Thursday, December 31, 2009

Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Of the major parts of speech of traditional grammar—nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions and conjunctions—the ones that Nigerians probably abuse the most are adverbs and adjectives, outrivaled perhaps only by our pervasive misuse of prepositions.

But, first, what the heck are adverbs and adjectives? A straightforward, communicative definition of an adverb is that it is a word that answers the questions “where, why, when and how.”

So words like “here,” “there,” “everywhere,” etc would qualify as adverbs because they answer the question “where.” Grammarians further call such words “adverbs of place” because they signify location. Words/phrases like “because,” “due to,” “in order to,” etc answer the question “why.” So they are “adverbs of purpose/reason” because they indicate intention. Words like “now,” later,” “soon,” etc answer the question “when.” Grammarians call them “adverbs of time” because they signify temporalness. And words that end with the “ly” suffix such as “energetically,” “nicely,” etc answer the questions “how.” They are called “adverbs of manner” because they indicate mode or style.

There are several other types of adverbs, but because I don’t want to bore the reader any further with a juiceless and lifeless treatise on adverbs I will leave them for now. Well, the kinds of adverbs that Nigerians routinely murder are adverbs of manner, that is, those words that end with “ly.”

Chief among these are the words “outrightly” and “downrightly.” They are probably not strictly Nigerian inventions, but native speakers of the English language don’t say “downrightly” or “outrightly.” These adverbs don’t take the “ly” form. So where a Nigerian would say “Yar’adua’s handlers are outrightly lying to us,” a Standard English speaker would say “Yar’adua’s handlers are lying to us outright.” Where Nigerian speakers would say “he is downrightly hypocritical,” a Standard English speaker would say “he is downright hypocritical.” So, although these words are adverbs of manner, they don’t usually admit of the “ly” suffix.

Perhaps the trickiest of the adverbs we misuse is the word “severally.” We often use the word as if it meant “several times.” It is typical for Nigerians to say “I have told you severally that I don’t like that!” or “I have been severally arrested by the police.” In Standard English, however, “severally” does not mean “several times”; it only means individually, singly, independently, without others, etc, as in “the clothes were hung severally.” This means the clothes are apart from each other and don’t touch each other. Strikingly odd, not so?

One other adverb of manner that Nigerians have invented but that does not exist in any variety of Standard English is "instalmentally," as in "I will repay the debt instalmentally." Standard English speakers say "in installments" rather than "instalmentally."

What of adjectives? Well, they are usually defined as words that modify or qualify a noun or that express an attribute of something. But that definition is unhelpful. The most practical way to recognize an adjective is to understand it as a word that is capable of being expressed in comparative and superlative forms, that is, in the “er” “est” or “more” “most” formations. Examples: big, bigger biggest; beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful, etc. Only adjectives and adverbs of manner are capable of being expressed in these forms.

The commonest way adjectives are misused in Nigerian English is to mistake them for nouns. A notable, oft-repeated example is the word “mediocre,” which is an adjective meaning “second-rate.” It is customary for Nigerian speakers of the English language to describe someone as “a mediocre” or to describe a group of people as “mediocres.”

But only nouns can take singular and plural forms; adjectives can’t. So, since “mediocre” is an adjective and not a noun, instead of calling someone “a mediocre” it is more correct to simply say that he or she “is mediocre.” Note the omission of the article “a.” To call someone “a mediocre” is analogous to calling someone “a stupid” or “a foolish” instead of saying he is “stupid” or “foolish.”

I think, though, that it is entirely understandable, even justifiable, that many Nigerians misuse the adverbs I’ve highlighted above. English is a notoriously quirky language with many arbitrary, illogical exceptions to its rules. It is therefore perfectly excusable that anyone who has not grown up or lived in a native-speaker linguistic environment—or who has not immersed himself in a systematic study of the rules of the language— would miss these pesky exceptions especially because most other languages, including our native languages, have regular, predictable grammatical rules.

But my whole motivation in these grammar exercises, as I’ve always said, is to improve intelligibility in international communication in the English language. It doesn’t hurt to know that some usage patterns that we have been wedded to for years are, in fact, peculiar to us; that we shouldn’t be shocked when native speakers or other proficient users of the language are clueless when we use words in our own peculiar Nigerian way.

In our rapidly globalizing world made even more so by the ubiquitous instrumentality of the Internet, this knowledge won’t hurt one bit.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

On the Parity of Esteem Between Polytechnics and Universities

By Farooq A. Kperogi

If you are a university graduate who has been socialized to disdain polytechnics as inferior higher education institutions, think about this: Albert Einstein, the world’s most renowned physicist and one of the most influential thinkers of all time, graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic (now called the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich) in 1900 with a diploma in mathematics and physics.

Unlike in Nigeria, his diploma wasn’t a handicap to his pursuit of advanced degrees. He studied for and earned his Ph.D. in experimental physics from the University of Zurich, five years after his diploma.

If a polytechnic produced one of the world’s greatest thinkers, why are polytechnics so low on the totem pole of post-secondary education in Nigeria? Why do we reserve ice-cold derision for polytechnic qualifications?

Well, the answer lies in the different philosophies that informed the establishment of polytechnics in different countries. In the United States, as I pointed out last week, “polytechnic universities” and “institutes of technology” are, and have always been, similar in rank and structure to conventional universities. So they don’t have the reputational baggage that our polytechnics have.

