Sunday, March 20, 2016
By Farooq A; Kperogi, Ph.D.
The only Nigerians who pronounce the name of their country "correctly" are foreign-born Nigerians—or Nigerians who were socialized outside their country, or whose exposure and education cause them to be guarded and self-conscious about their pronunciation. It was a non-Nigerian who first called my attention to this over a decade ago.
The name “Nigeria,” as most people know, isn’t native to the languages spoken by the people who populate the area; it’s an anglicized Latin word that denotes blackness. It traces lexical descent from the Latin “niger,” which means “black” or “dark,” and shares etymological affinities with the obnoxiously negrophobic racial slur, “Nigger.”
The name emerged when British colonizers named the longest river that courses through our country “River Niger.” Before British colonizers called it River Niger, precolonial Nigerians called (and still call) it by different names. For instance, Baatonu people in Kwara State (and Benin Republic) call it “Kora,” Yoruba people call “Oya,” Hausa people call it “Kwara,” Igbo people call it “Orimiri,” and so on.
When it came time to name the polity that British colonizers cobbled together, they decided to name it “Niger area,” in honor of River Niger. “Niger area” was later shortened to “Nigeria.” In essence, Nigeria means “dark area.” With such a name, is it any wonder that constant, reliable electricity has eluded Nigeria since independence? We are writhing under a primal appellative curse!
Well, that was a joke! A country’s name has no bearing on the incompetence of its leaders.
Seriously, though, the British people who imposed the name “Nigeria” on us don’t pronounce it the way we do. In a March 31, 2013 article titled “More Words Nigerians Mispronounce,” I called attention to the pervasive mispronunciation of “Nigeria.” I wrote:
“It is perhaps the biggest irony of our ‘nationhood’ that almost no Nigerian pronounces the name of our country ‘correctly.’ Last year, I’d planned to write an article on the imperative to change Nigeria’s name to something other than Nigeria, and part of the argument I wanted to advance was that the name ‘Nigeria’ is so foreign to us that almost no Nigerian pronounces it correctly. One of my readers brought this to my attention again three weeks ago. He pointed out that even President Goodluck Jonathan doesn't pronounce Nigeria correctly.
“Well, there are regional and ethnic variations in the way ‘Nigeria’ is pronounced in Nigeria. While Hausa people pronounce Nigeria ‘naa-je-riya,’ the rest of the country pronounces it like ‘nan-ji-ria.’ Many language groups in southern and central Nigeria that don’t have the ‘j’ sound in their languages either pronounce it ‘nan-ye-ria’ or ‘nan-ge-ria.’ The British people who imposed the name on us pronounce it ‘nai-jee-ree-a.’ So do Americans and other native English speakers.”
NAI-JEE-REE-A. That’s how almost all non-Nigerians, including non-native English speakers, call Nigeria. Why are Nigerians the only people who don't "correctly" pronounce “Nigeria”? Well, before I answer that question, I should point out that Nigerians aren’t the only people who mispronounce the name of their country. Sierra Leoneans, for instance, pronounce Sierra Leone as “Salone” instead of “see-era-lee-own.” (The name “Sierra Leone” isn’t native to the people who live there; it’s derived from "Serra Leoa," which is Portuguese for “Lioness Mountains”). Most West Africans pronounce it “sira-li-on.” When Sierra Leoneans, who were returnee ex-slaves from the West, first immigrated to Yoruba land in the 1800s, Yoruba people called them “Saros,” as a result of the elision of “Sierra Leone.” (Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the mother of Fela, is descended from the “Saros.”)
Uneducated, rural white Americans (derogatorily called “rednecks” here) also habitually elide the “a” in “America” to say something like “Murica” or “Merica.”
But in today’s column I am concerned with the mispronunciation of “Nigeria” by Nigerians. Why can’t Nigerians pronounce Nigeria as “Nai-jee-ree-a”? I attribute this to the effect of the “intrusive N” in Nigerian English pronunciation. So what is the “intrusive n” and how does it manifest in Nigerian English pronunciation?
The “Intrusive N” in Nigerian Pronunciation
I borrow the concept of the “intrusive N” from a linguistic phenomenon in English called the “intrusive R,” which is defined as the addition of the “r” sound (usually at the end) to words that don’t normally have it. For example, some people pronounce “law” as “lawr,” “saw” as “sawr,” “idea” as “idear,” etc.
