"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: May 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tributes to Little-Known Living Heroes (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

 Continued from last week

2. Adagbo Onoja. A few people probably know this mild-mannered, even-tempered, admirably brilliant, modest, and well-spoken activist-journalist as Governor Sule Lamido’s Special Adviser on Media. Some may even remember him as the Secretary General of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) in 1993. But few people know him beyond that.
Adagbo Onoja

Well, Adagbo’s story is not nearly as dramatic as Umoru Ibrahim’s, but it’s remarkable in its own right. He is one of my living heroes of all time, not least because his broad mind, large heart, compassion, and exemplary conduct have been some of the most significant influences in my adult life.

Here is a man who, because of economic difficulties, started out as a lowly radio announcer shortly after his secondary school education in the early 1980s. After only a few months of working at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria in Kaduna, he decided to venture into print journalism. He worked for the Community Concord, the Reporter, TSM (The Sunday Magazine), the African Guardian, among many print publications he wrote for. But, although he had become a star reporter and a well-skilled writer in these papers, he couldn’t afford to go back to school.

In 1991, he gave up everything he had in Lagos and relocated to Kano to enroll for a diploma in mass communication and then a bachelor’s degree in political science at the Bayero University, Kano (BUK). When he graduated in 1995, he was in his thirties. He is presently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ibadan.

I met Adagbo because I was not supposed to meet him. My dad decided against my going to study at the University of Lagos because of the “rebellious streak” he noticed in me as a young man, which he said would only be fertilized in UNILAG. So he pleaded with his relative who was the commanding police officer of the mobile police force in Kano to get me a place at BUK.

When I got to Kano, the first thing my uncle (who is late now; may his soul rest in peace) told me was that I should avoid a certain “radical and troublesome” Naseer Kura (who would later become the president of the National Association of Nigerian Students). He also warned me to avoid student union activism altogether. He didn’t want to find himself, he said, in the uncomfortable situation of arresting his own relation.

But the first thing I did when I got to BUK was too look for Nasser Kura. I was told that he was addressing a students’ rally somewhere on campus. I went to the place forthwith and met an older guy addressing students. His words flowed with effortless and musical ease, his diction was immensely elevated, his composure was measured and self-assured, and he roused the crowd to a tumult. Being the sucker for elegant language that I have always been, I was bowled over.

 I later learned that the speaker was not Nasser Kura but Adagbo Onoja, the Secretary General of the National Association of Nigerian Students. My friendship with him started a few days after this encounter.

But what I find really amazing about Adagbo is that for the three years we became close “comrades” at BUK and subsequent post-BUK years, he’d never once asked me where I was from. In school, he gave me money when I was in financial trouble, he generously shared his books with me, introduced me to many important people who have influenced me, and even introduced me to some of his family members. When I worked in Kaduna, he gave me a room in his three-bedroom apartment for free. But he never asked what state I was from.

 It’s a fitting testimonial to his cosmopolitanism and broadmindedness that he is probably the only person in Nigeria today who holds a cabinet-level position in a state that he is not an “indigene” of. Adagbo is also the only public office holder I know of who perpetually goes broke because of his compulsive desire to share with friends and comrades and family, who is his boss’ severest critic, and who self-consciously works to avoid betraying his activist constituency.

        3. Professor Attahiru Jega. Well, this highly regarded former president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and current vice chancellor of BUK is clearly not little-known, nor is he by any stretch of the imagination unsung. But while he is often celebrated for refusing to give in to IBB’s carrot and stick during ASUU’s strikes in the 1990s and for rejecting Abacha’s offer to appoint him as education minister, few know about his legendary self-discipline.
Prof. Attahiru Jega

I got to know Jega through Adagbo Onoja. It later turned out that he was friends with my cousin’s ex-husband, Mr. David Gunu, with whom he did the compulsory one-year national youth service in Rivers State in 1978.

One day, two of my friends at BUK brought a strikingly beautiful girl to me. She was distraught with grief. Her eyes were bloodshot from excessive crying. She was in danger of not graduating because she failed a course Jega taught. My friends brought her to me because they said I was “Jega’s boy” and could help her. By her own admission, she didn’t deserve to pass the course.

She said she was sure that she could use her beauty and incredibly tempting bodily endowments to compel any lecturer to give her whatever grade she wanted. She told me she’d actually “passed” other courses that way. But she said when she went to Jega’s office in her most provocative dress—one that, according to her, could rouse a dead man to life— Jega didn’t even look at her twice. He firmly said there was nothing he could do to help her. She wondered if he was sexually impotent. Well, I told her Jega had beautiful children who were, in fact, his spitting image.