But the UK tradition of polytechnic education, which we inherited in Nigeria, intended for polytechnics to be no more than intermediate technical and vocational schools to train technologists and lowbrow, middle-level manpower. So their mandate limited them to offer sub-degree courses in engineering and applied sciences.

In time, however, they ventured into the humanities and the social sciences and then sought to be equated with universities. This request was grudgingly granted only after the British government set up the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA)—composed wholly of people from the universities—to examine and validate the quality of polytechnic qualifications.

However, in spite of this elaborate institutional quality control (which had no equivalent for universities) the higher national diploma (HND) was treated as only the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree “without honors.”

In university administration lingo, only a “pass” degree—the lowest possible rank in British degree classification—is considered a degree “without honors.” This means that first-class, upper-second-class, lower-second-class and third-class degrees have “honors” and that the HND is only equivalent to a “pass” degree.

That’s why, traditionally, British universities did not—and still do not— admit HND graduates to master’s degree programs (even if they had a distinction in their diploma) without first requiring them to undergo a one-year remedial postgraduate diploma program—just like people with “pass” degrees must undergo a remedial program before being admitted to master’s degree programs.

This invidious discrimination against polytechnic graduates and manifestly preferential treatment of university graduates, often called the “Binary Divide” in UK higher education parlance, predictably gave rise to pervasive feelings of deep and bitter anger and ill-will in the system.

So in 1992, under the Further and Higher Education Act, the “binary divide” was abolished and all the 35 polytechnics in the UK were elevated to universities and given powers to award bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees. There are no more polytechnics in the UK.

Most other countries with British-style binary divides also eliminated the distinction between polytechnics and universities to varying degrees. In Australia, polytechnics were elevated to “universities of technology” in the 1990s. Hong Kong, a former British colony like Nigeria, upgraded its two polytechnics—The Hong Kong Polytechnic and the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong—to universities in 1994 and 1995 respectively.

New Zealand also merged all its polytechnics with existing universities and allowed only one—Auckland University of Technology (formerly the Auckland Institute of Technology)—to transmute to a full-fledged university in the 1990s. Greece abolished its polytechnics and upgraded them to universities in 2001. In South Africa, from 2004, polytechnics were either merged with universities or upgraded to “universities of technologies” although with limited rights and privileges.

In Germany, polytechnics can now, in addition to diplomas, award bachelor’s and master’s degrees in technical and vocational subjects (and in some humanities and social science courses such as communication studies, business and management, etc) but cannot award PhDs.

In Sierra Leone, where polytechnic education began only in 2001, the country’s three polytechnics award bachelor’s degrees in a limited number of courses, in addition to awarding diplomas and certificates. Even Kenya has started upgrading its polytechnics to universities from this year.

What the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Hong Kong, Greece, etc achieved in the 1990s and 2000s— that is, the abolition of the often unfair parity esteem between polytechnic and university qualifications—had been achieved in Albert Einstein’s polytechnic in 1909, five years after he got his diploma there. It was, like most other polytechnics in Switzerland, elevated to a full-fledged university, although it is still fondly called “Poly” by its students, staff, and alumni.

Now, only a shrinking pool of countries retains the binary divide between polytechnics and universities, viz. Nigeria, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Ghana, and Malaysia. We have no business being in this lonely company.

So this is my recommendation: The HND should be abolished. However, the OND should be retained to supply the nation’s middle-level manpower needs and to serve as a foundational qualification for entry into bachelor’s degree programs. Smaller polytechnics should be merged with contiguous universities and be given the power to award OND and bachelor’s degrees. Big, resource-rich polytechnics like Yaba Tech and Kaduna Polytechnic should be intellectually upgraded and then converted to full-fledged universities.

Having taught mass communication on a part-time basis at the Kaduna Polytechnic 10 years ago, I frankly think that the distinction between polytechnic and university curricula, at least in the humanities and the social sciences, is like the distinction between six and half a dozen. In other words, it’s a distinction without a difference.

It’s time to bridge our own binary divide.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sambawa and “Peasant Attitude to Governance”

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Former youth and sports minister Alhaji Saidu Samaila Sambawa, in an overly showy effort to impress the Kebbi State governor of his loyalty, shot himself in the foot—grammatically speaking, that is. He insulted Gov. Usman Saidu Nasamu Dakingari in his incompetent bid to employ a rhetorical ornament to characterize the governor’s style of governance.

“Let me tell you, there is no vacancy in Kebbi Government House,” he told the Daily Trust. “If anybody says there is vacancy there, we will face him, because as far as we are concerned, we already have a governor there and we are working closely with him to ensure that our people benefit from his peasant attitude to governance.” Hmm.

Certainly, there should be an immediate declaration of vacancy for the office of any state governor who has a “peasant attitude to governance”! In our ever more complex and rapidly globalizing world, a “peasant attitude to governance” can’t be of any benefit to anyone—well, except people like Sambawa.

A peasant is literally a rural farmer who owns or rents a small piece of land. In other words, the word refers to a rustic, small-time agricultural laborer. This conception, of course, excludes big-time, multi-million-naira, mechanized farm owners like Sambawa (remember his Sambawa Farms near Kaduna?).

It is obvious that Sambawa wasn’t referring to Gov. Dakingari as some lowbrow, small-scale farmer. He was engaging in what grammarians call a metaphoric extension of the meaning of the word “peasant.” But that is precisely where he insults the governor.