A 2006 study found the “intrusive R” to be prevalent among British newscasters. This is ironic because standard British pronunciation (also called Received Pronunciation) is non-rhotic, that is, it does not articulate the “r” in words unless the “r” appears in the beginning of a word, so that “tuna” and “tuner” sound alike, and “lad” and “lard” almost sound alike. Standard American English pronunciation (also called General American), on the other hand, is rhotic, that is, the “r” sound is always pronounced wherever it occurs in a word.
The intrusive N, to be sure, isn’t unique to Nigerian English pronunciation. In a 1915 article in the Modern Language Notes journal titled “Intrusive Nasals in English,” Louise Pound noticed it among native English speakers in England and America in words like “Anthens” instead of “Athens”; “balland” instead of “ballad”; “cementary” instead of “cemetery”; “daintaive” instead of “dative”; “incindent” instead of “incident”; “trinkling” instead of “trickling”; and so on.
Among native English speakers, the “intrusive n” occurs mostly in the speech of children, typically children between the ages of 2 and 9, who outgrow it as they get older. However, it has been fossilized in such words as “messenger,” which was originally “messager” (from “message”); “passenger,” which was originally “passager” (from “passage”); “harbinger,” which was originally herbergere; and so on.
In Nigerian English pronunciation, the “intrusive n” occurs chiefly in these words: attorney, covenant, expatiate, Nigeria, sigh, and witch. There may be more, but these are the words that come to mind now.
“Attorney:” It was one of my American friends who first called my attention to the way Nigerians pronounce this word. She told me every Nigerian she has met (and she has met quite a lot) pronounces “attorney” as “antoni,” especially if it appears in the term “attorney general.” I am guilty of this, too, especially in my unguarded moments. I don’t know what is responsible for the intrusive “n” sound in the general Nigerian pronunciation of the word. It’s probably because of the false attraction of the name “Anthony” and because we prefer “lawyer” to “attorney” in our everyday speech and therefore hardly have a reason to observe the absence of “n” in the word.
“Covenant:” This everyday word among Nigerian Christians is often pronounced with an “n” after the “o,” that is, as “con-ve-nant.” It’s properly pronounced “co-ve-nant.” The intrusion of the “n” sound in the word may be due to the influence of similar-sounding conversational words like “convenience,” “convene,” “convener,” etc.
“Expatiate:” There is usually an intrusive “n” sound when Nigerians pronounce this word. It often sounds like “eks-pan-shi-yeyt.” But native speakers pronounce it like “iks-pey-shee-eyt.” This is most probably because of the influence of words like “expand” and “expansion.”
“Sigh:” Native speakers pronounce it “sai,” but many Nigerians pronounce it “sain,” perhaps because the word almost looks like “sign,” which is pronounced “sain.” I am also sometimes guilty of mispronouncing “sigh” as “sain.”
“Witch:” Nigerians pronounce this word as “winch,” especially in Pidgin English. Pastor David Oyedepo infamously slapped a young girl on television for saying, “I am winch for Jeeezus!”
So next time a Nigerian calls Nigeria “nan-ji-ria” instead of “nai-jee-ree-a” know that it is the “winch” of English pronunciation that intruded into his nasal cavity and forced an unneeded “n” sound.
It is worth pointing out that the only linguistic group in Nigeria that seems to be immune from the “intrusive n” phenomenon are the Afemai- or Etsako-speaking people of northern Edo State (that is, in Auchi and surrounding areas) who appear not to have the “n” sound in their native language. That’s why when they speak English, they come across as suffering from a nasal blockage; they talk like people who are breathing through their mouth, instead of through their nose, which causes the “n” sound to be totally subdued or eliminated. Listen to Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole if you have never heard anyone from northern Edo State speak English.
Finally, it is interesting that while it is almost impossible for the average Nigerian to say “nai-jee-ree-a,” Nigerians have no trouble correctly pronouncing “Niger,” the root word of Nigeria. Almost no Nigerian pronounces Niger as “Nanja”; we all say “nai-ja.” Similarly, no Nigerian has trouble with “Naija,” the affectionate, colloquial short form of Nigeria, which is particularly popular among young Nigerians on the Internet.
