Thursday, April 29, 2010

Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

This week’s topic is inspired by two questions I received. The first is from an American professor of English and the second from a Nigerian resident in the UK.

 I too am a fan of your language interventions, and have a question. I have noticed that Nigerians mispronounce English words by pronouncing them as they look rather than as they actually should be pronounced. Not always, but often.

I don't believe rules are sacred; rather, I am curious about how these changes will work over the long run, whether what was a mispronunciation at one period becomes standard later over repetition.

And I wonder if Indian and Nigerian usages are going to prevail since there are more Indian and Nigerian, African, speakers than American and English. I also wonder whether the misuse of “I” as an object will ultimately prevail. I just saw it used that way in Oyeyemi's The Opposite House. I often hear that wretched “between you and I” from my colleagues here in the English dept, and mostly bite my tongue since I don't want to appear impolite.

Also, I wonder about what makes it a mispronunciation and a misuse. I understand the idea of the generally accepted norms of an educated class, or textbooks, but that doesn't really make it a "mis" since language changes. Thoughts?

You're right about the oddity of Nigerian pronunciation. I will put it down to mother-tongue "interference" and insufficient (or, in some cases, lack of) exposure to socially acceptable native-speaker pronunciation of particularly difficult (i.e., by non-native standards) aphonetic English words like yacht (pronounced /yot/ in native-speaker linguistic environments but pronounced /yach/ in Nigeria), etc.

 In the absence of exposure to the socially accepted ways of pronouncing words in native-speaker climes, Nigerians generally pronounce the words as they are spelled, what grammarians call “spelling pronunciation.” (The opposite of spelling pronunciation is “traditional pronunciation”).

Spelling pronunciation, however, isn't restricted to second-language speakers like Nigerians and Indians. It also occurs in native-speaker linguistic markets, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology. For instance, the “h” sound in the word “host” was once silent, as it still is in words like “hour,” “honor,” etc. But through “spelling pronunciation” in Britain and America the “h” is now articulated. 

Similarly, the “th” in the word “author” was traditionally pronounced with a “t” sound but is now pronounced like the first sound in “thanks.” Other examples of “spelling pronunciations” that have been normalized or that co-exist with “traditional pronunciations” in native-speaker English environments are “forehead” (which used to be traditionally pronounced “forrid” but is now pronounced “fohed” in the UK and "forhed" in the US), “schedule” (where the “sch” now rhymes with the first sound of “care,” especially in American English, but is traditionally pronounced like “sh”), “often,” (where the “t” sound is traditionally silent but is now articulated), “appreciate” (where the “c” is traditionally pronounced “sh” but is now sometimes pronounced “s”), etc.

I hardly ever bother with questions of pronunciation because all professional linguists agree that pronunciation isn’t an ingredient of Standard English, although Received Pronunciation (which is largely the accent of southeastern England where the English Royal family lives) and General America (which is largely Midwestern U.S. accent) enjoy social prestige in the UK and the US respectively.

Of course, there is no such thing as a person who has “no accent.” As phonologists often remind us, “a person without an accent would be like a place without a climate.”

Now, what is considered correct usage is often no more than elite social tyranny—and sometimes the product of an improbable concatenation of “popular” pressures and elite consensus. Pierre Bourdieu has written brilliantly on this in his book titled Language and Symbolic Power. And because “standard” usage norms often reflect the biases and arbitrary social conventions of the ruling intellectual, cultural, and political elites in any given epoch, the norms usually change in the course of time.

I entirely agree with you that some of the solecisms we rail against now may sooner or later become normalized if a critical mass of people repeat them often enough. There is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about any expression, as descriptivist grammarians often point out—to the annoyance of prescriptivists. It was once considered very terrible grammar, for instance, to say “it’s me” in response to the question “who is that?" It was supposed to be “it’s I.” Some grammarians still insist on this usage. But almost nobody says “it’s I” these days.

I also think the distinction between “you and I” and “you and me” will disappear some day— in the same way that the distinction between “each other” and “one another” has disappeared. Or how “they” and “their” have now become the generic pronouns in place of “he” or the clumsy “he or she” after a set of indefinite words, as in: “everybody should read THEIR book,” “if anybody thinks THEY can bring me down, they should bring it on,” etc. Conservative semantic purists still object to this usage, but they seem to be giving up now.

Another instructive example of the arbitrariness and unabashed elitism of usage norms is how the modern use of the phrase “due to” became normalized over time. In traditional grammar, "due" is an adjective, and when it is followed by the preposition "to" it should be attached to a noun (example: the cancellation of the event was due to the rain). The use of "due to" at the beginning of a sentence in the sense of "because of" or "owing to" was considered uneducated. But when the Queen of England, in a Speech from the Throne, said "Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have been faced for some time with a serious shortage," this "uneducated" usage gained respectability. It is no longer bad grammar.

As to whether Nigerian or Indian English could supplant American and British English in the future, I have my doubts. Those varieties lack what Bourdieu calls cultural and symbolic capital. What might happen—in fact, what already seems to be happening—is that younger generations of Indian, Nigerian, etc speakers of the English language will get closer and closer to native varieties of the English language, especially the American variety, as a result of the technology of the Internet, which is collapsing spatial and temporal boundaries in many fascinating ways. But I could be wrong—and I will like to be wrong, obviously, because I am a speaker of one of the non-native varieties!

I have question for you, please. Right from my college days in Brighton, I have always wondered why British people in particular, say this: 'It was an horrific injury,' for example. Normally I would expect it to be 'It was a horrific injury'.   Perhaps words like ‘horrific’ usually have the article 'an' as opposed to 'a'.  They also tend to say, 'It was an historic event'. Can you tell me if this is peculiar to British English? If it’s used worldwide why is this so?

