By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In my forthcoming book titled Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World (which will be released by Peter Lang USA at the end of July)—and in several of my previous writings on Nigerian English—I have identified sources of Nigerian English to include linguistic improvisation, British archaisms, normalized usage errors, and a mishmash of American and British English.
I also explored what I called Biblical English as a fountain of Nigerian English idioms. By Biblical English I mean old-fashioned English expressions that are now confined to English translations of the Bible but that are rarely used in the conversational English of native speakers. Some examples I gave in my book are the tendency for Nigerian English speakers to use the word “harlot” in place of “prostitute” and the use of the expression “eye service” to mean service done not for its sake but in order to impress someone who is watching you, etc.
“Harlot” and “eye service” are used in the Bible but are rarely used by contemporary native English speakers. (In American English “eye service” is now used as the informal term to describe the services of an eye doctor.) Of course, there are several modern English idiomatic expressions and turns of phrases that are derived from the Bible. Idioms like “give up the ghost,” “by the skin of one's teeth,” “the salt of the earth,” “put words into one’s mouth,” “be a law unto oneself,” and fixed turns of phrase like “from strength to strength,” “the land of the living,” “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” “widow’s mite,” “the prodigal son,” etc. came to English directly from the Bible.
In his book titled Begat: The King James Bible and the English language, Professor David Crystal, one of the world’s most respected authorities on English, identified 257 phrases in the English language that are directly borrowed from the King James Bible, leading the BBC to remark that “No other book, or indeed any piece of culture, seems to have influenced the English language as much as the King James Bible. Its turns of phrase have permeated the everyday language of English speakers, whether or not they've ever opened a copy.”
I find parallels between the influence of the Bible on English and the influence of the Qur’an on Arabic. But that is a topic for another column.
Over the last 10 years or so, the vernacular of Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity has emerged as a fundamental source of Nigerian English. The linguistic seepage of the vernaculars and registers of Nigerian Pentecostalism into popular Nigerian English occurs primarily through Nollywood movies, but it’s aided in no small measure by social media. Nigerian Pentecostal Christian English codes have now become so widespread that even Nigerian Muslims and non-Pentecostal Nigerian Christians have unconsciously coopted them in their conversational repertoire, as I show below.
1. “It is well.” This is becoming the default expression to indicate empathy and concern for people in difficulty of any kind. When people have a death in the family, Nigerian Pentecostal Christians say “it is well.” When people writhe in emotional distress because they have been betrayed by their lovers, Nigerian Pentecostal Christians say “it is well.” Just about any tragedy “is well” with Nigerian Pentecostal Christians.
But tragedies are increasingly becoming “well” even with Nigerian Muslims and non-Pentecostal Christians. For instance, when I lost my wife to a car crash 5 years ago and was in excruciating emotional distress, an acquaintance of mine in Nigeria, who is a Muslim, told me “it is well, my brother.” I lost it. “What the heck is well? That my wife died in a car accident? Are you freaking kidding me? No, it isn’t well!” I fumed. The man apologized and said, “I thought that is what English people say when someone is bereaved.”
Well, no English speaker in the world says “it is well” to people who are grieving; only Nigerian Pentecostal Christians say that, and it’s intolerably annoying, even offensive, to people outside these circles. English people say “I am sorry for your loss”—or some variation of that— to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
I reacted to the expression the way I did, obviously, because I was in a state of emotional turmoil, but also because I hadn’t heard the expression used in that context before. It appeared to me as if my acquaintance derived perverse pleasure in my personal tragedy. Putting “well” in the same sentence with “death” seemed to me singularly and unconscionably malevolent.
But in my moment of emotional clarity, it occurred to me that it was unlikely that even the most vile and spiteful person on earth would go to a grief-stricken person that they barely knew and gloat over their personal tragedy. So I researched the origins and pragmatics of the expression.
Here is what I wrote about the expression in my book: “This peculiarly Nigerian English salutation for people in grief is distilled—perhaps I should say distorted—from a popular hymn (as Christians call a song that praises God) written by an emotionally distraught American Christian lawyer by the name of Horatio G. Spafford who lived in Chicago in the 1800s, and who was hit by a string of personal tragedies. As a mechanism to cope with his grief, he penned a thoughtful hymn titled ‘It is well with my soul’ that some Christians consider the ‘closest to heart for one undergoing grief’ (Asiado, 2007).
“Although the context in which Nigerian Christians use ‘it is well’ is consistent with the intent of the hymn, native speakers don’t say ‘it is well’ to a grieving person. That would come across as stilted and detached. Besides, the full expression is, ‘it is well with my soul.’ Perhaps it would make more grammatical sense to say ‘it is well with your soul’ to a grieving person than to simply say ‘it is well.’ A native speaker might ask: ‘what is well?’” (p. 183).
As the reader can see, although the expression may have Biblical echoes, it isn’t exactly Biblical; it’s only a Nigerian Pentecostal Christian appropriation of a 200-year-old hymn by an emotionally troubled American. I also discovered that the expression was appropriated by Nigerian Pentecostal Christians because it is thought to confer positive vibes to otherwise melancholic situations. Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity has an obsession with banishing any hint of what is thought to constitute negativity—and embracing what is considered positive and upbeat even in moments of disappointment, death, and destruction.
It is safe to say that “it is well” has now transmuted into a legitimate Nigerian English expression. It would help, though, if you don’t say “it is well” to a grieving non-Nigerian. As a Nigerian Muslim who wasn’t sufficiently schooled in the Nigerian Pentecostal Christian linguistic universe, I initially took umbrage at the expression. You can only imagine how non-Nigerians would react to it.
2. “It’s not my portion/potion.” Nigerian Pentecostal Christians utter this expression where everyday English speakers would say “this won’t happen to me,” or “I deserve a better fate than this,” or simply “it is not my fate.” The expression itself reflects the rampant contradictory, narcissistic, and escapist fatalism in Nigerian expressions of religiosity: in one breadth, many Nigerians believe that God has lined up great things for them as a matter of inexorable certainty, and in another breadth they believe no evil of any kind is predetermined in advance for them.
The expression is typically rendered as “It is not my portion in Jesus name,” “poverty is not my portion,” “sickness is not my portion,” “(premature) death is not my portion,” “fear is not portion,” “shame is not my portion,” etc. It is derived from Lamentations Chapter 3 verse 24 of the Bible (“The Lord is my portion, sayeth my soul; therefore will I hope in him.”)
One of the first recorded inversions of this Biblical expression is found in Rabindranath Tagore’s poem titled “Gitanjali” where he wrote: “If it is not my portion to meet thee in this life/then let me ever feel that I have missed thy sight.” (Rabindranath Tagore was a famous Indian poet who has the distinction of being the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913).
To be continued next week