"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: April 2011

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Obama’s Birth Certificate and America’s Discourse of “Otherness”

By Farooq A. Kperogi

It first began as a hushed whisper. Then it became the battle-cry of the right-wing lunatic fringe. And then it transformed to the incoherent murmurs of prominent conservative members of polite society—and became a media sensation. That’s the trajectory of the controversy over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship, which has hopefully come to an end after the public display of his “long form” birth certificate, which incontrovertibly shows that he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961.

Obama had previously caused his “certificate of live birth” to be made public during the 2008 presidential election when extremist conservative activists insisted he was born in Kenya. But right-wing conspiracy theorists maintained that the document was forged. They said it lacked doctors’ signatures. The fact that Obama’s birth was announced in a Honolulu newspaper on August 4, 1961 did nothing to convince the conservative bigots that Obama was a “natural born” American citizen.
Obama's birth certificate. Click to enlarge
Donald John Trump, the billionaire business magnate and TV personality who is flirting with the idea of a White House run as a Republican candidate, mainstreamed the right-wing paranoia about Obama’s American citizenship when he granted several high-profile media interviews in the past few weeks saying he had evidence that Obama was born in Kenya. 

Now that Obama has publicly shown his birth certificate, Trump and other “birthers” (as conspiracy theorists about Obama’s putative Kenyan birth are called here; “birther,” by the way, made it to the Oxford Dictionary last year) have changed their agitation: they now want to see Obama’s college transcripts, which are private records by American law.

The new allegation is that Obama was not worthy of being educated in an Ivy League university (Obama attended Columbia University in New York for his undergraduate degree and Harvard University for his law degree) and that they need to see his transcripts to confirm this. They allege that Obama got admitted into Ivy League schools not on merit but on the basis of the racially inflected positive discrimination policy called Affirmative Action. This is patently untrue. Obama didn’t even mention his race when he applied to Harvard. Plus, he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, that is, with the highest academic distinction. Inside Higher Ed, one of American’s most popular online sources for higher education news, has invented the term “transcripters” to describe this burgeoning lunatic group that is dedicated to unearthing Obama’s transcripts.

The racial bigotry that animates this bunch of right-wing zealots becomes apparent when you realize that John McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, was actually born outside the continental United States; he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, an unorganized U.S. territory within the Republic of Panama in Central America. Until 1937, a year AFTER McCain was born, people born in that territory were only recognized as “U.S. nationals,” not “U.S. citizens.” That means they couldn’t be president of the United States. Even with the amendment, a child born in that territory (which is now fully part of the Panama Republic) is allowed to run for office only if at least one of their parents is a natural born U.S. citizen.

McCain was considered qualified to be president because the Congressional legislation that gave citizenship rights to people born in the territory applied it retroactively so that, although McCain was born in 1936, he can benefit from the rights and privileges that “natural born” American citizens enjoy.

I am bringing this example to illustrate the duplicity and undisguised racism that are at the core of the current right-wing “othering” of Obama. Were Obama to be caught in the labyrinthine web of citizenship rights issues as McCain was/is, he would have been outright termed a non-American citizen and therefore unworthy of being a U.S. president. In fact, all kinds of conspiracy theories would have sprouted about how he was born in the Republic of Panama OUTSIDE the U.S. territory and therefore neither a U.S. national nor a U.S. citizen. He would have been called a Panamanian. But McCain, thanks to white privilege, didn’t/doesn’t have to deal with that.

Also consider that George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor, is on record as one of America’s dumbest presidents. Yet he attended Yale and Harvard, the leading Ivy League schools. No one has asked for his transcripts, nor has anyone questioned his worthiness to be admitted to the Ivy League schools he attended. But Obama, by far one of the smartest presidents America has ever had, is being told that that he didn’t deserve to be an Ivy Leaguer; that he must produce his transcript to prove that he was worthy of an Ivy League education.

All this doesn’t come to me as a surprise, though. I have written about white privilege and how it works. What I haven’t written about is the discourse of “otherness” in America’s official policy, a discourse that alienates, even dehumanizes, marginal identities. For instance, in America’s legal vocabulary, all non-Americans living in America are “aliens.” Aliens are further divided into categories. For example, people with a permanent work permit (or Green Card) are “resident aliens.” Those without one are “nonresident aliens.” It makes no difference that the “nonresident” aliens are actually resident in the country.