Both “a horrific injury” and “an horrific injury” are considered correct forms depending on your phonological attitude to the “h” sound in the word. If your “h” is silent, then “an horrific injury” is the only correct option. But if you articulate the “h,” as Americans and Nigerians do, then “a horrific” is the only acceptable option. My research shows that “an horrific…” is almost entirely absent in American English. It occurs more prominently in British and New Zealand English than in any other national variety.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jonathan’s Embarrassing U.S. Visit: A Response to Critics

By Farooq A. Kperogi

There are few articles I’ve written in the past that can outrival my last week’s piece on Acting President Goodluck Jonathan’s U.S. visit in terms of the intensity of reactions it generated from readers.

The response has been predictably a gallimaufry of commendation and condemnation. (I will publish some of the emails I received in due course). But what struck me the most—and what I think is an even greater tragedy than Jonathan's heartrending show of embarrassing shallowness— is the uncritical, simplistic, and intellectually barren justification of Jonathan’s embarrassing slips by a few “scholars” in a scholarly internet discussion group that I am a member of. This week’s column is inspired largely by the discussions in that forum.

Let me start by saying that I have nothing against Jonathan. In fact, a good friend of mine is his close confidant and assistant. And I appreciate the fact that his elevation to the position of acting president has saved Nigeria from the brink of a giddy precipice. So I can understand if people think my rather harsh criticism of him may be indelicate given our current national circumstances.

But I can’t ignore an acting president who actually said there has never been any crisis between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria and that there will never be. What have always existed, Jonathan said, have been sectarian crises (or, to be faithful to his rendition, "sectoral crises") between Muslim factions, which the Western media habitually mistakes for Muslim-Christian clashes! How do you ignore that kind of presidential cluelessness?

How do you ignore a leader who didn’t know that there are currently only three serving INEC commissioners and that the others have retired? I don't live in Nigeria but I know this from merely keeping up with the news.

Jonathan's problem during his visit here wasn't merely one of avoidably appalling grammar and unmentionable protocol blunders; it was also one of a disturbing deficiency of substance in his speeches and interviews. That anybody would excuse, tolerate, and even celebrate this presidential mediocrity is disturbing, to say the least. I only hope we will democratize this new-found toleration for presidential mediocrity and extend it to every subsequent occupant of Aso Rock irrespective of geographic and ethnic origins.

People who think I was obsessed with Jonathan’s grammar and comportment (and I pointed out only three grammatical slips, although he hardly uttered a word that wasn’t a mockery of the English language) fail to realize that the whole point of his trip to America was to impress Americans and buy himself—and Nigeria—some legitimacy in the process. He didn’t come here to govern Nigeria. So judging his performance in terms of his eloquence, grammatical correctness, substance, etc is fair game.

When my critics say “no be grammar we go chop,” they are being disingenuous. This criticism implies that it is all right for Jonathan to speak atrocious grammar, comport himself like a "bush man," not know basic information about Nigeria, as long as he can provide “stable electricity, security, good roads, free and fair elections, and good schools, etc,” as one critic put it. But how the hell do they know he will do that, anyway? What inspires the confidence that Jonathan will be different from the other clueless, lying, thieving leaders that preceded him? Maybe they know something I don't know.

 Oh, sorry, I get it: it's because he spoke awful grammar, made embarrassing diplomatic gaffes, betrayed crying ignorance of the basic facts of his country—the new standards by which to judge Nigerian presidents’ effectiveness! Oh, great! But wait!! His predecessors were not radically different.

Perhaps we should all unite to stop the National Assembly from implementing the new legislation that requires prospective office holders to have post-secondary school qualifications (in English!) as preconditions for ascension to elective offices. In fact, let's compel the National Assembly to pass legislation to make inability to speak good English and ignorance of Nigeria the new criteria to ascend to leadership in Nigeria.

How about that? Sounds good?

Some people charge that I am somehow being “neo-colonial” in insisting that Jonathan and any other leader speak acceptable English when they represent us abroad. My critics say French, Korean, Chinese, etc leaders speak their native languages and get foreign language translators to interpret for them when they travel abroad. Fair enough.

But do the French, Koreans, Chinese, etc use English as the language of instruction all levels of their education, in their courts, and in their mass media? Do they use it as the language of government, indeed, as the “official” language of their countries? No! Well, we do in Nigeria. So citing those examples is a notoriously imperfect and intellectually fraudulent contrast of contexts.

In Nigeria, you can't proceed to institutions of higher education if you don't have a credit in English—even if you want to study mathematics or, for that matter, a Nigerian language! The Nigerian National Assembly has recently passed legislation that makes the possession of a post-secondary school qualification a requirement to run for office—any office. And you can't acquire post-secondary school qualification in Nigeria if you don't have a credit in English.

Goodluck Jonathan presumably passed “O” level English before proceeding to study for a bachelor’s degree, a master's and then a PhD. Yet he committed errors that should prevent anybody from passing “O” level English.

In any case, most of us so-called educated Africans have abysmally low levels of proficiency in our native languages, unlike citizens of the countries cited above. We learn and think in the languages of our former colonial overlords. That's a reality that no romantic, mushy "Africanism" can gloss over.

Plus, the idea that a Nigerian leader can speak any language other English and get translators to interpret for them while representing Nigeria abroad betrays so much pity-inspiring naiveté. First, as I pointed out earlier, few African leaders have sufficient proficiency in their languages to effectively communicate high-minded diplomatic thoughts in them. Second, the truth is that English is the linguistic glue that holds our disparate, unnaturally evolved nation together.

Although Nigeria has 3 dominant languages, it also has over 400 mutually unintelligible languages. And given the perpetual battles of supremacy between the three major languages in Nigeria—indeed among all the languages—it is practically impossible to impose any native language as a national language. So, in more ways than one, English is crucial to Nigeria's survival as a nation. Without it, it will disintegrate!

I am not implying that African leaders should not speak their native languages when they travel abroad, but the truth is that if Obasanjo, Yar'adua, Jonathan—or any other Nigerian leader— were to choose to communicate in their native languages while representing Nigeria abroad, the backlash at home would be immense. It would alienate other people who don't speak their languages.

