"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: February 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Nigerian English as Excuse for Sloppy Scholarship

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I recently stumbled upon a cringe-inducing journal article on Nigerian English written by two University of Ilorin lecturers by the names of M.S. Abdullahi-Idiagbon and O.K. Olaniyi. It’s titled “Coinages in Nigerian English: A Sociolinguistic Perspective” and published in the 2011 (issue3) edition of the oddly named “Africa Nebula” journal.

In more ways than one, this article dramatizes the severity of the atrophy of serious scholarship in Nigerian universities. It is not only written in indefensibly poor grammar and ungainly prose, especially for people who earn a living teaching English usage in a leading Nigerian university, its main contribution to the scholarship on Nigeria English is depressingly and unforgivably ignorant.

The thrust of the article is that Nigerian English has spawned a multitude of coinages. While some of the coinages are situational and transitory, others have achieved idiomatic status. This is a trite and well-worn fact that has been exhaustively captured in the scholarly literature several decades ago. But the point at issue here is the examples it gives to instantiate the occurrence of “coinages” (that is, newly invented words) in Nigerian English.

 In what follows, I isolate only the most bizarre examples that the authors mentioned in their article as examples of Nigerian coinages. I show why these examples are not Nigerian coinages.

1. “No-go area.” This isn’t a Nigerian coinage by any stretch of the imagination; it is a British English expression that means an area that is dangerous or impossible to enter or to which entry is forbidden. All the authors needed to do to know this is do a simple dictionary search.

2. “Free and fair.” This is a well-established collocation in American English to describe elections that are adjudged to be free from manipulation. (A collocation is a group of words that habitually appears together in a sentence more often than would be expected by chance. Common English collocations are “heavy drinker,” “quick shower,” “commit suicide,” "spic and span," etc.) There is nothing remotely Nigerian about “free and fair.” It is infinitely mystifying that people who teach university-level English for a living would claim it’s a Nigerian coinage.

3. “Come of age.” This is a standard idiomatic expression in both American and British English. It means to reach a certain age that marks a transition to maturity. Margret Mead (1901-1978), a famous American anthropologist noted for her studies of adolescence and sexual behavior in Polynesian cultures, wrote a famous book titled, Coming of Age in Samoa. An African-American author and activist by the name of Anne Moody also wrote a well-received book about poverty and race in rural Mississippi titled, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Maybe they are both Nigerians!

4. “Moneybag.” This is a Standard English word. It means a person who possesses great material wealth. The only thing Nigerian about the word is the way it's spelled in Nigerian newspapers; Nigerians tend to write it as two separate words (i.e. “money bag”) while native varieties of English spell it as one word.

 5. “Juggernaut.” This word came to the English language in the 17th century from India. It originally meant "a huge wagon bearing an image of a Hindu god," which reputedly crushed its devotees to death under its wheels. From the 19th century, it began to be used metaphorically to describe any massive inexorable force that crushes everything in its way. It’s also used to describe crushingly destructive political movements that are led by a charismatic leader. When Nigerians describe politicians or political movements as juggernauts, or political juggernauts, they aren’t “coining” anything; they are merely continuing with—or in some cases expanding—a usage pattern that began in nineteenth-century England.

6. “Political heavyweights.” This is a standard expression in British and American conversational English. Its meaning is derived or extended from boxing. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines its extended meaning as “a person of influence or importance in a particular sphere.” And here is the example it gives of this usage: “a political heavyweight with national recognition.”  

7. “Overjoyed.” I was puzzled beyond words when the authors identified this word as a Nigerian coinage. They even took the trouble to isolate its usage in a Nigerian newspaper. Let me quote what they wrote: “The compound word, ‘over joyed’ was found on page 38 of ‘The Nation’ newspaper on the 19th of March, 2010. The word ‘Joy’ is supposed to be noun. The compound word was used as an adjective in the sentence – ‘the man was overjoyed…’  ‘Over joyed’ is a transfer of the sense in being very happy or joyous.” 

I didn’t make this up. That’s what they wrote--and it's only a representative sample of the poor quality of their writing and analysis. I am going to ignore the error-ridden, tortured prose and preposterous claims and simply say that there is an entry for “overjoyed” in all modern dictionaries. It means extremely happy.

