Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Human Tendency for Selective Outrage (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin took phony umbrage at a statement credited to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who called the plan by progressive groups in America to air attack ads against conservative Democrats who aren’t sufficiently enthusiastic in their support for Obama’s healthcare reform “fucking retarded.”

Because she has a son who has congenital developmental problems, Palin said in a Facebook note that the use of the word “retard” as a term of abuse was a “slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities” and urged President Obama to fire Emanuel, who copiously apologized for the remark and even arranged to have a meeting in the White House with advocates of people with mental disability. But Palin couldn’t be consoled or appeased. She said Emanuel must be fired irrespective of how contrite he was.

Just while the controversy was raging, the unapologetically racist, conservative, hate radio talker Rush Limbaugh used the word “retard” in even more demeaning ways than Emanuel did. “Our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards,” he said in his radio show, the most listened radio show in America. “I mean these people, these liberal activists are kooks. They are looney tunes. And I’m not going to apologize for it…. I think their big news is he’s out there calling Obama’s number one supporters fucking retards. So now there’s going to be a meeting. There’s going to be a retard summit at the White House.”

Now, this is far worse than what Emanuel had said. And what was Palin’s reaction? First it was hypocritical silence. Then a Washington Post reporter and blogger managed to get a generic condemnation of the use of the word “retard” from Palin’s spokesperson. She said the word is “crude” and “demeaning.” But since her statement was a direct response to a request for her to comment on Limbaugh’s repeated use of the word in spite of Palin’s objection to it, the reporter understood and reported her to be saying that Palin condemned Limbaugh’s outburst as “crude” and “demeaning.”

But almost immediately after the story was published, Palin ordered her spokesperson to issue a rebuttal and to maintain that her words were taken out of context. In fact, she personally made an appearance on Fox News and defended Limbaugh, saying he used the word retard “satirically.” However, when an almost-by-definition satirical animated television sitcom called “Family Guy” subsequently used the word, she called it a “kick in the gut”!

All this proves the truth of the notion of selective perception. We are more tolerant of and readier to justify hurtful words that come from our “friends” than we are of even less hurtful words that come from our “enemies.”

Black Americans were riled by Lent’s remarks in 2002 because he has a history of anti-black bigotry. As a Congressman, he voted against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, voted against the continuation of the Civil Rights Act, and opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday. So he’s the enemy.

Reid, on the other hand, has voted consistently to enhance the rights and humanity of black people. So he is the friend who can’t be wrong.

Emanuel is one of the fortresses of the Obama administration, the nightmare of conservative Republicans, so his private indiscretions must be blown out of proportion by Republicans. But Limbaugh is the de facto leader of American conservatives, and so even his foulest public indiscretions must be defended and justified. Same offense, different perceptions.

There is a parallel going on in Nigeria, too. For instance, some Nigerian Christians who are often quick to condemn ethno-religious murders in the north when the perpetrators are Muslims have been curiously silent, and perhaps even silently happy, when it emerged that most of the people killed in the recent Jos crisis were Hausa Muslims. They justify their moral double standards by invoking facts that are extraneous to the Jos crisis.

On the popular Nigerian online site, Sahara Reporters, many commenters justified the cold-blooded murder of Boko Haram leaders recently unearthed by Al-Jazeera by callously calling it a comeuppance for the past “terrorism” of Hausa Muslims. Any violence by Hausa Muslims is now “terrorism,” but any violence against Hausa Muslims is acceptable retributive justice.

On the other hand, Hausa Muslims also seem to have suddenly discovered the word “genocide” only because their kindred were at the receiving end of the murderous violence in Jos. But they never called the barbarous 1960s pogroms against Igbos in the north “genocide.” Nor have they ever called the periodic senseless mass slaughters of Christians and southerners in Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, etc “genocide.”

In fact, the same people who glibly bandy the word “genocide” to describe the murders in Jos resented the use of the word to describe the systematic decimation of Dafurians by the Sudanese government. And, according to reliable accounts, over 300,000 people were murdered during the crisis—way more than the number of people who died in Jos. A well-known columnist who is miffed by the “genocide” in Jos even obliquely called for retaliatory murders in which “the Biroms will be history.” Now, that’s the literal definition of genocide.

Psychologists who study cognitive biases point out that our default positions as humans is to support our kind, to selectively expose ourselves to and perceive , even retain, only those points of views and perspectives that reinforce our prejudices. It’s often an unconscious process. And so it takes nothing to be prejudiced. It’s effortless. What isn’t effortless is the capacity for conscious distancing, for dispassionate reflection, for self-criticism.

It takes self-reflexivity and self-awareness to rise superior to the default impulses that so readily and so easily crowd and becloud our minds in moments of emotional tension. Very few are capable of this, and that’s why some people question the practical utility of the idea of deliberative democracy—the idea of government by rational conversation.

Related Article:

The Human Tendency for Selective Outrage (I)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms, and Communication Breakdown

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I have a finicky linguistic activist friend who perpetually insists that there is no such thing as Nigerian English. Nigerian idiosyncratic English usage, he says, is often no more than the product of the ignorant perversion of the rules of Standard English, and ignorance doesn’t deserve to be rewarded with a grand, flattering label like “Nigerian English.”

Besides, he often adds, we can’t legitimately talk of Nigerian English since such a variety is neither codified in any systematic manner nor does it enjoy any prestige or recognition in the pantheon of the world’s Englishes. But, socio-linguistically speaking, that is a notoriously untenable justification for denying the existence of Nigerian English.