Resident and nonresident aliens collectively constitute “legal aliens.” All others are “illegal aliens” or, in extreme cases, “enemy aliens” (if you are citizens of an “enemy nation.”) This official discourse of alienation works subconsciously to predispose Americans to view non-dominant groups in their midst as hordes of potentially dangerous people from another planet, which is the popular conception of the term “aliens.” I know this sounds like stretching the imagination too far especially because the term is race-neutral in official application and is also used by several other nations. A British or German immigrant is as much an alien in U.S. official classification as a Nigerian or a Saudi is. And countries like the UK also designate non-citizens “aliens.”

However, in practice, the reality of white privilege often works to erase “alienness” from people who come from white, industrialized societies. It is “Others” that the label sticks to and dehumanizes. Plus, the term was first used by Americans in 1789 before other countries borrowed it.

 It is supremely symbolic that Obama is the first American president whose citizenship has been called into question. Were his father to be a German or a citizen of some other European country, it is conceivable that no one would have doubted his “Americanness” much less ask for his birth certificate. It is the African part of his heritage that is causing him these troubles.
Pictures like this subconsciously dispose Americans to view Obama as an "alien" 
It is worth noting, though, that only a tiny, fringe minority of racist bigots have hang-ups about Obama’s American citizenship. The vast majority of Americans think this whole thing is silly. And here lies America’s contradiction: it’s the country with the most liberal citizenship laws in the world (it’s infinitely easier to become an American citizen than it is anywhere else in the world) but it’s also the country with probably the most alienating terminologies to describe new immigrants.

 It’s a fitting tribute to this contradiction that the country that has had the unparalleled distinction of electing the first black president in the white industrialized world is also the country where the president’s birth certificate (and therefore his very humanity) is the subject of litigation, vitriol, and unhealthy media punditry.
  

Friday, April 29, 2011

Readers’ Responses to Previous Articles

This week I am sharing a sample of the comments I received from readers of this column over the past few months. They are arranged in order of recency. Enjoy:

Re: Why Americans think Nigerians are rude


I read this article and have one example of how people view rudeness differently even within the same ethnic group. In Zamfara (and this is also typical of Sokoto) where I come from, it is OK to offer a handshake to an elderly person and he'll happily extend his hand for the handshake. But in Kano, you typically bow down to greet the elderly, and even respectfully resist shaking his hand even if he offers it. It will be considered rude to offer your hand to shake an elderly person.

Musab Muhammad
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You are a genius, Dr Kperogi. I like your invariably well researched, non-waffling and concise style of writing. I take pride in you as a fellow Nigerian. May God bless you!

Okechukwu Anene.
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Such a mature piece! You admitted, you corrected, and you accused all without losing your cool. I salute the temperament, which will sell the piece to whoever comes across it from whatever culture. Kudos!

Coker O. Ridwan
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Really, I am proud of you as a true ambassador of my country there in the United States. So many rude actions by the Americans are not usually pointed out, but at least you were able to let some out of the bag. God bless Africa. God bless Nigeria. God bless you.

Ojeifo Chrish D. Terry
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Commendation
I have always been impressed by your writings, more so your way with words. You have mastered English even to the admiration of native speakers. I read in one of your piece where you were required to sit for a fluency test but the Professor said even he could not speak better English than you.

Whenever I read you, I wonder whether you attended the same primary and secondary schools we went. But I doubt if you would send your daughter to any of the schools you attended.

I am not only commending you because you write (hopefully speak) English fluently, but because most, if not all, of your writings make a lot of sense to me. They are factual, engaging and quite revealing.

I wish you well.
Sanusi Maiwada
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Re: Now you can call me a doctor


Dear Dr Kperogi,

I have just finished reading your article in today’s Weekly Trust [March 5] and, even though you don't know me, I decided I should write to share in your joy. Congratulations on this huge achievement. I pray that Almighty Allah will continue to ensure you succeed in all that you do, and will continue to guide and guard you and your family..

Allah Ya kara daukaka. Ameen.
Kind regards, Hassan Usman
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This congratulatory message is coming from a fellow son of an Arabic and Islamic Studies teacher with a Diploma in Arabic (Allah bless his gentle soul). My daughter, Zainab, who was born the very day I defended my thesis in 2008, joins me in congratulating you on your achievement. Congratulations, Dr Kperogi!

Muhammad T. Muazu
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Re: Egypt’s Mubarak is gone, so what?


A well-written article but I beg to differ with you on Iran. The emancipatory effects only evaporated in the eyes of secularists (like your friends) of which there are thousands. Only alcoholics, prostitutes, homosexuals and their likes can feel suffocated and repressed because they are not condone by Shari'a. I can deduct from some of your write ups especially "Jos bombings: can we for once be truthful?" that you're tilting toward secularism, which always blames Islam for social ills and conflict. Those youths are children of those secularists.