She promised to give me “anything” if I could help talk to Jega to change his mind. Of course, I told her the moment I even dared to bring that kind of issue up would be the moment Jega would stop relating to me. The young grieving lady left and said “his [i.e., Jega’s] wife must be very lucky.”

 When the Trust started in 1998, it was Attahiru Jega who advised me to join the paper. He gave me a letter to Mal. Kabiru Yusuf, the then Editor-in-Chief and MD of the paper, who is now its chairman and CEO. After reading the note, Mal. Kabiru asked me start immediately if I wanted. I thought I would be interviewed and tested first, as is the norm— even at the paper.

As if he was reading my mind, Kabiru said, “I’ve known Attahiru from childhood. He would never recommend his dad for a job if he didn’t think he was qualified for it.” I have never been able to erase those words from my mind.

I actually saw this first-hand myself. One day I was in Jega’s office when a former student of his came in and requested that he write a recommendation letter for him. Jega said he frankly didn’t think well enough of the student’s academic performance to write a good recommendation for him. And he didn’t want to lie.

Three months after working at Trust, I got a note from the company’s general manager asking me to formally apply for the job I had been doing for months. He scribbled the note on the letter Jega wrote to Kabiru about me. For modesty’s sake I won’t reveal what he wrote. I can only say it’s one of my most cherished compliments ever.

There are many more people with Jega’s personal integrity, self-discipline, and unwavering commitment to principles. We only need to identify, celebrate, and put them in positions of leadership. We would all be better for it.

Related Article:

Beyond Yar'adua: Tributes to Little-Known Heroes (I)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Beyond Yar’adua: Tributes to Little-Known Living Heroes

By Farooq A. Kperogi

A number of my readers wrote to tell me that they were expecting to read my tribute to the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua. Unfortunately, I cannot in good conscience venerate in death someone I didn’t think much of while he was alive. 

While all the value systems that have molded my worldview frown at the idea of speaking ill of the dead, they also discountenance writing blatant, convenient, and politically correct lies in the name of paying tribute to the dead.

So my position is that if I can’t speak well of the dead I won’t speak ill of them either—unless, of course, they committed unspeakably egregious crimes against humanity while they were alive.

In any case, enough saccharine praises have already been written about Yar’adua by far more competent and better regarded writers than I. I won’t muddy up the immense corpus of immaculately sincere and insincere national praises for the late Yar’adua with any shoddy, hypocritical, mealy-mouthed tribute from me. All I can do—and that I’ve actually already done— is to pray that Allah forgive his shortcomings and grant him the al-jannah firdaus (the highest level of paradise in Muslim belief) that every believing Muslim desires.

But after reading the surfeit of cloying tributes that have been written about the late president—and that we are wont to write about dead people in general—I kept asking myself why, as a culture, we don’t often celebrate living heroes—unsung, little-known but nonetheless great people who have touched and influenced the course of people’s lives—with as much energy and flourish.

Well, this is precisely what I’ve set out to do this week and in the coming weeks. There are a whole bunch of people out there whose life stories have inspired me greatly, whose kindness and example have changed the course of my life, whose integrity and personal incorruptibility should be the stuff of legends but that are unknown to people outside a tiny circle of friends; people who truly deserve to be celebrated not just in death but while they are alive.

I encourage everyone who has similar tributes for exemplary but obscure individuals to share them while the people are alive. There is virtue in celebrating the living. My ordering of these real living little-known heroes is entirely arbitrary.

1.      Umoru Ibrahim. This gentleman has a life story that I would have dismissed as simply fictional if I didn’t know him personally. Umoru rose from being an illiterate photographer with the Kano State-owned Triumph newspaper to a one-time editor of its Sunday edition.
Umoru Ibrahim at BUK's 1998 convocation ceremony

He is from Edo north—in some place close to Auchi that I cannot for the life of me recall now. Unlike many people from his area who migrate to northern Nigeria, he didn’t change his identity in order to blend with his host community. He is so proud of his natal “Auchi” identity that he would go to war to insist that you not spell—or pronounce— his name in any form other than “Umoru”!

Anyway, his parents, who were devout Muslims, prevented him from acquiring Western education as a child. They said it would corrupt his morals. (You see, “boko haram” isn’t a recent phenomenon, nor is it exclusively northern Nigerian!).

 So he learned photography in Benin City. In 1978 when the late Governor Abubakar Rimi started the then radical Triumph newspaper, Umoru applied for and was given a job as a press photographer. But he couldn’t write photo captions. He was literally illiterate.

 Conscious of his deficiency, he decided to learn how to read. He solicited the help of reporters at the paper. After he learned to read, he decided to teach himself the primary school curriculum. And, as an adult who already had children, he wrote and passed the equivalent of a “school leaving certificate.” He then proceeded to study the secondary school curriculum in nine subject areas, again, with the help of reporters at the Triumph.

