"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on Nigerian English and Old English Expressions Frozen in Modern English

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Q and A on Nigerian English and Old English Expressions Frozen in Modern English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


I have resumed my Q and A series after a long hiatus. Questions that are not answered in this edition will be answered in subsequent editions. By all means keep the questions coming, but understand that my responses may be delayed.


Question:
If I saw a group of elderly men in the morning and I want to show them respect by attaching “sir” in my greetings to them, can I say “good morning sirs”? In other words, is there a plural for “sir”?

Answer:
The normative tradition is to use “gentlemen” as the plural form of "sir." I personally have never heard native speakers use “sirs” in oral salutations. Although some dictionaries have an entry for "sirs," the plural form of “sir” is used mostly for formal letters to companies, not as a form of polite address to individuals. What I’ve heard native speakers say in the context you described is “good morning gentlemen,” but I can see how that could sound awkward, even impudent, in a Nigerian cultural context. If you want to stay close to the tradition of native English speakers, use "gentlemen" as the plural of "sir" in greetings, but you’re probably better off saying “sirs” in Nigeria.

Question:
In Nigerian English we often say “I’m pressed.” Is that Standard English? Would an American or a Briton understand me when I say “I am pressed”?

Answer:
Nigerians say “I am pressed” to indicate that they have an urgent urge to urinate or defecate, as in: “Please I am pressed. Where is your toilet?” Well, that’s not standard usage. It’s uniquely Nigerian. What native speakers, especially Americans, say is “I REALLY need to go to the bathroom!” So tough luck to you if you really need to go to the bathroom (or the loo/water closet in Britain) and you said “I’m pressed”! They would probably say to you: “pressed for what?” or “pressed by what?” A scatological tragedy would probably occur in the process of the semantic negotiations.

When native English speakers use the expression “I am pressed,” they usually use it to mean that they are under (social, cultural, etc.) pressure such as in the popular biblical expression “I am pressed but not crushed.” Similarly, when native speakers say they are “pressed for time” they mean they are in a hurry.

There is nothing in the expression “I’m pressed” that even remotely connects it with scatological activities. I honestly can’t wrap my mind around the origin of the expression in Nigerian English. I searched the corpus of archaic British English, which is a great source of Nigerian English, but the expression never came up.

Question:
The expression “as at when due” is used widely in Nigerian English. One day I got curious and Googled it. I discovered that it appeared only on Nigerian websites. Is it nonstandard?

Answer:
It is technically not nonstandard, but it’s the grotesque corruption of a standard English expression, which goes: “as and when due.” It’s basically a combination of “as due” on the one hand and “when due” on the other. “As at when due” is totally senseless.

Question:
Our dear Dr. Farooq, thanks for tutoring us for free. May Allah in his infinite mercy reward you. Please is the word "fora" actually the plural form of "forum"? If it is why is the word FORA not found in Oxford Advance Learners Dictionary ? Could I use the word FORUMS instead ?

Answer:
Fora is the Latin plural for forum. Many dictionaries Anglicize the plural to forums. The Oxford English Dictionary has this to say on the difference between forum and fora:The plural of forum is usually spelled forums; the plural fora (as in the original Latin) is chiefly used when talking about a public square in an ancient Roman city.”

Grammarians often argue interminably about whether to retain the original plural forms of (Latin) loanwords or Anglicize them. Another word that comes up frequently in this kind of controversy is syllabus. Is the word’s plural form “syllabi” or “syllabuses”? In my department, we prefer "syllabi" to "syllabuses," but other people, especially advocates for the structural domestication (or Anglicization) of English loanwords, prefer "syllabuses." On issues like this, there is no right or wrong answer. It’s mostly a question of stylistic choice.

Question:
Please help me (or us) out! I must say I am one among the millions of beneficiaries of your grammar clinic's diagnoses. I had a fierce argument with a friend as to the grammatical correctness of the expression "I am come." He argued that saying ''I am come'' is the same thing as saying ''I have come.''

Answer:
Well, “I am come” was correct in Old English and Early Modern English, that is, English spoken from about the 1100s to the 1500s. But it is not correct in modern English, that is, English spoken from Shakespeare's time to now. I am not sure my readers are interested in the technical explanation of why it was correct in Old English but wrong in modern English. I will only say that comparative linguists often point out that the expression “I am come” follows the structural pattern of most Germanic languages. (If you didn’t know, English is a Germanic language). Over the years, however, English departed from the structural norm of its linguistic ancestor, perhaps because of the multiple structural influences on the language from outside.

Although I won’t encourage you to use “I am come” today, it is legitimate to use the expression in modern writing to represent the speech of archaic times.  English translations of the Bible—and other historic texts—also use the expression. For instance, Luke Chapter 12 verse 49 of the King James Bible says, among other things, "I am come to send fire on the earth….”

Question:
Which of these two expressions is correct: “full well” or “fully well”? A graduate of English told me “full well” is the correct expression. Why not “fully well”?

Answer:
The standard expression is “full well.” But note that the expression is only a surviving linguistic remnant of early Modern English in contemporary English. That means outside of the expression “full well,” “full” can’t be used as an adverb. For instance, it would be wrong to say “he was full loaded.” That should correctly be “he was fully loaded.” Why is this so?

Before and during Shakespeare’s time, people used “full” as an intensifying adverb almost the same way we use “really” today.  For instance, in Henry VIII, Shakespeare wrote: “Anger is like a full hot horse.” A modern writer would write this sentence as “Anger is like a really hot horse.”

But the sense of “full” as an intensifier in the class of “really” has survived only in a few fixed expressions like “(know) full well,” the Shakespearean phrase “full fathom five,” and in the phrase “full many a...” (such as in the sentence “full many a glorious morning I have seen”).

So in idiomatic English “full well” is more acceptable than “fully well.” But many people now just say “you know really well” or simply “you know” unless they want to show off their esoteric erudition and mastery of idiomatic English.

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