and a couple of friends it’s between these two phrases: "treated water tanker" and "treated tanker water".

Thank you very much for your highly anticipated response.

Answer:

"Treated water tanker" is clearly the more correct phrase since what is "treated" is the water and not the tanker. The tanker is merely carrying water that has been treated.

Question:

I’m a frequent reader of your articles at the Nigerian village square. Although I’m not a Nigerian I enjoy reading different point of views wherever I can. I came across some of your write-ups and I was inspired.

Anyhow, I’m Kenyan by nationality. You might be aware about what’s been going on politically in Kenya. For last five years or so, our media, politicians etc, have coined words that have left me confused. Two particularly common words/phrases are (1) “Attack[ed]” and (2) “Kenyans have made up [their] mind.”

What really irks me is how those words are interchanged to drive a political agenda. For example, during political rallies, depending on which political party is addressing contentious issues, a politician standing in front of a mammoth crowd will declare "Kenyans have made up [their] minds" or [will say] his/her party is being "attacked." Of course our news media will repeat the same.

So, I m left thinking/wondering what happens to the rest of Kenyans that don't buy into any political party’s agenda? Do they become less Kenyans?

Hopefully you get my drift.

Answer:

You raise interesting questions about the deceitful use of language for political purposes. This is not, however, limited to Kenya. It happens in Nigeria too. In fact, it happens everywhere in the world and, for that matter, in every generation. George Orwell was the first notable person to call attention to this type of language usage. In his famous 1946 essay titled, “Politics and the English language,” he said, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

 This is done, he pointed out elsewhere, through staleness of imagery and lack of precision. The expression “Kenyans have made up their minds” is certainly not only stale but also fraudulently imprecise. No one, not least the politicians, have conducted any scientific opinion poll to determine whether or not Kenyans have made up their minds on any issue. The expression is intended only to anesthetize the Kenyan population into a false sense of consensus with the points of views of the politicians making the claims. But more than this, it’s also convenient and ready-made; it doesn’t require any thinking to say it.

Orwell identified three features of the political language of his time: dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, and pretentious diction. This is true of our time too. The evidence can be found in the examples you cited.

Question:
I want to say a BIG THANK YOU for your essays. I personally have gained a lot from them.

I have a question for you. In one of your essays, you wrote that there is no such thing as naming ceremony in both American and British English. I googled "naming ceremony" and found that there is naming ceremony even in Wikipedia and BBC.

There is an English course book (advanced) called Innovations by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley and I found in one of the units naming ceremony. Could you help on this as I am a bit confused?

You can use my questions in your column, but I would like to be anonymous.

Answer:

You are right that there is such a thing as “naming ceremony.” However, the expression has no currency in both contemporary American and British English, precisely because Americans and Britons do not celebrate the christening (that’s the more usual word for “naming” in American and British English) of their children as elaborately as we do. The fact that a word or an expression exists in the dictionary or on a web site does not in itself suggest that its usage is current.

I have been living in America for quite some time now and have never heard any native-born American refer to the christening of their children as a “naming ceremony.” My British friends also tell me they don’t use that expression now. They probably did in the past.

What I have learned, though, after writing the article you referred to, is that Orthodox Jews also call christening “naming ceremony”-- like we do in Nigeria. So, clearly, the expression is not uniquely Nigerian. It probably survived in Nigerian English from old-fashioned British English.


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