Nigerian English, in spite of what any swaggering semantic purist might say, does exist. As I have consistently shown in this column, it has identifiable stylistic imprints, idiosyncratic vocabularies, distinctive turns of phrases, and is spoken and written habitually by our intellectual, media, and political elites. That it has not been consciously codified and systematized is inconsequential to its materiality.

As I will show shortly, Nigerian English is distinctive enough that its semantic and structural deviations from the dominant, so-called standard varieties have real material consequences for its speakers who have been geographically displaced from its primordial habitat, that is, Nigeria.

A couple of days ago, I saw a black man at the post office here in downtown Atlanta. He looked transparently bewildered and frustrated. And, because his looks struck me as manifestly Nigerian, I walked up to him and introduced myself. I then asked if he was Nigerian. My hunch was accurate: he just recently migrated to the United States. So why was he irritated and disoriented?

He told me it was because “these damn Americans” couldn’t understand him when he said he wanted to take a “passport.” He was directed (misdirected, it turned out) to the post office from CVS pharmacy where he first went to take a “passport.” Although he saw a photographer who obviously took “passports,” he was told to go to the nearby post office if he wanted a “passport.”

But the guys at the post office asked him for proof of American citizenship when he told them he wanted to take a “passport.” “Can you imagine that? Proof of citizenship to take a damn passport!” He seethed with raw, gnawing, impotent rage as he recounted his experiences to me.

This poor guy, who is only a few months old here, was suffering the material consequence of his Nigerian English. What we call “passport” in Nigerian English, I told him, Americans call “passport photos” or “ID photos.” I said to him that the Americans thought he wanted the government-issued document that you show when you enter or leave a country.

“But I didn’t say I wanted an international passport,” my acquaintance protested. Well, “passport” is the only word Americans (and Britons) use to denote the government-issued document for international travel. If he had said he wanted an “international passport,” I told him, he would probably never have been directed to the post office; he might have been advised to travel to his home country—or anywhere but America. The phrase “international passport” conveys a radically different meaning to an American from what it does to a Nigerian English speaker.

In contemporary American English, the word “international” is often used as the semantic equivalent for the term “foreign.” For instance, students from outside America aren’t called “foreign students” here; they are usually called “international students.” American news media organizations don’t call their non-American operations “foreign news desks”; they call them “international news desks.” (My friend at CNN tells me that Americans now prefer “international” to “foreign” because “foreign” can suggest an invidious “othering.” Never mind that in official documents, their government refers to non-American residents as “aliens,” which is more alienating--pun intended--than “foreign”!)

So, it is entirely conceivable that an American would understand “international passport” to mean the passport of a country other than America. My explanations mollified my Nigerian acquaintance. He went back to CVS Pharmacy. He now knew better than to say he wanted to take a passport; he told them he wanted to take an “ID photo” and had it without any further incident.

Several such encounters must be happening on a regular basis as the Nigerian diaspora in the West continues to expand, especially through the Green Card Lottery program.

I can also imagine recently arrived Nigerian immigrants in America having a communication breakdown with their American interlocutors when they use the idiom “pass out” in the peculiar way we use it in Nigeria. We use “pass out” to mean “graduate,” usually from a high school, as in: “I passed out of [or from] Okuta Community High School last year.”

This usage, of course, owes its provenance to British English where "pass out" is used to mean “graduate from a military college.” But the only sense of “pass out” known to most Americans is the idiom’s usage to mean “faint.” If you tell an American that you “passed out” of a school, she would probably think you mean that you had fainted at that school!

But it’s not only in America that our peculiar Nigerian English expressions can cause a communication breakdown. For instance, “go-slow,” our expression for traffic jam (which we sometimes extend metaphorically to connote sloth, grinding red tape, insouciance, or governmental inaction—a reason that the late President Musa Yar’adua was nicknamed “Baba Go-slow”) is the name for a form of industrial protest in Britain where workers deliberately slow down their work.

It isn’t a far-fetched scenario that a newly arrived Nigerian immigrant in the UK could tell his British boss that he was late to work because of a "go-slow." And that could get him fired! The boss might think he was on a one-man industrial protest, or that other workers were on a go-slow and that coming late to office was his own way of observing the go-slow in the workplace.

Well, the truth, though, is that speakers of other varieties of English face the same kinds of communication shocks that Nigerians face when they leave their primordial shores. New Zealanders, for instance, find that they get quizzical stares from Americans, Canadians, and Britons— indeed from everyone but a New Zealander—when they use the expression “it didn’t eventuate” to mean “it didn’t happen.”

George Bernard Shaw’s fittingly pithy but ironic observation that America and Britain (and all people associated with them linguistically) are two countries separated by a common language still holds true till today.

In my Weekly Trust column sometime in 2005, I once related the story I heard of a British gentleman who shocked his American female host out of her wits with his perfectly polite Briticism, which turned out to mean something outrageously vulgar in American English.

The Brit came to America for an official duty and was received by a respectable, married American lady who worked for the State Department. In order to make the guest feel at home, the lady offered to take him out, along with other people, for a dinner in some exclusive restaurant in Washington, D.C.

But since the guest was still weary from jet lag and needed to catch a few hours’ nap, the American lady told him to let her know when he woke up from his sleep and ready for the dinner.

After exchanging the conventional parting civilities, the man wanted to affirm that he would indeed heed her request to let her know when he was ready for the dinner. So he said, “When I wake up by 6: 00 p.m. I will come by and knock you up.”