The process of his self-education wasn’t as smooth as my narration suggests. He was often the butt of jokes from colleagues and reporters in the newsroom. They thought he was the most quixotic person alive. But he wasn’t dissuaded. After several years of study, he enrolled for the GCE “O” level as an external candidate. In his first attempt, he didn’t get the number of credits he needed to be admitted into a university. But he wasn’t deterred. After more studying, he re-enrolled and, this time around, passed with flying colors.

He even wrote GCE “A” levels, which didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to be. So he decided to take the University Matriculation Exams (UME), the compulsory standardized test for university admission in Nigeria. He got the required points to be admitted to read political science at the Bayero University, Kano. When he graduated with a second class honors degree in political science in 1998, he was in his late 40s. I think one of his sons got his HND in architecture the same year. In 1999, Umoru again enrolled for his master’s degree in political science.

All this time, he remained a photographer but took an additional reportorial responsibility as the Triumph’s aviation correspondent. He also became a weekly columnist. In the early 2000s, Umoru was promoted to the position of editor of the Sunday Triumph, the Sunday edition of the Daily Triumph. For me, this is a remarkably inspirational story.

I first met Umoru in the 1990s. He humbled me with the breadth and depth of his knowledge, his incredible facility with the English language, the sharpness of his intellect, the quickness of his wit, the grace of his manners and, above all, his contagious humility and seemliness. His extraordinary aptitude for analyzing complex political phenomena with thoughtfulness, profundity, and great acuity—not to mention his trademark intellectually fashionable vocabulary— puts to shame some of us who have been in school since our impressionable, formative years.

And rather unbelievably, some of the people who taught him how to read ABC and count 123 as an adult have not gone beyond the qualifications they had when they were his teachers. Some had just high school certificates. Others had polytechnic diplomas. And Umoru became their editor! Umoru is no longer the editor of Sunday Triumph but still works at the Triumph as a top-level editorial staff member as I write this piece.

I would rather be celebrating this little-known living hero who is so modest and so self-effacing that he would be utterly embarrassed should he read this tribute. Umoru embodies the Hausa truism that says Gemu baya hana ilimi, that is, a beard (symbolizing adulthood) does not hamper the acquisition of knowledge.

More living heroes next week

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Broken English, Pidgin English and Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Is Nigerian English the same as (Nigerian) Pidgin English or, for that matter, “broken English”? I have been asked this question many times. And my short answer is no, although there are occasional overlaps between Nigerian Pidgin English and Nigerian English.

But, first, what is “broken English”? Well, it is a somewhat pejorative label used by native speakers of English to describe the often hysterical violations of the basic rules of Standard English syntax by non-native speakers of the language. Two other popular names for broken English are “halting English” and “faltering English.” For instance, the sentence, “I want to see you” may be rendered as “me like see you” in broken English. “I will see you tomorrow” could become “Me is come see you tomorrow.” And so on.

As it should be obvious by now, the people who are apt to speak or write broken English in the classical conception of the term are often people for whom English is a foreign language (e.g. Chinese and Japanese people) rather than people for whom it is a second language (e.g. Nigerians and Indians).

It should be noted, though, that uneducated or barely educated people in English-as-a-second-language linguistic environments can— and indeed do— speak or write broken English, while people who are well-schooled in English in English-as-a-foreign-language environments don’t speak or write broken English.

Now, since even native English speakers routinely violate the rules of their own language, tolerable grammatical errors can’t be regarded as “broken English.”

Pidgin, on the other hand, is a technical term in linguistics that refers to a “contact” or “trade” language that emerged from the fusion of foreign (usually European) languages and indigenous (usually non-European) languages. In this linguistic fusion, the European languages provide most of the vocabulary and the indigenous languages provide the structure of the language.

Look at this Nigerian Pidgin English sentence, for example: “Wetin dey hapun nau?” The informal Standard English equivalent of this expression would be “What’s up?” Now, “wetin” is a distortion of “what is,” “hapun” is the corruption of “happen,” but “nau” is derived from the Igbo word “na” or “nna.”

In the above sentence, the vocabulary is mostly English but the structure of the sentence is decidedly African. Let me give just one example to illustrate this. In African languages, it is usual to end sentences with what grammarians call terminal intensifiers. An intensifier is a word that has little meaning except to accentuate the meaning of the word or phrase it modifies.

A “terminal intensifier” is therefore an intensifier that appears at the end of a sentence. Words like “o” in “E don taya me o,” [I’m fed up], “na” in “wia you dey na?” [Where are you?], and “sha” in “Di ting get as e be sha” [That’s really unusual] are terminal intensifiers because they appear at the end of sentences and merely heighten the meanings of the phrases that preceded them. With a few exceptions, intensifiers appear either at the beginning or in the middle of sentences in English. E.g., “Honestly” in “Honestly, this doesn’t make sense to me,” “really” in “I’m really tired.”