8.  “Settlement.” Settlement is a financial terminology (among its several meanings) that means the completion of a transaction, e.g. delivery of goods by the seller and payment for the goods by the buyer. The word’s usage in Nigerian English to mean bribery is merely a humorous semantic extension or distortion, not a coinage. It extends— or distorts—the element of payment in the concept of settlement in legitimate business transactions.

9. “Kickback.” Kickback is not by a long shot a Nigerian English coinage. In all varieties of English, it means a commercial bribe paid by a seller to a purchasing agent in order to induce the agent to enter into the transaction. It also means a payment made to a person in a position of trust to pervert his judgment. In other words, it’s a synonym for bribe or payoff. All dictionaries have an entry for it.

10. “Step aside.” This is a standard idiom in American English. It literally means to move out of someone’s way. It is also used figuratively to mean retire from office so someone can take over. The British tend to prefer “step down” or "stand down" for this latter sense of the phrase. Although the phrase became a part of the active idiolect of Nigerians when former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida used it in a 1993 national broadcast to announce his retirement from the seat of power, it is by no means a Nigerian coinage.

11. “Cool down.” Again, this is a Standard English idiom that is sometimes used figuratively to denote loss of intensity, as in “his enthusiasm cooled down considerably.” It is beyond me why anyone would claim that this phrase is a Nigerian coinage.

12. “Allah”/ “emirate.” The authors claim that “the sources of these words are the Islamic religion and the Hausa – Fulani cultures respectively.” About “Allah,” they also wrote: “a word such as Allah, i.e., the Arabic language word for God is traceable to the Arabian nations and Northern Nigeria.” The ignorance in these statements is simply astounding!  First, Allah is an entirely Arabic word that didn’t come to the English language by way of northern Nigeria. The Hausa language also loaned it from Arabic.

 Second, “emirate” is the Anglicization of the Arabic word “amir,” which means ruler or chieftain or king or president or leader. The Hausa-Fulani adopted the term AFTER it has entered the English language, not the other way round. In fact, in the Hausa language, kings are called “sarki,” not “emir.”  You would think people who live in Ilorin would know this elementary fact!

What is just as outrageous as the appalling illiteracy of the article is the fact that it was supposed to have been peer-reviewed by experts in the field of Nigerian English before it was published. One of two things must be true: either the people who reviewed the article are just as hopelessly ill-informed as the authors or the journal in which it’s published isn’t the peer-reviewed journal it claims to be. 

But, well, what do you expect from a journal that goes by the name “nebula,” which means (among other negative significations) cloud, that is, darkness? In Latin, from where it originated, it literally means “mist.” In other words, it is a journal that displays intentional ignorance as a badge of honor!

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, February 25, 2012

African Americans and the Politics of “Model Minority”


By Farooq A. Kperogi

The discourse of “model minority” has been a central theme of America’s racial politics since the late 1960s. The term is used to refer to racial and ethnic minorities in America that have had remarkable educational attainment and economic prosperity in comparison to other minorities—in spite of their initial social and cultural disadvantages. 

Historically, it has been applied to Asian Americans, that is, immigrants from China, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. Much later, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent were added to the group. These groups are said to have a higher success in education, income, and social stability than the general U.S. population, especially America’s age-old minorities.

As it should be obvious by now, African Americans are the undeclared yet apparent targets of the model minority discourse. Its elevation to the center stage of America’s popular discourse is artfully designed to show that the educational and economic successes of recently arrived non-white immigrants in America is an indication that the relative educational and socio-economic backwardness of American blacks isn’t the consequence of centuries of systematic exclusion and the emotional toll it has taken on them but of congenital ineptitude or a culture of laziness. 

George Lowery of Cornell University points out that the celebration of the model minority status of Asian Americans “derives from the perception that Asian cultural values of hard work, family cohesion, self-sufficiency and a drive for success propelled recent immigrants into and beyond the American middle class within a generation or two.”

From 2007 onwards, African immigrants (whom Ali Mazrui once called “American Africans” to distinguish them from native-born “African Americans”) have emerged as the new, if officially unannounced, “model minority.” For evidence, see the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, which shows that African immigrants have surpassed Asian and white Americans in educational attainment. 

The breakdown shows that 48.9 percent of African immigrants (of whom Nigerians have an overwhelming numerical dominion) have a university degree, compared with 42.5 for Asian-Americans, 28.9 percent for European Americans, and 23.1 percent for the general U.S. population. (In an interesting parallel, London’s Daily Times noted in a January 23, 1994 article that “Black Africans have emerged as the most highly educated members of British society, surpassing even the Chinese as the most academically successful ethnic minority.”)