The man did not anticipate what followed. The American lady gasped for breath and almost froze. Her eyes popped out. She looked utterly outraged and embarrassed. But the man was confused. And the man’s confusion confused the American lady even more!

In American colloquial English, to knock up a woman means to get her pregnant! But in British English, it means one of many things, the most common being to knock on somebody’s door—literally. Other meanings of the phrase in British English are "to make quickly" or a period of practice before a play, e.g. in soccer.

So the American lady thought she had had the misfortune of relating with a shamelessly lewd old reprobate, and the man probably thought his American host suddenly had some nuts loose in her brain.

In my first semester teaching undergraduate students in Louisiana I also fell victim to this “clash of languages” several times.

One day I had occasion to give my students homework on a Monday and I wanted them to turn it in on the Friday of the same week. So I told them to submit the assignment “next Friday” as we would say in Nigeria. However, on the Friday of that week, nobody turned in their assignment. When I asked for an explanation, they told me, “But you said NEXT Friday!” Then I said, “So what? Today is the NEXT Friday I spoke of on Monday!” They said I should have said “this Friday” on Monday if I wanted the assignment that Friday.

They were right. In American English, when “next” is prefixed to any day of the week, it usually implies that the speaker is talking about the subsequent week. Saying “next Saturday” even on a Sunday does not convey the sense that the speaker is referring to the Saturday in the week. Well, my students got away with not submitting the assignment that Friday.

On another occasion, while giving a midterm exam, I instructed my students not to write on their "question papers." They all looked blankly at me. I initially thought that they had problems understanding my Nigerian accent which, by the way, CNN recently ranked as the “5th sexiest” in the world behind Italian, French, Spanish, and Czech accents. So I not only enunciated it more clearly— and more slowly— but also wrote it on the board.

But they still said, “What’s that?” And when I pointed to their “question papers,” they said, “Oh, you mean we should not write on the tests?” Write on the test? How the heck does anyone do that, I thought. Test is an abstract noun. How can you write on an idea? Anyway, I have since stopped calling question papers by their name; they are “tests.”

Again, when I said to my students that I would “mark” their “scripts,”, or that I would reduce their "marks" as a penalty for not adhering to certain instructions that I gave in the exam, I was greeted with bewildered stares. I later learned that the correct American English equivalent for “mark scripts” is “grade tests/papers” and, instead of saying I would “reduce their marks,” I should have said, “I will take off points.”

I also recall a communication breakdown I encountered at the university bookstore the first month I came here. I went to the university bookstore to buy a type of padded envelope that Americans use to “post” letters that contain 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 website?” I was lost. I later learned that day that Americans don’t post letters; they “mail” them. “Post” is used mostly in reference to uploading materials on the Internet. Of course, they have no postal addresses; only “mailing addresses.” Thankfully, they still have “post” offices, not “mail” offices.

And when Americans say “momentarily,” they don't mean "suddenly"; they mean “soon” or “now.” I remember the first time I boarded an American airplane and the pilot announced that the plane would take off “momentarily,” I got really panicky. 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 probably the American equivalent of the equally crazy British word, “presently,” which also means “soon.”

Other major British English expressions we use in Nigeria that absolutely make no sense here are “full stop,” which Americans call “period”; “brackets,” which they prefer to call “parenthesis,” (what they call brackets here is what British people call square brackets— like this: [ ]); “dual-carriage way,” which they call “divided highway”; “roundabout,” which they call “rotary” (pronounced row-ta-ree); “ring road,” which they call “beltway”; “lift,” which they call “elevator” (elevator was actually a trademark for the major manufacturer of lifts in America but it has now been genericized to stand for lift, just like Coke has been genericized in parts of the US to stand for soft drinks); “biscuits,” which they call “cookies,” (their biscuits are something else!); “sweets,” which they call “candies”; “chips,” which they call “(French) fries.”

Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jelani Aliyu: Celebrating an Unsung Nigerian Hero in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I just read the genuinely stirring story of an uncommonly talented U.S.-based Nigerian automotive designer by the name of Jelani (Zailani?) Aliyu, who is the lead designer of General Motors’ new, incredibly revolutionary, battery-powered electric car known as Chevy Volt that “can drive up to 40 miles [i.e., 64.4 kilometers] a day without a drop of gas.” (Gas is the American word for petrol).

I first read about this amazingly inspirational and gifted man in an article titled “The Nigerian Who Designed an American Car” by one Michael Oluwagbemi in the, perhaps the most popular discursive arena for Nigerians in cyberspace.

What I read inspired me enough to compel me to suspend the continuation of the article I started last week and to pay a well-deserved tribute to this dazzlingly brilliant man whose admirable exploits in General Motors undoubtedly constitute one of the few luxuriantly blooming oases of hope in our current desert of national despair.

Aliyu was born in Kaduna in 1966 to parents who were originally from Sokoto city. According to a biographical profile of him posted on, a Web portal on northern Nigeria, Aliyu was educated at Capital School, Sokoto, for his elementary education between 1971 and 1978. He later went to Federal Government College, Sokoto, for his high school education where he earned honors as the best student in Technical Drawing, the inchoate disciplinary foundation for his current genius for automotive design.

And that is part of the beauty of Aliyu’s story: his prodigious creative wizardry was first gestated and nurtured in Nigeria before it matured in America. Upon completing high school, he enrolled at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to study for a degree in architecture. However, he was frustrated by the gratuitously pedantic, Ivory Towerian intellection of the program at ABU and dropped out. He then enrolled at the Birni Kebbi Polytechnic from where he earned an Ordinary National Diploma in architecture in 1988. He was the overall best graduating student in the school.