Tijani Ahmed
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You just muddled up your today's article. Though I am not a regular reader of your articles but whenever I read them I always enjoy them except today. How can you condemn a revolution just like that? Do you realise the effort and sacrifice put in place in terms of human and material resources before a change could be brought about no matter how small? It’s uncommon sacrifice for somebody to change a system with his hands. The weakest is to change with the mind. This country, Nigeria, is doomed with people like you who do not see any difference between change and no-change molding the opinion of the citizens. How can you condemn the revolution in Egypt because of racial discrimination as if there is a place in the world where there is no isolated racial discrimination even your America or Nigeria?

Sadiq Halimat
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Wow! I enjoy write-ups that nudge me—whether I like it or not—to think. Thank you, Dr Farooq, for this beautiful piece.

Ibraheem Dooba
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Re: 10 most annoying Nigerian media English expressions


I read your column in Weekly Trust. You said it all in terms of our media not helping in the correct use of the English language.

Our leaders cannot express themselves grammatically. People cannot communicate with each other without conflict and good dialogue skills. Schools are dilapidated.  No educational  programmes like National Geographic or Discovery Channel are encouraged (lack of edutainment only entertainment). etc. SMS's have taken over good letter writing and we are so Americanized in our speech pattern even though we were colonized by the British. It's like no one proofreads again. 

Thank you for highlighting those ten facts. A personal one that I do not like is when someone is going and yet says "I am coming" while going. Have a nice day.
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Re: The grammar of titles and naming


I laughed when I finished reading your article. We Nigerians sure use lengthy titles.
When u said, “Dr. Mrs. Gloria Fulani,” in my mind I was saying  I am sure if she's a chief she would have included that. It’s just not grammatically wrong but we Nigerians seem to create our own English apart from the British and Americans. Allah kyauta. Hope all's well with you guys up there. Bissallam.

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I found your take on African names quite amusing. Your central thesis is that Africans do not have a concept of the “surname”. This is perhaps true for some Africans. I am Hausa and our concept of surname is geographical or occupational rather than ancestral. Thus we have Aminu Kano, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Attahiru Jega and Harira Kachia. We also have...Isa Maiwake, Ammani Mak’eri and Ladi Maituwo. There are thousands of respective Aminu Kanos, Ammani Mak’eris, Attahiru Jegas and Ladi Maituwos that are not even remotely related, except by geographical or occupational identity.

 Your argument is that when people are called by their fathers’ respective names, they lose their ancestral associations. That may also be true, but the question is so what?  I have nothing against the western concept of surname but I don’t think it is in anyway better than my concept of surname.

My name is Bature, and my father’s name is Dodo and so I am known as Bature Dodo. My cognate (same parents) brother is called D’anladi Kano (our home town).  While my eldest child is D’anjuma Bature, my brother’s eldest daughter is Hajara D’anladi.

You are probably of the opinion this is confusing (and even annoying) but I am of the opinion it shows some form of individualism and freedom of choice, values highly regarded in western culture. When you meet someone, let his or her nature and character determine your interpersonal relationship rather than some given ancestral affiliation that neither of you chose nor consented to. And please do not think I do not value or cherish blood relationship; I am merely stating the alternative and pointing out that it is not in any way inferior.

There is indeed a lot of good to learn from western culture, as there is a lot to learn from every culture, but the problem is our penchant for taking certain cultures, especially western culture too indiscriminately.

Bature Dodo

Friday, April 22, 2011

Is American English Bastardized (British) English?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Like other Nigerians, I was educated in British English—and taught to disdain American English as an inauthentic, debased form of (British) English. But is there any truth to this notion? The straightforward answer is no. As a matter of fact, in spite of appearances to the contrary, American English actually precedes contemporary British English. In other words, contemporary British English is worthier to be labeled “bastardized” English than American English is, as I will show shortly.

But, first, although Brits (and heirs of their linguistic tradition, such as Nigerians) cherish the thought that they are the custodians of the “original” English tongue, the idea that there is such a thing as “original” English as opposed to “bastardized” English is itself ahistorical at best and ignorant at worst. English, as most people know, has always been a mélange of several languages. In other words, it has been a lingual “bastard” from its very nascence.

