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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Q and A on English Usage and Idiomatic Translations

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In this week’s edition of my Q and A series, I answer more questions from readers. Enjoy.

Question:
Can “either” and “neither” be used with more than three items? I’d always thought it should be used with only two items. In one of your recent Weekly Trust columns, you used “neither” and “either” with more than three items, and I was confused. In your article titled “What’s Really President Goodluck Jonathan’s Ethnic Group,” you wrote: “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.”

You know, when we read your articles, we don’t just read them for the content, which is often stellar; we also read them for grammar and style. I hope you’re aware of that.


Answer:
When I wrote the article you referred to, I was conscious of the age-long disputations over the grammatical propriety of using “either” and “neither” for more than two items. People who argue that “either” and “neither” should be restricted to only two choices or items point out that the words traditionally mean “each of two” or “one or the other of two.” Based on this, they say the words should not be used where there are more than two options.  That was correct from about the 14th century to the early/mid-19th century.

However, as several prestigious dictionaries and usage guides attest, that pedantic, prescriptivist usage rule has evolved over the years. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, says “either” and “neither” can legitimately be used to refer to “any one of more than two.” Similarly, in their authoritative and well-received book titled The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum write: “while ‘either’ coordinations are characteristically binary, multiple ones like ‘either Kim, Pat or Alex’ are also possible.”

In their book, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik write: “Although commonly stigmatized, (a multiple correlative like either) can add clarity to constructions whose complexity might otherwise cause confusion. For this reason, such constructions are sometimes used even in careful written English, eg in the rubric of an examination paper: Candidates are required to answer EITHER Question 1 OR Question 2 OR Question 3 and 4.

Finally, in the Longman Guide to English Usage, Sydney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut wrote:  “There is nothing wrong with using ‘either’ and ‘neither’ as adjectives for more than two: Come on either Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.”

I can go on, but the bottom line is that in modern usage, “either” and “neither” can be used for more than two items or choices. The semantic evolution of "either" and "neither" is akin to that of “alternative,” which used to mean “one of two,” but which is now widely used to mean “one of a number of things” as in “millions of alternatives.”

Question:
I am accustomed to saying "jokes apart" when I want to get serious after joking, but I was checking my dictionary this morning and I saw the phrase "joking apart/aside," which means the same thing with what I know as “jokes apart.” I want to know which one is more correct than the other.  

Answer:
Although it may sound strange to many Nigerians, the correct idiom is "joking apart" or "joking aside."  Sometimes it’s rendered as “all joking apart/aside.” The phrase "jokes apart," I’ve discovered, is unique to Nigerian English and Indian English. I am yet to figure out why only Nigerian and Indians render the phrase as “jokes apart.” Although both varieties of English are descended from British English, their unique phrasing for the idiom is certainly not British. A search for the phrase in the British National Corpus yielded not a single match. (The British National Corpus is a “100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English, both spoken and written.”)

Could it be a holdover from old-fashioned British English? That’s doubtful, too. I will update this response when I get a definite answer.

I think it’s noteworthy that popular Nigerian comedian Julius Agwu titled his 2013 autobiography “Jokes Apart: How Did I Get Here?”

Question:
I am a regular reader of your good work in the Sunday Trust. I really appreciate it. Please, could you share with us how native English speakers greet people when they break their Ramadan fast? In other words, what is the English equivalent to the Hausa sannu da shan ruwa? What about gyara? Does it have an English equivalent?

Answer:
There are many expressions that are simply untranslatable to other languages because of the vastness of the socio-cultural differences between the languages. Sannu da shan ruwa is one such expression. A literal translation of sannu da shan ruwa (greeting on drinking water) makes absolutely no sense in English, and an idiomatic translation of the expression in English is impossible. So if I were to meet a native English speaker who is a Muslim and I need to greet him or her after iftar, I would simply say "sannu da shan ruwa” (or, if I want to be linguistically nationalistic, I would say “bese ka noru,” which is the literal and idiomatic Baatonu equivalent to the Hausa sannu da shan ruwa) and explain what the expression means instead of trying to get an English equivalent for it, because it doesn't exist.

Read my previous articles on this issue here and here.

It is conceivable, however, that in the near future, if enough Hausa people live in environments where English is a native language, these kinds of unique socio-cultural phrases will be literally translated into English and adopted by the speakers—if such phrases fill a cultural void. That is what happened with the expression “long time no see.” It is a direct translation from Chinese, which makes no grammatical sense in English. Another example is the phrase “enjoy!” often uttered in (American) airlines and restaurants after people are served a meal. It’s an attempt to translate the French “bon appetit,” which would literally translate as “good appetite” in English, but which actually means “enjoy your meal.” It’s a unique French sociolinguistic quiddity that English speakers now have a need to mimic. (Native English speakers don’t traditionally utter any special expression before meals).

The closest American linguistic and cultural approximation to “gyara” (which is rendered as “jara” in certain variants of Nigerian Pidgin English) can be found in the word “lagniappe” (pronounced LAN- YAP), which my dictionary defines as “A small gift (especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase.).” That is precisely what “gyara” means in Hausa.

In my December 4, 2010 article titled “Neologisms and Ebonics in American English,” I wrote:  “The word ‘lagniappe,’ for instance, is an exclusively Louisiana invention, even though it is now usual to hear many people in the [American] South use it….

“It means ‘a small gift, especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase.’ But this definition does not adequately capture the cultural meaning of the word. Its exact socio-linguistic equivalent is “gyara” in Hausa (now incorporated into Nigerian Pidgin English as jaara).


“It is also used to indicate any kind of addition or extras. While the word sounds and looks French, its semantic content is decidedly African. I once wrote about the intriguing convergence of French, Spanish, and African influences in Louisiana’s racial, cultural, and gastronomic landscape. This convergence also manifests in the socio-linguistic experience of the people in many ways. It is conceivable that the “gyara” culture was brought to Louisiana by former [Hausa] slaves.”

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