"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: The Grammar of Titles and Naming in International English

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Grammar of Titles and Naming in International English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I’ve lost count of the number of times Americans have asked me why the Nigerian president has a common Western first name (Jonathan) as his last name. These queries remind me of the question the late Chief Abraham Adesanya asked former ThisDay editor and current Minister of Youth Development Bolaji Abdullahi when the latter introduced himself to the Chief on the phone. “Bolaji what?” the late Yoruba leader asked. “Why not Abdullahi Bolaji?”

Americans—and other Westerners— seem to also be asking, “Goodluck what? Why not Jonathan Ebele—or any other name but a Western first name?” In the West, last names, also called family names or surnames, are the names often used to identify members of one family (dad, mom, children, paternal cousins, paternal grandparents, etc.) and sometimes to trace a family tree. They are distinguished from first or given names—which are, for the most part, common—by the fact that they are usually unique. Of course, many hitherto unique last names have now become so commonplace that they might as well be first names. Examples are Smith, Doe, Adams, Brown, etc.

But the concept of “family name” is either non-existent or entirely new in most Nigerian cultures—and, for that matter, in most non-Western cultures. When I started elementary school in Nigeria, for instance, I was only asked of my first name and my “father’s name,” not my family name. Of course, I gave my father’s first name, Adamu, an African Muslim rendering of the Semitic name, Adam. And so I had been known as Farooq Adamu for the first 24 years of my life.

But my own father, who was an Arabic and Islamic Studies teacher in the same school, is known and addressed as Malam Adamu Kperogi, Kperogi being my grandfather’s first name. So if you didn’t know us, you would never guess that I was related to my dad since there are a thousand and one Adamus in my community. The absurdity of my names only dawned on me when I was 25 and already a journalist. I realized that my names denuded me of an identity.

It was then I swore a court affidavit and changed the order of my names: I “demoted” Adamu to a middle name, excised my former middle name completely, and added Kperogi—a name exclusively associated with my family—as my last name. Many of my paternal cousins and uncles had been bearing Kperogi. But until I changed my last name, few people knew they were my relations.

My experience typifies the naming dilemma many Nigerians grapple with. The name Jonathan is, of course, President Goodluck Jonathan’s dad’s first name. I am certain that his paternal cousins have a different last name from him. And it won’t be unusual if the president’s children bear “Goodluck” as their last name. Well, because the culture of last names seems to be taking roots in Nigeria now, Jonathan’s children may well adopt “Jonathan” as their last name. His grandchildren may also bear Jonathan as their last name.

 But the truth is that almost no one bears “Jonathan” as a last name in the West from where the name originates; it’s a first name in the class of Moses, John, William, Adam, etc.

Interestingly, although Nigerians are nonchalant about last names—in ways that both surprise and amuse Westerners—we do really subconsciously pay attention to last names that are distinctive. For instance, we talk of the Aguyi Ironsi regime, the Gowon regime, etc. but talk of the “Murtala regime.” It should have been the Muhammed regime; the full name of Olusegun Obasanjo’s predecessor is Murtala Muhammed. But Muhammed is such a common name (actually, it's the most common name in the whole wide world) that it is easy to forget.

We also call former Vice President Atiku Abubakar by his first name, “Atiku,” instead of “Abubakar,” his last name. This is also because, like Muhammed, Abubakar is so common in Muslim majority societies that it is easily forgettable. And we're confused what to call Abdulsalami Abubakar because both first and last names are common. The less common Abdulsalami seems to be increasingly preferred by Nigerian newspaper headline writers these days. The lack of a last-name culture in Arab societies from where these names are borrowed is partly to blame for this.

Our blithe unconcern for the importance of first and last names is reflected in the annoying habit of many Nigerians who write their last names first and their first names last even in informal contexts. For people whose first and last names are undistinguished to start with, this can make identification a strain. I have, for instance, received friendship requests on Facebook from friends I’d lost touch with a long time ago. Their first names, by which I’d known them, would often appear last and their last names, which I didn’t quite know, would appear first. This is particularly awkward for women who risk being called male names because in all other cultures people call people by the names they write first.

This awkward naming habit is a holdover from the practice in schools where last names are written first in the school register to make sorting easy for teachers and administrators. But every country in the West that I know of also writes people’s last names first on school records, but this has not predisposed citizens of these societies to write their last names first in informal, out-of-school contexts.


In the West, titles such as Mrs., Mr., Dr., Professor, Sir, Dame, etc. appear either with first and last names combined or with last names alone. For example, it’s either “Mr. John Smith” or “Mr. Smith” but not “Mr. John.” We don’t respect that order in our everyday social interactions in Nigeria. Titles are regularly prefixed to people’s first names.

But what cracks me up big time is the Nigerian practice of prefixing “Mrs.” to a combination of married women’s first names and their husbands’ first names. For instance, Mrs. Gloria Fulani, whose husband is known as John Fulani, could be addressed as “Mrs. Gloria John.” I’m myself a “victim” of this ignorance. On my second daughter’s birth certificate, a Nigerian doctor wrote my wife’s name as “Mrs. Zainab Farooq”! Well, this practice owes its existence, again, to the absence of an established last-name culture in Nigeria that I talked about last week.