The English language came forth when a vast multitude of West Germanic warriors called the Angles invaded what is today Britain in the 5th century. The Angles conquered and later commixed with an autochthonous population known as the Celts. Much later, other Germanic people, notably the Saxons and the Jutes, joined the Angles to further overwhelm the Celts. One of the consequences of these invasions and resettlements was that a language (which linguistic historians now call Old English) was born. It sprang forth from the linguistic alchemy of the tongues of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Celts. In this fusion, according to linguists, the Saxon dialect dominated and the indigenous Celtic language was marginalized. (The Celtic language, more popularly called Gaelic, has survived in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic with dialectal variations).

Two centuries later, another horde of northern Germanic warriors invaded what had by then become known as the Land of the Angles (which was later shortened to England) and brought to bear their own dialect in the lexis and structure of the emergent language. In the 11th century, people from northern France, called the Normans, invaded England, overthrew its Anglo-Saxon ruling class, and imposed French (or what some people call Anglo-Norman French) as the official language—for over 300 years. This historical fact radically altered the structure and vocabulary of English.

In the eighteenth century, the English (by now an ethnic and linguistic synthesis of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Celts, the French, etc.) embarked on imperial conquests in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and found themselves extensively borrowing words into their language from the several languages they encountered.

Numerous other influences were brought to bear on the language. For instance, many of the vocabularies we use in astronomy (nadir, summit, acme, zenith, etc.), mathematics (algebra, algorithm, zero, etc.), and other sciences are derived from Arabic. The modern vocabulary of scholarship and learning is almost entirely Latinate. And several common words we use in modern conversational English are borrowed from other languages.

According to one study, 29 percent of the vocabulary of modern English is derived from Latin. Another 29 percent is derived from French. Germanic languages (that is, the “original” tongue) account for only 26 percent. And 16 percent of English vocabulary is derived from a mishmash of other languages, notably Greek, Arabic, Hindi, Spanish, Italian, the Scandinavian languages, Hebrew, Yiddish, etc. (For the contribution of African languages to the modern vocabulary of the English language, see my previous article titled, “The African Origins of Common English Words”).

Now, a language that has borrowed this expansively from other languages (which has made the English language the most ecumenical language in the world) can’t legitimately lay claim to linguistic purity, although there are several misguided movements for Anglo-Saxon linguistic purism in Britain now. 

But let us, for the sake of argument, agree that there was indeed such a thing as the pure, pristine English language before its latter-day contamination by “horrible Americanisms” and by what George Orwell once called “exaggerated Latinisms.” Let us periodize this “pure” English from the mid-1550s to the early 1600s when what is called “modern English,” that is, the version of English we broadly speak today, emerged. This was the period during which the works of William Shakespeare, unarguably the greatest writer in the English language, appeared. It was also the time that the King James Bible, one of the most decisive influences in the current form and idiomatic universe of the English language, was published. This book’s supreme significance to the development and standardization of the English language is evidenced in the fact that it has contributed up to 257 idioms to the English language. No other single source rivals that feat. Not even Shakespeare’s prolific oeuvre.

Well, according to many linguistic historians, many of the distinctive features that differentiate American English from British English actually date back to early modern English. In their immensely influential book, American English: Dialects and Variation, Walt Wolfram and Natalie Shilling-Estes point out that, “Contrary to popular perceptions, the speech of the Jamestown colonists [i.e., the first English settlers in America in 1607] more closely resembled today’s American English than today’s standard British speech, since British English has undergone a number of innovations which did not spread to once remote America” (pg. 93).

For instance, during Shakespeare’s time, the most socially prestigious English speech had a rhotic accent. That is, speakers pronounced the letter “r” wherever it appeared in a word—like Americans do now. But contemporary British Received Pronunciation is now non-rhotic. Is that a “bastardization” of the language?
Similarly, many words and usage patterns that are now regarded as peculiarly American have actually been preserved from early modern English. A few examples will suffice: the American usage of the word “mad” to mean angry is faithful to how it was used in Shakespearean times. In contemporary British English, however, the word now chiefly means insane, mentally unhinged. That’s a British “bastardization.”

And “fall,” the American English word for the season when leaves fall from trees after the summer season, is more “authentic” than the British English “autumn.” In southeastern England, the cultural pacesetter of England from where the Jamestown colonists hailed, “fall” was the preferred term.

Many idiosyncratic syntactic structures in American English that contemporary British English speakers deride are also derived from early modern, Shakespearean English. For instance, such American past participles as “gotten” (as in: I have gotten my share of his troubles; British English: got), “proven” (as in: He has proven to be right; British English: proved), etc. are preserved from the “original.”

