"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: “In all ramifications,” “Happy iftar”: Q and A on Nigerian and Global English Usage

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“In all ramifications,” “Happy iftar”: Q and A on Nigerian and Global English Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Question:
How do I say "barka da shan ruwa" in English? Can I simply say "Happy iftaar?” But then I know "iftaar" is an Arabic word.

Answer:
Someone asked a similar question years ago. My response to your question will draw from the response I gave then. 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” or “barka da shan ruwa” is one such expression.

A literal translation of sannu da shan ruwa (which would be “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.

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 and socio-linguistic void. That was 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 because of French cultural influence. (Native English speakers don’t traditionally utter any special expression before meals).

Nevertheless, it might help to know that English-speaking American Muslims usually say “happy iftar,” or “wish you a joyous iftar,” during the feast after fast. Thankfully, “iftar” has entered American English lexicon because of the annual White House Iftar Dinner started by Hillary Clinton in 1996 when she was First Lady.
 
Obama hosts Annual White House Iftar Dinner
Question:
Many thanks for your articles which I have always found refreshing and enlightening. I would like to know if the word 'counsel' (as in lawyer) can be pluralised with the addition of an 's.' A colleague of mine insisted it cannot. What is the true position?

Answer:
It is true that "counsel" is an invariably plural noun, which is treated as an uncountable noun that does not admit of an “s” to form a plural like "news," "advice," “equipment,” “furniture,” etc. If you want to pluralize it, say "lawyers" or "attorneys." But different groups of lawyers can be called counsels.

Question:
Can you tell me why the article "an" is used for acronyms that don’t start with a vowel? For example, a recent New York Times article used "an SEC...." instead of “a SEC…” even though “s” is a consonant.

Answer:
It's because what determines whether we use “an” or “a” before nouns and acronyms or initialisms is the sound of the first alphabet, not the alphabet itself. SEC is pronounced “es-ee-see.” That means the first sound is the vowel "e," which justifies the use of the indefinite article "an." In other words, once the first sound is a vowel, it must be preceded by “an.”

So it’s “an NDA graduate,” (not “a NDA graduate”-- even though “n” is a consonant-- because “N” is pronounced “en”), an “MC at a ceremony,” (not “a MC at a ceremony”), “an SUV” (not “a SUV”).

Also note that it’s “a UAE citizen” (not “an UAE citizen” even though the alphabet “u” is a vowel), “a US citizen,” (not “an US citizen”), etc. It's for the same reason that it’s "a university," not "an university," “a unicorn,” not “an unicorn.” But it’s “an umbrella,” not “a umbrella” because the “u” in umbrella is not pronounced “yoo”—like it is in “university” and “unicorn.”

Question:
In wishing people happy birthdays, many Nigerians say they wish celebrants "many happy returns." I suspect that it is incorrect, that it is nonstandard English. Am I right?

Answer:
No, you are not right. "Many happy returns" is Standard English. It is also sometimes rendered as “many happy returns of the day.” According to the Phrase Finder, “Since the 18th century this has been used as a salutation to offer the hope that a happy day being marked would recur many more times. It is now primarily used on birthdays; prior to the mid 19th century it was used more generally, at any celebratory or festive event.”

Question:
"I, Najatu Muhammad, wishes to thank you so much for considering me worthy of being appointed the chairperson…" Is the above statement correct and why? I thought it should be "I, Najatu Muhammad WISH....”

Answer:
You are right. “I” is the subject of the sentence, and “I” always agrees with a plural verb. Thus, it should be “I, Najatu Muhammad wish to…” However, if the sentence had been “Najatu Muhammad wishes to…” it would have been correct because the subject would be “Najatu Muhammad,” which is a singular subject.

The same principle applies to the singular “you.” You don’t say “You is a kind person”; you say “you are a kind person” even though you are making reference to a singular “you.” In many nonstandard English dialects in Britain and America, however, “you” and “I” agree with singular verbs.

Question:
I think it a complete usage error when Nigerians say ''in all ramifications.'' The word ''ramification'' means an unwelcome consequence. I personally have never seen the word used in this (Nigerian) way in countries where English is spoken as a native language.

Answer:
You are right. A search through the Corpus of Global Web-Based English turned up 101 matches for the phrase “in all ramifications.” Of this, 82 were from Nigerian English, 13 from Ghanaian English, 2 from British English, and one each from Kenyan, Indian, and Canadian English.

Ramification is a derivative of “ramify,” which literally means to grow branches. So ramification can mean branches, an arrangement of branching parts, units of a complex structure, etc. as in, "he broke off one of the ramifications." I think when Nigerian English speakers say “in all ramifications” to mean “in all aspects,” or “in all dimensions,” they are metaphorically extending the literal meaning of ramification (i.e., the branches of a tree). Although the usage is unidiomatic and nonstandard, I think it is legitimate. Of course, you're right that “ramifications” (note that it’s often pluralized) is widely understood among native English speakers to mean an "unwelcome consequence,” as in, “The murder of the soldier is bound to have grave ramifications for the community.”

Question:
I am an academic with background in the natural sciences. I read newspapers a lot, do review and also publish articles in scientific journals. Your column has been of immense help to me in understanding English usage. I have a challenge, viz: Is it wrong to begin a sentence with a number? For example, are these sentences correct:  1.25m people die in road crashes...', '7 die in Lagos..' and '9 million naira..' etc.

Answer:
Thanks for your kind words. There is nothing grammatically wrong with starting a sentence with a number. However, many style guides discourage it. So, to be safe, try to avoid starting sentences with numbers. Either write the numbers in words when they begin a sentence or let a phrase precede them, such as, "Authorities said 1.25 million people die in road crashes."

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