"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: August 2013

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Re: “Is Nigeria the Name of a City?”

As always, many readers had plenty of thoughtful insights to share with me in response to last week’s column. I am taking the liberty, as is my wont, to share these with other readers. Enjoy:

Your write-up on the above subject matter is quite revealing about the disconnect between formal education and knowledge. It is quite ironic that African Americans, most of whose not-so-distant ancestors were victims of the largest forced migration in human history, would care to know so little about their roots. I had a very similar experience in 2000/2001 when I was a Fulbright Graduate Visiting Researcher at NC State University, Raleigh. In an article about Africa in an edition of "The Technician", a daily campus newspaper published by the Students Union of that university, the author made several references to 'the country of Africa'. I thought it was an error when I read the first sentence describing Africa as a country but, reading through it, I saw several other references and painfully concluded that it was indeed based on crass ignorance. To say the least, I was intellectually shocked. "Culture Shock" can indeed manifest in a multiplicity of ways!  Immediately, I sent an elaborate email to the editor, educating the readers that 'Africa is not a country'.

 As soon as it was published, a female Professor of Anthropology whose office was very close to mine in the 1911 Faculty Building explained apologetically to me, exhibiting visible signs of embarrassment, that the students just won't heed to her counsel to strive to expand their horizon of knowledge. But as your recent encounter shows, it is not just the problem of some academically lazy students. America is the home of books, the home of universities and indeed the cradle of the Internet. Yet, unfortunately, it is evident that an information-dominated society doesn't necessarily lead to an informed citizenry. It is an enduring lesson for all those who are truly committed caravans in quest of knowledge.
Dr. Abba Gana Shettima, Department of Sociology, University of Maiduguri

Let me strongly corroborate your experience, for I know it might sound far-fetched to some Nigerian readers who have never had such mystifying encounters. Where I live, Jalandhar, though a remotely urban area in the state of Punjab (India), meeting people who do not have an inkling of a country called Nigeria is the order of the day. Not only that, many more do not know of a continent named Africa. However, some others know, or rather take, every Black person to have originated from South Africa, a country which Mahatma Gandhi, the foremost Indian nationalist, lived at, and, again, the country which their most favourite national cricket team has had matches with. Only a pocket of them know other black countries—maybe in Africa—like Kenya, Zimbabwe and probably a few others due to, still, the same game (cricket) alone. The percentage of those who know Nigeria as a country is extremely minimal, I tell you. Thus, I can’t agree more with this week’s column.
Muhsin Ibrahim, Jalandhar, India

Let me tell you a similar story I heard in the early 1990s. My colleague was in the US and, in the course of a discussion with some Americans, one of them asked him if Nigeria was an area in Nairobi! For months on end we cracked jokes over this. I did not bother to ask if the person was white or African-American, because both are basically Americans, born and bred in a closed society where, I heard, no radio with a short wave band is ever found, let alone be used by anyone. The Western propaganda of yore spread all over the world was that the people of Communist countries like China and Russia were ignorant of other parts of the world because they were closed societies. Now we know better.
A.    Mohammed (aumo21@yahoo.com)

This reminds me of Mark Twain's famous quote: "Don't Let Your Schooling Get In the Way of Your Education." I am shaking my damned head at the shocking bathos of an obviously very learned woman. After reading your forensic piece of exposition, I am ready to forgive rapper Ross; he is not in the business of instructing the world, like the woman journalism professor. I wonder what sort of knowledge she imparts in her students.  How did she obtain her degrees?
 I hope you were kind enough to send her a link or a copy of your article. It is an unforgivable faux pas for a professional in her position to expose such a shocking dearth of knowledge, especially in a circuit of highly learned colleagues in academia.

I know you're being kind, but that woman should not remain nameless. She is spreading her brand of naiveté amongst the unfortunate students who're drinking from her "font of knowledge" - which in light of the current revelations seems like a blight of ignorance, for she's clearly out of her depth in academia. She may be literate, but she is clearly half-baked. What a pity. I hope her university is aware they have an impostor professor in their midst.
Duchess Samira Edi, London

That is how it is here in America. It happened to me, too. In 2006, at the height of the Niger Delta criminality, a professor of International Business asked me:  "Does Nigeria share a border with Bangladesh?" I just shook my head and answered him in the affirmative. Why? Because I know that every professor in Nigeria knows that Chicago, Miami, Houston, etc. are cities in America.  Why, for God’s sake, can’t an American professor of International Business know where Nigeria is located? At that time Nigeria was the 6th largest supplier of crude oil to the US).
Itte Itte (ittektn@gmail.com)

I feel relieved that my "…depth of incuriousness…,” which has continued to infuriate me, is completely dwarfed by this incredible event! While most of us are guilty, at various levels, I salute her courage for asking. Most of us might not at such fora, thereby continuing with the ignorant facade of being educated. Better late than never, right?

Abdullahi Bello Umar (MD/CEO, Kaduna Industrial and Finance Company Ltd.)

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

“Is Nigeria the Name of a City?”

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph,D.

I didn’t think the “Africa-is-a-country” ignorance that pervades America—and Europe—could get any more bizarre than African-American rap artist Rick Ross’s infamous June 24, 2013 tweet that he had “Just landed in the beautiful country of Africa.” But it did. Sadly.
Rapper Rick Ross

A few days ago, an African-American lady, who is a professor of journalism at an American university, asked me if Nigeria was the name of a city in Africa! I kid you not. If you think I’m making this up, you would be forgiven. I, too, would never believe this if someone told me.