In its metaphoric extension, a “peasant” means a crude, uncouth, and ill-bred person who is deficient in culture or refinement; who is ill-mannered and coarse and contemptible in behavior or appearance. Synonyms for peasant are, “barbarian,” “boorish,” “provincial,” “unsophisticated,” etc. This metaphoric extension derives from the notion of poor, small-time rural farmers as xenophobic, illiterate, and fatalistic people who are hampered by a severely limited worldview because of their social, cultural and geographic seclusion from the mainstream.

The Oxford Dictionary says the use of the word outside its literal meaning of small-time rural farmer is “disapproving.” It renders its extended meaning as: “a person who is rude, behaves badly, or has little education.”

So, by logical consequence, a “peasant attitude to governance” would imply ignorant, illiterate, boorish, narrow-minded, xenophobic, intolerant, and uncultured style of governance. It’s a style of governance that would be terrifyingly vulgar and objectionably repellant in its superficiality, backwardness, and bigotry. Why would anyone want to torment the good people of Kebbi State with the perpetuation of an ill-defined but nonetheless loathsome style of governance such as this?

Well, perhaps, Samabawa wanted to convey the sense that the governor’s style of governance shows uncommon sensitivity to the needs of poor, rural folks in the state, but his intellectual and linguistic resources failed him. I don’t know enough about Kebbi State to either confirm or discomfirm this claim. In any case, it is not the business of this column to cross-check the factual accuracy of the predictably wild and embroidered claims of politicians and political jobbers. What is apparent, though, is that Sambawa’s grammatical miscue betrays a man who is straining really hard to be seen to be loyal to the governor. In the heat of such exhibitionist pretensions, the hemisphere of the brain that processes grammar and logic can shut down.

But, who knows, Samabawa’s characterization of Gov. Dakingari’s style of governance may very well be a Freudian slip that unintentionally divulges what Sambawa actually thinks of the governor. According to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, a slip-up can sometimes result from the operation of unexpressed thought-processes or conflicts within us and can reveal deep-seated, hitherto suppressed motives.

In fairness to Sambawa, who can deny that most of our governors do indeed have a “peasant attitude to governance”? For most of them, governance is nothing more than a gateway to what Karl Marx called the primitive accumulation of capital. It’s an opportunity to marry more wives, spread the network of concubines, and generally engage in the vulgar display of wealth while being intolerably smug, ignorant, and indifferent or hostile to the modernization and development of the states that they “govern.”

It is the same peasant attitude to politics that actuates Nigerian politicians to routinely declare that “there is no vacancy” either in state government houses or in Aso Rock. This expression is silly on so many levels. A vacancy is an unoccupied position or job. To the extent that there is always a governor—or an acting governor—at any given moment in the life of a state, it goes without saying that there is always no vacancy in government houses. (Well, one exists right now in Aso Rock since Yar’adua is too incapacitated to function as president but has refused to hand over the reins of government to the Vice President).

But if by “no vacancy in government house” these peasant politicians intend to slyly communicate to their political opponents that the incumbent governors will get second terms by hook or by crook (perhaps more by the latter), they are even worse than peasants; they are disreputably slow-witted simps.

Liberal democracy has many problems, but one of its redeeming features is the periodic empowerment it gives ordinary citizens to renew or revoke the tenures of elected officials. But when peasant politicians in Nigeria rob us of even that little symbolic privilege and, what is worse, unashamedly brag about their unmatched capabilities to rig elections, encapsulated in such irritatingly infantile statements as “there is no vacancy in government house,” we are in much graver danger than we think.

Friday, December 18, 2009

HND and American Universities

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In the past few weeks, I have received no fewer than 10 emails from readers of this column asking questions about how the Higher National Diploma (HND) compares with American post-secondary educational qualifications.

Does the United States have the HND or its equivalent? If no, do American universities accept HND graduates from Nigeria and elsewhere for graduate studies without requiring them to take remedial courses? Or do American universities also look down on HNDs like Nigerian and British universities do?

The straightforward answer, which derives from my personal experience with the American university system, is that the HND is treated almost exactly like a bachelor’s degree here. I know of many Nigerian and Canadian HND graduates who have been admitted to the master’s degree (and later PhD) programs of many American universities without undergoing remedial postgraduate diploma courses. (In any case, American universities don’t offer postgraduate diplomas).

The closest and most recent Nigerian HND graduate I know of who is pursuing a master’s degree at a U.S. university as of the time writing this column is a man who graduated from the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, with an HND in mass communication. He is, incidentally, studying for his master’s degree in communication at the University of Louisiana—my alma mater.

I once narrated the story of an HND graduate from Canada whose qualification was mistaken for a master’s degree at the University of New Orleans. This confusion arose, perhaps, because in American English “diploma” is the generic word for a document certifying the successful completion of any course of study. It’s equivalent to what we call “certificate” in British and Nigerian English. (Even the document certifying the completion of the PhD is called a “diploma” here).

Given that background, it’s easy to understand how a “higher diploma” would be mistaken for an advanced degree. But that’s not the only reason why HNDs are not discriminated against in American universities. There are at least four other reasons.

First off, let it be known that the American university system has no concept of the HND. Institutions of higher education here just award associate, bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees. Associate degrees are awarded only by “community colleges” after two years of study. They are, in some sense, equivalent to our Ordinary National Diploma (OND) or, perhaps, British and Nigerian “A” levels.