Saturday, March 19, 2016
By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
The ongoing trial of former Chief of Defense Staff Alex Badeh recalls an article I wrote about him nearly a year ago (see my August 8, 2015 article titled “Boko Haram, Alex Badeh, Jonathan and the Stolen Trillions”) in which he basically indirectly pleaded guilty to the charges now preferred against him. Read on:
I thought I had become inured to the scandal of brazen corruption in Nigeria until I watched the interview former Chief of Defense Staff Alex Badeh granted to Channels TV on August 1. It’s the worst form of self-indictment I’ve ever seen in my life.
Badeh told Channels TV that the last time the Nigerian military bought any equipment was some 9 years ago, that is, in the twilight of Obasanjo’s second term. “If I go down memory lane, I think the last time any piece of equipment was bought for the Nigerian army was some APCs that were bought in 2006, and how many were they? They were few,” he said, pointing out that the Nigerian military flies “the oldest fighter aeroplanes in the whole world.”
The Alpha jets that form the backbone of the military onslaught on Boko Haram, Badeh told Channels TV, were bought in 1981. If Badeh is right (and I have no reason to think he is wrong since he was Nigeria’s most senior military officer until his sack), that basically means that, from Musa Yar’adua’s administration when the Boko Haram menace started, to the end of the Jonathan presidency when it reached a crescendo, not a single piece of equipment was purchased for the Nigerian military.
The military depended on obsolete equipment at best and no equipment at all at worst to fight a determined and sophisticated Boko Haram. If I didn’t hear this directly from Badeh himself, I would have dismissed it as some wacky conspiracy theory.
But it isn’t the revelation by itself that is scandalous; it is the fact that the neglect of the military is coterminous with the extravagant ballooning of the Nigerian military’s budget. In 2010, for instance, government budgeted N836,016,773,836 (which translates to $5.07 billion at 165 naira to a dollar) for the military. In 2011 the amount ballooned to N1,080,894,801,178 ($6.55 billion). In 2012 it increased to N1,154,857,159,110.00 ($6.99 billion). It increased even more in 2013 to N1,178,832,576,309 ($7.14 billion). Last year, it was scaled down a bit to N1,174,897,477,334.00 ($7.12 billion).
That’s trillions of naira gone down the begrimed pockets of corrupt government officials in the name of fighting Boko Haram! My head spun as I looked at the figures. Now, Badeh says in spite of these trillions that the Jonathan government budgeted for the military, “the last time any piece of equipment was bought for the Nigerian army was … in 2006!”
So what happened to the trillions of naira? Every Nigerian should be asking this until we get an answer. After a whopping $32.88 billion in military budget to fight Boko Haram in the last five years, we don’t have a single piece of military equipment to show for it. This simply boggles the mind. It’s beyond scandalous; it’s unacceptably and insanely criminal.
In spite of all that money, hundreds of thousands of our compatriots in northeastern Nigeria have been murdered—and are still being murdered daily— by Boko Haram, and thousands more are internally displaced and writhe in unspeakable hardship. Lives have been disrupted, businesses have collapsed, and thousands have lost even the will to live. Yet one of the men who superintended over the criminal enterprise that was military budget goes on TV, without a tinge of moral compunction, to gloat about the incompetence of the government he was a part of. I am angry, very angry. This sort of criminal impunity should never go unpunished.
We are talking here about the twin evils of unconscionably mindboggling theft and of the heartrending destruction of the life of an entire region of the country. I know President Buhari is aware of the scale and depth of the criminality that characterized the military budgets in the last 6 or so years, but we should still prod him to not only recover the stolen trillions but bring to justice the criminals who masterminded this astonishingly conscienceless heist.
This is all the more unpardonable because from Badeh to former President Jonathan, and all the minions in-between, the fact of the Nigerian military’s unpreparedness, which was all too obvious to even a perfunctory observer, was intensely denied. Military officers were court-martialed and sentenced to death for refusing to fight Boko Haram with bare hands. In other words, they were condemned to death for refusing to commit suicide. Fighting a well-armed enemy with bare hands is suicide. Pure and simple.
But, in press conferences, Alex Badeh passionately defended the death sentence passed on soldiers who mutinied and ran for their lives. Now he admits that the military he headed had no equipment to fight Boko Haram.
Former President Jonathan also once threatened to withdraw soldiers from Borno State when the state’s governor said Boko Haram was better armed and more motivated than the Nigerian military—a fact Badeh has now admitted. During a February 25, 2014 presidential media chat, Jonathan said, “The statement is a little bit unfortunate because you don’t expect a governor to make that kind of statement and if the governor of Borno State feels that the Nigerian Armed Forces are not useful, he should tell Nigerians. I will pull them out for one month; whether he will stay in that his Government House; just one month, but I will fly back to take over the state.”