The lady was a participant at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Washington DC on August 8 where I presented a paper on what I called a public sphere history of Nigerian journalism. (AEJMC is America’s oldest and most prestigious professional association for journalism and mass communication scholars).

After making admittedly thoughtful remarks on my paper, the lady said she wanted me to clarify a point I made in my paper about the Nigerian newspaper tradition being older than Nigeria itself. Although I clearly explained that in my paper, which she obviously read given her detailed familiarity with its content, I went ahead and restated that Iwe Irohin fun awon Egba ati Yoruba (meaning newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba people), the newspaper that is the progenitor of contemporary Nigerian newspapers, was established in 1859, while Nigeria wasn’t formally colonized by Britain until January 1, 1901. That means, I pointed out, the newspaper tradition is more than a quarter of a century older than Nigeria. Many Nigerian media historians have made the same point in the past. So I wasn’t saying anything earth-shattering.

But her next question threw me off completely.

“So is Nigeria the name of a city in Africa?” she asked.

I thought she was cracking a joke at the expense of rapper Rick Ross whose tweet about landing “in the beautiful country of Africa” has been the butt of ridicule, wisecracks, and digs on cyber space. So instead of answering her, I let out a polite laughter.

“Why is that funny? I just wanted to know what Nigeria is. Is that the name of a city?” she insisted.

Her sober, deadpan demeanor told me she was dead serious. So I told her Nigeria is the name of a country in West Africa, and that it’s one of Africa’s 54 countries. With a population of nearly 175 million, I added, it’s Africa’s most populous country and its 14th largest in landmass. I didn’t fail to add that the ancestral roots of many American blacks are located in many parts of what has been known as Nigeria since 1914.

“Your English is excellent! Is your Nigerian as good as your English?” she asked.

“Thanks, but there is no language called Nigerian. Nigeria is just the name of a country, and it has over 400 distinct languages. English is Nigeria’s official language because it was colonized by Britain,” I said.

 I couldn’t help feeling like I was talking to a kindergartener. After our encounter, I searched her name on the Internet and found, to my utter astonishment, that she actually got her Ph.D. in journalism from the University of Missouri, the first university in the world to offer a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1908. (The University of Missouri, fondly called “Mizzou” by its students and alumni, is also the first university in the world to offer a master’s degree in journalism in 1921 and the first to offer a Ph.D. in journalism in 1934.) Apart from getting her Ph.D. from a prestigious program, she is a full professor of journalism.

 I still haven’t been able to fathom the depth of incuriousness it must take for a middle-aged African-American journalism professor to have never heard of Nigeria until August 8, 2013. It makes me wonder if she literally lives under a rock.

Now, let me be clear: This woman’s incuriousness is atypical of the African Americans I have met here. I have never encountered any black American with the woman’s level of educational and professional accomplishments who is that unbelievably witless. And that’s why it’s newsworthy for me.

My experience with the woman has compelled me to revise my opinions about the link between education and knowledge. The woman is certainly well-educated. She has published copious scholarly work in her subfield of journalism and had worked for many years as a news reporter in a small town before venturing into academia. Yet she had never heard of Nigeria, even though her African ancestors could very have been Ibibio, or Idoma, or Ebira, or Igbo—or any number of Nigerian ethnic groups.

I also realized that rapper Rick Ross who tweeted that he had “landed in the beautiful country of Africa” attended the historically black Albany State University located here in the state of Georgia, and had visited Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa on many occasions. The pull of carefully cultivated ignorance, it seems, is way stronger than the push of the best education and exposure in the world.

The mischaracterization of Nigeria as a “city in Africa” by an experienced black American journalism professor is all the more ironic for me because it is contemporaneous with my lamentations on this blog about the astounding magnitude of ignorance that Nigerians have of each other.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

The African Origins of Common English Words (V)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In the last few weeks I’ve identified a whole host of common English words that are derived from black African languages. I’ve chosen to exclude several others both because I have neither space nor time to continue and because their etymologization as African-derived words struck me as rather contrived. Still others (such as coffee, which is derived from Kaffa, a region in Ethiopia where coffee was first grown) were excluded because they are mere names of things that are native to Africa.

This week I am going beyond mere words to English expressions that emerged from the literal translation of African languages. Thus, a key observation I’d made in the first installment of these series in September 2010 has been altered. I’d observed that African languages hadn’t made the slightest influence on the structure and idioms of English. I wrote:

“To appreciate the point I am making, consider the fact that Sino-Tibetan languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese have not only enriched the vocabulary of the English language, they have also influenced its idioms and structure. For instance, the phrase ‘pidgin English’ is China’s gift to English. It was originally the Chinese (mis)pronunciation of ‘business English.’
 “Similarly, the phrase ‘long time no see’ (which is really non-grammatical by the standards of Standard English, but which is now so integral to the English language that no one thinks of its grammatical awkwardness) is China’s gift to English idioms. In proper English syntax, the phrase should have been rendered as, ‘We have not seen in a long time.’ The Oxford Dictionary says ‘long time no see’ started as a humorous imitation of Chinese English in the United States. Now it has stuck.

“And such ungrammatical but now perfectly acceptable idiomatic phrases as ‘have a look-see,’ ‘no-go area,’ ‘to lose face,’ etc. are direct translations from Chinese, sort of like ‘you and work’ becoming an accepted form of greeting in English in conformity with how that greeting is literally rendered in many Nigerian languages such as the Yoruba ‘eku ise’ or the Hausa ‘sanu da aiki,’ which we instead render as ‘well done’ in Nigerian English.”