Universities and colleges award bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees. Although the word “college” is the generic term for what we would recognize as “university” in Nigeria (Americans describe people as “college-educated” if they have at least a bachelor’s degree) schools designated as “colleges,” for the most part, only award bachelor’s degrees.

Now, it is also usual for American colleges and universities to have the word “polytechnic” in their names even though they bear no resemblance whatsoever with the British and Nigerian concept of polytechnic. For example, 15 miles north of Atlanta, there is a school called the Southern Polytechnic State University, which awards bachelor’s and master’s degrees in technical and vocational fields, the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences.

Other popular American universities with “polytechnic” in their names are, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (often just called Virginia Tech), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (where Dr. Gabriel Oyibo of GAGUT infamy teaches), California State Polytechnic University, etc.

So when somebody comes to America with a qualification from a “polytechnic,” it’s likely to be regarded as the equivalent of a university degree since universities in America, as you have seen, can also be known as “polytechnics.” That’s probably the second reason why HNDs from Nigerian polytechnics and elsewhere are not discriminated against here.

The third possible reason why HNDs are not discriminated against by many U.S. universities is because the qualification is awarded after four years of post-secondary education. When you add to this the fact that these “higher diplomas” are given by “polytechnics” (a name often associated with universities here) it’s easy to understand why HNDs are easily accepted as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.

Now, compare this with the experience of Indians whose bachelor’s degrees from universities are never accepted as the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree precisely because it takes only three years to get a bachelor’s degree in the social sciences and humanities in India. An Indian master’s degree is accepted as the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree. That’s why every Indian here has a master’s degree.

Lastly, as I once mentioned on this page, admission to graduate schools in U.S. universities is often the result of a multi-faceted process. The most important of this process, however, is getting an acceptable score in the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). So even if you have an HND but received very high scores in the GRE you have a greater chance to get into graduate programs in U.S. universities than someone with a first-class degree from a university but with low GRE scores.

In the UK from where we inherited the tradition of HNDs, polytechnics have been discontinued since 1992. They have all transmuted into universities both in name and curriculum. As you would expect, HND holders still face discrimination in UK universities. In other words, U.S. universities are more welcoming to HND graduates than UK universities are.

Next week, I will write more on the idea of the polytechnic and how we can rescue it in Nigeria.

I receive scores of emails every day from people who read this article. Please note that I am not an admissions officer and can't help anybody find  admission into any American university. Write directly to the universities you're interested in and ask if they accept HND as the equivalent of a bachelor's degree.

I will not respond to emails asking me to help or advise with names of schools in America that accept the HND as an entry qualification for graduate studies. In any case, the  related articles below answer most of the questions I often receive from readers.

Related Articles:

On the Parity of Esteem between Universities and Polytechnics
Studying in America: What You Need to Know
Funding Your American Education
Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes I
Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes II
Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes III
Looking at American Education with Nigerian Eyes IV

Louisiana is America's Happiest State; New York Its Unhappiest!

A new research has just shown that Louisiana, one of America's poorest states, has the happiest people in the country and New York, one of the nation's most prosperous states, has its unhappiest people. Georgia is 19. Interesting finding. Read the full story below:

Happiest States Revealed by New Research
Jeanna Bryner
Managing Editor – Thu Dec 17, 2:05 pm ET

Ever wondered if you'd be happier in sunny Florida or snow-covered Minnesota? New research on state-level happiness could answer that question.

Florida and two other sunshine states made it to the Top 5, while Minnesota doesn't show up until number 26 on the list of happiest states. In addition to rating the smile factor of U.S. states, the research also proved for the first time that a person's self-reported happiness matches up with objective measures of well-being.
Essentially, if an individual says they're happy, they are.

"When human beings give you an answer on a numerical scale about how satisfied they are with their lives, it is best to pay attention. Their answers are reliable," said Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England. "This suggests that life-satisfaction survey data might be very useful for governments to use in the design of economic and social policies," Oswald said.

The happy-states list, however, doesn't match up with a similar ranking reported last month, which found that the most tolerant and wealthiest states were, on average, the happiest. Oswald says this past is based on raw averages of people's happiness in a state, and so doesn't provide meaningful results.

"That study cannot control for individual characteristics," Oswald told LiveScience. "In other words, all anyone has been able to do is to report the averages state-by-state, and the problem with doing that is you're not comparing apples with apples because the people who live in New York City are nothing like the individuals living in Montana."

Rather, Oswald and Stephen Wu, an economist at Hamilton College in New York, statistically created a representative American. That way they could take, for example, a 38-year-old woman with a high-school diploma and making medium-wage who is living anywhere and transplant her to another state and get a rough estimate of her happiness level.

"Not much point in looking at the happiness of a Texas rancher compared to a nurse in Ohio," Oswald said.

The happiest states:
1. Louisiana
2. Hawaii
3. Florida
4. Tennessee
5. Arizona
6. Mississippi
7. Montana
8. South Carolina
9. Alabama
10. Maine

The scientists caution, however, that the top spot, Louisiana, might not reflect current levels of well-being since the data were collected before the disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina. They are confident that data for the other states does accurately reflect happiness levels.

See the full list of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) here.

