By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
On July 18, Nigerian First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan famously said Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi was her “son” against whom she harbored no ill-will. “Amaechi is my son. I cannot fight him and I cannot kill him. He shouldn’t be used by outsiders against his own blood because this seat is vanity,” she said.
As soon as the statement became public, the hypercritical Nigerian social media commentariat erupted in boisterously earsplitting cyber guffaws over what is thought to be yet another addition to Dame Patience’s long list of entertainingly uproarious grammatical boo-boos that I once characterized as “Patiencisms.”
Since the First Lady is only 7 years older than Governor Amaechi and is not a member of his Ikwerre ethnic group, much less his “his own blood,” Nigerians have tauntingly branded the First Lady a Lazarus Child Mothering Earthly Jesus Christ. (She is teasingly called “Lazarus” because she once claimed that she had died and resurrected in a German hospital—like Lazarus in the Bible. She is called a “child mother” because, it is said, if she is Governor Amaechi’s mother, she must have "had" him at 7, and she is mockingly called Jesus Christ because a renegade member of the Rivers State House of Assembly recently described her as his “Jesus Christ on earth”).
Nevertheless, although the First Lady is a ruthless butcher of the English tongue, let’s cut her some slack here. When she called Governor Amaechi her “son” and her “own blood,” she was deploying what anthropologists call fictive kinship terminologies to describe her putative relationship with Governor Amaechi. Unlike in the West where kinship is traced primarily through blood ties, marriage, and adoption, most African (and other non-Western) societies democratize notions of kinship to include social, cultural, ethnic, communal and even national ties.
In America, every Nigerian is my “brother” or “sister” or “uncle” or “aunt.” In Abuja or Lagos, every Kwara State citizen is my “relation,” and in Ilorin every Baatonu person is my “own blood.” I know of no Nigerian who doesn’t extend the semantic boundaries of English kinship terms in the way Dame Patience did—and that I just did. For instance, Northern Elders Forum spokesman Professor Ango Abdullahiin, in a July 17 interview with the Sun. described the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua as his “younger brother.” Of course, they are no blood relations.
I have identified below a few popular Nigeria-centric re-encodings of English kinship terminologies:
1. Cousin brother/cousin sister. Someone once asked me if the terms “cousin brother” and “cousin sister” were proper English. The following was my response: “‘Cousin brother/sister’ is clearly nonstandard. People are either your cousins or your brothers/sisters. They can’t be both—at least in Standard English. I think the basis for the expression in Nigerian English derives from the fact that we do not have equivalent lexical items for ‘cousin’ in most of our native languages. People are either our brothers or our sisters.
"The traditional African family structure places a lot of emphasis on cementing extended familial relationships. The farther away a familial relationship is, the more the need to nurture and bridge it through friendly, fraternal linguistic markers, such as the use of ‘brother,’ ‘sister,’ ‘uncle,’ etc. to address people who may be our—or our parents’—42nd cousins. There is a surviving linguistic relic of this culture in black America where every black man is a ‘brother’ and every black woman is a ‘sister” even when there is no blood relationship between the people who call each other brothers and sisters.
“For many Nigerians, nay Africans, the term ‘cousin’ imposes a genealogical distance in extended families. So ‘cousin brother’ or ‘cousin sister’ is improvised as a linguistic compromise that acknowledges a strange native English naming practice but that retains an African cultural singularity. It’s linguistic creativity at its finest.”
I have since discovered that “cousin brother/sister” isn’t original to Nigerian English. Indian English (which includes the English spoken and written in Pakistan and Bangladesh) invented the term much earlier than Nigerian English, but I haven’t seen any evidence that Nigerian English borrowed it from Indian English. It could very well have emerged independently in Nigerian English. Or it is possible that it was introduced into Nigerian English by the legion of Indian teachers who came to (northern) Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s.
As someone pointed out to me late last year when I first wrote about “cousin brother/cousin sister,” the addition of “brother” and “sister” after “cousin also helps to create gender clarity for non-native English speakers since cousin is non-gendered in Standard English.
2. Aunty. In Nigerian English “aunty” functions as an honorific title often prefixed to the name of any older female. The word has been so effectively vernacularized in the Yoruba language that when I was a little boy I used to think it was the Yoruba word for “sister.” Increasingly, female teachers in elementary schools are also called “Aunty” by their students. It’s either used as a standalone title or as a prefix to names. Native speakers use aunty only to refer to the sister of one’s father or mother or the wife of one’s uncle.
3. Uncle. In Nigeria, like in many other non-Western cultures, uncle isn’t merely the brother of one’s father or mother or the husband of one’s aunt; it is used to denote any older male who may not necessarily be a blood relation. That’s true of Black English in Southern United States, too. Children call older male family friends “uncle.” I haven’t noticed this among white Americans, although “uncle” is also used in Standard English in a non-familial sense to mean a person who offers help, advice, and encouragement.
4. Nephew and niece. From my informal observation, these terms don’t enjoy wide currency in everyday Nigerian English because they have no equivalents in most of our native languages. As a result, they seem distant. They erect a needless relational wedge between extended family members. Although the terms achieve semantic precision, it requires a conscious cognitive transference to make sense of them in a Nigerian cultural context. People more readily relate to “my brother’s/sister’s son” or my “my sister’s/brother’s daughter” than “my nephew” or “my niece.” In a majority of cases, people call their nephews their “sons” and their nieces their “daughters.”
5. Father and mother. These terms are not limited to one’s biological parents. The Western uncle and aunt may be called “father” and “mother” in many Nigerian cultures. “Daddy” can be a completely non-biological relational construct. For instance, big-name Pentecostal pastors in Nigeria are called “Daddy.” Older women that one respects can be called “mummy” even if they are not one’s blood relation. It is a step higher in intimacy and deference than “aunty.”
5. Grandfather/grandmother. When I introduced my dad’s younger brother to my daughter and said he was her “grandfather,” she said, “No, he’s my great-uncle.” She is right--but only in Standard English. I told her in Nigeria we call our granduncles (also called great-uncles) and our grandaunts our grandparents.
6. In-law. Unlike in native-speaker English where in-law means only the blood relatives of one’s wife or husband, Nigerian English speakers extend the meaning of the term to sometimes include the townspeople or even ethnic group members of one’s spouse.
7. My son/my daughter/my children. These terms are sometimes used by people to refer to children with whom they have no familial relation. “How are my children?” is a common greeting by Nigerian adults who want to ask after people’s children. I guess it sprouts from the African notion that it takes a village to raise a child.
8. Wife/husband. In many Nigerian cultures (Yoruba culture being a prominent example), a wife isn’t just a man’s partner in a marriage. Nor is a husband merely the male partner in a marriage. A woman may also informally address her husband’s younger or older brothers or male cousins as her “husband” and vice versa. It gets weirder still: in Yorubaland, women call their husband’s sisters their “husband.” In some Nigerian cultures, grandfathers jocularly call their granddaughters their “wives” and grandmothers jocularly call their grandsons their “husbands.”
9. Half-brother/sister. Notions of half siblings (half-brother/ and half-sister) are not lexicalized in many Nigerian languages. This makes sense since even cousins are called brothers and sisters—or, more commonly, “cousin brothers” and “cousin sisters.”