When you add all this to the recent revelation by SaharaReporters of a N1,751,864,867 ($8,853,600) fraud in the Office of the National Security Adviser over purchase of arms and ammunition to fight Boko Haram, which never made it to Nigeria, all lingering doubts that the Jonathan presidency was a massive criminal enterprise are removed. I don’t know what would have become of Nigeria had Jonathan won another term.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
The Daily Trust of February 29 reported the new, youthful Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, as having claimed that the English language is descended from Yoruba. In the aftermath of the publication of the story, I got scores of emails and social media tags requesting me to comment on the Ooni’s claim.
I initially refrained from making any comments because I thought the absurdity of the claim was so transparently self-evident as to be unworthy of any serious intellectual engagement. I also thought the Ooni was probably misrepresented. For one, only the Daily Trust reported him to have made that claim. And, although Daily Trust’s correspondent in Osun State, Abdul-Hameed Oyegbade, is a native Yoruba speaker who can’t be said to have insufficient proficiency in the original language in which the Ooni spoke, nowhere in the Daily Trust report does the reader find the exact quote from where the claim of the Yoruba origin of the English language was extrapolated. All we have is a paraphrase of what the Ooni allegedly said: “He said the most spoken languages all over the world today like English had its [sic] origin in Yoruba language.” That's not good enough.
But the Ooni hasn’t denied making this statement (well, perhaps he is not even aware that he has been reported to have claimed that English traces its ancestry to Yoruba), and requests for me to comment on the claim have been unceasing. So here is my take.
There is not the vaguest scintilla of evidence that Yoruba and English share a common ancestry. Of course, people who subscribe to a monogenetic theory of human linguistic evolution believe that all languages have a common human ancestor, called a “proto-human language,” but when linguists map the genetic relationships between the world’s languages they don’t usually refer to the contested notions of a single origin of all human languages.
Glottochronologists and lexicostaticians (linguists who trace how languages emerge, evolve and branch out) typically use something called “basic vocabulary” to map the genetic relationship between and among languages, and to determine "ancestor languages," also called "mother languages," and derivatives from the ancestor languages, often called "descendant languages" or "daughter languages." No linguist has ever established even a remote genetic relationship between English and Yoruba, much less designate Yoruba as the “ancestor language” from which English is a “descendant language.”
In the classification of the world’s languages, Yoruba belongs to the Atlantic-Congo branch of the Niger- Congo language family—in common with many languages in west and central Africa. Niger-Congo languages are characterized by, among other features, tonality, nasality, noun class system, etc. which are absent in many other language families in the world, including English.
English is a West Germanic language in the Indo-European language family, which shares ancestral provenance with many modern languages in Europe and in Asia, such as Hindi in India, Farsi in Iran, etc. Niger-Congo languages have no genetic affinities with Indo-European languages. Yoruba therefore can’t be the ancestor of English.
It is true, though, that Yoruba is a much older language than English. English emerged only in the 5th century, which means it is just about 1,500 years old, although its roots go deeper to several centuries in what is now Germany and Sweden. The language sprang forth when a people called Angles (along with the Saxons and Jutes) who were so called because they lived in a part of West German seaside that formed an angle left their homeland.
The inhabitants of this angular West German seaside migrated to an island known as Britain where people spoke a cluster of languages called Gaelic or Celt (also Erse or Goidelic). The West German invaders from the angular coastline who mixed with, and sometimes drove away, the autochthonous Celts decided to call their language “Aenglisch” (which later became English) and to rename the part of Britain they occupied “Aengland” (later England) in honor of “Angles,” their place of origin in West Germany.
The relative recency of the English language and culture was dramatized by the recent controversial revision to British high school history curriculum, which will now teach that Africans were in Britain long before the English. This seems outrageously counter-intuitive on the surface, but it’s actually historically accurate. Here is why.
The English came to Britain, as I pointed out earlier, in the 5th century. However, Britain had been governed as an outpost of the Roman Empire several hundred years earlier, and Africans had been a part of the Roman Empire since at least the 2nd century, that is, about 300 hundred years before the English set foot in Britain. For instance, when Septimius Severus, the first African Roman emperor (who was born in what is today Libya) reigned from 193 to 211, the ancestors of the English were still in what is now Germany and Sweden. Several Africans, records show, went to Britain as colonial administrators. Many stayed back, mixed with, and became ethnically indistinguishable from the local British population.