 Yar'adua is still heavily criticized—and rightly so—for choosing the BBC Hausa service to announce to Nigerians that he wasn't dead, although his interview was recorded in both English and Hausa. 

Let’s for once be truthful to ourselves.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Q and A about Common Grammatical Problems

By Farooq Kperogi

When I started a new Q & A segment for this column last week, I didn’t imagine that it would catch on this fast. Since the segment appeared last week, I have received a torrent of queries from readers.

Given that I’ve received more questions than I can accommodate in the kind of tiny little segment I had last week, I’ve decided to devote this week’s entire column to readers’ questions. All questions that have not been answered this week will receive attention in subsequent weeks. Keep the questions coming and I will be glad to respond to them.

It's always a pleasure reading your articles on grammar. I have a question for you. You can send your response to me directly and post it on your Q & A page, but I wish to remain anonymous. I'm a little confused over the use of “would.”  It has never been confusing for me to use it as a past tense of “will,” but in a number of cases I'm unsure about its usage.

Thanks for your compliments. “Would” basically has four uses/meanings in grammar. You’ve already pointed out its most obvious grammatical function, that is, that it serves as the past tense of the modal auxiliary verb “will.”

But it has three other common uses. First, it can be used to express polite request even if the request is in the present, as in “would you (be kind enough to) give me that cup?” A less polite version of this request would be “give me that cup” or “will you give me that cup?” Note that “could,” like “would,” can also be used to express polite request, as in: “could I have the phone number please?”  (This is analogous, in some ways, to how some African languages—like Yoruba, for example—use the second-person plural pronoun, which does not exist in modern English, to signal respect to an elder).

Notice, however, that Nigerians tend to misuse “could” in such sentences as “could you remember…” where “can you remember” would be the correct form.

Second, “would” is also used to express a conditional future, that is, an action that has not taken place but that might take place. E.g., “I would slap him if he talked to me like that!” Here, he hasn't talked to you “like that,” and you haven't slapped him. The sentence only implies that should he talk to you like that, you would slap him. In grammar, we say “would” is functioning here as a conditional modal verb. Note that all the verbs in the sentence (i.e., “would” and “talked”) are in the past tense; it would be wrong if the verb “to talk” were in the present tense in the sentence. That is, it would be wrong to say, “I would slap him if he TALKS to me like that” since the “talking” hasn't taken place.

Third, “would” is used to indicate an action that happened habitually in the past. Example: “when I was a kid, my mom would take me to the movie theater every weekend.” Here, the action has obviously been completed in the past. It would be bad form to use “would” if the action continues, that is, if your mom still takes you to the movie theater every weekend.

When I watch American soaps, they seem to care less about tenses. Or may be it’s something beyond me, I don’t know. For instance, a typical dialogue goes like this: “Daughter: 'dad, do you snore ‘cause I do. Dad: 'yeah you GET that from me'.” Should not the “get” be GOT? Could you clarify this for me please?

Well, it's not true that Americans don't care about tenses. They do. The example of the use of present tense in the dialogue you cited is called the “historical present” in grammar. It's perfectly legitimate even in British English. It's intended to make a past event more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present. In conversational English, it's particularly used with such “verbs of communication” as “get” (as in, “OK, I get it: you’re a genius!”), “forget” (as in, “I forget his name”), “tell” (as in, “your dad tells me you want to talk to me”). Other verbs of communication that are expressed in the historical present in speech are “write” and “say.”

 I agree with you, though, that Americans tend to use the historical present more often than the British. Of course, the historical present is rarely used in Nigerian English, except by our creative writers who deploy it in their fictional narratives. In the hypothetical dialogue you cited, however, it would be perfectly legitimate to replace “get” with “got.” In fact, in formal contexts, “got” would be especially appropriate.

What’s the difference between “customer” and “client”? Or are the words interchangeable?

 At one level, “customer and “client” can mean the same thing. But careful writers and people who show sensitivity to grammatical propriety often observe the finer semantic nuances that exist between the words, as I will show shortly.

The American Heritage Dictionary, one of the English-speaking world’s most respected dictionaries, says both “customer” and “client” can denote “one that buys goods or services.” But the Dictionary nonetheless goes further and identifies five other definitions for “client” that it does not associate with “customer.” For instance, it says a client is: “the party for which professional services are rendered, as by an attorney.” (Attorney is the preferred word for “lawyer” in American English).

 It also says a client is “one that depends on the protection of another.” So, to put it crudely, a client is a “customer” with whom you have a protective, continuing, often service-oriented, business association.

 You may never know your customers because they are usually transitory, informal, and professionally unaffiliated with you, but your clients have a more or less permanent professional relationship with you and, therefore, their trust and comfort must be constantly won and re-won. They are consciously courted and sustained.

 In general, customers purchase goods and services and disperse—and may never come back. Clients, on the other hand, do more than that; they often seek professional advice and knowledge from businesses. So lawyers, medical doctors, designers, etc tend to have clients rather than customers. Newspaper vendors, market women, etc, on the hand, tend to have customers rather than clients.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing!

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Acting President Goodluck Jonathan shouldn’t have come to America. OK, I take that back. Acting President Goodluck Jonathan shouldn’t have come to America without preparation. His speeches and press interviews have sadly inflicted enormous reputational violence on his person—and on Nigeria. They were, to use the weakest expression I can summon to capture my deep disappointment, a pain to watch.

I had never heard Jonathan speak before. I’d just assumed that being a Ph.D. and a former lecturer, articulateness in speech would be the least of his problems. How wrong I had been. His performance at the (American) Council on Foreign Relations was a disaster of epic proportions. Let’s not even talk about his CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour. That was a dismal fizzle! No Nigerian who wants to retain his national self-esteem should watch it. What the eyes do not see, they say, the heart does not grieve over.