Well, new evidence, which I present below, challenges my initial observation. There are many idiomatic, if informal, expressions in English that are the products of the direct translations of African languages. I list some of them below:

S(h)e is bad. In African-American English (and, increasingly, in mainstream American English) “bad”—or, more appropriately, “baad”—doesn’t mean the absence of good; on the contrary, it means an extreme excess of good. It means excellent, superb.  The comparative and superlative forms of this sense of “bad” are “badder” and “baddest,” as in “her sense of fashion is way badder than my sister’s” or “he is the baddest guy in town.” In northeastern United States, especially in the New York area, “wicked” is also used to mean “brilliant, very good.” Other seemingly negative expressions that connote a heightened positive in American English are “badass” (which means formidable and excellent) and “bad boy” (which, among other meanings, signifies something extremely impressive or effective).

The expression of positive extremes through negative terms in informal American English, Holloway and Vass say, derives from a direct translation of many West African languages, especially Mandingo, into English. In Bambara, a dialect of Mandingo, which is spoken mainly in Mali, the expression “a ka nyi ko-jugu” literally translates as “it is good badly.” In Sierra Leonean creole, the authors also point out, “gud baad” means very good.

Bad-mouth. To badmouth someone is to curse them, to talk ill of them, especially behind their back. The expression is a direct translation of Hausa and Mandingo expressions, according to Holloway and Vass. It’s derived from the Hausa expression “mugum baki,” which literally translates as “bad mouth,” but which connotes ill-natured talk about someone. In Mandingo, “da-jugu” also literally means “bad mouth” and is employed idiomatically to mean abuse, insult, etc.

Interestingly even the Online Etymology Dictionary admits that this popular English expression has West African origins. As with most English words and expressions that are derived from African languages, “bad-mouth” was initially an exclusively African-American English expression before it went mainstream in America and crossed the Atlantic to the UK.

Day-clean. The Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition defines this expression as “the time after first dawn when the sun begins to shine; clear daybreak,” and traces its origins to West Africa. Holloway and Vass go further and locate the roots of the expression to Bantu languages and to Wolof. In Bantu languages, “kutoka kalu” literally translates as “clean sky.” In Wolof, “ba set na” translates as “day is clean,” and in Mandingo “dugu jera” translates as “day has become clean, clear.”
“Day-clean” also began life as a uniquely African-American English expression.

Doll-baby. In American English doll-baby means a child’s doll. It is also used as a word of endearment similar to “sweetheart.” Holloway and Vass say the expression is a direct translation of the Yoruba “omo langidi,” which means a “little child.” They may be right, but I haven’t come across any other authorities that validate their theory. In any case, the expression isn’t in wide use in the United States. It’s limited to the American south along the coast.

Do one’s own thing. To do your own thing, according to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, is “to do what you want without worrying about what anyone else thinks of you.” That expression isn’t native to English; it’s a direct translation of the Mandingo expression “ka a fen ke,” which literally means “to do one’s own thing” and which is used exactly the way it’s used in contemporary English.

When I searched for the phrase in the The American Heritage Dictionary there was no mention of its Mandingo origin. This is all the dictionary had to say about it: “Although this colloquialism became closely associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, it is actually much older. In one of his essays (1841) Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘But do your thing and I shall know you.’ However, it came into wide use only during the mid-1900s.”

Hear. Almost all West African languages use “hear” to mean “understand.” In Hausa, “ina jin Hausa” (literally translated as “I hear Hausa”) means “I understand Hausa.” In Yoruba, “mo gbo Yoruba” (“I hear Yoruba”) means “I understand Yoruba.” In Mandingo, “n mu a men” (which literally translates as “I didn’t hear it”) means “I don’t understand it.” In African-American English, especially in the English-based creole spoken by Gullah people in the southern coast of the United States, “hear” is used exactly the same way it’s used in many West African languages. But I don’t get the sense that it’s mainstream in American English.

To kill. In informal English, to kill can mean to “overwhelm with hilarity, pleasure, or admiration” as in "The comedian was so funny, he was killing me!" There is no Nigerian language I know that doesn’t use “kill” in this sense. That is why Nigerian Pidgin English has such expressions as “you wan kill peson with lafta” (you want to overwhelm me with hilarity), “laff wan kill me die” (meaning that’s extremely funny, now rendered as LWKMD in Nigerian social media language), etc.  Holloway and Vass found similar expressions in Mandingo and Wollof and attribute the notion of “kill” as “overwhelm with humor” in English to West African influences.

Tentative conclusions
There are way more English words that owe their roots to African languages than many etymology dictionaries are willing to admit.  African languages have also contributed not just to the vocabulary of the English language but to its structure, however minimally. And, although the British have had contact with black Africa much earlier than America has, African languages influenced the vocabulary and structure of the English language by way of American English through African-American vernacular English.


Concluded

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Re: A know Nothing Nation

Please find below a sample of the responses that my last week’s column elicited.