It should be pointed out, though, that “African” isn’t synonymous with “black people.” As I pointed out in previous writings, “Africa” is the name given by the Romans to what we now call Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Algeria. Afri" is the ancient Latin word for the blend of Berber peoples that inhabited (and still inhabit) what we today call North Africa, and "ca" is the Roman suffix for "land" or "country." So "Africa" is basically Latin for "land of the Afri." In other words, it means land of the Berbers.
While Romans called Berbers “Africans,” ancient Greeks called them Libyans, Medieval Europeans called them Moors, but they call themselves some version of the word Imazighen. They converted to Christianity from about the 2nd century but became Muslim from about the late seventh century after the Umayyad invasion of the area.
So, although “Africans” have lived in Britain longer than the English, those Africans aren’t black people, nor are they Yoruba. They are “white” Berbers, such as the famous Saint Augustine of Hippo (who was from what is now Algeria), regarded by many as the apotheosis of Western philosophical and theological thought.
|Saint Augustine of Hippo|
In any case, Yoruba’s own etymology shows that it’s also a relatively recent word. The word “Yoruba” was first used by a 16th-century Songhai scholar by the name of Ahmad Baba al-Massufi al-Timbukti to refer to the people of the ancient Oyo Empire, which includes only people from present-day Oyo and Osun states—and parts of Kwara and Lagos states. The name was adopted by Muhammad Bello (who later became the second Sultan of Sokoto) who referred to Oyo people as “Yariba” in his treatise on the Oyo Empire. In time, Yariba became the word by which Hausa people called the people of Oyo. The people didn’t have a common collective name for themselves; they self-identified by such names as “Oyo,” Ogbomosho,” “ife,” “Ijesa,” etc.
It was Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a returnee slave who claimed to be descended from Yoruba people, who in the nineteenth century actively worked to encourage the amalgam of related linguistic groups in western Nigeria to adopt the name “Yoruba” (from Yariba) as their endonym. So an exonym (name given to a people by others) was adopted as an endonym (name by which a group self-identifies) through the instrumentality of an outsider who made himself an insider.
Finally, it isn’t only that Yoruba and English have no genetic relationship, Yoruba has made little contributions to the vocabulary and structure of the English language. This is true, by the way, of all African languages. Throughout my years of research on African lexical and semantic influences in English, I have found out that the only English word that has unmistakable Yoruba origins in English is dashiki.
Some linguists also claim that the expression “doll baby,” heard in the coastal areas of the American south, is a direct translation from the Yoruba omo langidi. That’s hardly a basis to claim that English is descended from Yoruba.
Saturday, March 12, 2016
By Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D.
Several people have pointed out that the legislative branch of government is the only institution that sets (liberal) democracy apart from dictatorship. In other words, since all systems of government, including totalitarianism, always have executive and judicial branches, it is precisely the presence of the legislative branch that gives liberal democracy its singularity. Yet, in a cruel irony, the legislature is the least desirable and most pernicious branch of government in Nigeria’s experience with liberal democracy.
You only need to look at the current cast of debauched and flippant know nothings in Nigeria’s Senate to understand this. Apart from being a thumping drain on the national treasury—with absolutely nothing to show for it—the senate has lately transformed itself into a depressing theatre of the absurd.
On March 2, for instance, Dino Melaye, Senate Committee Chairman on the Federal Capital Territory, while commenting on the need for Nigerians to buy “made-in-Nigeria goods” said, “It is beyond having one made in Nigeria attire and having over 70 designers’ attires in your wardrobe. We must reduce the allocation for made-in-Nigeria goods and services to the basics….We will also move in order to encourage made-in-Nigeria products and begin to talk about made-in-Nigeria women. Apologies to my uncle, the Governor of Edo State, we must as a people stop paying dowries in dollars and pounds. It is time for my colleagues here to become born again.”
It isn’t just the mindless buffoonery of the statement that is appalling; it is also the literal dehumanization and commodification of women it evinces. How can anyone, not least a senator, talk of women, “goods and services,” and “products” in the same sentence— in the 21st century?
But it got even worse. On March 8, Senate Leader Ali Ndume requested the Senate to make it mandatory for Nigerian men to marry more than one wife to demonstrate their “care” for women. When I read it I initially thought it was a joke; I thought it was another Nigerian humorous spin on the wild Internet hoax that claimed Eritrea had mandated all men to marry more than one wife or risk going to jail. But it was real.