On Wednesday, I visited the, like I always do, and saw a video of Goodluck Jonathan’s Q & A session at the Council on Foreign Relations posted on the site’s front page. I left everything aside and decided to watch it. I’d just finished arguing with a group of Nigerians who thought Jonathan wasn’t presidential in his carriage.

They said he looked intimidated and unsure of himself before Obama. But I thought otherwise. The pictures of him I saw looked to me dignified, presidential, and admirably self-assured. I managed to convince some of my online interlocutors that they were mistaken in their assessment of the acting president’s composure and mien throughout his U.S. visit.

So, when I saw the video, I looked forward to watching it with a lot of enthusiasm. I had an expectation that I would listen to a clear-headed, intelligent, confident exposition on Nigeria from Jonathan. But less than five minutes into the video I felt so embarrassed for the man—and for Nigeria—that my teeth itched. Just then a colleague of mine strolled into my office. I instinctively and furtively stopped the video and minimized the window with the anxiety, alacrity, guilt, and embarrassment that a self-respecting family man caught watching dirty porn would evince.

And that was precisely what my colleague thought I was doing. So she apologized and left immediately, half-embarrassed too. I was so thoroughly mortified by Jonathan’s performance that I didn’t want anybody else, not least a non-Nigerian, to watch it.

What did he say in the Q & A session that was so atrocious? Well, you will have to watch the video—or read the transcript— yourself. No second-hand recapitulation will do justice to the abysmal emptiness it betrays. But a few things stood out in bold relief from watching that video. First, this man is clearly thoroughly provincial. He does not know the ways of the world and is not emotionally and socially prepared for the job of a president—yet.

After former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria Mr. Howard Jeter introduced him to the audience with lavishly laudatory prefatory remarks, he didn’t even acknowledge the remarks. He didn’t say a word about the introduction. Jeter described him as “a man of uncommon loyalty, impeccable integrity, and an immense commitment to Nigeria and to the welfare of the Nigerian people.”

 That’s some pretty strong praise. But that’s not the reason why he should have acknowledged Jeter’s remarks. Protocol requires that he does so even if the praise weren’t this flattering. That he didn’t say “thank you Ambassador Jeter for that warm introduction” or something to that effect was just socially awkward.

But I forgave him that gaucherie. I chalked it up to the fact that he was probably too intimidated to have the presence of mind to observe commonplace conversational niceties. Who wouldn’t be? America can intimidate the hell out of even the most self-assured person, especially from the Third World.

Then came his speech. It was unbelievably dull, colorless, and uninspiring. Whoever wrote that speech for him needs some basic training in speech writing. Although he could have enlivened the drab, rhetorically impoverished, error-laden, cliché-ridden speech with an artful delivery, I didn’t blame him for it. I held out hope that he would prove his intellectual verve in the Q & A session.

How wrong was I again! His performance in the Q & A session was worse than the speech he’d read. He couldn’t articulate a coherent thought, hardly made a complete sentence, went off on inconsequential and puerile tangents, murdered basic grammar with reckless abandon, repeated trifles ad nauseam, was embarrassingly stilted, and generally looked and talked like a timid high school student struggling to remember his memorized lines in a school debate. It was obvious that even Ambassador Jeter was embarrassed.

The point at which I stopped watching the video was when he started answering a question about Nigeria’s foreign policy. This man had no clue what Nigeria’s foreign policy is! I felt deep pity for the acting president and for Nigeria. But why didn’t his assistants prepare him to answer a question as basic as Nigeria’s foreign policy? How could he accept an invitation to speak at the Council on FOREIGN Relations and not give a thought to Nigeria’s foreign policy?

This was a painful piece to write. Our acting president came across as someone who is barely literate. His grammar was awful. He doesn’t seem to be aware that there is something called subject-verb agreement, as evidenced in statements like, “I wish to thank the esteemed members of the Council on Foreign Relations for its continued interest in Nigerian affairs,” “issues of corruption bothers us,” etc. And “Muslim faithfuls”? Well, there is no word like “faithfuls” in the English language, Mr. Acting President. And by “sectoral crisis between Muslims” did he mean “sectarian crisis between Muslims”? Hmm.

 He also came across as thoroughly insular and unsophisticated. How else could he promise an American audience that he would make “50, 60, 70 percent” progress on his promises? Those are failing grades in America, Mr. Acting President! Doesn’t he have advisers who went to school in America? In America, 50 percent is “F,” 60 percent is “D,” and 70 percent is “C” minus.

Finally, he came across as unfathomably clueless. Just look at this statement as an example: “Muslims and Christians are not at war and they will never be at war as far as my own circumstances.” Seriously? Enough said.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

One notable feature of Nigerian English is the predilection for adding plural forms to nouns that don’t normally admit of them in Standard English. This is certainly a consequence of the inability of many Nigerian speakers and writers of the English language to keep up with the quirky, illogical irregularities that are so annoyingly typical of the conventions of English grammar.

It’s common knowledge that the plural form of most nouns in English is created by adding the letter “s” to the end of nouns. But sometimes it requires adding “es” to nouns that end in “ch,” “x,” “s” or s-like sounds, such as “inches,” “axes,” “lashes,” etc. There are also, of course, irregular forms like “children” as the plural of “child,” “oxen as the plural of “ox,” etc.

Then you have uncountable—or, if you will, “non-count”— nouns, which cannot be modified or combined with the indefinite articles “a” or “an.” This is precisely where Nigerians fall foul of standard usage norms.

Most educated Nigerians generally know that nouns like equipment, furniture, information (except in the expression “criminal informations,” or “an information,” which is used in the US and Canada to mean formal accusation of a crime akin to indictments), advice, news, luggage, baggage, faithful (i.e., loyal and steadfast following, as in “millions of Christian and Muslim faithful”), offspring, personnel, etc remain unchanged even when they are expressed in a plural sense. But few know of many other nouns that have this characteristic.

However, although most educated Nigerians would never say “newses” or “advices” or “informations” to express the plural forms of these nouns, they tend to burden the words with singular forms that are not grammatical. For instance, they would say something like “that’s a good news” or “it’s just an advice” or “it’s an information for you.”