Happiness measures
Their results come from a comparison of two data sets of happiness levels in each state, one that relied on participants' self-reported well-being and the other an objective measure that took into account a state's weather, home prices and other factors that are known reasons to frown (or smile).

The self-reported information came from 1.3 million U.S. citizens who took part in a survey between 2005 and 2008.

"We wanted to study whether people's feelings of satisfaction with their own lives are reliable, that is, whether they match up to reality - of sunshine hours, congestion, air quality, etc - in their own state," Oswald said.

The results showed the two measures matched up. "We were stunned when it first came up on our screens, because no one has ever managed to produce a clear validation before of subjective well-being, or happiness, data," Oswald said.

They were also surprised at the least happy states, such as New York and Connecticut, which landed at the bottom two spots on the list.

"We were struck by the states that come at the bottom, because a lot of them are on the East Coast, highly prosperous and industrialized," Oswald said. "That's another way of saying they have a lot of congestion, high house prices, bad air quality."
He added, "Many people think these states would be marvelous places to live in. The problem is that if too many individuals think that way, they move into those states, and the resulting congestion and house prices make it a non-fulfilling prophecy."
Would you be happier in another state?

Using both the subjective well-being results, which included individual characteristics like demographics and income, and the objective findings, the team could figure out how an individual would fare in a particular state.

"We can create a like-to-like comparison, because we know the characteristics of people in every state," Oswald said. "So we can adjust statistically to compare a representative person hypothetically put down in any state."

This new research will be published online on Dec. 17 by the journal Science.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Contemporary Nigerian media English, for the most part, derives from a fetid repertoire of aggravatingly stereotyped and error-ridden phraseology. I have isolated 10 recurrent ones that particularly grate on my nerves.

While some of the expressions I have highlighted below are outright grammatically incorrect, others are grammatically correct but either laughably outdated or hopelessly clichéd. Either way, they all need to be dumped like “the verbal refuse” that they are. The numbering of the expressions is entirely arbitrary; it doesn’t indicate a hierarchical ordering of their egregiousness.

1. “Remains deposited at the mortuary.” This is almost the standard expression in Nigerian media English to say that a dead body has been delivered at the mortuary. There are two problems with this expression. First, the word “remains” is too formal for a news story. “Corpse” and “dead body” are the more usual words. And “deposit” is a singularly quaint verb to associate with death, especially in popular usage.

There are three principal senses of the word “deposit” in conversational English. The first and most popular is to put money or other valuables in a bank account. The second sense is to put, fix, force or implant something, as in “deposit a bullet in the table.” And the third sense is to situate something, that is, to put something somewhere firmly, as in “deposit the suitcase on the bench.” It’s unclear how this expression sprang in Nigerian media English, but it makes me sick to my stomach.

2. “Hear him,” or “in his words.” These are not strictly grammatically incorrect expressions; they are just ugly, inappropriate and superfluous verbiages. The convention in journalistic writing globally is to quote a source and acknowledge attribution by writing “(s)he said” at the end of a sentence. Example: “I hope Yar’adua lives long enough to save us from a potentially destructive constitutional crisis,” he said.

Now, when Nigerian newspaper journalists write “hear him,” they are not only being superfluous; they are also being unfaithful to the medium in which they write. We don’t literally “hear” people in print; we read them. And to write “in his words” while at the same time inserting quotation marks to those words is redundant. It is precisely because you’re quoting your source “in his words” that the sentence is in quotation marks. It’s, of course, appropriate to write “in his words” in broadcast scripts since they are meant to be read out.

3. “As at the time of filing this report.” Well, the correct expression, which is actually a fixed prepositional phrase, is “AS OF,” not “as at.” So, that sentence should read: “As of the time of filing this report.” This solecism has sadly percolated deep into the conventions of Nigerian English in general.

4. “Men of the underworld.” This expression has lost currency in other parts of the English-speaking world. But my gripe with it is that it’s a hackneyed, flyblown cliché that evinces the intellectual laziness of Nigerian journalists. Why not simply write “criminals”?

5. “Names withheld.” This expression rankles me to no end. It’s not only unprofessional and irresponsible journalism to habitually conceal the identity of the subjects you are writing about (as in, “a south-south governor in an oil-rich state [names withheld] is involved in a corruption scandal”); it’s also exasperatingly redundant to state that you have withheld the name of someone whose name you have not mentioned anyway! It is obvious to any reader that a name has been withheld if it’s not mentioned. But what is particularly irking about this practice is that it is used even in reporting stories of crucial public importance.

If reporters and editors are not prepared to name names, even where it is legally and ethically safe to do so, why waste ink and space to opaquely hint at them? But the bad news for editors and reporters who practice this imbecilic and feeble-minded journalism is that, in media law, not directly mentioning the name of a person or an organization is not sufficient safeguard against legal liability. If a person or a company can prove that there is sufficient material basis for “right-thinking” members of the society to infer that they are the object of a libelous newspaper innuendo, the paper is in the soup.

6. “Electioneering campaign.” “Electioneering” and “political campaign” mean the same thing. So “electioneering campaign” is tautologous. It’s either electioneering or campaign.

7. “Our story is true in every material particular.” The phrase “in every material particular” is an archaic legal jargon. It is not used in everyday English in any native variety of the English language.