It’s noteworthy that in conventional British English, Mrs. is traditionally only used with a woman’s husband’s first and last names (e.g. Mrs. John Fulani) rather her with a woman’s first name and her husband's last name (e.g. Mrs. Gloria Fulani) unless she’s a peer’s daughter (which would cause her be addressed as Lady Gloria Fulani). This is now becoming outmoded because it's decidedly chauvinistic. Similarly, in British society, women used to be addressed by their last names only (e.g. Mrs. Fulani) if they were servants or criminals.

And in modern British and American English, it is grammatically wrong to use “Miss” or “Mrs.” along with other titles, so that a woman doctor can’t be called “Dr. (Mrs.) Gloria Fulani.” Choose only one title. Of course, in a society like Nigeria where women rightly have a need to flaunt both their professional achievement and their marital status, not to talk of our obsession with titles, this rule will never be obeyed.

Abuse and Misuse of Titles
Our “big” men and women have adopted the habit of taking on Western titles whose histories and sociological content they have not a scintilla of awareness of. The most abused Western titles in Nigeria are “Sir” and “Dame.” (I will write a full column on the origins and uses of “dame” in the coming weeks). In British culture, a “Sir” is a man who is honored by the Queen or King of England for chivalry or other personal merit. A “Dame” is the female equivalent of a “Sir.” But there is a certain famous “Dame” we all know in Nigeria who is only just now learning to shed her Okrika rusticity, who murders the English language with a ferocious glee, and who couldn’t possibly have been knighted by the Queen of England, the symbolic custodian of the English language. But she swanks her “Dameness” nonetheless.

Other popular British titles are “Lord,” “Lady,” and “the Hon.” (short for Honorable). Lord and Lady are used with the first name for the sons and daughters of dukes and marquesses: e.g. Lord John; Lady Elizabeth. But they are used with the last name elsewhere. Similarly, “the Hon.” is used with the first name for the children of viscounts, barons, and life peers and peeresses, and for the younger sons of earls. E.g. The Hon. William Adams.
In Nigeria, however, “the Hon.” title has been hijacked by vain politicians and is now prefixed to the names of members of the Federal House of Representatives, ministers, commissioners, chairmen of local governments, and councilors of wards. Not wanting to be outdone, members of the Nigerian Senate have invented a hitherto non-existent title that they call “Distinguished Senator.” These days, people just call them “Distinguished,” as if the word “distinguished” were a noun!

It is also now fashionable to ignorantly prefix the adjective “executive” to every position in Nigeria. But “executive” is prefixed to a post only when it is necessary to differentiate it from a “ceremonial” post. For instance, during Nigeria’s First Republic, there was a “ceremonial president” in the person of Nnamdi Azikiwe who had no substantive powers. Substantive powers resided with the Prime Minister.

So when Nigeria adopted the American presidential system in the Second Republic, it became necessary to prefix “executive” to the name of the president to show that, unlike in the First Republic when the president had no executive powers, the elected president had executive powers. It is totally pointless to prefix “executive” to the names of governors, chairmen, etc. since we never had or have ceremonial governors or chairmen in the past or at present. This also applies to such titles as “executive director,” “executive editor,” etc. The “executive” is called for only if a company has non-voting directors or if a newspaper has an editor who exercises no real editorial decision-making powers.

“Excellency” (often preceded by “Your,” “His” or “Her” is another title of honor that is used uniquely in Nigeria. In most countries, it used only for presidents, vice presidents, state governors, ambassadors, viceroys, Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops, English colonial governors, and the Governor General of Canada (who is still symbolically an English colonial governor because he is the representative of the Queen of England in Canada. In Nigeria, it is also used for wives of presidents and state governors.

Although America’s first president used “His Excellency” as part of his titles of honor, it has now fallen into disuse.I have never heard any American president addressed as “His Excellency.” Out of America’s 50 states, only about 13 officially call their governors “His/Her Excellency.” The American First Lady is never called “Her Excellency.” Americans also don’t use “His/Her Excellency” for their ambassadors; the use “the honorable.”

I also find it curious that our attitude to Western titles is as influenced by our own local traditions as our local traditions are influenced by our understanding of Western titles. In the north, for instance, “Alhaji” and “Malam” are always prefixed to people’s first names alone—or with their first and last names combined but never with their last names alone, unlike in the West where courtesy titles are prefixed to the last names of adults.