You have this uncanny way of giving depth and insight to seemingly trivial subject-matters. When I first saw the title of your article, I said I won’t read you for this week. I thought it would be the usual tedious, condescending blah-blah about Nigerians that we have become used to from Nigerians who live abroad. When I read the first paragraph with intention to move on to the next page, I couldn’t stop until I got to the end. I am ashamed to admit that I am also guilty of thinking that Nigeria was the biggest country in Africa in both population and landmass. I had never thought that Niger Republic was bigger than Nigeria. After reading your column, I looked up the map of Africa and, to my shame, realized that Niger Republic is indeed bigger than Nigeria. That’s such basic information, and it’s doubly shameful for me because Kano, my home state, shares a border with Niger.  It’s sad that it took your article for me to learn that Nigeria is number 14 in Africa in terms of landmass. Our education is failing us. But, well, we are in good company: your America is no less ignorant than Nigeria, as you rightly pointed out in your first paragraph!
Sabi’u Umar, Kano (sabimoru@yahoo.com)

Your write-up just hit the nail on the head. I didn't know Niger Republic's landmass, even though it is something I have been taught. I once told my sister that Niger Republic is just the size of Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara.

 I know for sure every member of a Nigerian ethnic group looks down on the others. They think they are better. It is pathetic and sad but that is the truth. We are all guilty. We all want to preserve our cultures and we go to extreme length to do that.  We end up alienating others and ourselves. If we continue to think that way then we are no better than the white supremacists and any other person who has that kind of thinking.  Even among us Hausa people, some believe they are "more equal than the others". It is indeed a “know nothing nation.”
Hussaina Umar, Sokoto (umarhussaina90@yahoo.com

You have touched on a very important subject. There is truly widespread ignorance about the country among Nigerians. I blame it on two things: poor coverage of the geography and history of Nigeria in our basic educational curriculum and secondly the fact that a lot of Nigerians learn their stuff from the media, especially print, which constantly misrepresents things. Everything in Nigeria is described as "the largest in Africa" and if you grow up reading these things coupled with a poor education, you will be lost. The far north of Nigeria is in the Sahel region but because our print media calls it desert, a lot of Nigerians have adopted that description.

 The northern climate is misrepresented as always hot when in reality, it exhibits both extremes. The north is both hotter and cooler than the south depending on the time of the year. Many are surprised to discover this when they visit the north in January. Also, the media doesn't reflect our ethnic diversity. I'm sure not many in the south will believe that the Arab-looking Shuwa people of Borno state are Nigerians. Because of my modest Fulani features, traders in a market in Ibadan thought I was an Indian! And because of my first name Raji (a name with Arabic origins) I have to frequently answer enquiries on whether I'm Yoruba or not. 

I once introduced myself to an elderly man in a village outside Zaria and on hearing the name Raji, he paused and then asked "ko dai Rabiu ne?" The man thought I must have gotten my name wrong! While some of these encounters were with people with little or no education, the "educated" ones in Nigeria are not much better. They know more about the shopping districts of London (whether they have been there or not) than their own country.
Raji Bello, Abuja

Haha!   Very funny stuff. Oh....my ribs hurt! Couldn't help from laughing. The lady was unrelenting. You had to be Hausa or Yoruba. After all, what business do you have being so smart if you are not Hausa or Yoruba and not even Igbo!   Funny as hell. Please keep these coming!! Thank you so much
Innocent A. Nweze, Ohio, USA

Wonderful article considering I’ve had the same experiences you've had—trying to explain to Nigerians and some Hausawa about my Borgu roots. It’s either Borgu are Yoruba or Hausa; they can't be themselves.
Imran Mora, Zaria.

As someone who has lived in both Yenagoa and the creeks in Bayelsa State, and met folks including hardcore nationalists from across Bayelsa's ethnic minorities, I found this piece very interesting. My concern however is that FK tended perhaps inadvertently to portray ethnicity as rigid static social groupings. If that were the case, we would not have as many ethnic groups as new ones would never have emerged from the ancient ones nor would some have gone extinct as we know.

In reality, ethnic identities are flexible and ethnogenesis is a recognised phenomenon of human social evolution driven by exigencies of economic, political or other considerations. In the context of Nigeria's primordial politics, fractious ethnic dynamics and sundry dysfunction, there are enormous benefits from belonging to a larger group rather than some obscure one.

It is entirely possible that large numbers of Nigeria's ethnic minorities will eventually be subsumed into the bigger ones and Mr Jonathan's apparent "misclassification" may represent a tiny step in a wider phenomenon of ethnogenesis in Nigeria. Whether that is right or wrong is beyond the scope of my comment. I also recognise that there would always be hardcore nationalists from small ethnic groups who would self-identify as such.

Ọna Uchechukwu, Liverpool, UK

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

The African Origins of Common English Words (IV)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Jitters.  The English language owes this alternative word for nervousness to an African language, according to Holloway and Vass who trace it to “ji-to,” a Mandingo word that, according to them, means “frightened, cowardly.”  I initially thought the authors’ evidence for the African origin of this word was at best tentative and at worst accidental, but after consulting other authorities, I think they have a strong case.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word is “of unknown origin” and dates its appearance in the English language to the 1920s. The Online Etymology Dictionary doesn’t suggest a root for the word. It only says it began as an American English word in 1931. Only the Random House Dictionary traces the word’s roots to Middle English; it says it’s a variation of “chiteren,” but dates the emergence of “jitters” in English to between 1920 and 1925. That’s an implausible proposition.

First, a word that has roots in Middle English (that is, between 1100 and 1450) should have a longer history in the language than the 1920s. Second, the authoritative Middle English Dictionary Volume 5 (published by the University of Michigan Press in 1998) disproves the Random House Dictionary’s etymology of “jitters.” None of the meanings of “chiteren” given in the Middle English Dictionary corresponds to the contemporary meaning of “jitters.”  The two meanings of “chiteren” in the dictionary are “of birds: to twitter, chatter” and “of persons:  (a) to jabber, talk idly; (b) to mumble or say (a prayer).”