8. “Yesteryears.” This old-fashioned word, which is sometimes used for literary effects, has no plural in both the British and American varieties of Standard English. It remains “yesteryear” whether it’s in the singular or plural form. Another word that Nigerian newspapers—and by extension Nigerian speakers of the English language—pluralize against conventional practice is “slang.” The plural is often rendered as “slangs” in Nigeria. In Standard English, however, the plural form of slang does not take an “s”; it is often rendered as “slang expressions.”

9. “A free-for-all fight.” This tautologic expression is probably a consequence of the misrecognition of the part of speech of “free-for-all.” It is a noun, not an adjective, and cannot modify another noun. It means a brawl, a noisy fight in a crowd. So it is sufficient to simply write that there was a free-for-all without adding “fight.”

10. “Not unconnected with.” This expression is not grammatically wrong but is hopelessly hackneyed and pretentious. George Orwell once urged us to laugh the not un- formation out of existence by memorizing this sentence: “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fried Chicken and Watermelon: Racism Through Food in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In the two-part series I did titled “Eighteenth-century racism in twenty-first America,” I cited a racist picture of Obama posted on the Facebook fan page of the Republican Party.

The picture shows Obama eating fried chicken with the caption, “Miscegenation [that is, interracial marriage, which Obama is a product of] is a CRIME against American values. Repeal Loving v. Virginia [that is, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized interracial marriage].”

I then added that fried chickens are “a popular unflattering stereotype of black people here.” Some of my Nigerian readers who are not familiar with what I call America’s culinary racism were confused. What is racist about fried chicken? In what ways does it evoke negative associations with black people? The best question, I think, was this: “Is it the same chicken that is called kaza in Hausa? Is… there more to it than the taste and nutritive value of the chicken?”

Yes, it is the same chicken that is an occasional meat for special occasions in much of Africa.

No one knows for sure how the stereotype of black people as a chicken-eating race grew and flowered in America’s popular culture. But what is certain is that chicken is very cheap here and is considered "junk." During slavery, fried chicken—along with chitlings (that is, intestines of pigs prepared as food)— was the cheapest source of protein for poor blacks. So, over time, chicken became stereotyped as black people's favorite meat.

Another gastronomic stereotype of black people is that they are guzzlers of watermelon, the large roundish melon with a hard green rind and sweet watery red or occasionally yellowish pulp, believed to be native to Africa. It has been stereotyped as the black American fruit, not because its origins are traceable to Africa but perhaps because it was traditionally the cheapest source of natural vitamins for black people.

The Authentic History Center, which chronicles interesting historical facts about American popular culture, says the notion of black Americans as chicken-eating, watermelon-gulping sambos (a racially demeaning term for black people) “may have begun as Southern stereotypes and then evolved into Black stereotypes. It's also possible that these evolved out of American slavery. Numerous primary sources chronicle Black resistance to slavery through ‘silent sabotage,’ or, day-to-day acts of resistance. Stealing from the master was one example. It seems logical that, given that food would be among the most desirable of items a slave would pilfer, and chickens and watermelons would have been commonly available.”

Today, in American popular culture, the most effortless and most effective way to make a racist caricature of black people without saying a word is to draw images of fried chicken and watermelon. In other words, in American pop culture, fried chicken and watermelon equal black America.

For instance, in October 2008, during the last presidential campaigns, a local Californian Republican Party women’s club produced an e-newsletter warning that if Obama got elected as president his face would appear on food stamps (a government-issued welfare package which comes in the form of stamps and given to low-income, usually black, people; it can be used in exchange for food at many grocery stores across the country), rather than on dollar bills like other presidents.

It then included a picture of “Obama Bucks” — a fake $10 bill with Obama surrounded by fried chicken, watermelon, Kentucky Fried Chicken (a chain fast-food chicken restaurant now called KFC), etc. The image provoked mass outrage.

Similarly, in February 2009, the mayor of a small California town caused a stir when he sent out an e-mail picture depicting the White House lawn planted with watermelons under the title, "No Easter egg hunt this year." The implication is that with Obama as the president of America, the White House has now been “blackened” and defamiliarized. The mayor resigned in the wake of the massive backlash that the picture engendered.

But this is all bunkum because today, everybody—white, black, rich, poor—eats fried chicken and some watermelon. The fact, though, is that however much we might resent it, fried chicken and watermelon have become the main stuff of the stereotypical caricatures of black people.

When I first came to this country, I had been blissfully ignorant of this stereotype. So I would often order fried chickens from restaurants without the slightest consciousness that I was feeding a racial stereotype. One day an African American friend of mine joked that my love for fried chicken probably shows that the black American love for the same meat has roots in their African origins. That was the first time I became aware of this stereotype.

I know some upper-middle-class blacks who try to subvert the stereotype by refusing to eat fried chicken and watermelon—at least in public—but this strikes me as an inane reaction that only empowers the people and the culture that spawned the stereotype in the first place. In spite of my knowledge that blacks are stereotyped as chicken-loving, watermelon-gulping people, I eat my fried chicken with relish when I feel like it.

In a country where pork is found in almost every kind of meat under different cute-sounding names, chicken is the safest meat for me. But, more than that, no one can define me without my permission. Not even the most entrenched American gastronomic racism.