Another structural characteristic of Nigerian Pidgin English, which is derived from indigenous Nigerian languages, is "reduplication." Linguists use this term to describe the deliberate repetition of a word to create plurals or for emphasis. Examples: "Abeg come here quick quick [Please come here quickly], "The omoge fine well well" [The girl is very beautiful], "Di ting dey yanfu yanfu" [There is plenty of it],  "Di kontri don jaga jaga" [The country is terribly ruined]. This mimics such words as maza maza [quickly] in Hausa, kia kia [quickly] in Yoruba, etc.

Additionally, pidgins are characterized by a simple, often anarchic and rudimentary grammatical structure, a severely limited vocabulary, and are used for the expression of really basic thought-processes. This is because they emerged as “emergency” languages for casual, short-term linguistic encounters. Therefore, pidgins can’t express high-minded thought-processes and are usually not anybody’s primary or first language.

Where pidgins acquire complex, well-ordered, rule-governed grammatical forms, a rich lexicon for the expression of complex thoughts, and become the first language of a people, they mutate to “creoles.” In the socio-linguistic literature, it is traditional to label pidgins as “artificial languages” and other languages, including creoles, as “natural languages.” Problematic as this taxonomy is (at least to me), it does underscore the sense that pidgins don't have the same social prestige as other languages.

Now, in Nigeria, it is customary to use “Pidgin English” and “broken English” interchangeably. But Pidgin English isn’t broken English because it does not attempt to approximate the linguistic conventions of Standard English. In other words, it isn’t the product of an incompetent attempt to speak or write Standard English; it’s the product of a historically specific, socio-linguistic alchemy of Nigerian languages and English. Additionally, it seems to me that broken English, deformed as it is, is often comparatively more intelligible to monolingual native English speakers than Pidgin English.

Interestingly, Nigerian Pidgin English is now increasingly being creolized especially in Nigeria’s deep south and in such cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic urban centers as Lagos and Abuja. It’s anybody’s guess where this will all end.

What of Nigerian English? In an earlier article on this subject in 2007, I wrote: “By Nigerian English I do not mean Nigerian Pidgin English. Nor do I mean the English spoken by uneducated and barely educated Nigerians. I mean the variety of English that is broadly spoken and written by our literary, intellectual, political, and media elite across the regional and ethnic spectrum of Nigeria.

“I know this definition is barefacedly elitist. But this is true of all ‘standard’ varieties of all ‘modern’ languages in the world. What is called British Standard English, for instance, is no more than the idiosyncratic usage of the language by the English royalty—and by the political, intellectual, literary, and media elite of the country.

“The social and intellectual snobbery of the French language is even more blatant. There is a French language academy that not only consciously privileges the elite dialect of the language but that also polices its usage all over the world.

“An additional problem with my definition is that Nigerian English has not yet been purposively standardized. Our English teachers still dismiss it as mere ‘bad English.’ I remember that when I served as an English language examiner for the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) in 1997, our team leader instructed us to penalize students who wrote ‘Nigerian English.’ The irony, however, is that no Nigerian who was educated at home, including those who deride Nigerian English, can avoid speaking or writing it either consciously or unconsciously.”

“It was the legendary Chinua Achebe who once said, in defense of his creative semantic and lexical contortions of the English language to express uniquely Nigerian socio-cultural thoughts that have no equivalents in English, that any language that has the cheek to leave its primordial shores and encroach on the linguistic territory of other people should learn to come to terms with the inevitable reality that it would be domesticated.”

I then identified the following as the fundamental sources of Nigerian English: linguistic improvisation (to express unique socio-cultural thought-processes that are absent in the standard varieties of English), old-fashioned British English expressions, initial usage errors fossilized over time and incorporated into our linguistic repertory, and a mishmash of British and American English.

In my weekly language interventions, I try to highlight the distinctiveness of Nigerian English and its deviations from standard American and British English, not to ridicule it, as one pathetically quixotic, intellectually insecure “pan-Africanist” pretender claimed sometime ago (how could I ridicule what I too write and speak every day?), but to heighten people’s awareness of the ways in which our English is different from the two dominant varieties of the language and therefore aid intelligibility across these varieties.

If you know, for instance, that the term “international passport” has limited intelligibility outside Nigeria, you won’t use it when you are in Britain or America. You would also not tell an American or a Briton that you would “flash” him because that could get you arrested!

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

18. Common Errors of Reported Speech in Nigerian English

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Re: Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was Embarrassing!

