"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 06/26/16

Sunday, June 26, 2016

“Face the Full Wrath of the Law”: Q and A on Nigerian, American and British English

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

In Nigeria, it is common for government officials and security personnel to say that criminals will “face the full wrath of the law.” I searched the expression in dictionaries, books of idioms and several grammar internet sites and haven’t found it. Is this a uniquely Nigerian English expression?

No, it is not a uniquely Nigerian English expression, although it is almost absent in contemporary American and British English. The expression "the (full) wrath of the law" is a translation from German. My findings show that it was first used in print in an English translation of German theologian Martin Luther's "Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians," which he wrote in 1535.

The German version of the expression, which came to us in English as “(full) wrath of the law,” is "vollen Zorn des Gesetzes." However, my former German-American student told me the expression has evolved since the 1500s when Martin Luther used it. “Nowadays, we'd say ‘mit der ganzen Härte des Gesetzes,’ which translates to ‘with the full force of the law.’  And yes, it means that someone is being punished with the full force of the law, in a judicial meaning,” she told me. “It appears as though the ‘wrath of the law’ Luther was taking about was referring to God's law.”

Biblehub.com gives more insight into the expression. Although the everyday meaning of “wrath” is intense anger, the site says, “The word ‘wrath’ here is to be taken in the sense of punishment." That’s precisely how Nigerian English speakers use and understand the expression.

I haven’t investigated and mapped the genealogy of the expression, but I am almost certain that it came to Nigerian English via British and Irish Christian missionaries. The fact that the expression is also common in other African English varieties like Zimbabwean English (but completely absent in the conversational English of native English speakers) lends credence to this.

Because, at the dawn of colonialism, the British Colonial Office was not interested in the education of the “natives,” Christian missionaries took it upon themselves to build schools and educate newly colonized people. So, early education in most of the former British colonies, especially in Africa, was not secular. Protestant Christian missionaries were so involved in British colonial education policy that it was customary to refer to them as Britain’s “unofficial partner” in the colonial project. It was probably why German Roman Catholic missiologist J. Schmidlin famously remarked in 1913 that “To missionize is to colonize and to colonize is to missionize.”

The surviving sociolinguistic remnants of this legacy are still evident in the archaic missionary (and biblical) English that defines the distinctiveness of Nigerian and African English. “The full wrath of the law” is one great example of that.

I want to know whether classmates, coursemates and colleagues are interchangeable. I saw them in a Nigerian newspaper. In my search, "coursemate" has no entry in my dictionaries, and colleague is not related to classmate. (2) GOSSIPER is found in many online dictionaries but not in my hard-copy dictionaries. Does that mean it is not a legitimate word? Many authors in Nigeria frown at its usage seriously.

“Coursemate” isn’t Standard English, although I've found recent examples of its usage in a few British newspapers, including an entry in yourdictionary.com, a user-generated online dictionary. An examination of the usage of the term across the world’s Englishes, however, shows that it’s most commonly used in Nigerian English. Malaysian English is a distant second. It is entirely unknown in American English.

“Classmate” is the more usual word for someone you go to school with. “Class fellow,” “schoolfellow,” and “schoolmate” are popular alternatives.

“Gossiper” is a legitimate word that has entries in several Oxford dictionaries and that appears in respectable usage. It is synonymous with “gossip” or “gossipmonger.” Curiously, though, I found no match for “gossiper” when I searched the British National Corpus, but found several references to it in the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

I personally never use the word, even casually, because I was taught from my formative years in Nigeria that it was improper English.

My tutor told me that American and British varieties of English are not allowed to be mixed verbally or in writing. Is this true?

Why not? Well, I think he probably meant that it helps to be consistent with one variety. But there are several American English expressions in British English and vice versa. And because American English is the dominant variety in today’s international English, it is really difficult to maintain a strict demarcation between American English and British English.

Several everyday English expressions started as Americanisms before being diffused widely in global English. Words and expressions like “radio,” “immigrant,” “squatter,” “teenager,” “lengthy,” “to advocate,” “to locate,” “to belittle,” “live wire,” “hot air,” “third degree,” “cold war,” “mass meetings,” “peace process,” “OK,” “movie,” etc. have distinctively American origins and were once derided as “horrible Americanisms” by British English speakers. Today, they are so integral to our everyday expressions that many of us can’t even imagine why the Brits had problems with them.

On the other hand, many Briticisms never cross the Atlantic, a recent notable exception being the sudden popularity in American English of the informal British English word “gobsmacked” after “Britain’s Got a Talent” internet sensation Susan Boyle used it to describe her unexpected success at the talent show. The word means “to be so surprised that you don’t know what to say.” After she told CNN she was “gobsmacked, absolutely gobsmacked” by her success, the word topped internet search terms in America for weeks on end. Now, I see that many Americans have integrated it into their active idiolect.

 However, some American expressions are still resisted by British writers and speakers. Expressions such as “OK, I guess,” “to check up on,” “to lose”; the sentence adverb “hopefully”; spellings such as “color,” “theater”; forms such as “gotten (British “got”), proven (British “proved”), “dove” (dived), “snuck” (sneaked); and grammatical features such as the use of “he” to refer back to “one” (One must support his team; British “one’s” team) or informal “real” (That was real good; British “really good”) have not made successful inroads into British English. So are numerous words and phrases like “sidewalk” for pavement, “gas” for petrol, “first floor” for ground floor (with corresponding changes for other floors), “faucet” for tap, “name for” for the British “name after” (as in, Washington DC was named for (British: named after) former American President George Washington), “wash up” for wash face and hands, etc.

When I say ''no amount of teaching, including a quote from his book, WAS going to change their mind.'' Is the above statement correct, or must I use WERE?

It should be "was." But if you had said, "no amount of teaching AND a quote from his book...," the right verb would have been "were." Phrases that start with prepositions like "including," "along," "with," etc. are not considered part of the subject of a sentence.

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