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A Question about Ebonics and My Response

This first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on April 8, 2006. What about American neologisms and Ebonics?...

This first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust newspaper, Abuja, Nigeria on April 8, 2006.

What about American neologisms and Ebonics?

I greatly enjoyed your educative columns on American English. Wallahi, your column alone is worth the cover price. It’s a form of learning by correspondence, and the stuff (and the delivery) is of high quality, the type of which one can hardly find in the Nigerian educational system (on the verge of total collapse).

As you rightly said, [your examples on American English usage are] not exhaustive. For example, I would have expected you to say something on neologisms--how they are churned out in American English. What about "Ebonics” among blacks?

Meanwhile I have already started benefiting from your write-ups on Americanisms. When Obasanjo visited the US recently, Bush talked about visiting "with" Liberian president (the Guardian, 30 March, 2006).I instantly remembered your column. By the way, we are pleading with Zainab, through you (her husband) to renege on her decision to stop her column, "Femme Point" in a few weeks’ time. Thanks.

Iliya Musa,

My Response
Thank you, Iliya, for your mail, and for the kind comments you made about my column. I actually had a lot more things to write about American English, but I was afraid that I was going to bore my readers after writing about it in three installments. I am relieved to know that somebody enjoyed it enough to want more of it.

Yes, Americans indeed have a robust imagination for coinages, what you call neologisms. As you can imagine, their repertoire of coinages is literally inexhaustible, and I can never do justice to them in a column. Most of the new coinages in American English result from Americans’ obsession with the short forms of words. Over time, these short forms take a life of their own and get weaned from the longer versions of the words from which they were derived.

The most prominent example of this is “gas,” the American word for petrol. At first, I thought it was singularly illogical to use gas as an alternative name for petrol, because while gas is air, petrol is liquid. But I soon found out that gas is actually the shortened form of gasoline, which is a scarcely used alternative word for petrol in old British English.

Now, Americans go to “gas stations” instead of petrol stations to fill their tanks which we sell to them as petrol from Nigeria!.

Another common culinary neologism especially in the South is “combo,” which simply means the full complement of a meal. Koko, doya da dankali, (i.e. pap, fried yam, and fried sweet potato) for instance, will qualify as a combo. I was surprised to find out that the word is actually only a shortened form of “combination.” When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University, Kano, we used to call that kind of food “combined honors.”

Other popular shortened forms of words that have grown into full words are “peds” for pedestrians, “condo” for condominium (a huge building that consists of several self-contained apartments that are individually owned), “legit” for legitimate or walk (the latter sense derived from “leg it), “max” for maximum, and so on. In fact, “max” is now often used in a verb form. It is not unusual to hear Americans say, “I've maxed out the gas in my car,” meaning I have used up all the petrol in my car.

Because Americans are such incredibly busy people, they have contempt for elaborate and long forms in their conversational language. Just a couple of days ago, one of my professors called me and said, “Hey, Farooq, your recs are on my table. Go pick them up.” Well, I found out after a day that he was telling me to pick up the recommendation letters he wrote for me.

There are, of course, regional variations in American English. Louisiana English, for instance, has heavy tinctures of French and African influences. The word “lagniappe,” for instance, is an exclusively Louisiana invention, even though it is now usual to hear many people in the South use it. (It is pronounced LANYAP).

It means a small gift, especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase. But this definition does not adequately capture the cultural meaning of the word. Its exact socio-linguistic equivalent is “jaara” in Hausa (now incorporated into Nigerian Pidgin English).

It is also used to indicate any kind of addition, or extras. While the word sounds French, its semantic content is decidedly African. I once wrote about the intriguing convergence of French, Spanish and African influences in Louisiana’s racial, cultural and gastronomic landscape. This convergence also manifests in the socio-linguistic experience of the people in many ways. It is conceivable that the “jaara” culture was brought to Louisiana by former African slaves.

Ebonics is another kettle of fish altogether. I also once said here that I am usually incapable of getting even the faintest tenor of a conversation with Black Americans when they speak in Ebonics. Originally called Negro Nonstandard English (NNE), Ebonics emerged as a result of the deliberate policy if white slave owners to deny Blacks access to education. The language sounds like a hotchpotch of mutilated English syntax, garbled and ungainly English structure, and an unnaturally fast speech pattern.

However, many people have said that it is a legitimate, semantically self-sufficient language that does not need the approval of Standard English to exist. And I agree. But what I detest about Ebonics is its proneness to profanity. It is usually riddled with many swearwords and sexually explicit expressions. The men call themselves “nigga” (not a spelling error) and their women are called and call themselves “bitches.” Of course, these are broad strokes that ignore many subtleties.

Well, because Black Americans now dominate the American cultural scene and are therefore the cultural icons for many young people, including white people, many expressions that were exclusive to Ebonics have now crept into demotic American speech.

For instance, when Americans say something is “bad” with a stress that makes the word sound like baaad, it means it’s really very good! It’s Ebonics’ contribution to American English. Inflections like badder and baddest, instead of the standard worse and worst, are also common in American colloquial English—another influence of Ebonics.

But perhaps my greatest surprise about American English is that many of the expressions that starry-eyed linguistic idealists in Nigeria label as “Nigerian English” are actually American expressions, like “senior brother,” instead of the standard elder brother; “junior brother,” instead of younger brother (it is often said that senior and junior indicate social relationships while elder and younger indicate biological relationships); and many other too numerous to mention here, are as common in America as they are in Nigeria. So are expressions like “often times,” “of recent” (instead of “of late”), and so on.

When next these supercilious grammar columnists in Nigerian newspapers tell you not write or speak these expressions, tell them to first stop Americans from using them!

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