However, the Middle English Dictionary does give the meaning of a different word, chiveren (also chivever or chievere), that corresponds to the contemporary meaning of “jitters.” But it says this word (or its many variations) is the lexical progenitor of “shiver,” not “jitters.” So it seems entirely reasonable that “jitters” evolved from the Mandingo “ji-to.” The fact that the word was initially a uniquely American English word redounds to this theory.

Phony or phoney. This word used to be a peculiarly American English word for “fake.” But it now enjoys wide currency in international English. Holloway and Vass etymologized this word as having roots in “fani” or “foni,” a Mandingo word that means “(to be) false, valueless….Counterfeit, sham, something false or valueless,” according to Holloway and Vass.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin of “phony” is uncertain but admits that it emerged in American English in the late 19th century. The Online Etymology Dictionary, for its part, says it’s “perhaps an alteration of fawney, itself a corruption of the Irish “fainne,” defined as a "gilt brass ring used by swindlers."

When I put both etymologies on a scale, I am more inclined to believe the theory of a Mandingo origin of “phony” than the Online Etymology Dictionary’s history of the word’s origins.

Ruckus. Like hullaballoo from last week, ruckus means a noisy disturbance. Holloway and Vass say the word is derived from the Bantu “lukashi,” which they say is “sound of cheering and applause.” All the authorities I consulted on the etymology of this word didn’t indicate an African origin for it. They all say it’s “perhaps” a blend of “ruction” and “rumpus,” which both mean noisy disturbance. For me, the best that can be said about this word is that its origins are shrouded in mystery. Neither the theory of its African nor the suggestion that it’s a portmanteau of ruction and rumpus is persuasive.

 “Lukashi” doesn’t strike me as a phonetically tenable cognate of ruckus. On the other hand, portmanteau words often combine the semantic properties of two different words (such as “brunch,” which combines the meanings of “breakfast” and “lunch” or “motel,” which blends the meanings of “motor” and “hotel,” etc.). If ruction and rumpus mean exactly the same thing, what’s the point of blending them?

Tote. This word is probably not in common usage in non-native varieties of English. It certainly isn’t in Nigerian English. But it is in British and American English. As a noun, it means a bag for carrying things. (It’s also called a “tote bag” or a “holdall,” especially in British English). When used as a verb, it means to carry with a lot of effort, as in “I helped the old man tote his bag of books.” Speakers of Nigerian English are more familiar with the adjectival sense of this word in expressions such as “gun-toting police officers,” etc.

Holloway and Vass, following previous scholars, say “tote” is derived from Bantu languages. It’s rendered as “tota” in Kikongo, a Bantu language spoken in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo, where it means “to pick up.” In Kimbundu, another Bantu language spoken mainly in Angola, it is rendered as “tuta” and means “to carry, load.” In Swahili, the most popular of the Bantu languages, “tuta” also means “pile up, carry,” according to Gerard Dalgish in his A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language. Several variations of “tot”—and with the same meaning as the English “tote”— appear in many other Bantu languages in Cameroun, according to linguists who study African languages.

Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary discountenanced the African origin of this word, but it has not provided an alternative etymology for it. This seems to me rather churlish and unhelpful. I think the facts of the word’s history and development point to a decided Bantu origin. First, according the Online Etymology Dictionary (which, like the Oxford English Dictionary, claims that the word is “of unknown origin”), “tote” was first recorded in the English language in the 1670s in the US state of Virginia. So we’re certain that the word has not even the remotest origin to Early or Middle English. That means it’s not an Anglo-Saxon word.

Now, consider this: According to historical records, 85 percent of the African slaves brought to Virginia were from four ethnic groups—Igbos from present-day Nigeria, Akans from present-day Ghana, Bantu speakers from present-day Angola and the Congo, and Mende people from present-day Senegal and the Gambia. Given the presence of a substantial number of Bantu-speaking people in Virginia in the 1670s when “tote” was first recorded, I don’t understand why the Oxford English Dictionary is reluctant to accept that “tote” could be derived from the Bantu word of the same sound and meaning, especially in light of the tremendous lexical influences of Bantu languages in many creoles in the Western hemisphere, such as the English- and Spanish-based creoles of the American south (Gullah), Jamaica (Patois),  and Colombia (Palenquero)--and in in the liturgy of Africa-derived religions in Jamaica, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

Yackety-yak. It means noisy talk. “Yak” also means long and prolonged talk about a boring subject, and can be used both as a noun and as a verb. Oxford English Dictionary says it’s an imitative word that began in the 1950s, but Holloway and Vass insist it’s derived from “yakula-yakula,” a Bantu word that means “gabbing, chattering, talking.” The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that there is also an Australian English slang term called “yacker,” first recorded in 1882, which means "talk, conversation." The evidence for the word’s African origin is, I think, rather tentative but worth thinking about.

This series will be concluded next week


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Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Know Nothing Nation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

America gets a bad rap for being a nation of ignorant and self-involved people who know next to nothing about the world around them. But my own experience tells me that Nigerians can also be some of the most ignorant and self-absorbed people you can find. Nigerians are as ignorant of each other as they are of their immediate neighbors.

When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University in Kano, an incident occurred that illustrates this point. An international student from Niger Republic who became close to me after she discovered that she and my mom spoke the same Dendi language once came to me looking really distressed because she had just had a passionately contentious verbal exchange with her thin-skinned and ignorant Nigerian roommates. It was about a basic geographic issue: the size of Nigeria in relation to other African countries.