As I said I would some weeks back, I am sharing with you a sample of the streams of emails I received from readers in response to my article on the above subject. Enjoy.

A well-written recap! Even though his name has had this recurrent refrain, I had never had an opportunity to hear him out until I watched the same video. In simple words, he typifies mediocrity as practiced in Nigeria to its utmost! And a PhD???? I am at a loss!

Just finished reading your write-up on our Mr. Acting President’s recent performance at the American Council on Foreign Relations on the Sahara Reporters. I think your comment is rather too direct and might be misunderstood. There could be other ways this can be handled. Remember he is our President for now whether by luck or otherwise.
Chukwuneke Echesi (chuksechesi@yahoo.com)
I was surfing the Net this morning when I came across your article titled: “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing!” which was written on 17th April, 2010. It was quite an interesting and educative write-up, and I must confess that you truly have a way with words.

On reading that article, I thought that was all for me to enjoy from you. But in the course of your write-up, you made a reference to nigeriavillagesquare.com where I quickly logged on to and saw your article titled: “Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English” which was written on Thursday 15 April, 2010. From there on I saw many of your articles which I am yet to go through. My dear creative writer, I will write to you for some request whenever I'm done with reading your articles.
Abshat Sufyan (abshats@yahoo.com).

Just read your post about Jonathan's sloppy performance. You nailed it in your article. I am shocked lots of Nigerians with a narrow scope of reasoning don’t see anything wrong with Jonathan's lack of charisma and intelligence. This gives you an idea of the kind of followership we have in this country.

 My take is that Jonathan is simply clueless on issues of governance and politics. His performance on Amanpour clearly shows his lack of understanding of events around him. With his timid responses to questions, one wonders if he will be able to form sound judgment on our national issues.

 He is plain dumb. Put him on an interview session like BBC's Hardtalk and the result will be disastrous. This guy is plainly not presidential material. For those clamouring for Jonathan 2011 ticket, they need to be told that people are not made presidents just for the dramatic element in their names.
Joe Abuku (joseph.abuku@gmail.com) GSM: +234 (0) 8076100297, +234 (0) 8037276237

I read your write-up titled “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing!” I must confess that I felt the same way that you felt after watching him on the net. Please keep up the good work.
Benjamin James (alwaysbeno@yahoo.com)

Why don’t you do a similar analysis on Umaru Yar'Adua who is even more inscrutable than Goodluck when it comes to the English language? Seriously, who are you comparing this guy against?  People who speak very good English in Nigeria are outliers. You should take a walk on the streets and see how many people speak good English or even care to do so.

I will go as far as saying that English is now a problem as the government is simply not communicating with the people at all. I mean did you even bother to listen to the substance of anything he said?

I am not a fan of the man and I am as disgusted as the next man along at the state of things in Nigeria. But if poor English by our leaders is the only problem we are facing in Nigeria today, I'd take that. Seriously, get off your high horse.

I've just read your referenced article on Saharareporter.com and I just wanted to state my complete agreement with you.  Although I've so far not succeeded in getting my contributions to Saharareporters.com published, I'm quite pleased when someone else captures my views.

I watched the live interview of Mr. Acting President on the Amanpour programme and I was ashamed. And I told fellow Nigerian colleagues who surprisingly were beating their chests that Nigeria was now back on the world stage.  In addition to all you said I was also appalled that the Acting President appeared to make light of very serious matters by smiling unnecessarily.

It seems that our Nigerian political leaders in general see their jobs in terms of power trappings, reading speeches, attending social functions, and similar things. They don't seem to be much interested in being well informed and articulate. In this sense at least, Dr. Jonathan was simply true to character, though much to the embarrassment of less partisan, more conscious Nigerians.
Chris Ohanele (ohanele04@yahoo.co.uk)

I really love your comments about Jonathan's visit to the UK. It would have been better for him to speak in IJAW language rather than English.

You dey try my brother. You hinted at the rot of Nigeria academic institutions. Jonathan just attended evening school to secure his PhD in Zoology

Keep it up.  It will make them better

A friend of mine forwarded to me what you wrote on Jonathan's visit to the US, especially his speeches, etc. Until Nigeria gets to a time when we stop thinking on ethnic lines, like insisting that the president must come not just from the north but the "core north" we will continue to have presidents that will embarrass us.

 Umaru Musa Yardua could not have done better than Goodluck Jonathan. We need a Pat Utomi and a Babatunde Fashola combined, a man who can speak well and work well. If God gives us a man who may embarrass the West, but can work well, give us constant power, security and connect different parts of the nation with speed train, we are satisfied.
Festus Ndukwe (festushislife@yahoo.com)

My Ngwa people have a saying that when your relative is dancing dangerously, it will always attract face itching.  That was exactly what happened to me when I watched Jonathan's interview with Christiane Amanpour.  I wished Jonathan had had an interpreter or asked Mr. Emeka Anyoku, the former Commonwealth Secretary General, to be his spokesman during this trip.