With a scholarship from the Sokoto State Government, he proceeded to Detroit in the midwestern U.S. state of Michigan and enrolled for a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Transportation Design at the prestigious College for Creative Studies, one of the world’s 60 best design schools, according to the Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine. He graduated in 1994 and got hired by General Motors, the world’s second biggest car manufacturer and America’s biggest.
Jelani Aliyu (center) with his colleagues

In a documentary posted on YouTube, Dr. Carl Olsen, the professor who supervised Aliyu’s honors thesis (what we call “project” in Nigerian universities), described him as an “exceptionally gifted… designer.” He said he was particularly surprised by Aliyu’s extraordinary and unrivaled verbal dexterity in English. “And indeed I gave him the title of ‘Poet Laureate of Transportation Design’ because not only were his designs of very high standards but his verbal presentations of his designs were exceptional, the best I ever had from any student,” he added.

Another of Aliyu’s professors, Dr. William Porter, a professor of automotive design, said “[Aliyu] always asked the question that was the most searching and that had the most profound consequences. It elevated the class.”

Dr. Olsen said of the over 200 ideas submitted worldwide for the design of the Chevy Volt, Aliyu’s design was adjudged the best. This feat may not be a big deal for people who come from technologically advanced societies. But for a country like Nigeria where our esurient hunger for heroes has cozened us into celebrating egotistical imposters like Dr. Gabriel Oyibo and Mr. Philip Emeagwali, Aliyu’s achievements are worthy of all the encouragement they can get.

There are three major lessons we can learn from Aliyu’s phenomenal success. The first is that, as I’ve pointed out in previous articles here, polytechnics, in spite of the underserved disrepute in which they are held in Nigeria, can be breeding grounds for the cultivation of remarkably sharp minds. Aliyu was discouraged by the meaningless theoretical abstractions of ABU’s architecture department, then sought and found intellectual sanctuary in a “lowly” polytechnic in Birnin Kebbi, which prepared him for what he is today. He resisted the seduction of big name and glory and went for content and practicality.

The second lesson is related to the first. And it is that natural endowment is insensitive to the fault-lines of race, ethnicity, or geography. There has been a carefully packaged, time-honored but odious stereotype that people from Nigeria’s north are somehow intellectually inferior to their compatriots from the south.

As an illustration of this stereotype, a few days ago, I received an email from some guy who identified himself as Oyewale Oyetunji and graduate of the Obafemi Awolowo University. It went thus:

“I came across your articles in Daily Trust few months ago, and after joining NVS [Nigerian Village Square] and meeting you there again, I become familiar with your writings.

“I greatly admire your writings, and you are one of the people that have demystified my erroneous belief that northerners are laggards intellectually (I'm embarrassed I ever held such a parochial belief). You, late Dr. Tajudeen Abdul Raheem, Mr Yushau Shuaib and a few other alumni of BUK have really proved beyond doubt that BUK is a great school. To think you guys were products of this university I always dismiss.”

I don’t know whether to be flattered or offended by this email. But I leave it to the reader to make his/her judgment.

The third lesson from Aliyu’s story is that it has dramatized the utterly compromised nature of our national media. I’ve heard it on good authority that many of the diasporan Nigerians that our national media extravagantly celebrate for nonexistent accomplishments are those that literally buy their way to media visibility.

Aliyu obviously hasn’t done that, and that is why some of us are only just now getting to know about him even though he has been a high-flying achiever in GM since at least 2007. Plus, he is from an “unlikely” region of the country for the kind of talent associated with him.

How sad.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reader Reactions to My People's Daily Column

I have chosen to pause this week and give space to reader reactions to various issues I raised here in the past few weeks. The reactions are as insightful as they are educative. Enjoy.

Re: Weird Words We’re Wedded to in Nigerian English
I have been trying for weeks to congratulate you for your contributions, but my mails always this one is working. I very much enjoyed today's column but wanted to tell you that DEMURRAGE (fee) was very much in use after the 1973 OIL DOOM when hundreds of ships laden with cement were stranded off Lagos, because APAPA was too small and TIN CAN had not yet been built. So even the last Greek ship-owner re-mobilised his last rusty ship and sent it sailing to Nigeria only to have it 'sit' on the waves, as long as possible, so as to cash those... demurrage fees. Some people said it cost Nigeria billions. Just for info. Always tremendously enjoy your contributions.

Gerd Meuer (
(Oyinbo German, old boy of U.I. )

I think we in the "colonies" deserve an award for preserving original English words and protecting them from total extinction. This aside, I believe there are words that are not for everyday usage. They are rather professional terminologies used by professionals. For example, all maritime/shipping workers and people who associate with that industry know the term "demurrage". And the "estacode" is more of a bureaucratic jargon - well known to those who partake in such largess. Take for example the word "concept". Its meaning to advertising industry people is different from that of the ordinary pedestrian. The word "piece" means a feature article to a journalist or news story. But to most people it has a different meaning altogether.

My broda, dis oyinbo language im wahala too much sef!

Aliyu I. Ma’aji (

I loved your wordplay, but did want to say that I've heard parastatal before and it doesn't seem particularly recondite. The others are pretty weird...and funny. You can add one other thing: I've noticed that Nigerian pronunciation of English words often varies from American pronunciation in that words are more frequently pronounced the way they look than the way we Americans learned they are supposed to be pronounced. As there are many more Indian and Nigerian and Ghanaian etc speakers in the world, I was wondering which pronunciations would prevail over the long run, and more generally how that is historically determined.