She told her roommates that Niger Republic was bigger than Nigeria based on land area and that at least 13 other African countries are larger than Nigeria. For saying this elementary, undisputed geographic fact, all hell broke loose. Her (Nigerian) roommates insulted her viciously, and said she was an ungrateful wretch who had chosen to “diss” Nigeria even when she was a beneficiary of a Nigerian scholarship for Nigerien students. Her roommates boasted that Nigeria was indeed Africa’s biggest country. Her attempt to explain the difference between “most populous” and “largest in land area” only inflamed nationalist passions.

In my own informal observations, I have also realized that a majority of Nigeria have exaggerated notions of Nigeria’s size. Although Niger Republic is about as populous as Kano, it is larger than Nigeria in physical size.

So the first question my Nigerien “sister” asked me when she met me was: “do they teach you people geography in primary and secondary schools?” I answered in the affirmative. “How come every Nigerian I have met has no clue that Nigeria is NOT among the top 10 largest countries in Africa based on landmass?” she shot back. Then she related to me the emotional spat she’d just had with her roommates about this issue a while back.

I assuaged her anger and told her most Nigerians have no familiarity with the basic facts about their own country much less about their country’s immediate neighbors. The typical Nigerian, for instance, thinks there are only three ethnic groups in Nigeria and calls to question the “Nigerianness” of anybody whose ethnic identity falls outside of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups.

A few years ago, I met a Nigerian here in the United States who wanted to know what my ethnic group was. I told her I was Baatonu from Kwara State. She said she had never heard of the ethnic group. I said I wasn’t surprised because it’s a small ethnic group in Nigeria but is one of the major ethnic groups in Benin Republic. All that flew over her head.

 “So are you Yoruba?” she asked.

“I am not. I just told you I am Baatonu. Our Yoruba neighbors to the south call us Bariba, but our languages are not mutually intelligible,” I said.

“Oh I see. So you’re Hausa? I forget that Kwara people are Hausa people,” she said.

I was getting frustrated but decided keep my cool. I told her although the Baatonu people have historical and cultural ties with the Hausa people that predate the formation of Nigeria, they are a separate ethnic and linguistic group.

“OK. I am confused now. You are not Yoruba. You are not Hausa. And I know a Farooq can’t be an Igbo person. Are you really a Nigerian?” she said.

It turned out that she, too, is neither Hausa, nor Yoruba, nor Igbo yet she considers herself a Nigerian. So I turned the heat on her. From her names, I knew she was an ethnic minority from the south. I asked her the same questions that she asked me. My reverse questions made her realize her folly. She later apologized for her ignorance.

But her questions about and attitude toward ethnic identities in Nigeria are just a sample of the enormous ignorance that permeates Nigeria. The typical Nigerian doesn’t know that there are over 400 ethnic and linguistic groups in Nigeria. To give another example, the typical southern Nigerian can’t locate Zamfara State on the map of Nigeria while the typical northern Nigerian can’t locate Ebonyi State on a map. And they don’t care. It sometimes makes you wonder what the point of our nearly 100 years of formal consociation is.

As I wrote last week, Nigeria’s ethnic and linguistic landscape is a labyrinthine grid of tortuous relationships. The British colonialist response to that complexity was to either elide or oversimplify it by fiat. More than 50 years after the end of formal colonization, we are not only still trapped in colonial identity categories; we actively internalize and authorize them.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s claim to be an Ijaw man when indeed he is from an ethnic and linguistic group called the Ogbia is one prominent instantiation of the internalization and authorization of colonial identity categories. For many years, British colonialists arbitrarily classified the Ogbia people as Ijaw. Their protests were ignored. Now, their most prominent son is still validating this colonial ignorance in the 21st century.

This all fits into Nigeria’s national culture of reflexive know-nothingness that was initially instigated by colonial condescension.

Until our educational system and national orientation are reformed to deepen and broaden our knowledge about ourselves, our quest for nationhood will continue to be stuck in prolonged infancy.

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What's REALLY President Goodluck Jonathan's Ethnic Group?


Sunday, August 4, 2013

The African Origins of Common English Words (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Let me begin this installment with an update. A native Hausa speaker wrote to tell me that another Hausa word for fake is “bogi” and suggests that “bogi” is a more likely candidate as the origin of the English “bogus”— and of the Cajun French “bogue”— than “boko,” which also initially meant fake in the Hausa language, as I pointed out last week. This makes a lot of sense to me.

Bug. In their book The African Heritage of American English, Joseph Holloway and Winifred Vass claim that two major senses of this word—that is, to annoy or bother persistently and a small insect— are derived from West African languages. They say the sense of “bug” that means annoy (as in, the paparazzi bugged the celebrities endlessly) traces its roots to the Mandingo word “baga,” which means “to offend, annoy, harm (someone).”   “Bugal,” they point out, is the Wolof equivalent of the Mandingo “baga.” Wolof and Mandingo, as I’ve pointed out in previous articles, are the main languages in Senegal and the Gambia and belong to the same Niger-Congo language family.

Holloway and Vass aver that the sense of bug that means any insect, which is chiefly American, is derived from the Mandingo word “baga-baga,” which means “termite, white ant, insect.” They also say the word “bugaboo,” an American English term for an object of fear or alarm in both the literal and figurative sense, is a derivative of bug. They find evidence for their claim in the fact that the Liberian and black Jamaican English word for termite is “bugaboo.”

