"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 05/08/11

Sunday, May 8, 2011

When is “Nigerian English” Legitimate?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In my last week’s article titled “Top election-related grammatical errors in Nigerian English,” I identified eight persistent grammatical errors I’ve observed in Nigerian media reportage of the recent elections. One of my Nigerian friends who is an associate professor of English (literature) at a Canadian university took issues with my criticism of the term “guber” and its various annoying collocational cohorts such as “guber polls,” “guber results,” “guber candidates,” etc.

“I disagree strongly with your description of number two as an error,” he wrote. “Why should you see ‘guber’ as an error just because our American friends don't use it the way we do? That Americans don't have a short form for gubernatorial does not mean that Nigerians can't invent one. I think we should leave this one as: ‘guber’ has a different meaning in Nigeria.”

This seems like a reasonable argument on the surface. But the point of my intervention was to point out deviations from Standard English usage conventions in Nigerian media English, which invariably percolates to the general public. It was not to identify dialectal variations in word usage in the English language.

In Nigeria, our relationship with the English language is, for the most part, two-fold. First, it gives us a common language to communicate with each other in our linguistically diverse federation. Inevitably, the English we speak reflects and is inflected by our local peculiarities. So we have a version of English which, though not (yet) purposively standardized, we can legitimately call "ours" and which speakers of other varieties of English must learn in order to understand us.

Our second relationship to the English language is that it connects us to the larger English-speaking world; it's our medium for international communication and interaction. This fact becomes even more salient in light of the collapse of the age-old barriers of time and space brought about by the Internet. For the purposes of international communication and interaction, our version of the English language has limited utility.

So we need to constantly balance and artfully navigate this relational dynamic. That means that while we can—and indeed should—occasionally manipulate the English language to compel it to show sensitivity to our socio-linguistic idiosyncrasies, we should be careful not to linguistically ghettoize ourselves to the point of impeding international communication in English. If out of vain nationalist fervor we so radically deviate from the standard norms of English usage that we push ourselves to the margins, to the linguistic ghetto, we will be subverting the advantages that our second relationship with the English language confers on us.

In other words, we need to have "bi-dialectal" competence in the English language. That means we should simultaneously master the “standard” variety of the language and have the capacity to not only know but be conscious of the limitations and boundaries of our version of the language. This arms us with the skill to code-switch between “Nigerian English” and Standard English as our circumstances demand.

I have written about and defended Nigerian linguistic creativity. (See, for instance, my article, "In defense of 'Flashing' and other Nigerianisms," ). But I've always insisted that linguistic creativity is defensible only in situations where the existing lexical and idiomatic offerings in the English language are insufficient to capture our unique socio-cultural thoughts. All other "inventions" (if they can be so called), at least in the context of international communication, amount to needless linguistic ghettoization. (I use “ghettoization” here to mean self-segregation from the mainstream of English usage norms; a ghetto, as most people know, is a segregated, economically depressed quarter of a city that is often the object of bias or stereotyping).

From my point of view, the Nigerian media English term “guber” falls in the category of needless linguistic ghettoization. The word was invented not by popular or even elite Nigerian linguistic creativity (because no occasion calls for it) but by newspaper copy editors desirous of shortening the word “gubernatorial” in order to fit headline space. I know how that works because I was once a news editor. I can almost bet my bottom dollar (if you would forgive the Americanism) that the word “guber” was first used by ThisDay, which has become something of a trendsetter in Nigerian journalism in the past few years.

 But "gov," the standard abbreviation for "governor," "governorship," and "government" in all varieties of English, could easily replace "guber" since "governorship" is, in fact, the more usual word than "gubernatorial" even in American English. Plus, "gov" actually saves more space than "guber."

So the invention of "guber" is the product both of intellectual laziness and lack of imagination. I think I owe it to my readers to let them know that the rest of the English-speaking world does not share our meaning of "guber," so that they won't be shocked if non-Nigerians stare at them blankly when they talk about "guber polls."

Many older, well-educated Nigerians will never have to deal with this because they are unlikely to say "guber polls," etc when they communicate with non-Nigerians (since the word never even existed in our Second Republic political vocabulary). But others, especially young people who are coming of age in this tortuous republic, need to know the semantic limitations of that annoying word, which means facial pimple in American English.

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

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