The astonishing frivolity of the issues that now dominate Senate “deliberations” recalls an article I wrote on August 1, 2015 titled “Urgent Need for ‘Braintashi’ in the National Assembly.” Read below a slightly abridged version of the article. It is as relevant today as it was almost a year ago.
“Excuse the vulgarity and prurience of my choice of words, but most Nigerians are familiar with the local Hausa herbal aphrodisiac called “bura tashi,” which literally means “male private part, wake up.” Well, Nigeria’s National Assembly members need “braintashi,” my coinage for a stimulant that wakes the brain up.
“From the outside looking in, the vast majority of National Assembly members come across as brain-dead, monomaniacally mercantile knuckleheads who have no business being in the business of lawmaking. This is a regrettable thing to say because there are a few truly honorable, clear-headed men and women in the National Assembly. But it’s difficult to ignore the huge joke that the National Assembly has become.
“If National Assembly members are not exchanging fisticuffs over inanities—like hyperactive, ill-bred high-school kids—they are arguing interminably over unearned perks and over who chairs cushy, “juicy” committees or leadership positions. If they are doing none of the above, they are luxuriating in sybaritic lavishness. The other day, the Speaker of the House of Representatives admitted to spending millions of naira to charter a private airplane to fly to a community in Delta State to “commission” a church.
“Perhaps the lowest water mark yet in the show of brainlessness by the National Assembly happened a few days ago when 5 senators and 20 members of the House of Representatives constituted themselves into an ad hoc committee of bodyguards around Mrs. Toyin Saraki when she was invited by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to answer questions over allegations of corruption against her. I can’t wrap my head around why 25 full-grown members of the National Assembly feel the need to serve as shields to the wife of a Senate President who has been accused of corruption.
“Although I am being facetious when I say the National Assembly needs an overabundant supply of ‘braintashi,’ I am truly concerned that the National Assembly is fast earning notoriety as the place where brains die, as the graveyard of commonsense. The other day, Senator Shehu Sani, who rose to prominence on the notion that he is a human rights activist, a defender of the poor, and an advocate for due process, said police had no business investigating allegations of forgery against Senate leaders. 'The forgery problem is not the issue of police but the issue of the senate,” he said. ”I got elected on the 8th senate. I was provided with document that I used; whether that document was forged, I cannot affirm.'
“What was Senator Sani thinking when he said that? Forgery is a crime. Why should people who are accused of a crime be left to sit in judgment over their own wrongdoing? The forgery allegation may well turn out to be false or intentionally hyperbolized for political reasons, but only a proper police investigation can prove this.
“Again, Senator Dino Melaye who touted himself as an anti-corruption crusader and who rode on the crest of the BringBackOurGirls movement to political reckoning was among National Assembly members who formed a committee of bodyguards around the senate president’s wife when she was invited by the EFCC over allegations of money laundering.
“The infantilism, indolence, and moral and intellectual degeneracy of the National Assembly are some of the biggest pieces of evidence, if any is needed, that we don’t need a full-time bi-camera legislature in Nigeria.”
Saturday, March 5, 2016
By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In his creatively humorous January 11, 2016 column titled “Our Elders have Gone Mad Again,” my brother and senior colleague Mr. Tunde Asaju joked that I "insist" that America "should not be called God’s Own Country." Several people who didn’t understand the inventive tongue-in-cheek humor in Mr. Asaju’s writing wrote to ask why I "dissed" my host country by saying people shouldn’t call it "God's own country."
|Welcome signs like this are the reason Nigerians think America calls itself "God's own country"|
Since it seems most people have no capacity to tell satire from fact, I thought I should clarify that it is not I who said America should not be called “God’s own country”; America does NOT, and has NEVER, referred to itself as “God’s own country.” It is only Nigerians who call America “God’s own country”—and who think and claim that America calls itself “God’s own country.” Asaju was only calling attention to an article I wrote on March 12, 2011 debunking the mistaken notion that America’s national motto is “God’s own country.”
In the more than one decade that I have lived here, I have never come across a single American who is even faintly familiar with the idea that America is called “God’s own country”! And I have traveled to more than 30 of America’s 50 states. I have traveled to northern, southern, western, and eastern states of this country, and have actually taken the trouble to ask most of the people I have interacted with if they recognize the phrase “God’s own country” as their national slogan. Almost always, my question elicited quizzical looks. “God’s own what? Never heard of that!” That’s the standard response I often get.