I am more persuaded by their etymology than the Oxford English Dictionary’s claim that bugaboo is “probably of Celtic origin and related to Welsh bwci b ‘bogey, the Devil,’ bwci ‘hobgoblin’ and Cornish bucca.” Bugaboo’s decidedly American origin (which all dictionaries admit) makes it more likely to be of African origin (by way of African-American English) than of Welsh origin.

Dig. In informal English, when you “dig” something, it means you understand, like, or appreciate it, as in “Do you dig the meaning of this letter?” or “I really dig Celine Dion’s songs.” That expression began exclusively as Negro Nonstandard English (as African-American English used to be called until fairly recently), then made its way into mainstream American English, and finally crossed the Atlantic to Britain—and to the entire English-speaking world. Holloway and Vass assert that the word is derived from “deg” or “dega,” which they say is the Wolof word for “understand, appreciate, pay attention to.”

It’s hard to fault this etymology, especially because Online Etymology Dictionary’s note on the word’s origin is rather wishy-washy and unconvincing. It says the word’s sense of “understand,” which was first documented 1934 in African-American English, is “probably based on the notion of ‘excavate’” and adds: “A slightly varied sense of ‘appreciate’ emerged 1939. Strong past participle dug appeared 16c., but is not etymological.” That makes little sense, especially in light of Holloway and Vass’s insight on the Wolof origin of the word.

Dirt. Holloway and Vass say this everyday English word owes its life to the Akan word “dote,” which means “earth, soil.” (Akan, also known as Asante, Fante or Twi, is the major language group in southern Ghana and parts of Cote d'Ivoire).  The meaning of dirt in Akan corresponds to one of the early meanings of dirt in English, which is “soil or earth.” That sense is still retained in common expressions like “dirt road,” which means an unpaved road. But the authors’ evidence for the African origin of this word is rather dubious, even dishonest. Many Nigerian languages, including Nigerian Pidgin English, use “doti” to denote dirt,” and “doti” is clearly an English borrowing into Nigerian languages. No one contests that. I suspect that “dote” is also an English loanword in Akan.  But even if “dote” is native to Akan, it seems to me mere accidental evidence that it means the same thing as “dirt” in English.

The etymology of “dirt” is well-documented. All the authorities I’ve consulted agree that the word can be traced back to Middle English, that is, from between 11000 to 1450—when there was no evidence of any significant Black presence in England. The Random House Dictionary says the word is derived from “drit,” an Old Norse word that meant “excrement,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says was the word’s “early sense in English.” (Old Norse is a dead Germanic language that existed from 700 to 1350). The Online Etymology Dictionary even traces the word’s origin still further. It says the Old Norse word drit is “cognate with Old English dritan [which meant] ‘to void excrement’.”

Guy. The informal sense of this word that means a man, a boy, or a fellow is originally Wolof, according to Holloway and Vass. They traced its origins to “gay,” the Wolof word for “fellow.” (Gay is pronounced “ga-i,” not “ge-i”). Conventionally, in English, the singular form of “guy” denotes a youth or a man, and “guys” denotes people of both or either sexes. For instance, the expression “let’s go, guys” can be directed at women alone, at both men and women, or at men alone.

 Dr. David Dalby, a well-regarded English linguist known for his popular LinguasphereObservatory, once made the case that the plural, non-gendered “guys” in English owes etymological debts to the Wolof “gay,” which is also non-gendered and plural. All the etymological dictionaries I've consulted have no insight on the origin of "guy" other than to say that it came to global, mainstream English from American English. This strengthens the argument for the African origin of the word.

Hullaballoo. This somewhat pretentious or facetious word for noisy disturbance, Holloway and Vass claim, is an Anglicization “halua balualua,” which they say is a Bantu expression used for “when those that are coming arrive. Hence noise, uproar, racket of greeting.” I am dubious of the accuracy of this claim.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says hullabaloo first appeared in the English language in 1762 as “hullo-ballo” in northern England and Scotland, and suggested that it’s probably “a rhyming reduplication of hollo,” the earlier form for “hello.” The Oxford English Dictionary and the Collins English Dictionary support this theory of the probable origin of the word. But that’s not the only reason I am reluctant to accept notions of the African origin of the word. Holloway and Vass’ account of the source and development of the word isn’t convincing.

Jiffy. The authors of the African Heritage of American English say this common English word for very short time, instant, etc. is derived from the Bantu word “tshipi,” which they say means “in a second, in a moment.” No known dictionary has etymologized this word. The Online Etymology Dictionary says it is of unknown origin and added that it entered English vocabulary in 1785 initially as the slang term used by thieves to denote "lightning."

In the absence of any alternative etymology, it’s reasonable to assume that Holloway and Vass are right.

To be continued


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Saturday, August 3, 2013

What’s REALLY President Goodluck Jonathan’s Ethnic Group?

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The magnitude of ignorance that Nigerians have of each other is truly astounding. For me, the most exasperating ignorance that pervades Nigeria is what I call Nigeria’s tripodal ethnic reductionism, which is the infuriatingly ill-informed notion that every Nigerian is—or should be— either Hausa, or Yoruba, or Igbo.  The unanticipated rise of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan—who is neither Hausa, nor Yoruba, nor Igbo— as Nigeria’s president has ruptured this simplistic narrative.

But I have seen a growing tendency in Nigeria to call him “a Niger Delta,” “a Niger Delta man,” or simply “a Niger Deltan.” That is a farrago of nonsense. There is no Nigerian ethnic group called “Niger Delta.” That’s the name of a geographic region, and it is peopled by a multiplicity of ethnicities. To describe someone’s ethnicity by a facile geographic label is to partake in a thoughtless erasure of that person’s elemental identity.

