"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on Nigerian English Grammar and Pronunciation

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Q and A on Nigerian English Grammar and Pronunciation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In what follows, I answer questions on native-speaker English lexical and idiomatic equivalents to uniquely Nigerian English expressions, the difference between “celebrant” and “celebrator,” and the distinction between “cross-check” and “double-check.” I also answer a question on the (mis)pronunciation of “ask.” Enjoy.

Question:
Is the expression “this one that...” uniquely Nigerian English? A Bournvita Ramadan commercial I watched in Nigeria featured a conversion between two women, one of whom told the other: “this one that you are looking fresh, do you fast at all?” She replied that it was the Bournvita beverage she regularly took during the fasting period that made her look fresh. What expression(s) could correctly replace “this one that” in the above context? I find “now that,” “considering that,” “with the way you are looking...,” and “since you are looking fresh...” somewhat unsuitable.


Answer:
Yes, the expression is uniquely Nigerian and derives from Nigerian Pidgin English whose structure is almost wholly based on native Nigerian languages. If a native English speaker were to express the same sense expressed in the Nigerian English construction “this one that you are looking fresh, do you fast at all?” he would say something like, “You look too fresh to be fasting. Are you sure you’re really fasting?”

Question:
What do native English speakers call 'tsaraba' (a present that someone who returns from a journey gives to people at home). What about tukuici?

Answer:
The English equivalent for tsaraba is a "gift." You're probably saying "just that? I already knew that!" But if the gift has a special sentimental value (for instance, if the gift is unique to the place you traveled to), then it's called a "souvenir" or a "memento" or a "token." Whatever I buy for my friends and family when I visit Nigeria from America isn't just a gift; it's also a souvenir. So T-shirts with inscriptions like "I love Atlanta," etc. are mementos or tokens. But edible things like bread, biscuits, etc. are mere gifts.

In northern Nigerian culture, tukuici is a token gift, usually in the form of loose change, given to children as a reward for running errands for adults. Native English speakers don't have an exact lexical equivalent for this, but a close equivalent, especially in American English, is a "tip" or a "gratuity," which is a small amount given to people, not necessarily children, as a token of gratitude (thus, “gratuity”) for services they have rendered, such as serving you in a restaurant, driving you in a taxi, etc. In Nigeria we don't tip or give gratuity to taxi drivers outside of the fare we pay them, and we certainly don’t give gratuity to waitresses at restaurants outside of the cost of the meal, but we tip or give gratuity to children.

Question:
In 2011, when I served as a youth corps member in Kogi State, the admin officer of the office I did my primary assignment asked me about my colleague who’d traveled to his state for the burial of one of his relatives. I responded by saying "he didn't come back," but our typist said I was wrong. She said I should have said, "he hasn't come back". Unfortunately, she couldn't convince me that I was wrong grammatically, and I didn't have anybody to ask then for more clarification. Please, I want you help and answer my question, so that I can know if I am the one on the wrong side, to correct it the next time I'm answering such a question.

Answer:
Given the context you described, the sentence should correctly be "he has hasn't come back," NOT "he didn't come back." So the typist was right.  Here is why: You described an event that was still ongoing, that is, your colleague was still absent from work at the time you spoke. The best tense to express that situation is the present perfect tense, which is normally formed with the verb "have"— or its singular form "has."

"Didn't," on the other hand, is appropriate only in past perfect tenses, that is, in tenses where an action has been completed in the past and has no direct effect on the present. Suppose your colleague returned from his trip and you were asked a question like, "Did your friend return from his journey last week when the principal asked for all youth corps members?" you would be correct to say "no, he didn't" because the action (that is, being present or absent when the principal asked for youth corps members) was completed in the past.

However, American English tends to countenance the use of “did” or “didn’t” in present participle tenses, which annoys British English speakers to no end.

Question:
In English do we “double check” or “cross check” facts? I find “cross check” to be too Nigerian for my ears having never heard anybody use it outside the country. I might be wrong in my assumption.

Answer:
The two verbs are similar but different. To "cross-check" is to find out which of several conflicting sources is correct, while to "double-check" is to examine the same source one more time to be absolutely certain that it is correct. I agree that Nigerians hardly use "double-check" in their everyday speech even when they express the sense of the verb. But I’ve also noticed that Americans hardly use “cross-check” even when it is the right word to use; they prefer “double-check” almost always.

Question:
What is the appropriate name for a person who is celebrating? Is it celebrant or celebrator?

Answer:
Although both “celebrant” and “celebrator” are acceptable, I’d advise that you use “celebrator” because it’s more universally acceptable than “celebrant.” The word “celebrant” has many other meanings besides “a person who is celebrating.” It actually first means a person who participates in a religious ceremony, especially one who celebrates the Eucharist, a Christian rite that involves the consecration of bread and wine. “Celebrant” is also defined as “a person who officiates at a religious or civil ceremony or rite, especially a wedding.”

“Celebrant” came to be used as an alternative to “celebrator” initially in error in American English. Although it’s now an accepted variant of “celebrator” in American English, many careful and punctilious American writers avoid it. Of course, “celebrant” is almost absent in formal British English. Rather surprisingly, however, the Nigerian English default word for someone who is celebrating is “celebrant.” “Celebrator” almost never appears in everyday Nigerian English, even though Nigerians cherish the notion that they speak British English.

Question:
I really enjoyed your series on words Nigerians commonly pronounce. I look forward to your compiling a dictionary of Nigerian English mispronunciation. My question is: why didn’t you include “ask” in your list? Most Nigerians mispronounce it as “aks.” I thought it should be an obvious candidate for your list. Why did you miss it?

Answer:
I omitted it because the mispronunciation of “ask” as “aks” or “ax” isn’t uniquely Nigerian. In fact, it isn’t, strictly speaking, a mispronunciation; it’s actually only a nonstandard dialectal pronunciation that is found in many native varieties of English. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary both say “ax” as a variant of “ask” has been around since Old English, that is, since about 1100. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “ax” was “an accepted literary variant until c.1600.”  

The Oxford English Dictionary adds that in Old English there were two equally valid variants of the word: ascian and acsian. People in southern England preferred “acsian,” which has survived in the contemporary “ax” or “aks” that you asked about.  In northern England people preferred “ascian,” which has survived in “ask,” and which is now privileged as the standard pronunciation.


“Ask” is still pronounced as “aks” in many parts of rural England, and in such “nonstandard” native-speaker varieties of English as African-American Vernacular English (also called Ebonics), Ulster Scottish English, and the midland and southern dialects of British English. Interestingly, most Americans incorrectly think that “ax” is a uniquely African-American mispronunciation of “ask.”


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