This trip was a teachable moment for Jonathan, and I am quite convinced that he learnt a lot from it.
Eyimba (Enyimba1ofAba@aol.com)

Related Articles:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Readers Talk Back—Plus a Q & A

By Farooq A. Kperogi

As is my tradition, I have decided to pause to give room for my readers to talk back to me—and to other readers of this column.

As you would expect, I receive numerous emails from readers all over the world. Most of them are questions on usage conventions in English; others are additional insights on issues I have raised on this blog.

This week I am sharing with readers particularly insightful comments some of my readers shared with me in lively conversations about language use. I hope you enjoy the comments as much as I did.

Re: Weird Words We’re Wedded to in Nigerian English

The phenomenon you mentioned with regards to word shift and relegation into obsolescence in the original language of the introducing culture also occurs, somewhat, when you examine the remnant and lingering African linguistic repertoire of some African descended diaspora groups in the Caribbean and Latin America.

This is especially evident within the ritualistic realm, in songs, and even rhythms or [such other] symbolic markers of identity. I found this occurrence within the extant Yoruba repertoire of Cuban Santeria (or more appropriately Lukumi).

I recorded some songs that some modern Yoruba speakers with whom I originally shared these chants and songs merely could not decode, only saying “this is really ancient Yoruba.” While [Yoruba speakers] in Cuba retained these, the contemporary [Nigerian] Yoruba [speakers] I shared these with seemed to have themselves evolved as a result, of course, of many factors, not excluding linguistic and historical shifts.

It seems that these lingering linguistic repertoire… outside of the dominant or introducing fields probably indicates some attempts to keep some level of fossilized linguistic originality, or equally constitute an embrace of a linkage—identity faithful to its source formation and incarnated toward sustaining social identity—as a marker of distinction or differentiation, in validating social relevance within the essence of mapping cultural cognition within the universe of identity politics.
Tony Agbali (attahagbl@yahoo.com)

Re: Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
There is a great deal of improper grammar spoken in the US; and even more in its written English. Some of this is just poor education while others represent the continuing pull of regionalism. In the example of "waiting on" instead of "waiting for" there is a historical antecedent in the linguistic development of the language. It is a carryover, preserved in the rural South, of the Saxon version of English and its German root "warten auf" ("to wait for").

Parts of the development of American English were frozen in linguistically isolated communities, like the Appalachian Mountains, where the earlier Scots-Irish inflections and word patterns were preserved (see country music as a guide). There has always been a distinction between 'educated' English and the jabber of the hoi polloi which covered the accretion of foreign words and phrases brought to the country from the linguistically diverse countries of origin of an immigrant community.

This has been reinforced by the ad agencies seeking to target special communities by using phraseology which emanates from the target group. Similarly, the coinage of neologisms and code phrases (viz. Valley English in California) are meant to exclude the non-witting.

Primarily, though, it is the record of a poor education system which doesn't stress the value of precise language and the rules of grammar. The acceptance of the death of the predicate nominative has always distressed me but has become part of spoken English (e.g."It was me').

 Until teachers and professors start to insist on the use of grammatical English, this deterioration will continue. Thanks for raising this interesting point in your article.
Ocnus (that’s the only self-reference the author provided).

Farooq, nice one. Honestly, it is frustrating. You leave Nigeria with Queen’s English, thinking you know how to speak. Then you hit this stone wall of incomprehensible American English, particularly the vocabulary. And these words are becoming everyday colloquial usage as pedestrian as they may sound. (I honestly don't even know if I still speak English). Examples:

1). Your Ride= Your Car.

2). Your Crib=Your House/Home

3). Let me hit you up real quick=Let me see you.

4). Your Grill=Your Dentition/Teeth

5). Pimp an object=Improve that object to a user's taste.

And I agree with you. In 40 years (by His grace), I will be seating in a rocking chair with headphones on (hopefully still listening to the BBC) because I can't interact with my grandchildren.
Araba (handle on a discussion board)

Q and A

The English around here is different. Sometimes I feel it's wrong but I say it all the same. Please correct me:

Old: I feel sorry for myself
New: I feel sorry for me

Old: I am taking the dog to the vet
New: I am bringing the dog to the vet

Old: Go and get me
New: Go get me

Old: Will you take me with you to the store?
New: Will you bring me with you to the store?

Old: Come get me on your way
New: Come grab me on your way

I will keep updating as they come!

My inclination is to regard the “new” expressions in your examples as legitimately American variations. As someone who frowns at excessively prescriptivist grammar, I am prepared to accept and respect the fact that American English is different from British English, although the two varieties are, as most people know, mutually intelligible.