People who don’t suffer the lack of cognitive complexity that makes it difficult to imagine a Nigeria outside the three major ethnic groups know and say that Goodluck Jonathan comes from the Ijaw ethnic group, reputed to be the most populous ethnic and language group in Nigeria’s deep south. But is President Jonathan really Ijaw?

Well, he is not. He comes from an ethnic and language group called Ogbia (also sometimes referred to as Ogbinya), that numbers a little over 266,000, according to the 2006 census. The Ogbia people are found mainly in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. The headquarters of their local government is also called Ogbia, which was built from the scratch by the Ogbia Brotherhood in 1972 as “a centre to unify all Ogbia people.”

The Ogbia language, apparently, isn’t a dialect of Ijaw, as many people have been misled to suppose. It is, in fact, mutually unintelligible with Ijaw, according to Professor Mobolaji E. Aluko, Vice Chancellor of the Federal University Otuoke, whose mother is Ijaw. (Otuoke is President Jonathan’s hometown).

While Ijaw belongs to the Atlantic-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo language family, Ogbia belongs to the Central Delta subphyla, but historians say the ancestors of the Ogbia people most likely migrated from present-day Edo State. Plus, Ogbia has its own dialects, which are all mutually intelligible, according to Ethnologue. They are Agholo (or Kolo), Oloibiri, and Anyama. As anybody who’s familiar with Nigeria’s oil exploration history would know, Oloibiri is the location of Nigeria’s first ever commercially viable oil well in 1956. Isaac Adaka Boro, the originator of Niger Delta militancy, was also from Oloibiri. It seems like, in this part of Nigeria, place and language names are one and the same.

Anyway, all evidence points to the fact that Ogbia, President Jonathan’s native language, isn’t Ijaw, nor is it even Ijoid, that is, it is not like, derived from, or related to Ijaw—like Kalabari, Dame Patience Jonathan’s language, is. It also turns out that some Ogbia people resent being classified as Ijaw. I recently happened on an online rant by a person named Agoro Eni-yimini that captures this sentiment. In a short post titled “EPIE AND OGBIA ARE NOT IJAW AND CANNOT BE IJAW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” he wrote: “The diversity of languages spoken in Bayelsa State is an indication that it is a state composing of [sic] many nationalities. It is a falsehood of the greatest order for anyone to claim that Ijaw is an umbrella body of so many languages.” He said Ogbia and Epie people (apparently, Epie is another Edoid language in Bayelsa) are “miles apart in culture and language” with the Ijaw and concluded that “any Epie or Ogbia man that [calls] himself an Ijaw is a fool and his ancestor will be sad.”

Well, if President Jonathan is Ogbia, why is he often called an Ijaw? I don’t know for sure, and no one seems to have grappled with this question. But I suspect that we can blame it on the lingering legacies of colonialism. It’s a well-known fact that because British colonialists couldn’t deal with all the labyrinthine messiness of our ethnic complexity, they arbitrarily grouped divergent people and encouraged them to cherish a fictive collective identity. This was done purely for colonial administrative convenience. That’s how the Yoruba identity was born. That’s how notions of Igboness as a collective identity emerged. That’s how Hausa became the lingua franca of the north. And that’s how Nigeria’s tripodal ethnic reductionism came about.

Of course, we all know that unlike northern and western minorities who accepted Hausa and Yoruba as their lingua franca (with the exception of Benue and Edo people who resisted Hausa and Yoruba respectively), ethnic minorities in Nigeria’s deep south resisted learning or identifying as Igbo. So the colonialists chose to construct a hitherto non-existent collective Ijaw identity and encourage smaller, even if unrelated, ethnic groups to belong to it. That’s how Ogbia, an Edoid people, became Ijaw.

But as we saw from the online rant I quoted above, Ogbia people are now asserting their identity. They are calling attention to their ethnic and linguistic singularities. For instance, in an August 8, 2009 lecture titled “Need for a Renaissance of the Contemporary Ogbia Society” at the Annual General Meeting of the Ogbaka Club of Ogbia, a Dr. Edmond A. Allison-Oguru who teaches agricultural economics and rural sociology at the Niger Delta University, recalled the struggles of early Ogbia nationalists whom he said worked hard to compel colonial administrators to excise Ogbia-speaking people from the then Southern Ijaw Native Authority to the Ogbia Native Authority in 1951, a mere 9 years before independence. He also lamented the loss of pride in and ownership of Ogbia language and culture in contemporary times.

 Now, here is the rub: in spite of all the struggles for Ogbia self-definition and reassertion, in all of his official documents, including his CV, President Jonathan, Ogbia’s most prominent citizen, self-identifies as “Ijaw.” Why? Well, although someone said “any Epie or Ogbia man that [calls] himself an Ijaw is a fool and his ancestor will be sad,” I don’t think it’s fair to call the president “a fool” on account of his (inaccurate) self-identification.

I think he is merely a victim of the politics of identity in Nigeria. Nigerians have inherited and internalized the unsophisticated rendering of their ethnic complexity that their British colonial overlords bequeathed to them. Most official documents dating back to the colonial period have wrongly classified Ogbia as a “dialect” or “clan” or “subgroup” of Ijaw. And the president probably speaks fluent Ijaw, so he figured that it’s easier for him to say he is Ijaw than to say he is Ogbia and then have to spend time explaining to people who the Ogbia are.


But why is knowledge of President Jonathan’s ethnic group important? I’ll answer that question next week.

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