Prof. Kenneth Harrow (
Dept. of English,
Michigan State University, Lansing, MI, USA

Thanks for blogging on Nigerian English consistently. I have added a link to your blog in a site I am building for "The English Language in Nigeria," a 300-level course I am currently teaching in the Department of English at UI. I will be using some of the essays to stimulate debate in my online classroom in the course.

Dr. Obododimma Oha (
Dept. of English
University of Ibadan

Re: Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
In regards to your excellent and stellar article, there are a few nuances which must be clearly stated. "You and I" is not the same as "we" and "you and me" is not the same thing as "us." Both phrases allow English speakers to use specificity. In example, "The man gave us two quarters." What does this mean? Did everyone implied in the "us" received two quarters? Were the quarters shared? How many animate entities are included in the term "us?"

La Vonda R. Staples (

My Response
Maybe I didn't make my point clearly enough. I certainly didn't mean that "you and me" has the same semantic properties as "us" in all cases. I only meant that "you and me" is in the "objective mood" in the same way that "us" is, and that, in most cases, "you and me" and "us" can be interchanged where the reference is to two people only.

In your example, for instance, if the reference is to two people, it will clearly be wrong to write "the man gave you and I two quarters" because "you and I" stands for "we" and it's obviously incorrect to say "the man gave we two quarters." So the correct way to say it would be "the man gave you and me two quarters."

Of course, if the reference is to more than two people, "you and me" can't take the place of "us."

Re: American English or British English?
You have my sympathies entirely! You have been dissolved into the American soup. You couldn't have held out forever. For others who are not fully in the embrace of any one system, the mishmash of linguistic conventions continues. Some days one's spellings (and pronunciations) may be 70% American and 30% British... on other days, the reverse.

Almost makes you wish the stubborn Brits will throw in the towel in the language fisticuffs and adopt the foul Americanisms in return for the language not being renamed 'American'. All of which puts one in mind of the crisis in the Portuguese camp which has probably not died down since the Brazilian variety was officially venerated above the original version written and spoken in Portugal. (How the colonials must be turning in their graves).

Chuma Nwokolo (

When I first started learning English in middle school, the textbooks we used followed the British convention. When I first moved to the States, despite my predominantly American accent, I still would say "trousers" sometimes, pronounce the "i" in "missile" and "fragile" and swallow the last "e" in "cemetery." To this day, I'm still frustrated with words like "defence" and "practise."

Personally, I think the idea of British English being the "original" is problematic -- over the years, it also has changed (and in fact, in some instances such as in the case of "r," the American pronunciation is closer to the older version of English), and let alone that English is a language of multitude linguistic influences. However, that doesn't mean that I'm taking the side of American English (or of English in general as a "global" language) just because of its omnipresence in the world (which itself is a problematic that requires critical analysis).

That said, it's funny that I read this today because during the day when the editor of Studies in the Literary Imagination, a literary journal I work with this semester, briefed me about their style preference, she emphasized that the journal uses American spellings, and one of my editing tasks is to catch British spellings! Fun.

Jin Zhao (

It’s amazing how Americans can't even differentiate between American and British English. I have been conditioned to speak and write like a British, but I still know these variations and will definitely not regard them as errors, so also most Nigerians. But I would edit your American spellings if I were your Nigerian editor if only to show that I am also protective of British English just like you traitorously upheld American English.

Murtala Abdulrahman (

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Another Inspiring Video of Jelani Aliyu

This guy's story is truly inspiring. It will be the subject of my next column in the Weekly Trust. I also found this GM video where Jelani Aliyu appears. They must really think highly of his contributions to the company to feature him in this commercial.

Unsung Nigerian Hero Jelani Aliyu

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Human Tendency for Selective Outrage (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Selective perception is an instinctive cognitive bias that predisposes us to perceive reality in ways that reinforce and soothe our predetermined prejudices. Related concepts are selective exposure (the tendency to see only those things that affirm our pre-set biases and to block out those that cause us cognitive dissonance) and selective retention (the tendency to remember only those things that confer psychic comfort to our sentiments and to forget those that don’t fit that frame).

Several events in the past few weeks have dramatized this indwelling human predilection for invidious selectivity in very fascinating—and disturbing— ways. I will start with America, where I currently live, and end with Nigeria, the country of my birth.

On January 8, 2010, the Atlantic, an influential American magazine, reported what it called “the juiciest revelations” of a gossipy book titled Game Change, which chronicles tittle-tattles by prominent American political figures about the last American presidential election that didn’t make it to official media narratives. One of the juiciest tidbits in the book, according to the magazine, is a somewhat insensitive, if sociologically accurate, statement by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about Obama’s racial appeal.

The book reported Reid as saying, in a private conversation, that he believed America was ready to elect a black presidential candidate, “especially one such as Obama -- a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’” Senator Reid owned up to the statement and even apologized for it. But, like red meat to famished dogs, the American media jumped on the statement with ravenous frenzy and panned it viciously.

Even the normally racist and xenophobic Republican Party tried to make a political capital out of the incident. The Party’s National Republican Senatorial Committee released a statement the following day after the statement was made public condemning Reid for racial insensitivity. "For those who hope to one day live in a color-blind nation it appears Harry Reid is more than a few steps behind them," said communications director Brian Walsh. "Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a long history of embarrassing and controversial remarks by the senior Senator from Nevada."