A 2009 study, which I republished on this page, also found that “among high school graduates, ‘immigrant blacks’ -- defined as those who immigrated to the United States or their children -- are significantly more likely than other black Americans to attend selective colleges. In fact, immigrant black Americans are more likely than white students to attend such colleges.”

So African immigrants have now supervened upon Asian Americans’ status as America’s model minority. This shift in the tenor of the model minority discourse (from exclusive association with Asian Americans to African immigrants) has activated interesting reactions from both white and black Americans.

White Americans (especially conservative white Americans) who hold a grudge with their black compatriots use this fact to reinforce their argument that the location of black Americans at the bottom of America’s educational and economic achievement ladder is the result not of racism but of black Americans’ compulsive indolence. 

News and discussions of the outstanding educational attainment of African immigrants has also inspired divisive commentaries from prominent African-American scholars such as Harvard law professor Lani Guinier who was quoted by the Boston Globe to have said, "I don't think, in the name of affirmative action, we should be admitting people because they look like us, but then they don't identify with us."

In other words, Guinier attributes the educational success of African immigrants not to merit but to their taking unfair advantage of the Affirmative Action, a policy that was designed to remedy the educational disadvantages that descendants of slaves have suffered through measures to improve their education opportunities—much like Nigeria’s “quota system.”

But there are also African-American commentators who take vicarious pride in the success of African immigrants here. For instance, Clarence Page, a popular and well-regarded African-American columnist for the Chicago Tribune, in a 2007 column on the issue, provocatively asked: “Do African immigrants make the smartest Americans?” He proceeded to answer his question by saying, “judging by statistics alone, you could find plenty of evidence to back it up.” He then lamented that “the traditional American narrative has rendered the high academic achievements of black immigrants from Africa… invisible, as if that were a taboo topic.”

Other black Americans use the high educational achievement of African immigrants as a basis to counter the arguments of their white compatriots who claim that African-American under-achievement is self-inflicted. They argue that had they not been held hostage by the psychological baggage of centuries of racial oppression they would just have been as successful as their African brothers and sisters. In other words, the fact that blacks from outside America have even outrivaled white Americans in educational achievement shows that their own comparative backwardness isn’t genetic or racial; it’s an involuntary capitulation to the psychological damage of being born in a society that has historically weighed them down on account of their race.

I can relate to that argument, although I admit that it is becoming tired and self-limiting. I’ve always told people here that given what I’ve seen of the portrayal of black males in American pop culture, I would probably never have been a PhD if I were born and brought up here. 

The black male is invariably stereotyped as a violent, angry, good-for-nothing criminal. Psychologists often talk of self-fulfilling stereotyping encapsulated especially in the concept of the "stereotype threat," which American eugenicist Arthur Jensen propounded to suggest that people who feel stereotyped, or who have been stereotyped all their lives, tend to act according to that stereotype, or inadvertently authorize it, often in spite of themselves. 

That was why although Malcolm X was the best student in his all-white junior high school, he dropped out of school and became a criminal for a while because his white teacher told him his ambition to become a lawyer was unrealistic “for a nigger.”

But most importantly, the discourses on model minority obscure a crucial fact: immigrants to any country are a self-selected group who are not always representative of the populations from which they emerge. They tend to be highly motivated, self-driven, and obsessed with success in more ways than the host population or the population from where they emigrated. 

Plus, most African and Asian immigrants to America come here first in search of educational opportunities before they transition to the workforce. They must first take rigorous entry exams (such as the Test of English as a Second Language, the General Record Exam, The Scholastic Aptitude Test, etc.) and get high grades before they are considered for admission and visa issuance. 

It is therefore predictable that they will be more educated than the general population. They are also likely to transfer the work ethic that to brought them to America to their children. But, more often than not, by the third or fourth generation, their descendants will fully assimilate and become indistinguishable from the general population.

That’s why I think the model minority discourse is odious. 

Related Articles:

 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Q and A on African English and Common Usage Errors

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This week’s Q and A is based on questions and comments I received from a Kenyan and two Nigerian readers of this column. I will publish the rest in the coming weeks. Keep sending your questions.

