"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on Comparison of Nigerian and Native Varieties of English

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Q and A on Comparison of Nigerian and Native Varieties of English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


Is the word “bastard” no longer a bad word among native English speakers? Is the expression “with immediate effect” uniquely Nigerian? Why isn’t the word “indigene” found in dictionaries? Is it “Ebola Virus Disease” or “Ebola Viral Disease”? For answers to these questions, read below:


Question:
 Is the word “bastard” no longer a bad word among native English speakers? I watched a movie sometime ago where someone called his friend a “bastard” and the friend didn’t take offence. What have I missed?

Answer:
 “Bastard” can be, and often is, a bad word in all varieties of English that I’m familiar with. However, in informal British English, “bastard” is sometimes used jocularly to refer to any man, such as in the expression “lucky bastard,” which merely means a “lucky man.” In the movie you watched, the person probably called his friend a “lucky bastard”—or something along those lines. That’s not the least bit offensive in British English. But I won’t guarantee that you won’t get a punch in the face if you say that to an American. “Bastard” is an all-round bad word in American English.

But “bastard” has undergone a notable semantic shift in all native English varieties in the last few years. It’s no longer used to refer to people born outside wedlock. That sense of the word is now outdated because childbearing outside marriage is no longer the cultural taboo that it once was in the West. I have lived in the United States for a decade and have never once heard anyone referred to as a “bastard” on account of being born outside wedlock. “Children from single-parent homes” is now the umbrella term for what used to be called “bastards,” “illegitimate children,” “children from broken homes,” etc.

In its usage guide on the word “bastard,” the Oxford English Dictionary writes:  “In the past, the word bastard was the standard term in both legal and nonlegal use for ‘an illegitimate child.’ Today, however, it has little importance as a legal term and is retained today in this older sense only as a term of abuse.”

Nigeria hasn’t quite made this cultural shift yet.  That’s why children born outside wedlock are still stigmatized as “bastards” or “illegitimate children” (shegu in Hausa, omo ale in Yoruba, etc.). I can completely understand why you would be flummoxed by the very fact of someone calling his friend a “bastard” even in a jocular context. The informal British English sense of “bastard” to humorously refer to any man isn’t mainstream in Nigeria.

Question:
Do you have a problem with the expression “with immediate effect,” which is common in Nigerian civil service language? An English lecturer in my university says the expression is exclusively Nigerian and a product of our prolonged military rule. Is he right? Please share your usually insightful thoughts with us on this.

Answer:
I don’t have a problem with the expression. It’s a perfectly standard idiomatic expression, and it isn’t exclusive to Nigerian English. I, too, have read several academic papers by Nigerian researchers of Nigerian English where the claim is repeatedly made that “with immediate effect” is a military-inspired Nigerian English coinage that will—or should—disappear from the active mental lexicon of Nigerians with the advent of civilian rule. That’s nonsense.

In writing this response, I decided to search the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbe) to see the global distribution of the expression among the world’s English varieties. (GloWbe is a new corpus “composed of 1.9 billion words from 1.8 million web pages in 20 different English-speaking countries” that allows you to “to see the frequency of any word, phrase, or grammatical construction in each of the 20 different countries.”)

So what did I find? Great Britain led the pack with 276 matches, followed by India with 152 matches. Nigeria came third with 133 matches. Ghana and Zambia tied for 4th place with 111 matches each. Other matches are: Ireland, 83; Sri Lanka, 74; Pakistan, 63; Jamaica, 49; Kenya, 41; Tanzania, 37; Malaysia, 29; Bangladesh, 28; USA, 27; Singapore, 27; New Zealand, 22; Australia, 28; the Philippines, 7; Canada, 6.

So, as you can see, “with immediate effect” appears in all varieties of English with varying levels of frequency. Instructively, British English, the “mother” of all English varieties, has the most matches for the expression.

Macmillan Dictionary defines “with immediate effect” thus:  “with immediate effect (=starting now): I handed in my resignation, with immediate effect.” The Oxford Dictionary of English renders the phrase as a variation of the idiom “with effect from,” which it describes as British English. It defines the expression as “starting (from a specified date): he resigned with effect from 1 June/ the company said yesterday it would lay off all staff with immediate effect” (emphasis original).

The preferred expression for “with immediate effect” in American and Canadian English is “effective immediately,” as in “he resigned his job effective immediately.”

Question:
I am confused on these two words: “indigene” and “condole.” I noticed that they are not in the dictionary, but we use them in our spoken and written English in Nigeria. Please I need some explanations on the use of these words. Are they Standard British English, American English or Nigerian English?

Answer:
You probably missed my August 3, 2014 article titled “5 Words Native English Speakers Never Ever Use for Themselves.” If you didn’t, you would have noticed that “indigene” is one of the 5 words I identified as almost exclusively reserved for nonwhite people in modern spoken and written English.  The word isn’t in most dictionaries because it has run out of currency in native-speaker linguistic climes. Even some versions of Microsoft Word mark the word with wiggly red underlines to indicate that it doesn’t recognize it as a legitimate English word. But it is a legitimate word. It’s just rarely used in the everyday speech of native English speakers.

 But Nigeria’s socio-cultural peculiarities, which dispose people to cherish a sentimental attachment to their primordial origins and to use this as an identity marker, still make the word relevant in Nigeria. 

I don’t know which dictionary you checked, but all my dictionaries have an entry for “condole.” Several people have written to me in the past to ask for my comment on what they said is the widespread misuse of “condole” in Nigerian English. I have checked Nigerian newspapers online and haven’t found any misuse of the word. I am curious to know where the notion that the word is misused in Nigeria comes from. “Condole” simply means to show sympathy or express grief, especially because someone has died. The word always co-occurs with the preposition “with,” as in “President Jonathan condoled with the family over the death of their breadwinner.” That’s how I see the word used in Nigerian newspapers.

Question:
People say “Ebola Virus Disease.” Shouldn’t it be “Ebola Viral Disease”?

Answer:
Both expressions are commonly used. The World Health Organization officially calls it “Ebola Virus Disease.”  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an important institution in the fight against Ebola, alternates between “Ebola Virus Disease” and “Ebola Viral Disease.”

But I see where you’re going with your question. “Viral” is the adjectival form of “virus,” which is a noun. Since “disease” is a noun, why qualify a noun with a noun when it has an adjectival form? That’s certainly a legitimate question, but I suspect that the reason “Ebola Virus Disease” tends to be preferred to “Ebola Viral Disease” is that the Internet has caused a shift in the meaning of “viral” (to mean “circulated rapidly and widely” as in: the video has gone viral) and can lead people to think that Ebola is a disease that has circulated widely and rapidly instead of a disease that is caused by a virus. In “Ebola Virus Disease,” “virus” functions as an attributive noun that modifies “disease.”

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