Well, since these nouns don’t have a plural form, they also can’t have a singular variant, that is, they cannot be combined with the definite articles “a” or “an.” So the correct way to render the sentences above would be “that’s a good piece of news” (or simply “that’s good news”), “it’s just a piece of advice,” and “it’s information for you.”

Also consider how Nigerians inflect the word “legislation” for grammatical number by adding “s” to it. The sense of the word that denotes “law” (such as was used in this Punch headline: “Nigerians need legislations that will ease their problems –Cleric”) does not take an “s” even if it’s used in the plural sense. In Standard English, the word’s plural form is usually expressed with the phrase “pieces of,” or such other “measure word” (as grammarians call such expressions).

 So the headline should correctly read: “Nigerians need pieces of legislation…” or simply “Nigerians need legislation….” However, the sense of the word that means “the act of making laws” may admit of an “s,” although it’s rare to encounter the world “legislations” in educated speech in Britain or America.

 Another noun that Nigerians commonly add “s” to in error is “rubble,” that is, the remains of something that has been destroyed or broken up. This word is never inflected for plural. It’s customary to indicate its plural form with the measure word “piles of,” as in “piles of rubble.” (Grammarians call words that are invariably singular in form “singulare tantum”).

Similarly, the word “vermin,” which means pests (e.g. cockroaches or rats) — or an irritating or obnoxious person— is invariably singular and therefore does not require an “s” or the indefinite article “a.” But in Nigerian English it’s common to encounter sentences like “they are vermins” or “he is a vermin.”

 “Footage” and “aircraft” are also invariably singular. So it’s wrong to either say or write, as many Nigerian do, “a footage” or “footages,” “an aircraft” or “aircrafts.”  Dispense with the “s” at the end of the nouns and the indefinite articles “a” and “an” at the beginning.

Other nouns that are habitually pluralized wrongly in Nigerian English are, heyday (there is nothing like “heydays” in Standard English); yesteryear (there is no word like “yesteryears” in Standard English); cutlery (the word remains the same even if you’re talking of millions of eating utensils); overkill (don’t say “it’s an overkill”; simply say “it’s overkill”); slang (prefer “slang words” or “slang terms” or “slang expressions” to “slangs,” and avoid saying “a slang”); invectives (the word’s plural form is expressed by saying “a stream of invective,” not “invectives”); beehive of activity (the expression “beehive of activities” is nonstandard ); fruit (“fruits” is nonstandard, except when it’s used collectively; it’s “fruit and vegetables,” not “fruits and vegetables”), potential (not "potentials").

As I’ve observed and chewed over these admittedly vexatious English plural forms over the years, I have been struck by the fact that I’ve never encountered any native speaker of the English language who has flouted these rules in speech or writing. Not even my American college students who can be lax and slipshod with their grammar.

I think this is a consequence of the force of example. When people grow up not hearing older people say “an advice,” “a good news,” “legislations,” “vermins,” etc they unconsciously internalize and make peace with the illogical irregularities that these exceptions truly are.

Q & A
I am starting a new Q & A segment for this column. For this week I am featuring a question I received weeks ago from a faithful reader. I encourage more readers to send questions. The identities of the questioners will never be revealed unless they indicate otherwise.

Difference between “if I were” and “if I was”

I need a “favor”. Can you please explain to me when to use “was” and “were” in cases such as,
“If I were you,” “If my father were here,” as opposed to “If I was you” and “If my father was here”?


If you are expressing a conditional future, the correct expression to use is “if I were.” So it should be “If I were you,” “if my father were here.” However, over the years, “if I was” has become very popular and is gaining respectability. So “if I were” and “if I was” are now used interchangeably in both Britain and America.

Now, this is my advice: if you want to impress grammatical purists, use "if I were." Otherwise, feel free to use "if I was." I personally, use "If I were" in formal contexts and "if I was" in informal contexts.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Re: Jelani Aliyu: Celebrating an Unung Nigerian Hero in America

I promised to share with the reader some of the many responses I received on the above article. Below are samples. See you next week.
 I was fortunate to lay my hand on a copy of Weekly Trust dated 20 February, 2010. I read your article about Jelani Aliyu. You really created an indelible imprint in my heart. It is indeed inspirational, most especially for people like me who think we may probably not make it.
It will surely go a long way in reviving our spirit.
Abdullahi Tukur (
When I read the above article, I felt I should welcome you to the world of harassed northern Muslim women who, for their northernness, are addressed in, to say the least, uncomplimentary terms because the average southern impression is that all we learn in our universities is Islamic sciences and no more. They are visibly shocked when we tell them of our intellectual achievements.
Like you, we are no longer offended. In fact, we get amused when our southern counterparts interrogate us and assess our intellectual claims. Often times we surprise them when they discover we are at par with them or, to be immodest, ahead of them.
My call to all Northerners is to be socially and morally responsible by supporting as many of our willing youth as possible in school and vocational training. That will further improve our lot.
Aisha Mamman (
A brilliant write-up from a brilliant writer! Indeed, the younger generation needs to be seriously encouraged. That reminds me of John Johnson’s saying that “Men and women are limited not by the place of their birth, not by the color of their skin, but by the size of their hope.”
On behalf of the family, we thank you for echoing our thoughts on Jelani. He has made us proud.
His sister,
Hadiza Aliyu (
 I am just writing to commend you on the wonderful job you are doing. You are portraying our good image as Nigerians and northerners. We are proud of you. Indeed you have enlightened us with flamboyant and coherent words. We learn so many things from you. May Allah S.W.T shower His mercy and blessings on you.  
Please we need further enlightenment on Nigerians in America such as Jelani Aliyu, Kase Lawal, and that Igbo soldier (I can’t really recall his name). Tell us about their lives. We also want you to write on how Americans see our democracy. And please tell us about some prominent personalities in American history like Abraham Lincoln, Sam Houston, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and some of the greatest speeches in America history, like that of Gettysburg Address, Cooper Union Address, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural Address. This will indeed tell our politicians what politics is all about.
Farooq we love you all. You inspire us. Whenever I read your column I feel as if you are blowing new air inside of me. You are our hero. Keep up your splendid work.
Nura Gwanda (
 Kofar Marusa Katsina,  Katsina State, Nigeria.  
Thank you, Farooq, for this tribute. I am very glad and happy that this is a story of another Nigerian. I don’t need to say much because of debates which additional comments on him may generate if I refer to him as a Northern Muslim.
Yushau A. Shuaib
Farooq, your comment is unkind and kind of late. Everyone here has known about Jelani and he has been celebrated on radio, TV, newspapers and magazines - and I read of his feat way back in early 2008. There are myopic people everywhere - both in the North and in the South, and someone like you with your talents and broad vision does not want to get into the “trouble” of a controversy over stereotypes that always existed, and will continue to exist in both North and South. And, you know, I think we need our heroes - whether they bear northern, western, or eastern Nigerian names - or whether they are Christian or Muslim. The problem with this sort of argument is that you run the risk of becoming what you condemn in other people - because myopic ones from Igboland or Yoruba will take careful note that you are putting down their “parapo” in order to raise your own! Be careful, my friend!
Ogbuagu Anikwe, ( Abuja