Question:
Many of the examples you give English usage errors are also found in other African countries. One common English expression in Kenya that always drives me crazy is: "he resulted to" instead of "he resorted to." What do you think of the expression "he painted him to a corner?" This expression drives me crazy, too. It is quite common in Kenyan English.

Answer:
I have been thinking of doing an exploratory comparative analysis of “African Englishes.” But the thought of the sheer labyrinthine complexity such an undertaking would entail frightens me into impotence. You are now giving me the inspiration to summon the pluck to do it.

But these are my preliminary thoughts on your comments: It seems to me that we can isolate and map African Englishes and show their similarities, differences, and continuities. The varieties of English spoken in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania seem to share enough similarities to warrant being grouped as "East African English." The English spoken in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia has traditionally been labeled "West African English" in the scholarly literature.

 For historical reasons, Nigerian English and Ghanaian English are particularly sufficiently proximate in lexis and structure to deserve being called close linguistic cousins. Many, perhaps most, of Ghana's high school English teachers in the 1960s were Nigerians, and most of Nigeria's high school English teachers in the 1970s and the 1980s were Ghanaians. (For instance, most of my English teachers in the first two years of my high school education in Nigeria were Ghanaians). So it's easy to see why the varieties of English spoken in the two countries are robustly similar. Liberian English, because of its American heritage, is a West African outlier, although it has had a lot of Nigerian influence lately. 

Now Nigerian home movies appear to be spreading Nigerian English across West Africa, perhaps across all of Anglophone Africa. 

I know very little about Southern African English, i.e., the English spoken in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, etc. But I expect them to share many similarities.

I find your examples of Kenyan English usage interesting. Some of my British grammarian friends tell me that the "result to/resort to" error is also present in British English. I have also encountered it a number of times in Nigerian newspapers. So it's not uniquely Kenyan. But it is completely absent in American English, as far as I know, because Americans roll their r's [“resort” is pronounced “resoRt”] and so don't have a reason to confuse "resort" with "result."

To "paint oneself or somebody into a corner," that is, to put oneself or somebody in a difficult situation, is a time-honored American English idiom. So the expression "he painted him into a corner" is legitimate. Kenyan English only missed the preposition "in" in their version of the idiom.

Question/Comment:
There are many annoying, obviously grammatically wrong expressions that Nigerians keep repeating. A good example is the phrase “media practitioners.” For goodness sake, how can one practice media?

Answer

"Media practitioner" is a perfectly legitimate and correct expression. The phrase is also widely used in British and American English. I am aware, of course, that some language columnists in Nigerian newspapers say it’s wrong. But they are mistaken. They are guilty of the grammatical offense of “hypercorrection,” that is, a grammatical mistake caused by a false analogy. As I am writing this, there is a book on my shelf titled
Applied Mass Communication Theory: A Guide for Media Practitioners. It is written by two respected American professors of journalism and mass communication by the names of Jack Rosenberry and Lauren Vicker and it was published in 2008 by Allyn & Bacon, a well-regarded American publishing company. So, yes, one can practice media.

      Question:
Please Dr., I’ve these problems that keep recurring in my everyday written and spoken English and I don’t know how to overcome them. The problems are when and how to use “has,” “have,” and “had.” The second is the difference between “been” and “being.” To be honest, I tried the best I could but to no avail.

Answer:
Here is a quick, easily digestible answer to your questions. "Have" is a verb that always goes with plural nouns. Examples: “People HAVE been here," "Ten people HAVE asked me the same question," "Many things HAVE happened today," etc. But there are exceptions: "Have" also goes with "You" and "I" even if "you" is used in a singular sense. Examples: "I HAVE a nice car," "You HAVE been nice to me," etc.

"Have" is also the only acceptable form to use after auxiliary verbs like "shall/should," "can/could," "will/would" even when the subject of a sentence is singular. Examples: "It should HAVE been here by now," He could HAVE gone there," "She would HAVE to come here," etc.

"Has," on the other hand, is always used with singular nouns. It is the opposite, or more correctly the singular form, of "have." Examples: "He HAS been here," "one person HAS asked me the same question," "one thing HAS happened today," etc.

"Had" is the past tense of both “has" and "have."

The best way to know the difference between "been" and "being" is to remember that "been" ONLY appears where the verbs "have," "has," "had," and “having” are in a sentence. If none of these words is in a sentence, use only "being." Examples: "He has been nice to me." Compare to: "He is being nice to me."

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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