However, our journalists now habitually mix and confuse the Western naming convention with the Nigerian naming practice, so that it is usual to see a “Musa Labo” addressed as “Alhaji Labo” on second reference in news reports. But it is “Musa” who went to Mecca and earned the title of “Alhaji” for himself, not his dad or granddad, “Labo,” who is probably not an “Alhaji” himself. Same applies to the title “Chief” and its many local variants in southern Nigeria.
This is particularly awkward for women because their earned titles are attached to their husband’s family names on second reference. Referring to Hajia Fatima Abdullahi as “Hajia Abdullahi” or a Chief Stella Okereke as “Chief Okereke” on second and subsequent references in a news story is downright misleading. It should be Hajia Fatima and Chief Stella.

In the West, how people are addressed—i.e., whether or not titles are prefixed to their names—is often indicative of levels of familiarity or social and power distance. Calling people by their first names without titles usually indicates that you are on very familiar, friendly terms with them and that the power distance between you and them is very short or non-existent. Calling them by their titles and full names or their titles and last names indicates that there is a wide social and power distance between you and them, the kind of social and power distance that exists, say, between teachers and students or between total strangers on opposite ends of the social scale.

On other occasions, addressing people with their title and last name (such as Mr. Smith) when you are their social equal or their social superior can indicate cold detachment, even hostility. And calling people by their first names when they are older than you, are your social superiors, are not sufficiently known to you, or have not explicitly permitted you to do so, is considered rude.

But this is not the case in Nigeria. Very close friends write letters to each other and sign off as “Mr. Somebody” or “Dr. Somebody Someone,” or “Professor Big man.” In the West, signing off a letter with your title and last name to a friend would indicate hostility, arrogance, or social awkwardness. That’s the basis of the Western expression “we are on first-name terms,” which basically means “we are so familiar with each other that we call each by our first names, not last names and pompous titles.”

There are exceptions to this convention in America, though. In the American south, for instance, it is customary for children to prefix “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Miss” or “Ms.” to people’s first names to indicate both familiarity and courtesy: the mention of the first name indicates familiarity and warmth, while the affixation of the title indicates courtesy. This is now becoming a national tradition that even adults use jocularly. This practice has been around in Nigeria, for a different reason, for as long as I’ve been alive.

Finally, in the West, it is considered bad form to introduce yourself to people with your titles. For instance, it is socially awkward or pompous to introduce yourself to a new person by saying, “I’m Professor John Danfulani.” But this is common practice in Nigeria. For me, this attitude is justified only on occasions when women have a need to tell a male stranger that they are married. So “I am Mrs. Fatima Isa” tells the male stranger what boundaries not to cross.

What of False Titles?

A related phenomenon is “false titles,” that is, creating titles out of professional callings. Nigerian lawyers prefix the title “Barrister” to their names. Architects prefix “Arc.” to their names. Pharmacists prefix “Pharm.” to theirs. Engineers prefix “Engr” to their names. Which profession have I left out? Many, I know. Nigerian journalists seem to be the only people left out in this craze for false titles. But “Journ” would be a nice title for journalists!

 But, seriously, in the West, only medical doctors, Ph.Ds, and (serving) ambassadors prefix professional titles to their names. Every other person contends with Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. In Britain, the range of titles is, of course, wider because the Queen knights people for personal merit.

In Europe, except Britain, it is usual for university teachers who have a Ph.D. and attained the rank of “Professor” to refer to themselves as “Professor Dr. John Smith” This sounds utterly clumsy and superfluous to Britons and Americans—and to Nigerians. But it is intended to showcase both academic and professional achievement. “Professor” indicates professional achievement and “Dr.” indicates academic achievement. Since it is possible to become a professor without a Ph.D. and have a Ph.D. without attaining the rank of professor, Western Europeans (except Britons) think it is fitting to honor people who both have a PhD and attained the rank of professor, thus the vain, clumsy “Professor Dr.” title.

It is noteworthy that what grammarians call “false titles” didn’t start with Nigerians. It was actually started by Time magazine and is now the stuff of journalese (i.e., English distinctive to journalistic writing). In native English societies, false titles are defined as prefixing the name of a professional activity to the name of a person, e.g. “footballer Nwankwo Kanu has retired from the national team.” In the preceding sentence, “footballer” is a false title.

False titles are useful for journalists because they save space. But all journalistic writing conventions in Britain and America insist that the first letters of false titles should not be capitalized (e.g. it is wrong to write “Footballer Nkwankwo Kanu”) since they’re not “real” titles. They should also not be separated by a comma (e.g., it’s wrong to write, “Famous footballer, Nwanko Kanu, has landed a big gig in Spain”) from the name they precede. But this is precisely what Nigerians have perfected: the first letters of false titles are not only routinely capitalized; they have also been mainstreamed as “real” titles.

The titles “Barrister,” “Engr,” “Arc.,” “Surveyor,” “Pharm,” etc. are classic examples of false titles that have been elevated to the status of real titles in Nigeria.

All this wouldn’t matter if we only related to each other in Nigeria. But the reality of globalization has forced us to relate with people in other parts of the world more frequently than was the case in the past. I know that many Westerners are often confused by our naming conventions, especially because such conventions are often poor imitations of their ways. So it helps to know that there is grammatical logic to naming and titles.






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