My Response
Thanks for your thoughtful and measured comments. However, note that I didn’t single out Emeagwali and Oyibo for censure because of where they come from. (In any case, Oyibo is Igala from Kogi State, which makes him “closer” to me—or, to use your words, my “parapo”— in the identity configurations in Nigeria). No, I singled them out because they are truly impostors. For starters, go to Emeagwali’s Wikipedia page and read about him. Then see what an Igbo person wrote about him after painstaking research in this link .
Bottom line: While Emeagwali is clearly an intelligent guy who won some award, he is NOT what he claims to be. And that has nothing to do with his being Igbo. It has everything to do with his being dishonest. He deceived Bill Clinton into calling him the “Bill Gates of Africa” through deceptive self-promotion on the Internet.
Oyibo’s case is a more straightforward case of unvarnished intellectual fraud. This dude does not even have full-time academic job as I am writing this and has never published his GAGUT scam in any peer-reviewed, scientific journal. No three-time Nobel Prize nominee (which he falsely claims he is) suffers the kind of obscurity he contends with now. I had written about these two guys in 2006, basically making these points.
It’s good to celebrate our heroes irrespective of where they come from. But we should be wary of overstating, or in some cases inventing, people’s achievements just to make ourselves feel good. And we shouldn’t discount other people’s achievements because of time-honored stereotypes that encourage us to ignore them. That’s my whole point. Maybe I didn’t state it as clearly as I should have.
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

On “Metaphors” and “Puns” in Nigerian Media English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

No day goes by without reading in our newspapers how some unflattering event in one part of the country is a “metaphor” for what is wrong with Nigeria. And extended news reports, feature articles, and opinion pieces are often full of intended and  unintended “puns.”

Of the scores of tropes used for literary and rhetorical expression in English, metaphors and puns—along with irony and satire—are certainly the most integrated into journalese (that is, the distinctive stylistic peculiarities of newspaper writing). But as with all expressions that have been appropriated by journalese, especially Nigerian journalese, they are now objects of the most brutal forms of semantic violence.

Let’s start with “metaphor.” In Nigerian journalese, this word is often used as a synonym for “exemplar,” or “illustration,” and occasionally “analogy.” But a metaphor is none of these.

Of course, there are definitional squabbles among literary scholars over what a metaphor means, but most literary scholars agree that a metaphor is “a comparison that shows how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another important way.” In other words, for a metaphor to be present, the things being compared must belong to different, unrelated classes.

So, before we can say an expression or an event is a metaphor for anything, it has to evoke a comparison of two things that belong to different classes. For instance, when we say Good Jonathan's kitchen cabinet (that’s a legitimate—albeit dead—metaphor, by the way) is peopled by pig-headed scoundrels, we are comparing the qualities of stupid obstinacy characteristic of an animal (i.e. a pig) with those of human beings (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Labaran Maku, etc).

But if we call Jonathan’s kitchen cabinet members little Hitlers, or if we describe them as being “Hitlerite,” that won’t be a metaphor because they and Hitler are in the same class, i.e., they are all humans.

By contrast, when Nigerians say, for instance, that certain political utterances are capable of “overheating the polity” (an annoyingly sterile cliche in Nigeria) they are invoking a thermal imagery (i.e., heating) to dramatize socio-political realities. Heating and human conflict belong to different classes. So “overheating the polity” will qualify as a thermal metaphor.

Now, I have lost count of how many senior journalists have characterized the crisis in Jos as a “metaphor” for what ails Nigeria. But that’s more properly called an illustration or an exemplar. Jos and Nigeria are geo-political entities; they both belong to the same class. None has the capacity to conjure up vivid mental images of the other.

It would be appropriate, however, to describe a pipeline explosion, or an instance of infrastructural decay, etc as a metaphor for Nigeria—or any country. The point of a metaphor, as it should be obvious by now, is to provoke the mind to make conceptual and cognitive associations between abstract, unfamiliar events or things (called the tenor) and concrete, familiar ones (called the vehicle). There must be some transference, some mental “carrying over” for a metaphor to be deemed to be present in an expression or an event.

I recall that sometime ago when I wrote that “jargon” is often misused in Nigerian English to stand for “nonsense” when the word actually means specialized vocabulary used in a non-specialist context, someone wrote to tell me that the Nigerian English use of “jargon” may actually be “metaphorical.” Wrong. “Jargon” and “nonsense” belong to the same class: they are both lexical items denoting abstract concepts and one can’t therefore be a metaphorical extension of the other.

Then you have “pun intended” or “no pun intended,” which our journalists— and people who are influenced by their writing— understand to mean any meaningless and arbitrary collocation of phrases.