Similarly, in Shakespearean times “don’t” used to be the contraction of “does not,” NOT “do not.” This practice stopped only in the early 20th century. This sense is preserved, interestingly, in African-American vernacular speech (now fashionably called Ebonics) and in informal southern U.S English generally. When I first heard Michael Jackson sing, “it don’t matter if you’re black or white” in high school, it grated on my grammatical nerves, but that’s how people who spoke early modern English would have said it.

But the most important reason why American English is not a bastardization of the “authentic” English, ironically, is that only the American variety of the English language is continuing with English’s germinal “bastard” heritage. In more ways than any other variety, it is pushing the semantic and lexical frontiers of the language and enriching it in the process. Many international borrowings into the English language now come by way of American English, precisely because America is the world’s most racially and culturally diverse country.

Think about this: Can contemporary British speakers of the language—or any other speakers of the language for that matter— imagine speaking their language without these words: “OK,” “movie,” “radio,” “teenager,” “immigrant,” etc.? Well, those words are distinctively American and were once derided as “horrible Americanisms” by supercilious Britishers.

After all is said and done, linguistic nativism is a treacherous betrayal of the intrinsic hybridity of the English tongue. No variety of the language is authentic. All English is bastardized.



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, April 16, 2011

Why Americans Think Nigerians are Rude

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter:@farooqkperogi

I need to clarify two things before I proceed. First, not all Americans think Nigerians are rude. Heck, many, perhaps most, Americans can’t even tell Nigerians from other Africans. Second, what follows is only an extrapolation from my informal encounters.

In the past three or so years, many of my colleagues here have invited me to talk about Nigeria to their intercultural communication students. One question that some students in these classes have consistently asked me is: “why are Nigerians so rude?” Of course, the irony of the question itself—at least by Nigerian manners—is that it takes a thoroughly ill-bred and rude person to ask that kind of question in such a stark and direct manner, especially to a person who is a native of the country you’re asking about. I have never failed to point out that irony.

To be clear, no white American has ever asked me this; only African Americans have. This is probably because white Americans fear that asking such a direct, culturally loaded question could expose them to charges of racism. African Americans have no such inhibitions. However, I suspect that other Americans who have related with Nigerians have similar concerns.

To confirm this, I typed the phrase “Why are Nigerians…” on Google. The search engine automatically completed the sentence thus: “Why are Nigerians so rude?” There were 139,000 results for the query. This indicates that several people (probably both in and outside America) have searched the term on Google. So I think the question is worth mulling over.

The first thing to be said about this is that perceptions of rudeness and courtesy are mediated, for the most part, by cultural differences. Many Nigerians I know also consider Americans rude. But a Nigerian is unlikely to ask an American professor that he or she is meeting for the first time why Americans are rude. He or she would most probably frame the question differently. For one, almost all Nigerian cultures reserve a lot of respect for people on account of their age and learning. In contemporary American culture, on the other hand, the power distance between adults and younger people and between students and teachers is low.

One particularly recurring question I get asked by African-American married women is why Nigerian men ignore them; they consider it rude that Nigerian men would only talk to their husbands during formal and informal encounters. Well, most Nigerian cultures I’m familiar with (Nigeria has over 200 distinct cultural and linguistic groups) don’t encourage men getting chummy with other people’s wives, especially if they are not family friends. It is a culturally sanctioned safeguard against the possibility of unhealthy suspicions. Americans think this is just plain patriarchal arrogance. But people don’t choose their culture; they are born into it.

Another question I’ve constantly been asked is why Nigerians are so aggressive and brusque. First, you can’t essentialize these traits to an entire nationality, not least one that is made up of hundreds of subcultures. But Nigerian urban culture, I must admit, probably predisposes people to be perpetually on their guard and to be suspicious of the next person. We struggle, even fight, to board public transport (where it exists) and permanently compete for right of way when we drive on our roads—and curse when we think our right of way has been violated, since traffic regulations are poorly enforced. Not all Nigerians are like that, of course, but people who internalize this urban, mostly Lagos, culture often come across as aggressive and curt.

From an American perspective, though, perceptions of aggressiveness and discourtesy can take many more subtle forms.

I consider myself mild-mannered, but I had probably been thought of as aggressive here because I wasn’t aware of and therefore didn’t observe certain cultural codes of behavior. For instance, in American elevator (lift) manners, a man is supposed to allow ladies to get out first. I had no such cultural socialization in Nigeria. It was an American friend of mine who one day called my attention to the fact that my habit of getting off from elevators before ladies made me come across as discourteous and ungentlemanly. Given the advances of feminism in this society, I thought such chivalrous indulgences would be considered unacceptably patronizing to women.