However, those who should be hurt by the statement— that is, African Americans—actually came out in defense of the senator. Heck, even the Reverend Al Sharpton, the uncompromising, no-nonsense African-American civil rights activist who is sometimes derided as a “race pimp” because of his tendency to cash in on any race-related issue, defended Reid. Both Barack and Michelle Obama also accepted Reid’s apology and dismissed the controversy that his behind-closed-door comment generated as unwarranted.

Now, back in 2002, Senator Trent Lott, another Senate Majority Leader— but this time around a Republican—made what was adjudged a racist, anti-black remark and paid dearly for it. He said America would have been the better for it if an implacably racist, negrophobic segregationist called Strom Thurmond had won the presidential election in 1948.

Thurmond ran as a segregationist under the platform of the unabashedly racist Dixiecrats, a political party formed by southern Democrats (the Democratic Party used to be the racist conservative party that the Republican Party now is) in 1948 in order to oppose the candidacy of Harry S. Truman.

"When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him,” Lott, a senator from the racially volatile southern state of Mississippi, said. “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."

This statement predictably drew the ire and fire of black people and white liberals all over America. The sheer virulence and persistence of the philippics against Lott eventually forced him to resign his position as Senate Majority Leader, the most important position in the U.S. Senate. Five years later, he resigned from the U.S. Senate altogether.

Republicans think this is selective outrage. Although Reid made his tactless statement in support of Obama’s candidacy, why did he deploy the racially insensitive term “Negro Dialect” (which American linguists used to call Negro Nonstandard English, but which blacks here now call “Ebonics”) to describe African American speech patterns? The word “Negro” is next only to “Nigger” in the scale of racially insensitive terms against black people in America.

Yet the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the leading black American civil rights organization, which came down hard on Lott in 2002, said it wasn’t too bothered by Reid’s choice of words. The association’s senior vice president for advocacy Dr. Hilary O. Shelton told Fox News: “Harry Reid is someone who has always scored an ‘A’ on the NAACP’s legislative report card. We are more concerned with his record than his rhetoric.”

African-American blogger Carmen D captured the difference between Lott and Reed this way: “Trent Lott’s comments on longing for a segregated America = Racial Hatred. Harry Reid’s word choice in his description of Barack Obama’s acceptability to white voters = Racial Ignorance.” In other words, ignorance is pardonable but hatred is condemnable.

Of course, as you would expect, conservative Republicans were outraged by this selectivity and had been drawing attention to what they say is the double standards of black people and white liberals on matters of race—that they tolerate the racial indiscretions of self-identified liberals and throw a fit when self-identified conservatives make remarks that smack of even the vaguest bit of racism.

But shortly after this Reid controversy died down, conservatives had their own share of the kind of double standards they accused others of.

Related Article:
The Human Tendency for Selective Outrage (II)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Missing Link in Abdul-Mutallab Conspiracy Theories

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Let me begin by stating that I have problems with the term “conspiracy theory.” Its invocation is sometimes no more than an idle, off-handed rhetorical strategy to marginalize and delegitimize alternative narratives that are at variance with officially sanctioned perspectives on an issue.

This is not to deny, of course, that there are indeed some wacky and fringe narratives out there that are so bizarre in their illogic and paranoia they make you cringe in stupefied astonishment.

But for my reflections this week, I’ve decided to grudgingly use the term “conspiracy theory” because it appears to enjoy some traction in popular discourse. I am using it to denote perspectives that are located on the furthest margins of the official and semi-official narratives on the alleged attempt by Umar Farouk Abdul-Mutallab to bomb a U.S. airplane on December 25 last year.

For instance, some people have claimed that Abdul-Mutallab is a mere pawn in a sophisticated, smoothly executed international political chess game; that he was incapable of even contemplating much less carrying out a suicide bombing. People who advance this perspective say Umar was probably drugged and made to do what he was alleged to have done against his wishes.

The pro-Muslim version of this theory says that he was set up by the CIA or some other dark, sinister American organization to justify the continued profiling and maltreatment of Muslims—and the addition of northern Nigerian Muslims to the list.

A non-Muslim Nigerian version of this theory says Umar was set up by wicked Arab negrophobes who wanted to expend the life of a young Nigerian to make a point—and to expand the stretch of fears and insecurities that Americans must deal with. That is, it is not just Arabs that Americans must fear; Africans should be added to the list, too.

Still others say the Abdul-Mutallab plot is intended to hasten the disintegration of Nigeria, which some American think-tank has predicted would happen in a couple of years. The goal, goes the theory, is to have unfettered access to Nigeria’s oil reserves—as if that has not already been happening since independence.

Outside of Nigeria, there are two dominant strains of the conspiracy theory. The first says the Abdul-Mutallab incident is nothing more than a manufactured fear by individuals and corporations intent on making billions of dollars from the sale of body scanners for airports.

The second strain says the plot was planned to coincide with the expiration of the USA Patriot Act, which gives government sweeping powers in the “war against terror.” So, the argument goes, a new, hitherto unthought-of threat was deliberately manufactured by war-mongering neocons to sufficiently scare the American public into supporting an extension of the Patriot Act.

These conspiracies overlap obviously, but they are all united in depriving Umar Farouk Abdul-Mutallab of any agential power and in presenting him as some unthinking, helpless, and unresisting automaton that was remotely manipulated by forces outside of his comprehension and control.

Well, these theories, which are not only wildly popular on the fringes but have sometimes made it to mainstream media discourse, don’t connect a major dot. That dot is the role of Alhaji Umar Abdul-Mutallab, the alleged terrorist’s father. Where is he in all of these minatory schemes?