Related Articles:
Eighteenth-Century Racism in Twenty-First Century America (I)
Eighteenth-Century Racism in Twenty-First Century America (II)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Yar’adua’s Health: Amb. Aminchi’s Impossible Grammatical Logic

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Nigeria’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Alhaji Garba Aminchi, was quoted by an Abuja newspaper to have fulminated against the unnervingly prevailing buzz that President Yar’adua is in a persistent vegetative state and in grave danger of imminent death. “And all these insinuations are lies,” he was quoted to have said. “To the best of my knowledge, I see him every day, and he is recovering….”

To the best of his knowledge, he sees the ailing president every day? So our ambassador is not even sure if, indeed, he sees the president every day, but he is certain nonetheless that the president is recovering. Huh? This is a supreme instantiation of a case where thought, language, and materiality have parted company.

At issue here is the idiom “to the best of my knowledge,” which is also commonly rendered as “to my knowledge.” This expression, according to the Macmillan Dictionary, is used for saying that you think something is true, but you are not completely certain, as in, “To the best of my knowledge, the President has not decided if he will resign because of his failing health.” The Free Dictionary defines the idiom thus: “as I understand it.” The Oxford Dictionary also defines it as, “from the information you have, although you may not know everything.”

So, the idiom is deployed principally to express thought-processes that reside in the province of incertitude, of inexactitude. If, for instance, someone were to ask me (and somebody did indeed ask me a couple of days ago) if Yar’adua was dead, I would say “well, to the best of my knowledge he is alive.” Here, the phrase “to the best of my knowledge” admits of both the possibility that he could be alive or dead. In other words, it betrays the uncertainty and tentativeness of the information I have about the query.

Now, for Ambassador Aminchi to use the idiom “to the best of my knowledge” (which admits of uncertainty) in the same sentence as “I see him every day and he is recovering” (which connotes cocksure certitude) evokes an eerily bizarre disjunction between thought, speech, and reality, one that is impossible to conceive of even with the wildest stretch of fantasy. This is as much a grammatical slip as it is a logical labyrinth.

One perfectly legitimate interpretive possibility from the ambassador’s statement is that he actually sees a figure in Saudi Arabia in the likeness of President Yar’adua that is convalescing from a sickness, but is uncertain if this is merely the apparition of a spooky specter masquerading as Yar’adua or if it’s Yar’adua himself. In spite of this dubiety, however, he is positive that the real Yar’adua is recuperating.

This is obviously not what the ambassador wants to be understood as saying. So, one or two of three things are happening here. The first is that the ambassador is being barefacedly mendacious in order to conceal the graveness of the condition of Yar’adua’s health. And this won’t be out of character. After all, English diplomat and writer Henry Wotton once famously defined an ambassador as an "honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." Only that, in this case, our ambassador is lying abroad for the bad of his country.

The second possibility is that the ambassador is simply clueless about the meaning of the idiom. And a third possibility is that he has been misquoted or mistranslated by the reporter who wrote the story.

Now, this isn’t an idle, nitpicking censure of an ambassador’s innocent slip by a snooty, self-appointed grammar police. This issue is not only about the health of Yar’adua; it is also about the health of our country. Since Yar’adua took critically ill, the nation has been in even much graver illness. In somber moments such as this, we cannot afford the luxury of tolerating intentionally deceitful and irresponsible political language from public officials.

In his famous 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell railed against this very tendency among the public officials of his day. He wrote: “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Do you see any parallels here between Ambassador Aminchi’s illogical grammar—and indeed that of most Nigerian public officials—and the public officials of Orwell’s days?

Interestingly, the problem endures to this day even in Britain. On Nov. 3, the Guardian of London reported that a British parliamentary committee excoriated “politicians and civil servants for their poor command of the English language” epitomized in the “misleading and vague official language” of prominent politicians.

Tony Wright, chairman of the committee, said: “Good government requires good language, while bad language is a sign of poor government. We propose that cases of bad official language should be treated as ‘maladministration’.”

Maybe the committee chairman’s sentiments are a bit of a rhetorical stretch, but someone should tell Ambassador Aminchi that he cannot simultaneously be unsure that he sees the ailing president and yet be certain that the president is recovering. That’s impossible grammatical logic. And that can only sprout from a mind that is wracked by psychic disarray.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Why is “Sentiment” Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

There is probably no more misused word in Nigerians’ demotic speech than the word “sentiment”—and its many inflectional variations, such as “sentiments,” “sentimental,” “sentimentalism,” etc. In popular discourses, both at home and in the digital diaspora—and in blissful ignorance—Nigerians routinely do so much semantic violence to this harmless word.

For instance, in everyday political conversations, it is customary to hear Nigerians enjoin their interlocutors to eschew “sentiments” and instead consider the merit of an argument. An explicitly partisan argument is usually condemned as being mired in “sentiments.” Writers and speakers who want to insulate themselves from charges of bias and prejudice declare their points of view as being free from or not inspired by “sentiments.” Any opinion that is adjudged to be “full of sentiments”—or “sentimental”— is often rhetorically marginalized. And so it is typical for Nigerians to preface potentially controversial or divisive remarks with phrases like “sentiments apart,” “this is not about sentiments,” I’m not being sentimental but…,” etc.

This solecism is not the sole linguistic perversion of illiterate or barely educated Nigerians; it’s a widespread usage norm among even some very educated Nigerians. So why is “sentiment” such a bad word in Nigeria? Why do Nigerians strain hard to avoid even the remotest association with the word in their quotidian discursive engagements?