Obviously, feminism hasn’t completely annihilated chivalry just yet. I also learned that when a man is walking with a woman on the sidewalk (what we call pavement in British English), he is supposed to stay on the side of the sidewalk that is close to vehicular traffic. I had never consciously observed this American politesse until a female colleague of mine called my attention to it a few years back. I’d thought that only children needed that kind of protection; I had been conditioned here to think that excessive courtesy toward women was chauvinistic.

Another American cultural ethos, which many first-time Nigerians in America flout is the practice of holding the door for people coming behind you. It’s a universal practice here, but it’s one that is easy to ignore if you’re not socialized into it. It’s considered bad form to let go of the door when someone or some people are behind you. And people for whom you hold the door are supposed to say “thank you”— and smile. Not observing that reciprocal courtesy is as culturally offensive as not holding the door. Many recent Nigerian immigrants don’t observe this arbitrary, idiosyncratic form of courtesy because it’s not part of their cultural repertoire, and so they come across as rude.

Another issue that riles Americans is that most non-Americans (this isn’t exclusive to Nigerians—thank God for small mercies!) don’t say “excuse me” when they walk past people from behind. I have read several Facebook status updates of my American friends complaining about “foreigners” who “can’t say ‘excuse me’ when they pass you by or bump into you.”

However, although many non-Americans don’t say “excuse me,” they hardly fail to say “hello” before they ask questions from strangers. Most Americans, at least from my experience, don’t do that. That is considered rude in many cultures.

In Nigeria, for instance, if a total stranger walks up to someone and begins to ask for directions without first saying hello, one of three things would happen. The Nigerian would first say hello to the stranger with an emphatic tone to remind him that it won’t hurt to be polite and say hello before asking for help. Or he would pointedly tell the stranger that it’s bad manners to request help without the courtesy of saying hello first. If he is in a bad mood, he would completely ignore the stranger.

So what I end up telling the students, which they ultimately agree with, is that Nigerians are rude only if you gaze at their manners from a cultural lens that is alien to them. That is the case, I must add, for every other nationality, including Americans. 

Related Articles:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Constructions of Africa in Young American Minds

By Farooq A. Kperogi


Two events, which I shall narrate shortly, inspire guarded optimism in me that the next generation of Americans may grow up with more favorable and balanced impressions of Africa than all the generations that preceded them.

My daughter is on spring break this week and I decided to take her to the Children’s Museum of Atlanta. It turned out that the Museum was (actually, still is) having an exhibit on West Africa titled, “From Here to Timbuktu: A Journey Through West Africa.” The exhibit, which started on February 5, 2011, will last till May 30, 2011. In the spirit of the exhibit, the entire museum is replete with West African historical and cultural artifacts. Except for the white kids running around in the museum, you would think you were in some West African country.

I found this pleasantly surprising. The exhibit isn’t merely a pictorial rendering of West Africa; it also transports children to a riveting visual and textual excursion into the rich histories, cultures, foods, customs, and geography of West African countries. The portrayal is neither overly romantic nor characterized by the customary simplistic, racist caricatures of Africa that we’ve grown used to here. It’s the most realistic portrayal of Africa I have seen anywhere in America since I’ve been here.

Going round the museum, kids are exposed to different parts of West Africa: the coastal rainforest belt, the Savanna grasslands, and the Sahel adjoining the Sahara Desert and extending to Timbuktu, the celebrated ancient center of learning that was also famous for its gold trade.

 The kids get to go on a pretended travel by camel, get on a simulated fishing boat to catch fish on a West African coast, and even experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the Apapa marketplace in Lagos! They also learn African dances, especially the "Djembe dance" of Niger, “live” in African houses, and partake in common activities that African children engage in. They end their exploration by “visiting” Timbuktu where they not only learn about the awe-inspiring history of this historic city (that is located in what is now the Republic of Mali) but also learn to write their names in Arabic and Tuareg, Timbuktu’s two major languages, and “send a postcard detailing their ‘travels’.”
Imagine it! The Children's Museum of Atlanta
All the children had boatloads of fun when we were there last Wednesday. But my daughter had even more fun than the rest. The exhibit heightened her self-esteem and deepened her sense of worth. I know this because she proudly told all the kids she met there that she was “African” and that the exhibit was about the place where she was born. Her “African credibility” instantly made her several friends at the museum. Although she now speaks English with a perfect American accent (when she chooses to), the American kids in the museum knew she was no black American. Her new friends asked her a torrent of questions about Africa, which she answered with infectious excitement and passion.

