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My Baptism of and Conversion to American English (III)

This first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on April 1, 2006. By Farooq A. Kperogi If you have already...

This first appeared in my weekly column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on April 1, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

If you have already read enough of Americanisms, this is the last week you will be reading about them in this column. It is, of course, impossible to capture, within the limitation of a weekly column, the whole range of differences that I have observed— and experienced— in American English usage. However, a few more anecdotal accounts will suffice.

As is evident from my previous accounts, a lot of my exposure to the deviations of American English takes place in my interaction with students. Sometime in the early part of my stay here, about half of of my students got really low scores in my test. On the day I distributed their scripts to them (they have no clue what scripts mean; they either call them “tests” or “grades”) one female student stood up and asked if I would give them a “curve.”

I wondered silently what, in Heaven’s name, she meant by a “curve.” But, as I said earlier, I had determined that I had asked enough questions on America's eccentric English usage, and had decided to be more pragmatic in my learning process. I knew that the girl knew enough to know that only God could bring curves to her skinny, almost masculine, physique at that stage of her life. So she couldn’t possibly mean that she wanted me to do something about her lack of bodily endowments. Besides, there were also men in the class who should have no business with curves but who wanted “curves” from me. So I asked, “What curves”?

Seeing my confusion—and its obvious implication, because I must have been unconsciously examining the lady’s body to observe the absence of curves on her!—somebody volunteered to change the structure of the sentence to, “Will you curve our grades?” It was then I got the hint that they were probably asking if I would add extra marks—sorry, they call it “points”—across the board to move the class average up.

I couldn’t relate with it, first, because it was a strange concept for me. In Nigeria, my teachers never gave me grades that I did not work for. Second, I just couldn’t associate the word “curve” with the arbitrary increase in the grades of students to raise the class average—perhaps because of my weak quantitative reasoning abilities. I don’t draw graphs; I only draw word pictures.

However, it is not so much the queer divergences of American expressions that are perplexing as the inability of most Americans—at least from my experience—to relate with the simplest and most basic of British English expressions.

For instance, the first day that I wanted to send a letter to my wife from here, I encountered a needless communication breakdown in the bookstore because of my use of the word “post.” I went to the university bookstore to buy a type of padded envelope that Americans use to post pictures. I forgot the name of the envelope, however, because I had never used it before. The cashier wanted to help me, so she asked what I wanted to use the padded envelope for. And I said, “To post a letter.”

She couldn’t figure out what it meant to “post” a letter. So she said, “On a Web site?” I was lost. I later learned that Americans don’t post letters; they “mail” them. “Post” is used only in reference to uploading materials on the Internet. Of course, they have no postal addresses; only “mailing addresses.” However, they are yet to invent “mail offices”; thankfully, they still have post offices.

Other British English expressions that absolutely make no sense here are “full stop,” which Americans simply call “period” and “brackets,” which they prefer to call “parenthesis.” (What they call brackets here is what British people call square brackets like this: [ ]).

And when they say “momentarily,” they mean “soon” or “now,” not “suddenly.” I remember the first time I boarded an American airplane and the pilot announced that the plane would take off “momentarily.” I got panicky because I thought the plane had developed a mechanical problem and was taking off suddenly. When nobody joined me in my panic, it dawned on me that “momentarily” is the American equivalent of the equally crazy British word, “presently,” which also means “soon.”

Americans are also awful with prepositions. They, for instance, interchange the verb phrase “wait on,” which means to work for or be a servant to somebody, and “wait for,” which means to anticipate or physically stop for somebody or something.

Similarly, Americans “visit with” people; they don’t visit them. And they don’t say they are being interviewed for a job; they say they are “interviewing with” a prospective employer for a job.

Their use of verbs is no less awful. When they use the word “there,” it is almost always succeeded by either “is” or “was” even if the subject in the sentence is a plural noun. Examples are: “there is so many people out there,” “there is a lot of problems with that political party,” “there is 10 people in the class,” “there was not a lot of people at the party.” And such grammatically awkward expressions as “I could have went there” are also very common even among educated Americans—at least in the South.

But perhaps the most problematic aspect of American English for a person who has been exposed to a different variety of English is its conventions of pronunciation. The American accent is generally heavily nasal and tongue-twisting—at least to me.

They almost always roll their r’s, even occasionally allow an intrusive “r”, and dispense with their t’s, especially in the middle of sentences, when they speak. When the t’s are dispensed with, they sound like d’s. For instance, Rita is pronounced “Rida,” writer is pronounced “wraida.” Internet is pronounced “nRaned.”

The one I was least prepared for was the pronunciation of rhetoric. It is pronounced here as “wredric.” It took me almost six months to associate that pronunciation with the word. Computer is pronounced “compiuRar” and cheater (Americans don’t call a person who cheats a cheat; he is a cheater) is pronounced “cheedaR.” When “a” appears at the beginning of a word, it usually tends to be pronounced as an “o” sound, “o” as in organ. So a word like "article" will be pronounced as “ORdikul.”

As you'd expect, in my first few months here, I had great difficulty understanding some of their ways of pronouncing, just like they also had difficulty understanding my accent. It is the universal experience of all English-speaking Africans.

Thankfully, most Americans now understand me. But I have achieved this, like most other non-Americans, at the expense of great sacrifice. Each time I speak with Americans, in my effort to sound comprehensible to them, I sound to myself like some spooky voice from a disembodied spirit. After every class or extended discussion with friends, my vocal cavity, nasal veins, and tongues perpetually feel weak and exhausted. Some price to pay for wanting to speak like Americans!

When I first came here, I used to be disgusted by the way Nigerians living here strained very hard to affect American accents. But I have since understood why they do that. If they speak naturally, Americans will always interrupt them with “huh?”

A Nigerian who came here a couple of weeks ago for the first told me how frustrating it has been for him to communicate intelligibly with Americans. They always pretend not to understand any accent that radically deviates from theirs, especially if it is not a native English accent. Well, I advised him to learn to be a caricature like the rest of us have painfully made ourselves to be, if he wants to be successful in his communication.

All these deviations are came about because one American patriot called Noah Webster felt that it was not sufficient that America got political independence from Britain in 1776; he thought it should also get linguistic independence. This sentiment inspired him to spend his entire adult life standardizing American spellings and pronunciations, and compiling dictionaries that contain unique American words— and self-consciously distancing American English from British English.

It is a sad commentary of our state of development in Nigeria that people have made a career of ridiculing what it is now called “Nigerian English.” We have no reason to strain hard to replicate British English in our speech and writing.

If we cannot adopt one of our indigenous languages as a national language, we shouldn’t pooh-pooh our attempts at domesticating the English language.

It was Chinua Achebe who once said that any language that has the cheek to leave its primordial shores to other people’s territories should be prepared to face the reality of domestication. That’s what Americans have done to British English.

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