By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In this week’s column, based on requests from readers, I explain why the popular Nigerian English “His Royal Highness” is strange to English speakers outside Nigeria. I also explain why “the Gambia” is always preceded by the article “the.” You will find other questions and answers on grammar and usage as well.
Traditional rulers in Nigeria are often formally addressed as “His Royal Highness.” That is unconventional by the standards of British English from where we borrowed it. Sovereign monarchs or kings are never addressed as “His/Her Royal Highness.” Only princes and princesses are addressed as such.
|In British English these monarchs are addressed as Their "Royal Majesty," not Their "Royal Highness"|
When princes or princesses become monarchs, they are addressed as “His Majesty” if they are males or “Her Majesty” if they are females. In some countries they are addressed as “His/Her Royal Majesty.”
Many British citizens not familiar with Nigeria’s conventions of address mistake our monarchs as princes because of the “His Royal Highness” (or HRH) honorific that precedes their names. In other European countries, such as the Netherlands, monarchs that have abdicated their thrones are also called “His Royal Highness.”
As I wrote in a previous article, a British person unfamiliar with the forms of address in Nigerian English would, for instance, think the Emir of Kano is a mere prince of Kano if he is addressed as “His Royal Highness, Muhammadu Sanusi II.”
I don’t know why Nigerians call their monarchs “His Royal Highness” instead of “His (Royal) Majesty” or some other more befitting honorific, but given how the British colonial government discouraged monarchs in their colonies being called “kings” (see my August 3, 2014 article titled “5 Words Native English Speakers Never Ever Use for Themselves”) it is conceivable that this, too, has roots in colonial politics of racial and cultural differentiation.
British colonialists compelled traditional rulers in their colonies to refer to themselves as “chiefs” and not “kings.” Most English dictionaries define a “chief” as the head of a “tribe” or a “clan.” That’s why it’s also rendered as “tribal chief.” (Although “tribe” has more than one meaning, when it is used to refer to an ethnic group, it means primitive, preliterate people.) Since Europeans—or at least contemporary Europeans—have no “tribes” (read my articles on the word “tribe”), they have no “chiefs.” Only nonwhite people do. What Europeans had or have are “kings”—and “queens.”
But a little more context is needed to unpack the ethnocentrism of the term. I recently read an 1821 British Foreign Office document titled Correspondence with Foreign Courts Regarding Execution of Treaties Contracted. On page 110 of the document, the reader finds that the British colonial government actually went out of its way to purposively discourage people in their African and Asian colonies from calling their monarchs “kings.”
“King,” the document says, is reserved only for a British monarch. Monarchs in the colonies should just be called “chiefs.” If the “chiefs” enjoy enduring historic prestige among their people, they might be called “paramount chiefs,” but never “kings.”
Nigerians have internalized this nomenclatural discrimination and call their monarchs “chiefs.” This is especially true in northern Nigeria where non-Muslim—or non-Emirate— traditional rulers are called “chiefs,” and their spheres of traditional influence are called “chiefdoms.”
In southern Nigeria “chief” is chiefly prefixed to the name of a traditional title holder. (See my June 15, 2014 article titled “A Pragmatic Analysis of ‘Emir,’ ‘Sarki,’ ‘Oba’ and ‘Chief’ in Nigerian English.”) It is equivalent to a knighthood in Britain, that is, an honor given by a traditional ruler to a non-royal person for personal merit or, in southern Nigeria, for being rich and famous. So southern Nigerian “chiefs” are not royalty.
But “chiefs” in northern Nigeria are royalty, even if recently invented royalty. Won’t it be nice, in the interest of linguistic equity, if we prefixed “Chief” to the names of these European monarchs: the Chief of England, the Chief of Denmark, the Chief of Norway, the Chief of Spain, the Chief of Sweden, the Chief of the Netherlands, the Chief of Belgium, etc.?
Why the “the” in the Gambia?
Many people have asked me to explain the appearance of the definite article “the” in the name of the Gambia, which just narrowly escaped a civil war thanks to the intervention of ECOWAS. Well, typically, the names of countries that derive their names from the names of rivers are often preceded by the definite article “the.” Gambia takes its name from the 700-mile Gambia River.
Another example of a country that derived its name from a river and, for that reason, usually has the article “the” in its names is “the Congo” (named after the Congo River). But there are many countries named after rivers (such as Zambia, Uruguay, etc.) that don’t officially have the definite article “the” in their names. It’s a national preference.
Countries whose names are invariably pluralized also usually have the definite article “the” in their names. Examples are the Netherlands, the Philippines, the West Indies, the United States, etc.
I am accustomed to saying "jokes apart" when I want to get serious after joking, but I was checking my dictionary this morning and I saw the phrase "joking apart/aside," which means the same thing with what I know as “jokes apart.” I want to know which one is more correct than the other.
Although it may sound strange to many Nigerians, the correct idiom is "joking apart" or "joking aside." Sometimes it’s rendered as “all joking apart/aside.” The phrase "jokes apart," I’ve discovered, is unique to Nigerian English and Indian English. I am yet to figure out why only Nigerian and Indians render the phrase as “jokes apart.” Although both varieties of English are descended from British English, their unique phrasing for the idiom is certainly not British.
A search for the phrase in the British National Corpus yielded not a single match. (The British National Corpus is a “100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English, both spoken and written.”)
I met an American girl online some time ago. In the course of our chat, she told me she wasn’t married, so I said something about her being a “spinster” and she got upset. What’s wrong with calling an unmarried woman a spinster? What am I missing?
You’re missing a lot. In contemporary English usage, the word spinster is considered pejorative. Careful speakers and writers avoid it.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “In modern everyday English spinster cannot be used to mean simply 'unmarried woman'; it is now always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed."
So, by the conventions of modern usage, it’s incorrect to call a young woman in her 20s or 30s—or maybe even early 40s— a “spinster.” The word is reserved only for women who are still unmarried—and childless— by the time they reached or are approaching menopause.
American English uses “bachelorette” or “bachelor girl” to refer to an unmarried young woman. Note, though, that these terms are absent in British English, although America’s cultural dominance ensures that they are widely understood. “Single” or “single woman” appears to be the preferred term across all native English varieties.