I have read many articles by Nigerians with the phrases “no pun intended” and “pun intended” and couldn’t help wondering if the writers actually know what a pun means.

A pun, also called a paronomasia, is an artful play on similar-sounding words for humorous effect. As Walter Redfern famously said, “To pun is to treat homonyms [i.e. words pronounced or spelled the same way but with different meanings] as synonyms [i.e., words that have the same meaning]."

My favorite puns are puns on pun. There is, for instance, this popular pun that exploits the phonetic similarity between “funny” and “punny.” It goes: “There is nothing punny about bad puns.” And there is one that plays on the phrase “no pun intended.” It goes: “A man sent a list of ten puns to a friend, hoping at least one would make him laugh. No PUN IN TEN DID.”

Now, look at these sentences that I randomly pulled from Nigerian writers: “It is unnecessary for them to entertain the on-lookers with their boobs (no pun intended).” “In the past, a man’s peccadilloes (pun intended) may not be revealed to his wife until the moment his earthly vessel was to be interred….” “If he cannot avoid contradictions in an article of eleven paragraphs and three pages how can he convince anyone that he has the cerebral capacity to understand, God, Religion etc.(no pun intended please).” “…to think any Nigerian could be nostalgic of the ‘abacha years’ when our collective psyche was brutalised by a mean and near demented dictator (no pun intended).” Huh? Seriously?

What’s punny about these intended and not intended "puns"? You have to wonder what these writers understand by pun.

Well, if this is any comfort, Americans too have a parallel error in their spoken and written English. They wrongly use “literally” as an intensifier, and this often produces unintended comical effects. Literally, of course, means “without embellishment or interpretation or exaggeration.” It’s the opposite of figuratively or metaphorically. If I said someone has “literally overheated the room,” I would mean that he’d actually burned some fire in the room or adjusted the thermostatic control in the room to an unbearable high.

Many of my American friends have had occasion to tell me that they were “literally starving to death.” But they are still alive as I write this. Yet they were “literally starving to death”! It’s also usual to hear Americans say something like, “The mayor is literally robbing us blind with this new tax.” No, the mayor can’t be literally (i.e., actually) robbing them since he didn’t appear at their houses to physically dispossess them of their belongings. He is correctly robbing them figuratively.

So while Nigerians understand metaphors literally, Americans understand “literally” figuratively. An interesting semantic reversal, isn't it?

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Christian Terrorism in America?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

The conceptions and manifestations of terrorism are getting murkier and messier by the day. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the unusual arrest of two blue-eyed, blond-haired white American women terrorists and pontificated about how this fact would complicate the simplistic, stereotypical profile of potential terrorists that the American intelligence community and right-wing zealots had cherished for years.

Well, it turns out that the complication is even more profound than I had prognosticated. It is no longer just Muslims and Muslim converts that can be terrorists. Fundamentalist white American Christians can be terrorists, too.

The story that has dominated the American news media throughout this week has been the pre-emptive arrest of nine potential Christian terrorists (a woman is among the nine arrested) in the midwestern state of Michigan. They are members of a group called “Hutaree,” which according to the group’s Web site means “Christian warrior.” (Don’t they remind you of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army?).
 Members of the group were planning to launch a series of deadly attacks against the United States government using “weapons of mass destruction” this April. They were stopped in their tracks by federal law enforcement agents on March 29. And what’s the group’s inspiration for this campaign of terror? The Bible! Can you beat that?

The group believes the Antichrist (that is, the adversary of Christ or Christianity mentioned in the New Testament that will, according to Christian teachings, rule the world until overthrown by the Second Coming of Jesus Christ) is here—and he is Barack Obama! In fact, according to a new Harris poll made public on March 23, an astonishing 24 percent of conservative Republicans believe that Obama “may be the Antichrist.”

“We believe that one day, as prophecy says, there will be an Anti-Christ. ... Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword and stay alive using equipment,” the group says on its Web site. In fulfillment of this scriptural commandment, it says it is "Preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive." The site has many violent images, such as the picture of 18 gun-wielding camouflaged men and YouTube videos of their gun-shooting training exercises.

Hutaree had been planning, for more than a year, to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S. government by first brutally murdering a slew of police officers. "It is believed by the Hutaree that this engagement would then serve as a catalyst for a more wide-spread uprising against the government,” according to federal indictment charges against the group.

The leader of the group is called David Brian Stone. He is also known as "Captain Hutaree." His 44-year-old wife, Donna Stone, told the Associated Press that he brainwashed all their children into joining the terrorist group. “It started out as a Christian thing,” she said. "You go to church. You pray. You take care of your family. I think David started to take it a little too far. He dragged a lot of people with him.”

Not surprisingly, the group is composed of people who fit the description of what Americans derisively call “white trash”—dirt poor white people who live in mobile homes or trailers, that is, wheeled vehicles equipped for occupancy that can be pulled by a car or a truck. And they are all conspiracy theorists who believe Obama’s government is part of the New World Order—a favorite bogeyman for conspiracy theorists of different stripes.

Interestingly, the word “terrorist” hasn’t officially been used to describe the group. It’s simply called a “Christian militia,” and its activities are described merely as “domestic militancy.” Earlier, the crime of an anti-government Texas man who crashed his plane into a federal government building killing two workers and himself wasn’t called terrorism or “suicide bombing.” In rejecting the idea that the act qualified as suicide bombing or terrorism, one TV commentator said it should more appropriately be classified as a “high-spectacle crime.” Intriguing choice of words, not so?

So terrorism is simply any politically motivated violence committed against innocents and governments by people who have been rhetorically constructed by the power structure as the “enemy.” That used to be “communists.” Now it is “Muslims.”