Well, it is obvious that many, perhaps most, Nigerians understand the word “sentiment” to mean scorn-worthy prejudice that is activated by visceral, unreasoning, primordial loyalties. That is why in Nigerian English, expressions like “religious sentiments” and “ethnic sentiments” are synonymous with what Standard English speakers would recognize as “religious bigotry” and “ethnic bigotry” or, in a word, ethnocentrism.

It also explains why, sometime ago, a reader thought I was being unfair to myself by describing my point of view as a “sentiment.” In my weekly column, I had written something about readers who “shared my sentiment” on an issue and this faithful reader wrote to assure me that my position was “NOT a sentiment at all”; it was “objective,” he insisted. Problem was: it was just my personal judgment.

This permeative Nigerian (mis)usage of the word “sentiment” has no basis in either the word’s etymology or its current Standard English usage. There is nothing even remotely dreadful about “sentiment” in and of itself. Sentiment is, of course, a polysemous word (that is, it has a multiplicity of meanings) but, in all of its lexical ambiguity, it does not denote or connote bigotry or prejudice. In its most habitual usage, especially when it is used in the plural form, it merely means personal judgment, opinion, thought, view, etc, as in, “does anyone else share the sentiment that Nigerians widely hate and misuse the word “sentiment”? So, stripped to its barest essentials, “sentiments” simply means opinions.

The other popular usage of the word is as a synonym for emotions, that is, strong feelings not informed by rationality, as in “patriotic sentiments,” “anti-American sentiments,” “revolutionary sentiments,” etc.

But the word also has usages of disapproval. It can, for instance, mean being mawkish, that is, effusively or insincerely emotional (as in, “he got all sentimental about the death of his cat”) or susceptibility to tender, delicate, or romantic emotion (as, “she has too much sentiment to be successful”). These meanings derive from the notion of sentimentality or sentimentalism as indulgence in exaggeratedly gushing expression of tender feelings, nostalgia, or sadness in any form.

I have gone to this length to tyrannize the reader with these trite and banal definitions just to illustrate that in the range of significations the word “sentiment” encapsulates, prejudice or bigotry isn’t one of them.

So how did we come about this distortion of the meaning of “sentiment”? Why do most political, especially overtly partisan, articles in Nigerian newspapers and on Nigerian websites proclaim to be devoid of “sentiments” when, indeed, that is precisely the stuff they are—and should be— made of?

From my admittedly hazy and therefore unreliable recollections, it seems to me that this phobia for “sentiments” has roots in military-era slogans of the 1980s. Remember the “Say No to Corruption; Say No to Tribalism (sic); Say No to Nepotism,” etc slogans? I think one of the slogans was “Say No to Sentimentalism”—or something like that. From then on, it became fashionable to label “sentiments,” “sentimental,” “sentimentalism” as lexical items of disapproval in the class of “parochial,” “tribalistic,” “tribalism,” “nepotism,” etc.

Now, let me be clear: I am a strong advocate for Nigerian English, as my previous writings on the subject show. However, my sentiment (hmm… that dreaded word again!) is that Nigerian English is most justified where it invents or creatively contorts words to express unique Nigerian socio-cultural experiences that are not lexicalized in current Standard English.

Clear cases of usage errors that are the consequence of ignorance should not be dignified as Nigerian English. They needlessly distort intelligibility in international communication in English, and in a world where time-honored spatial and temporal boundaries are collapsing at unimaginable speeds we can’t afford that kind of self-limiting linguistic insularity.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Reverse Obama Moment for Atlanta After All

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Unfortunately, my expectations about the Dec. 1 runoff contest didn’t materialize. Atlanta did not, after all, have its reverse Obama moment.

Mary Norwood, the white female candidate who won the first round of polls on Nov. 3, lost by a razor-thin margin to Mohammed Kasim Reed, the black candidate. Reed defeated Norwood with mere 758 votes out of a total of more than 83,000 votes cast, representing a margin of less than one percent.

Mary Norwood

And, although both candidates garnered substantial votes across the black/white racial divide, the voting pattern largely followed the traditional racial fault-lines of the city.

In the northern part of the city, which is 88 percent white and only 8 percent black, Norwood received 87 percent of the votes and Reed received only 12 percent. In the southern part of the city, which is 97 percent black and only two percent white, Reed got 81 percent of the votes and Norwood received 18 percent.

Kasim Reed

This shows that Norwood did better in black neighborhoods than Reed did in white neighborhoods. Or, put another way, more blacks voted outside their race than whites did. And in a city where over 50 percent of the registered voters are black, Norwood’s performance may signal a shift in the character of Atlanta’s politics.

(It’s important to note that the “city of Atlanta” is different from “Metro Atlanta,” although the city of Atlanta is the nucleus and urban core of Metro Atlanta. While the city of Atlanta comprises only one county, that is, Fulton county, and is only a little over half a million in population, Metro Atlanta comprises several different smaller cities that have been “swallowed” by Atlanta and are now practically indistinguishable from it. Metro Atlanta consists of 28 counties with a population of nearly 6 million people. In this article I talk only of the city of Atlanta).

Norwood’s near-victory may not represent Atlanta’s Obama moment, but it does signal a dramatic change in the offing in this city that has been dubbed the Mecca of Black America: with the unprecedented return of the white middle class to Atlanta and its attendant forced black flight, Reed (who was born a Muslim but is now a practicing Christian) may be the last black mayor of Atlanta.