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Sunday, April 24, 2016

“Ghost Workers,” “Dowry,” “Johnny Just Come”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

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

My Q and A series is back. Find answers to questions on the difference between “dowry” and “bride price,” on why “Johnny Just Come” isn’t Standard English, whether the expression “ghost workers” is intelligible in other varieties of English, and so on. Enjoy.


Question:
Is the term “ghost worker(s)” exclusive to Nigerian English? When I searched the term on Google, I found that only Nigerian websites used it.

Answer:
No, “ghost worker” isn’t unique to Nigerian English. It appears in all varieties of English spoken in Africa—Nigerian English, Ghanaian English, Sierra Leonean English, Liberian English, Kenyan English, Tanzanian English, South African English, etc. I also found references to “ghost workers” or “ghost employees” in Indian English.

However, it is rare or absent in UK, US, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand English. Wherever “ghost worker” is used in the British and American media, for instance, it is often in reference to Anglophone African countries—and sometimes to such Commonwealth countries as India and Pakistan— where crooked government officials habitually pad payrolls with fictitious names to rip off the state.

There is no material necessity for the term in the linguistic repertoire of people who live in countries where English is spoken as a native language; their societies are too organized and too technologically advanced for there to be non-existent people earning salaries for work they didn’t do.

It is entirely plausible that the term is derived from archaic British English, especially given that it appears in all non-native English varieties in Commonwealth countries. But it also seems likely that it is a mimicry of ghostwriter, a writer who gives credit for his intellectual labor to someone else, often in exchange for financial reward.

Interestingly, I read a recent news article in an American newspaper where “ghost workers” was used to refer to poorly paid, overworked laborers in India. They are described as “ghost” because their work is neither known by Westerners who use their products nor acknowledged by their Indian employers who pay them peanuts and hide them away. “Ghost,” in this context, implies figurative invisibility.

Question:
What is the difference between bride price and dowry? Are they the same?  We use them interchangeably in Nigerian English?

Answer:
“Dowry” and “bride price” are not the same, and it is an error to interchange them. They are actually opposites of each other. Bride price is the money or property a man gives to the family of the woman whose hand he seeks in marriage. Dowry, on the other hand, is the money or property a woman gives to the (family of the) man who wants to marry her.

As far as I know, no Nigerian culture countenances a bride’s family giving money or property to the groom or the groom’s family. So, we almost never have a need to use the term “dowry” at all. Indians, however, do because, unlike in Nigeria, the family of the bride is obligated to give money or property (or dowry) to the groom.

Question:
Is the expression Johnny Just Come (JJC) Standard English? If it’s not, does it have an equivalent in Standard English?

Answer:
“Johnny Just Come” is unique to Nigerian English. The Standard English equivalent for the sense the expression conveys is “Johnny-come-lately” (note the hyphens). Although Johnny-come-lately started as an Americanism in the nineteenth century, it is now standard and is widely used throughout the English-speaking world (except, perhaps, in Nigeria where “Johnny Just Come” is preferred).

Precursors to “Johnny-come-lately” in nineteenth-century Britain, which have now fallen into disuse, are “Johnny raw” and “Johnny Newcome.”

Nevertheless, I think I like Johnny Just Come, although it’s not intelligible to native English speakers. I particularly like the abbreviated version of the expression: JJC. Another version of the expression that I have seen on Nigerian internet discussion boards is “Johnny Just Arrived.”

Question:
During an argument with a friend, I said, “Are you a God?” The friend said my grammar was wrong. What’s wrong with saying “Are you a God?”

Answer:
Theists believe God is one. If you say “Are you a God?” you are implying that there are many Gods. The indefinite article “a” gives room for that interpretation. If your reference is to the God that monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. believe in, then you should say, “Are you God?”

However, there are occasions when saying “Are you a god?” (note the lower case “g”) is perfectly sensible. Outside its supernatural meaning, “god” is also often used to mean a person of extraordinary qualities.

Question:
Is it grammatically correct to say “…cordially invites the pleasure of” somebody to attend an event as it usually appears on most invitation cards in Nigeria?

Answer:
There is a repertory of formulaic phrases used in invitation cards all over the English-speaking world. They include “you are cordially invited to…,” “…requests the pleasure of your company at…,” “…requests your presence at…,” “…invites you to…,” “…requests the honor of your presence,” etc.

“Cordially invites the pleasure” is an ungainly fusion of two formulaic phrases. You are better off with, “You are cordially invited to the wedding of….” If you want to sound formal and grand, you may choose, “We request the pleasure of your company at our wedding.” You “request the pleasure of” somebody’s company; you don’t “invite their pleasure.”

Question:
I have always wondered why English has both “persons” and “people” as the plural form of “person.” Is there a difference between “person” and “people”?

Answer:
Initially, “persons” was the only acceptable plural for person. Then “people” emerged and competed with “persons” and, for a long time, both forms were equally acceptable plurals of person.

Then it came to be taught that “persons” was used only when reference is made to discrete, easily countable individuals (e.g. “Four persons died at the scene of the accident”), and “people” is used for indiscrete mass of individuals (e.g. “People who are diagnosed with cancer early often live long”). Some grammarians still insist on this distinction.

Nevertheless, in contemporary English, “people” has emerged as the preferred plural for “person.” “Persons” is now limited to legal contexts— and to fixed expressions like “persons of interest,” “displaced persons,” “missing persons.”

Question:
Please could you clarify when it is appropriate to use “kindly” and “please” together in a sentence if it is permissible grammatically?

Answer:
“Please kindly” is grammatical but unidiomatic, perhaps over-polite, and even tautologous. Either "please" or “kindly" would serve the same purpose. I once used both in my column in error. I hesitated between “kindly” and “please,” settled on “please,” and meant to delete "kindly" but forgot to do so.

 It is noteworthy that “please kindly” is perfectly normal and common in Indian English (which is famous for its excessive obsequiousness), but this phraseology is rare in native-speaker English varieties.

Question:
Is there any difference between “not only...but also..."and “not only...but...?" In addition, what’s the difference between “on the continent" or “in the continent”?

Answer:
No difference that I am aware of. 2. Both can be correct depending on the context. Someone once pointed out that when you use progressive verbs (i.e., verbs that end with an "ing") it's recommended that you use "on," such as in this example: "it's happening on the continent." For locational and other references use "in," such as in the following sentence: "Nigeria is the most populous country in the continent of Africa." I am not sure this distinction is foolproof in all cases.

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