We know for a fact that the senior Abdul-Mutallab reported his son to Nigerian and U.S. security agencies. He told the agencies that his son had fallen into bad company and that he might be up to no good. Few weeks after this red flag, the son was caught pants down (pun intended) doing exactly what his dad confidentially told security agencies he might be up to.

Now, if Umar Farouk was indeed set up, his dad must be a part of the conclave where this/these diabolical scheme(s) was/were hatched. In fact, he would be the villain of the piece. Any father who would spend stupendous resources to educate his son in the best schools money can buy only to turn around to sacrifice that son in an iniquitous, malevolent plot must be the devil himself.

Or was the senior Abdul-Mutallab also drugged into confiding in security agencies that his son had fallen into the wrong hands and was likely going to be engaged in a terrorist act?

Of all the things I’ve read about the senior Abdul-Mutallab I’ve not yet read anything that has called into question his credibility. And the man has never denied reporting his son to security agencies. In Nigeria’s peculiar “Boko Haram” justice system, the report of the dad prior to the commission of the alleged offense by the son is more than sufficient “prima facie” evidence to get the son killed.

To be even marginally credible, the fringe narratives about Umar’s insidious and conspiratorial manipulation by evil, scheming, conniving external forces should account for why his father, who obviously lavished him with over-solicitous indulgence, reported him to security agencies weeks before he was alleged to have attempted to blow up a plane. Failing this, these narratives truly deserve to be tagged lazy, escapist conspiracy theories.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hypercorrection in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Hypercorrection is a grammatical error inspired by a false, ill-digested analogy. For example, people who have been taught to avoid “me” in certain contexts (such as “It is me,” which should correctly be “It is I”; “You and me should get together,” which should correctly be “You and I should get together,” etc) may extend the rule to instances where “me” is correct.

Such people may insist that the expression “between you and me” is wrong because they had been taught that “You and me should get together” is wrong. But “between you and me” is perfectly correct, and “between you and I” is patently wrong. I will explain why this is so shortly. But, first, what gives rise to hypercorrection?

Well, my theory is that prescriptivist grammarians, that is, grammarians who hand down frozen, ossified usage commandments without context, conduce to the flowering of hypercorrection. This column tries to avoid that by being descriptivist, by discussing usage rules and exploring their contexts with minimal value judgments.

Before I identify the hypercorrections that seem unique to Nigerian English, let me quickly point out the rules for the examples I cited earlier. You use “me” and “whom,” etc in instances where these pronouns are the objects of a verb, that is, where they are the recipients of an action in a sentence. Another way to remember the rule is to note that if a preposition (such as “between,” “to,” “with,” etc) comes before a pronoun, that pronoun often takes the objective case. (“Who” is subjective case while “whom” is objective case; “I” is subjective case while “me” is objective case).

If that is still not helpful, simply remember that “you and I” is the same thing as “we” while “you and me” is the same thing as “us.” So when you are confused about where and when to use “you and I” and “you and me” simply substitute them with “we” and “us.” Now, let me go to more specific examples of hypercorrection in Nigerian English.

Some days ago, distinguished journalist and Daily Trust columnist Mohammed Haruna isolated my characterization of alleged would-be Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdul-Mutallab as a “crazed, fanatical, spoiled brat” to illustrate what he called a “disagreeable description” of the young man.

But in quoting me, he inserted the conjunction “and” to mark off the list of adjectives of disapproval I unleashed on the terrorist suspect. The full sentence ran thus: “Mutallab Jnr may seem a “crazed, fanatical (and) spoiled brat,” to use the rather disagreeable description – at least in my view – by his namesake, Farooq Kperogi, a writer in the Weekly Trust of January 2….”

First off, it is wrong to indicate the addition of comments to a quoted text with parentheses. The correct punctuation mark to use is square brackets, that is, this sign: [ ]. The reason is that the original sentence you are quoting may have a parenthesis and readers would be confused as to who actually used the parenthesis. So Haruna’s sentence should correctly read: “Mutallab Jnr may seem a 'crazed, fanatical [and] spoiled brat,' to use the rather disagreeable description – at least in my view – by his namesake, Farooq Kperogi, a writer in the Weekly Trust of January 2….”

But Haruna committed the grammatical offense of hypercorrection by inserting the conjunction “and” to my list. Relying on the analogy from the rules on the use of commas in listing two or more items, (usually nouns) in a sentence, he probably thought he was straightening my sentence. But this is why he is wrong.

In grammar, a distinction is often made between the rules for listing cumulative adjectives and co-ordinate adjectives in a sentence. Cumulative adjectives organically build up a picture, with each adjective building on the one before; there are no commas between the adjectives. Example: the cute little young girl.

With co-ordinate adjectives, however, each adjective refers to the noun separately and distinctly; there is a comma between each adjective. Example: "That tall, distinguished, good-looking fellow."

In the above example, it would rudely disrupt the flow of the sentence if we inserted “and” before “good-looking.” Although the adjectives refer to the noun separately, they also build up a picture of the noun, which an “and” would disrupt. Such a consideration does not arise when you are listing nouns. (Haruna is clearly applying the rules for listing nouns to the rules for listing adjectives).

In our own case, additionally, “spoiled” almost always co-occurs with “brat” in conversational English so that “spoiled brat” now functions as a collocation. (A collocation is a group of words which appears together in a sentence more often than would be expected by chance). So the phrase “crazed, fanatical, spoiled brat” actually combines elements of the rules for listing cumulative and coordinate adjectives in a sentence and, therefore, inserting a comma anywhere in the sentence amounts to hypercorrection.