That said, in the examples you cited above, the only expression that would be inappropriate for formal contexts, even in American English, is the first, that is, the replacement of “myself” with “me.” The rest are perfectly legitimate by the standards of American English.

However, in informal, colloquial contexts, replacing “myself” with “me” is so commonplace—even in British English these days—that it will be unreasonable to dismiss it as a solecism.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Common Errors of Reported Speech in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

There is a pervasive kind of error in reported speech in Nigerian English, especially in Nigerian media English, that is inspired by what grammarians call hypercorrection— the tendency to be misguided by false, ill-digested analogies and insufficient familiarity with the complexity of grammatical rules. This error came to light recently when someone who took issues with my recent harsh criticism of Jonathan’s bad grammar thought he’d “got” me by pointing out what he thought was my own error in reported speech.

This was the contentious sentence from my piece: “This man had no clue what Nigeria's foreign policy is!” In his obviously modest knowledge of the rules of verb inflection for tenses in reported speech, the man thought the verb "is" in the sentence should be in the past tense.

Well, this hypercorrection is caused both by an over-application of the general rule of tense change in reported speech and by a lack of awareness of the exceptions to the rule. (For analogous errors, see my previous article titled, “Hypercorrection in Nigerian English”).

As most people know, “direct speech” is the actual words that someone has used, usually indicated with quotation marks. “Reported speech” (also called indirect speech), on the other hand, is a form of speech used to express what someone else has said. It does not take quotation marks and often involves a change in tense.

The general rule is that what would be present tense in direct speech becomes past tense in reported speech. Example:

She said, “I LIKE the weather.” [Direct speech].

She said (that) she LIKED the weather. [Reported speech].

But there are exceptions to the rule. For instance, when an action is constant, expresses an eternal truth, or refers to religious verities, the verb isn't inflected for tense in reported speech. For example, it is perfectly legitimate to write:

"He said their son LIVES in Abuja" (if he still lives there).

"She said they HAVE WRITTEN to her many times" (if it's possible that they will continue to write).

Similarly, it's wrong to say, “he said he believed God existed" (if he still believes that God exists). It should correctly be, “he said he believes God exists” (because, for religious people, God can't or won’t ever die—although irreverent German philosopher Nietzsche pronounced God dead a long time ago!—and the man we are reporting presumably still believes in Him; to write, "he said he believed God existed" would imply that the man no longer believes in the existence of God).

 It also wrong to write, "He said the sun rose in the east." It should be, "He said the sun rises in the east" (because that the sun rises in the east is an eternal, unchangeable truth).

Another exception to the rule is that the original tense in direct speech is often retained if an action has not yet occurred at the time of reporting it, as in "she said the national debt WILL [not WOULD] be eliminated in 2015."

Now, Nigeria's (and, for that matter, any country's) foreign policy is often fairly constant within a given administration, or at a particular period of time. So it would be bad grammar to write, "This man had no clue what Nigeria's foreign policy WAS!" when, in fact, Nigeria's foreign policy hasn't changed between the time Jonathan betrayed ignorance of it and the time I reported this fact.

Well, perhaps, shortly after his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relation, Jonathan announced a major change in Nigeria's foreign policy. If so, I plead guilty to the charge of mangling the tense in my reported speech!
 Q and A 
How come most people say “different than” instead of “different from” and yet the style manuals tell us that the former is incorrect and the latter correct?

Well, “different than” is chiefly American. It’s almost absent in any other national variety of English. The traditional rule is that “than” can only be used with the comparative forms of adjectives (e.g., “better than,” “more than,” “bigger than,” “more beautiful than,” “less than,” “less successful than,” etc) and with “other” and “rather” (e.g., “other than,” “rather than”). Since “different” signifies contrast rather than comparison, it is taught that it shouldn't co-occur with “than.”

However, the phrase “different than” has become standard in American English and it seems churlish to resist it. But I don't think I can ever bring myself to say "different than." My tongue would fall off!

British speakers also have their own awkward deviation from the rule in the phrase “different to.”

My sense is that these deviations from the traditional norm were initially usage errors committed by people at the upper end of the social and cultural scale (recall my point about the unabashed elitism of usage rules?) or by a critical mass of people, which gained social prestige over time. What I've noticed, though, is that the Brits tend confine their “different to” to informal contexts. But in America “different than” competes with “different from” even in formal contexts.

I have two questions. First, what can you say about some journalists here in Nigeria [who are fond of saying] "my names are…" when introducing themselves? Second, what is the grammatical rule for using “attach herewith” when writing formal letters?