Interestingly, before coming to America, my daughter had no consciousness of an African identity. Although she’d learned about the “seven continents of the world” in kindergarten in Nigeria, she couldn’t relate to “Africa.” It didn’t make any sense to her. She only knew herself to be a Nigerian. But after only a few days in her new school here, she one day came home to ask me why her classmates called her “the African girl.” She wanted to know if being identified as such was demeaning. She wondered why she wasn’t called the “Nigerian girl.” She said she told her classmates that she was Nigerian, not African.

I spent a lot of time to explain to her the concept of continents— and of Africa. My job was made easier by several Africa-centered programs we watched on a popular children’s channel called Sprout. To my surprise, the hosts had an incredibly accurate portrait of the peoples and cultures of Africa, especially for kids.

My daughter began to take pride in and ownership of Africa when the host of an educational program, whom she adores tremendously, said, “you know, Africa is a cool and awesome place.” The adjectives “cool” and “awesome” have particularly strong resonance in American teen and preteen pop culture. This host’s praise of Africa did more to inspire pride in an African identity in her than my many days’ lectures. “Daddy, did you just hear what she said?” she asked me excitedly. “She said Africa is cool and awesome! Wooohooo!! We are from a place that is cool and awesome.” After that day, she began to wear her “African girl” appellation with swagger in school.

In all the educational children’s channels I’ve watched with my daughter, I am yet to come across any program about Africa that rehashed the familiar racist stereotypes I am used to seeing in adult television. So this week’s exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta was like the culmination of a pattern of balanced and fair-minded portrayal of Africa that I’ve started to take notice of in children's TV programming here.

Is America having second thoughts about its age-old negative depictions of Africa? If so, what is responsible for this? Could it be a spinoff of Barack Obama’s presidency? Or is this just a happy coincidence? Perhaps it is. After all, I started watching kids' movies and TV programs only eight months ago when my daughter joined me here. For all you know, there are racist, inaccurate portrayals of Africa and its people lurking somewhere in some kids' TV programming that I’m yet to see.

But I can’t help basking in the afterglow of the self-pride that radiates in my daughter each time Africa is mentioned here. America has made her a prouder African than I had ever imagined she would be. That was not what I’d prepared for.

Whatever it is, if the social sensitivity to non-dominant groups I see in contemporary American children's TV programming is actually a trend, it seems reasonable to project that the budding generation of Americans will be out and away more tolerant and broadminded than their parents. But I am probably being naïve.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Top 10 Words Nigerians Commonly Misspell

By Farooq A. Kperogi

English is a notoriously aphonetic language. That is, there is often a vast disconnect between its orthography (i.e., its method of representing sounds by written or printed symbols) and its sound system. No one captured this peculiarity more colorfully than George Bernard Shaw, one of England’s most imaginative writers of all time, who once quipped that it is entirely probable that the word “ghoti” could be pronounced “fish” if you followed some of English’s quirky spelling conventions, by which he meant “gh” could be “f” as it is in the word “tough,” “o” could be “i” as it is in the word “women,” and “ti” could be “sh” as it is in the word “nation.”

Although what follows is a list of common spelling errors in Nigerian written English, it needs to be pointed out that native speakers of the English language are just as awful with spellings as the rest of us non-native speakers of the language—if not more so. This fact is further proof of the sociolinguistic axiom that there are no native writers of any language, since writing is a deliberate, learned activity; there are only native speakers of languages because speech can be—and often is—acquired effortlessly. 


But English has got to be the most “misspelled language” in the world, and this is ironically demonstrated by the fact that even the word “misspell” is itself one of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language!


Other commonly misspelled words in the English-speaking (or should say English-writing) world are “truely” (instead of “truly"), “arguement” (instead of "argument"), “playright” (instead of “playwright”), “strenght” (instead of “strength”), "hypocrasy" (instead of "hypocrisy"), etc. With the advent of textese (i.e., the distinctive language and spelling conventions of cellphone text messages) English spelling is taking an even worse turn than previously thought. 


It was this realization that persuaded a university lecturer by the name of Ken Smith who teaches in Britain’s Bucks New University to suggest that we should begin to accept frequently misspelled words as legitimate variants. For starters, he says, we should admit the following frequent misspellings into the pantheon of English spelling variants: "ignor," [ignore] "occured," [occurred] "thier," [their] "truely," [truly] "speach," [speech] "twelth" [twelfth], “mispelt,” [misspelt], and “varient” [variant].