Naturally, a lot of Christians here are offended by the labeling of the terrorists as “Christians.” An angry commenter on a Web site wrote: “Why does the media keeping emphasizing this is a CHRISTIAN militia group since this little group doesn't represent millions of Christians in America or around the world? All day long, the radio announcers kept saying a CHRISTIAN militia group, blah blah blah.....We are a Judeo Christian nation founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs and how many Christians have ever been connected to a militia group?”

I sincerely sympathize with the commenter. Hutaree’s justification for embracing a philosophy of mass murder is clearly a grotesque perversion of the basic doctrinal pillars of Christianity just like al-Qaida’s deployment of violence as a political tool is a reprehensible distortion of the core teachings of Islam, but I couldn’t help saying “welcome to the club” when I read the commenter’s fulmination. Millions of Muslims all over the world also detest terrorism and wish the world would know that the despicable acts of a few homicidal Muslims don’t represent them.

A more empathetic conservative Christian commenter protested thus: “What makes them ‘Christian’? Real Christians don't do this sort of thing just like real Muslims don't blow themselves up for 72 virgins... Gotta love the liberal media.”

The truth, however, is that any body of thought that is as vast and as variegated as Christianity and Islam are lends itself to all kinds of interpretive manipulations, including cynical, murderous interpretive manipulations. But people who have bothered to read the scriptures carefully know that they don’t condone violence against innocents. Nothing can attenuate the murder of innocents.

Now, in an ironic twist of fate, observant, church-going white American Christians are now as concerned about blanket stereotyping as Muslims—and Nigerians of all faiths— have been.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Re: Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and communication breakdown

I have continued to receive a profusion of thoughtful responses from both the online and print readers of this column. This week, I am publishing some of the responses I received on the above topic. It is a mix of commendation and additional anecdotal examples on how Nigerianisms collide with other English varieties to produce communication breakdowns. Together, they make for an interesting and insightful read. Enjoy.

Thanks for these. I read them with interest and amusement. I speak an amalgam of British and Nigerian English and often surprise Americans. A couple more examples that might interest you:

A Nigerianism that I have used, and that receives laughs here, is ‘Trafficator’ for indicator. Many Americans have also never heard the British terms boot and bonnet for a car’s trunk and hood respectively.

Iruka Okeke, USA (

Absolutely thrilling, this! Question paper is “test paper” (a better expression, if you ask me) but which American students further shortened to just “test.” Are you ever going to go into spellings - which Microsoft is using its dominant software to inexorably obliterate the real English? Let me greet your efforts in the Nigerian way: Well done; you have tried.

Ogbuagu Anikwe, Abuja (

You are quite right. There indeed is a Nigerian English Language. Those who say or wish there was no such thing are wrong.

Incidentally, the American current usage of “international” for “foreign” is recent. Possibly as late as the 80’s there were “Foreign Students,” “Foreign Medical Graduates” ( FMGs), etc. The connotation in this latter usage quite often carried a subtle discriminatory consequence for the “foreigner” in many parts of the US. “International” is a contemporary softening— to be politically correct with respect to globalization.

Of course, words often mean something totally different between one era and another. For example the word “queer”.

I recall an event in my early days here. I and a student from Kenya, in our first semester in a US University, went to the College Bookstore to get our first supplies. A young store keeper (actually a student working there) approached us to offer help. She obviously knew that we were Africans (there were only about 15 in a campus of 15,000 students) and that we were among the first wave coming into their part of the world. She tried to make small talk with us (perhaps as a curiosity and her very first contact with an African). After a lot of “What’s that?” “Come again,” etc” (She was having trouble understanding us and frankly I was having trouble at the time understanding some of the Kenyan’s English accent), the Kenyan said to her “Rubber, we are looking for rubber. Do you have any here?”

Well, this young female turned beet red with embarrassment. The sweet smile on her face shriveled up. Her knees almost buckled as she hastened to get hold of the lone male store keeper in the large bookstore. She did not repeat to him what she thought we had asked for. “I think they are looking for something. I don’t know. May be you can help them”.

Well, the man came over. By now I had picked up a note pad and pencil and by sign language sandwiched between words tried to make him understand that we were looking for something to wipe a pencil mark off a paper if we so wished. “Oh!” he let out with relief. “Yea, Yea, Yea, Sir. You mean EEERASSER”. Come with me. Here...”

We took our pick. We were rearing to get to our first class after the weekend of settling into our dormitories. As we walked out we looked around for the young woman so we may thank her and say good-bye. She, of course, was no where near us. She looked very busy rearranging books and other store items in a safe corner of the store. As we exited the door I looked back and saw a stolen glance of incredulity in her eyes.

“Rubber!”. American for condom. Realize this was way before anyone in this nation would openly talk about condom even though as we later learned their sex shops were chuck full of unimaginable sex toys. Just that you did not talk about it openly. It was still Elizabethan in its sexual mores.

Also (as we would learn later) the whites looked upon Africans as “sexually overcharged animals”. So here we came already fired up to corrupt the pious society that intended to give us a “good education!” My guess is that the male store keeper probably did not go into details with her as to what we finally purchased because to do that would have been too indelicate and awkward for each of them.

I suspect that the young woman disseminated this encounter to her girl friends on campus and that her friends went home and told their mothers and that a legion of mothers enjoined their daughters to keep a clear distance from those “black perverts” just brought into their community by the College! We were never hassled in any way but I always wondered in retrospect whether there were no observant eyes trained at us whenever we engaged any of the girls we later came to know, even befriend, on campus.

“Rubber” “Eraser” what does it mean? Just depends on where you are and the era of the word usage.

There is Hinglish, Hawaiian English, West African Pidgin, Jamaican Labrish, etc. I am not even sure that the English themselves are that conservative in trying to maintain pure “Queen’s English”. They can’t really be because as much as it has become the most widely used lingua franca for global communication, it also is forced to have regional “dialects” (spoken and written) and, of course, it co-opts many words from other languages.

I do not in anyway imply that there should be an anything-goes usage of this language but I just was trying to say that I enjoyed reading your piece.

Dr. Chukuma Okadigwe, USA (

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Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and communication breakdown