By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Have you ever sent an email to someone or some people in the United States, Canada, Britain or some other English-speaking Western country and didn’t get a response? Well, it is entirely possible that your email didn’t even make it to their inbox. If it did, it is also possible that certain uniquely Nigerian expressions in your email that were popularized in the West by Nigerian email scam artists triggered a scam alarm and caused you to be ignored. What are these “419 English” expressions that are like waving a red flag in front of a bull in the West?
First some context. A few days ago, a Nigerian Facebook friend of mine, who is also a professor here in the United States, put up a status update that inspired this column. He wrote: “Was I really wrong? Was the professor at the other end of the telephone line correct? She read my email and decided to withdraw her offer of introducing me to people in environmental education because my written English ‘is suspect.’ So I asked her to give me an example of something I expressed incorrectly. The first example was ‘I hope to read from you soon.’ She said the correct expression is ‘I hope to hear from you soon.’
“I cleared my throat and informed her that it was not a face-to-face communication and that I thought the word to hear did not fit into a totally text-based communication. She did not sound impressed and till date never returned my calls. Should I change my communication style and let orality creep into my text? Does anyone know the rules about such things?”
As I wrote in my contribution to his update, the American professor who called his English “suspect” and stopped communicating with him on the basis of his “suspect” English is most certainly rude and uncharitable. Unfortunately, however, ending email communication with "I hope to read from you soon" is not only unconventional among native English speakers; it's also one of the core phrases associated with 419 emails from Nigeria, which is frankly unfair because it's part of the lexical and expressive repertoire of Nigerian English. It's the worst example of what I call the pathologization of the linguistic singularities of a people.
However, this incident should cause us to reflect on the place of Nigerian English in inter-dialectal English communication, especially because 419 emails have done more to popularize Nigerian English to the rest of the English-speaking world than anything else. That means the stylistic imprints of scam emails from Nigeria vicariously criminalize many innocent Nigerians, as the Nigerian professor’s case and similar other unreported cases have shown.
Concerns about authorship attribution of fraudulent e-mail communications emerged fairly early in studies of Internet fraud. Computational linguists and information systems specialists have deployed strategies to perform software forensics with intent to identify the authors of fraudulent e-mails. Oliver de Vel and his colleagues, for instance, employed a Support Vector Machine learning algorithm for mining e-mail content based on its structural characteristics and linguistic patterns in order to provide authorship evidence of scam e-mails for use within a legal context.
I know this because about 10 years ago I did research on the rhetorical strategies and stylistic imprints of 419 emails. In the course of my research I came across several forensic linguistic programs that developed email authorship identification markers based solely on phrases and expressions that are unique to 419 email scams. The software developed from these programs helps people automatically trash “419-sounding” emails.
The problem, as you can expect, is that the software also deletes many legitimate emails from honest Nigerians since the alarm triggers for the software are uniquely Nigerian English expressions. "Hope to read from you soon" features prominently in the repertoire of "red-flag" expressions the software uses to identify 419 emails. (For evidence, search "I hope to read from you soon" on Google and see what comes up).
When my friend quoted his American acquaintance as saying that his English was "suspect" based on certain expressions, such as "I hope to read from you soon," I knew immediately that the American was hinting that some of his expressions raised Nigerian 419 email authorship identification red flags. The professor is probably familiar with 419 email authorship identification programs and the phrases that trigger them.
One won’t be entirely wrong to call the whole host of 419 email authorship identification programs as engaging in borderline linguistic racism because they basically pathologize and criminalize the stylistic idiosyncrasies of an entire non-native English variety. All of us who were born and educated in Nigeria can't escape Nigerian English inflections in our quotidian communicative encounters every once in a while.
The 419 scam artists write the way they do because they are the products of the Nigerian linguistic environment. It's like isolating American English expressions that appear regularly in the emails of American scammers and developing an authorship identification program based on these expressions so that any email from any American, including even the American president, that uses any stereotyped American English expression is automatically "suspect."
Well, instead of dwelling in self-pitying lamentation, I’ve decided to highlight some of the stock Nigerian English expressions that email authorship identification programs use to identify Nigerian 419 email scammers—and unfairly criminalize many honest Nigerians.
1. “Reply me as soon as possible.” You can’t get a typical Nigerian to say or write “reply TO me” even if his life depended on it. That’s why Nigerian newspaper headlines are often filled with expressions like “Jonathan replies Obasanjo,” “Buhari replies Gumi,” etc. instead of “Jonathan replies to Obasanjo,” “Buhari replies to Gumi,” etc. If the intended audience of one’s communication is exclusively Nigerian “reply me” will be perfectly OK, but it helps to know that the verb “reply” always co-occurs with “to” in the standard varieties of English spoken in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. So if you end your email with “I hope you will reply me as soon as possible,” be sure that someone somewhere in the West who has had enough pesky 419 email solicitations will automatically assume that you’re a 419 conman.
2. “Request for.” Only Nigerian English speakers “request for permission.” A typical 419 email solicitation goes something like this: “I request for your help to transfer the money for investment in your country.” In native varieties of English, “request” doesn’t take a preposition. Instead of “request for your permission,” native speakers say “request your permission.” Instead of “I request for your help,” native speakers say “I request your help,” etc.
3. Bookish English. One of the enduring stylistic idiosyncrasies of Nigerian English is the tendency to use big, formal, unusual, and archaic words in informal contexts. For instance, the word “demurrage” appears in almost all 419 emails. This is a recondite, archaic English word commonly used in informal Nigerian English to denote a charge required as compensation for the delay of a ship or freight car or other cargo beyond its scheduled time of departure. Professor David Jowitt calls this character of Nigerian English “bookish English”—the tendency to hold on to words and expressions that have run out of fashion in, and receded to the linguistic backyard of, modern native-speaker usage. I called them “weird words we’re wedded to in Nigerian English” in a January 20, 2010 article. Other regular bookish English words in informal Nigerian English are “imprest,” “estacode,”and “parastatal.”
To be continued next week