"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 01/17/16

Sunday, January 17, 2016

“Body Language,” “Screen Touch,” and “Say Me Well”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage and Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Enjoy this week’s Q and A, which features answers to questions on Nigerian English expressions like “Buhari’s body language,” Nigerian English salutations like “say me well to,” and emergent telephonic expressions like “screen touch.” Also find the difference between “read a course” and “study a course”— and much more.

In Nigeria it is now usual to talk of President Buhari’s “body language” to mean fear of what he stands for and can do. We say things like, “the civil service is getting better now because workers fear that Buhari’s body language shows that he doesn’t tolerate corruption and laziness.” Is that standard usage? I wonder you haven’t written about it. Maybe it’s because you haven’t noticed it?

I have noticed it. No one who pays attention to Nigerian politics will fail to notice the incipience of the expression at around the ascendancy of the Buhari presidency. Nonetheless, I had assumed that people who used “body language” in the way you pointed out weren’t ignorant of the Standard English meaning of the expression; I thought they were merely intentionally contorting and expanding the expression’s traditional meaning.

As a communication scholar, I teach body language, which we call kinesics or kinesis in the scholarly literature. It basically means the communication of messages, both subtle and overt, through the movement, in part or in whole, of the body. If I shake my head to show disapproval, I am using body language. If I spread my five or ten fingers to call someone a bastard, as we do in Nigeria in moments of inflamed passions, I am using body language. And so on and so forth. That’s how the expression is understood in international Standard English.

The notion of “body language” as the deterrent effect that the fear of a person inspires is uniquely Nigerian. You can’t read a person’s “body language” if you don’t physically see the person and observe their bodily motions. I had imagined, perhaps incorrectly, that people who talk of “Buhari’s body language” know enough to know that no one would have any clue what the heck they are talking about outside Nigeria.

My own sense is that whoever came up with the expression was consciously imbuing an existing English expression with a new meaning in the service of a new, unlexicalized reality. But then many people started using the expression with no consciousness that the meaning associated with it is intentionally nonstandard; that it is a strictly made-for-Nigeria expression.

 I am not, by any means, discouraging the use of the expression. I actually think the re-semanticization of the expression is evidence of linguistic creativity.

"This is to confirm that the above named has been offered Provisional admission into [name of university] in 2015/2016 Academic Session. The Candidate has been admitted to read: Doctor
of Human Medicine 100 level in the Faculty/College/School of College of Health Sciences."
Sir, I quoted this from the letter of confirmation of admission I received. But a friend of mine said "The candidate has been admitted to study" is more appropriate than "to read".  Is he

He is wrong. In British English it is usual and perfectly permissible to use “read” to indicate the act of being a student at a university—or at any higher education institution. I typed “admitted to read” on Oxford University’s website and came across several matches, including this: “The number of undergraduates admitted to read Chemistry at Pembroke over the last few years has typically been around six per year.” A recent obituary in the UK Telegraph also contains the following: “After leaving school, she was admitted to read Chemistry at London University…”

American English speakers, however, don’t use “read” in the way British English speakers do. In America you are “admitted to study” a course, not to “read a course.” Maybe that is what your friend was hinting at. However, since British English is the standard that Nigerians privilege and emulate, I don’t understand why your friend thinks “read a course” is wrong.

Is it “screen touch” or “touch screen?

Until I received this question I was never aware that Nigerians call touch screens “screen touch.” Your question prompted me to search “screen touch” on search engines and on such social media networks as Facebook and Twitter. I found the phrase only on Nigerian-themed websites and by Nigerian social media handles.

The use of “screen touch” in place of “touch screen” is an example of a kind of error linguists call lexical metathesis or spoonerism; it is a kind of slip of the tongue in which the usual positions of words in a sentence are transposed. Another common lexical metathesis in Nigerian English is the use of “plate number” in place of “number plate,” the British English term for vehicle registration plate—or what American English speakers call license plate.

Recently, I said “say me well to your wife” to a friend of mine, but he laughed at me. When I asked why he laughed, he said you once wrote that the expression was wrong. But isn’t “say me well to…” an American English expression? Please clarify.

First of all, I think it’s impolite to laugh at people because you think they’ve committed an error in speech. And, no, “say me well” is not an American English expression. Here is what I wrote in my November 11, 2012 article titled “Top 10 Peculiar salutations in Nigerian English (I)”:

“1. ‘Say me well to him/her/your family,’ etc. Nigerians use this ungainly verbalism when they want to send expressions of good will to someone through another person. This uniquely Nigerian English expression would be puzzling to native speakers of the English language because it is structurally awkward, grammatically incorrect, and unidiomatic. I have no earthly idea how it emerged in Nigerian English. But it certainly isn’t a British English archaism or a literal translation from native Nigerian languages, nor is it Biblical English or a distortion of contemporary British or American English—four of the dominant sources of Nigerian English that I have identified in earlier write-ups here. 

“Whatever it is, the expression has attained idiomatic status in Nigerian English and should probably be patented and exported to other parts of the English-speaking world as Nigerian linguistic invention in English. 

“Some examples of fixed phrases that native English speakers use to express the same sense Nigerian English speakers convey when they say ‘say me well to…’ are ‘give my hello to him/her,’ ‘tell him/her I said hi,’ ‘give him/her/your family my (warm) regards,’ ‘give him/her my best wishes,’ ‘say hello to him/her for me,’ etc.”

Distinct people still spell that name as "Mohammed” or “Muhammad,” or “Mohamed," yet they are all referring to the same person in their write-ups. I am not even talking about Muhammadu Buhari. I mean the prophet. Does it mean they're not talking of the same man when they choose any of the variants? Usually abused by non-Muslims?

Well, it's because they are all using Roman orthography to write a name that is originally Arabic. Every time you use a different orthography to spell a name that was originally written in a different orthographic tradition, you often have several variants. It's normal. Names originally written in Latin alphabets also have different variants when they are written using different scripts such as Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese, Thai, etc.

Having said that, it helps to note that, over the years, “Muhammad” has emerged as the preferred rendition of the name in English. Even in the Oxford English Dictionary the name is written as Muhammad. Much older variants like Mahound or Mahomet are now considered offensive and are avoided by careful writers, except when references to the dim and distant past (when the variants were in vogue) are inevitable.

Is it in appropriate to say "please make sure" in a formal letter? I wrote a letter to my principal asking him to provide reagents for practical examinations, but when I said "please make sure you provide the actual reagent listed above" he was annoyed and said I wrote in a commanding tone. Is it true? I thought the “please” in my sentence suggests politeness.

Saying "make sure" to your superior is inappropriate, even imperious. That's the language adults use when they talk to children. It's a command, not a polite request. You could have written something like, "Please provide the reagents listed above."

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