Another hypercorrection that is rampant in many grammar columns in Nigerian newspapers is on the delicate distinction between the prepositions “among” and “between.” The general rule is, where more than two participants are involved “among” should be preferred to “between,” as in “the candies were divided between the two girls/among the three girls.”

However, the rule is more complex than that. Both American and British grammarians—and, for that matter, Australian and New Zealand grammarians, all native speakers of the English language—agree that when we speak of exact positions or of precise individual relationships, “between” is the only acceptable choice.

For instance, it is wrong to write: “A memorandum of understanding among five African countries.” It should properly be “A memorandum of understanding BETWEEN five African countries. “African” brings precision to the relationship. Similarly, it is wrong to say “Nigeria lies among Cameroun, Niger, Benin and Chad.” It should be “Nigeria lies BETWEEN Cameroun, Niger, Benin and Chad.” The mention of the names of countries surrounding Nigeria brings exactness to the relationship.

An additional hypercorrection I noticed in a respected grammar column sometime ago is the wrongheaded advice against the use of the phrase “strike action.” The columnist said the expression is wrong because it is supposedly formed by false analogy to “industrial action,”—the same way that Nigerians say “of recent” (instead of “recently”) by false analogy to the idiom “of late.”

But he is perfectly off the mark. Strike action, which is often simply shortened to “strike” in everyday English, is the outright cessation of work to register employee grievances. Industrial action, on the other hand, has two related meanings. The first is as an umbrella term for all kinds of industrial protests, including strike actions. The second and more specific meaning is as a form of industrial protest where workers merely deliberately slow down their productivity without an outright cessation of work.

In the United States, “industrial action” is called “job action.” Industrial action, moreover, is not necessarily always job-related; it may sometimes be politically-motivated. Other terms for the second sense of industrial action are “go-slow” in the UK (which incidentally means traffic jam in Nigerian English!) and “slow-down” in the United States.

The last example I want to give is from a reader who questioned my use of “Nigerian” without preceding it with an indefinite article. The reader who “boasts a library of 5000 books, mostly on English” thought I was wrong to write that “I'm Nigerian.”

His argument is summarized thus: “When a linking verb like ‘be’ links a subject with a complement, the latter takes an article if it is a common noun. E.g. ‘I am a teacher,’ not ‘I am teacher.’ But when it's a proper noun, there is no need for an article. E.g. ‘I am Ibrahim.’ ‘Nigerian’ is both an adjective and a noun, but in your own case, ‘Nigerian’ is used as a noun which is obviously a common noun that requires the article ‘a’.”

This reader’s analysis is spotlessly correct in many respects but wrong in others. As is often the case with the English language, there are exceptions to the rule he brilliantly articulated. And as I pointed out here sometime ago, it is these tricky exceptions that often differentiate native and/or proficient speakers of the English language from non-native and/or non-proficient speakers of the language.

Let me cite one exception to the rule that the reader mentioned. You can say, for instance, “I’m a Mutallab” and be correct. “Mutallab” here, of course, would mean something beyond the name of a person; it may mean a religious, ethnic, or familial identity. In the West, for instance, when someone is called "a Muhammad" it’s often a handy way to say he's a Muslim.

Another example: When Hillary Clinton said, in February 2008, “It did take A CLINTON to clean after the first Bush and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush” [emphasis mine] during the last Democratic presidential primaries, she clearly violated the rules my reader adverted to (i.e., she preceded the mention of a proper noun, “Clinton,” with an indefinite article, “a”) but she was perfectly correct nonetheless.

Here is another exception: An indefinite article can precede the name of a person as a way to indicate uncertainty over the identity of that person. I can say, for example, "A Daniel came here to see you.” “A Daniel” here means someone I don't know who identified himself as Daniel.

There is also an exception to the rule that justifies my use of the phrase “I’m Nigerian.” In instances where demonyms (that is, names for the residents or citizens of a locality or a country, also called gentilics) also function as adjectives for countries (e.g. Nigerian, American, German, Filipino, etc) indefinite articles can be dispensed with.

But I think it’s problematic to call a demonym a common noun. Informally, demonyms like “Nigerian,” “American,” "Ghanaian," etc are called “proper adjectives” because they are derived from proper nouns. (Professional linguists don’t use that term, mind you).

So it's customary to hear Americans either say "I'm an American" or "I'm American," "he is a German" or "he is German," etc. When Americans want to confirm my nationality here they usually ask, "Are you Nigerian?" A few ask, "Are you a Nigerian?" But, often, the omission of the article shows informality, friendliness, fluidity, chattiness, etc while its inclusion can sometimes suggest stiltedness and even stuffiness, depending on the context.

There is, in fact, a popular song in the U.S. titled "I'm American" by an Atlanta-based heavy metal music band called "Stuck Mojo."

But it is also entirely possible that the omission of articles before demonyms is a consequence of the absorption of “headlinese” (that is, English usage peculiar to newspaper headlines) into conventional English usage. One of the conventions of headlinese is to dispense with articles and conjunctions wherever possible. That is why, for instance, the idiom “in the soup” is often rendered in newspaper headlines as “in soup.” In Nigeria, “he is in soup” is now the standard way to say “he is in the soup.”

Well, no one is immune to errors when it comes to the English language. As Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland aptly observed in their book, The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy, “English is a slippery language, strewn with homonymic banana peels, slapstick mondegreens, and tongue twisters. Even fluent speakers of English constantly make mistakes.”