But it's easy to see that Smith’s suggestion is a recipe for orthographic anarchy. Plus, to dignify clear spelling errors as “variants” amounts to rewarding laziness and sloppiness  And, more importantly, where should it stop once it starts? Who gets to determine what deviations should be rewarded with admission into the pantheon of variants? Should non-native English speakers like Nigerians and Indians normalize their own spelling errors as legitimate variants as well?


 Well, I have identified below the 10 commonest misspellings I’ve encountered in Nigerian written English.


1. “Goodluck.” This is probably the most misspelled word in Nigeria today. The reason is obvious: it’s the first name of Nigeria’s current president, Goodluck Jonathan. But there is no word like “goodluck”--or, its other variant, badluck-- in the English language; there is only “good luck”--and "bad luck." Good luck denotes an auspicious state resulting from favorable outcomes, a stroke of luck, or an unexpected piece of good fortune. That someone would be named “Good Luck” (which has now been rendered “Goodluck” in error) is itself evidence of insufficient familiarity with the rules and idiomatic rhythm of the English language.


2.  “Defination.” There is no letter “a” in the spelling of that word. Replace the “a” with an “i” to have “definItion.” Related misspelled words are “definAtely” instead of “definitely,” “definAte,” instead of “definIte,” etc.


3. “Alot.” That is not an English word. The closest resemblance to that word in the English language is the phrase “a lot.” Since no one writes “alittle,” “afew,” “abit,” etc, it is indefensible that people write “alot.”  But this is a universal spelling error in the English-speaking world; it is not limited to Nigerians. Other cousins of this spelling error are “Infact” instead of “in fact” and “inspite” instead of “in spite.” 


4. “Loose/lose.” Many Nigerians use the word “loose” when they actually mean to write “lose.” Loose is commonly used as an adjective to denote the state of not being tight (as in: loose clothes). Other popular uses include the sense of being casual and unrestrained in sexual behavior (as in: loose women), lacking a sense of restraint or responsibility (as in: “Goodluck Jonathan’s loose tongue”). Although “loose” can sometimes be used as a verb, “loosen” is the preferred word to express the sense of making something less tight or strict. “Lose,” on the hand, is to cease to have, or to fail to win, or suffer the loss of a person through death, etc. A safe bet is to choose to err on the side of “lose” when you want to express an action. 


5. “Priviledge.”
There is no “d” in the spelling of that word. It’s spelled “privilege.” 


6. “Nonchallant.” It’s actually spelled with only one “l.” Unfortunately, even news reports in Nigerian newspapers habitually spell the word with double “l.” I wonder if they’ve disabled their spell check.


7. “Grammer.” There is no “e” in the word. Replace the pesky “e” with an “a” to have “grammAr.” I’ve read posts on Nigerian Internet discussion forums and on Facebook railing against “bad grammer”! Well, if you feel sufficiently concerned about bad grammar to write about it, you’d better damn well know how to spell grammar! To be fair, this misspelling isn’t exclusively Nigerian, but its regularity in popular writing in Nigeria qualifies it as a candidate for this list. The people I have a hard time forgiving are those who attend or attended secondary schools with “grammar school” as part of their names (such as my old secondary school, which is called Baptist Grammar School) but spell “grammar” with an “e.” I see that a lot on Facebook. Such people deserve to be stripped of the certificates they got from their high schools!


8. “Proffessor.” The name for the highest ranking position for a university academic (in British usage) and any full-time or part-time member of the teaching staff of a university (in American usage) is never spelled with double “f.” It’s correctly spelled “professor.” So if “proffessor” is wrong, “proff” is equally wrong. The British and Canadian colloquial abbreviation for “professor” is “prof.”


 9. “Pronounciation.”
Although the verb form of this word is “pronounce,” it changes to “pronunciation” when it nominalizes, that is, when it changes into a noun. Note that there is no “o” after the first “n” in the word. 


10. “Emanciated.” It should correctly be spelled “emaciated.”  There is no “n” in the word. This widespread spelling error in Nigerian written English is the direct result of the way we (mis)pronounce the word. An “n” sound almost always intrudes on our pronunciation of the word, much like it does in our pronunciation of “attorney,” so that most Nigerians say “antoni-general” of the federation. A related misspelling is “expantiate.” It should be “expatiate.” There is no “n” after the first “a.”
Related Articles:
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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
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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

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