But what is even more perplexing, for me, is the fact that only Nigerians think— and say—that America’s national motto is “God’s own country.” I have asked many of my Caribbean, South American, Middle Eastern, and Asian friends here if they know America to be “God’s own country.” None of them has ever heard America identified with that slogan. So why are Nigerians the only people on earth who call America “God’s own country”? How did Nigerians come to associate that term exclusively with the United States?
I don’t know, but my sense is that it is the result of a literal understanding of American idiomatic English by Nigerians. In American English, the phrase “God’s country” simply means “one’s own homeland,” that is, the place where one was born and raised, as in: “Welcome to God’s own country, and we hope you will enjoy your stay among us.” It can also mean “an isolated rural area,” or a naturally beautiful area, especially in the countryside. Many isolated rural communities in America welcome visitors to “God’s own country.” ("Country" means "rural area.") But the idiom has fallen into disuse among younger Americans.
|This sign tells the real meaning of "God's own country" in American English|
I asked students in all three classes I teach this semester if they knew the meaning of—or ever heard—the expression “God’s own country.” None has ever heard of the expression, much less know what it means. The only student who has any familiarity with the expression was a Nigerian-American who said, to laughter, “that’s what my parents, and I guess Nigerians in general, think America calls itself!”
My guess is that early Nigerian visitors to America mistook the old American English idiomatic expression “welcome to God’s own country,” which they probably encountered in many parts of the country, as evidence that the country called itself “God’s own country” and brought back that mistaken notion to Nigeria. But this begs the question why only Nigerians understood—and still understand—that expression literally.
My second theory is that Nigerians associate the phrase with America because of the false attraction of the somewhat similar-sounding phrase “In God we trust,” which has been inscribed on American coin currencies since the 1860s and on its paper currencies since 1957. It was also adopted as America’s official motto in 1956. It has been (unsuccessfully) challenged by American secularists and atheists, although a 2003 Gallup poll found that 90 percent of Americans approve of it.
Nonetheless, New Zealand is actually the first country in the world to officially refer to itself as “God’s own country.” The phrase was introduced to the country by Thomas Bracken, one of New Zealand’s most influential poets and journalists who also had the distinction of being the sole author of his country’s national anthem.
|New Zealand is the first country to adopt "God's own country" as its official national motto|
According to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, “God’s own country” first appeared in Bracken’s last major book titled Lays and lyrics: God's Own Country and Other Poems, which was published in 1893, six years before his death. New Zealand’s longest-serving and most influential Prime Minister, Richard John Seddon, who ruled the country from April 1893 to June 1906, was intrigued by the phrase “God’s own country” in the title of Bracken’s book. So, in 1893, he adopted it and gave it governmental imprimatur as New Zealand’s motto.
Years later, Australia, New Zealand’s closest neighbor to the southeast, “stole” the slogan. In the 1970s, Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, also called itself “God’s own country” in acknowledgement of its stunning scenic splendor. But after independence in 1980, the motto was dropped. Other places that used to or still call themselves “God’s own country” are Ireland and England’s Yorkshire County (which sometimes renders the phrase as “God’s own county”).
But the part of the world that is now more popularly known by the “God’s own country” tagline than even New Zealand is India’s Kerala State, located in the southern part of the country. It adopted the tagline “Kerala—God’s own country” in the 1990s in its bid to attract and boost international tourism. The National Geographic Traveler, a well-regarded US-based international tourism magazine published by the National Geographic Society, named Kerala one of the “ten paradises of the world” and “50 places of a lifetime.”
During America’s Civil War between 1861 and 1865, the northern army (often called the Union troops in American history books) who were fighting southern secessionists usually called their homeland, that is, the American north, “God’s country.” This was perhaps intended to slight the south.
The phrase was at best a self-important regional label that also signifies notions of homeland and rural beauty; at no time did it refer to the whole of the United States. It is not clear if New Zealand’s Bracken “stole” the phrase from the American Union troops since they used it earlier than he did. From my point of view, however, this seems improbable given the vast geographic distance between America and New Zealand, not to talk of the sluggish pace of informational flows at the time.
But it suffices to state that many contemporary Americans have no memories of this Civil War-era reference to the American north as “God’s own country,” and never ever refer to their whole country as such, contrary to what many Nigerians believe.