The phrase “my names are…” is unquestionably nonstandard by the conventions of modern English. Contemporary native speakers of the English language don’t introduce themselves that way. My preliminary investigation shows that, that form of conversational self-reference occurs chiefly in Nigerian and Kenyan English. This may indicate that it’s an old-fashioned British English form that has survived in some of Britain’s former colonies.

In modern English, though, most grammarians agree that “name” in the sense in which you used it is a language unit and refers both to one’s first name alone and to one’s first, (middle) and last names combined. So the socially normative and grammatically acceptable way to introduce yourself is to either say “my name is Danjuma” or “my name is Danjuma Olu Okoro.” The fact of the addition of “Olu” and “Okoro” to “Danjuma” doesn’t require that you inflect “name” for number, that is, it doesn't require you to pluralize "name" to "names."

Now to your second question. “Herewith” has two common meanings/uses. The first is as a synonym for “hereby,” as in “I herewith declare you the winner of the election.” Many grammarians, however, dismiss this use of “herewith” as pretentious. Others say it's archaic.

 “Herewith” is also commonly used to mean “enclosed with this correspondence [i.e., letter].” This usage is now extended to email. So, it’s common to read, “I attach herewith a scanned copy of the document.” Notice that if you replace “attach herewith” with “enclosed with this correspondence,” the meaning remains unchanged. There are no particular rules for using “attach herewith” in this sense, except to remember that it can almost always be interchanged with the phrase “enclosed with this correspondence.”

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

Sunday, May 2, 2010

White Nigerian Americans from My Village!

By Farooq A. Kperogi

The idea that there is a white Nigerian American family in America may seem a bit counter-intuitive. But there is indeed one here. And I am not being hyperbolic. The Dunaway family in Atlanta, a white Baptist missionary family, is at once Nigerian and American. The fun part is: their Nigerianness has roots in my hometown.

 John and Mark Dunaway, the last two sons of an American missionary gentleman, were born in Nigeria. (According to the Nigerian constitution, people who were born in Nigeria before October 1, 1960 are considered Nigerian citizens even if their parents can’t trace their ancestral provenance to any part of what is now Nigeria). And they consider Okuta in the Borgu area of Kwara State to be their hometown. Their fondest childhood memories are located there. Their formative years were incubated there. And the people they consider their best childhood friends are still there. So that makes them my fellow townsmen, my white Nigerian American townsmen.

Although the Dunaway family left Nigeria in the late 1960s, their legacy endures in our hometown to this day. My extended family especially has fond memories of this wonderful family. I’ve been fed with stories of the Dunaways since I was a child. My dad, a retired Islamic Studies/Arabic teacher, and my granddad, who passed away in 1993 at over 100 years, always had nice stories to share with us about the white American missionary family who were more immersed in our culture than was thought possible for white people at the time; whose matriarch, Mrs. Margaret Dunaway, spoke better Baatonum (the dominant language of western Borgu) than many native speakers of the language.

 I had never imagined for a split second that I would ever get to meet any member of the Dunaway family. But by a stroke of serendipity I got to meet John and Mark here in Atlanta!

One day in 2005 while in Louisiana, I decided on a whim to search my last name on Google. And it turned out that one of the matches I got was an article by a John Dunaway. The article made several references to members of my extended family. I eagerly clicked on the link. I think John was recounting his most recent visit to Okuta after a long hiatus. Immediately after reading the article, I went to the “Contact Us” page and sent off an email to the owner of the site requesting that he give me the email address of John Dunaway.

A few days later, I got a response. It turned out that the owner of the site, Anthony Dunaway, was John’s son. I told him I was a member of the Kperogi family that his dad had written about, and would like to establish contact with him. He forwarded my email to his dad who took longer than expected to get back to me. He later told me that when his friends saw his excitement upon reading my email, they cautioned him to be wary of Nigerian 419 scammers. Although he trusted his hunch that I was real, he decided to heed his friends’ advice. He waited to see if I would shoot him another email.

I did—through his son again. I wrote that I was the grandson of the Kperogi who was a friend to his dad. He was convinced. So he responded. From them on, we constantly spoke on the phone and immediately hit it off. As fate would have it, in 2006, I relocated to Atlanta where John and his family lived. He was ecstatic—as I was.

We became family friends and would often vicariously relive experiences growing up in Okuta. I met his wife and son and later his younger brother, Mark, who introduced himself to me as “Sabi,” the generic Baatonu name for the second son in a family. Incredibly, John and Mark still spoke bits of the Baatonu language and sang our local songs with near-native proficiency.
The late John Dunway receiving a gift of chicken from his father's former cook, the late Mr. Bio Kpo...2003

Rather strangely--perhaps not-- in the times we got together, I felt more comfortable in their company than I ever did with other Nigerians I’ve met here. John would often invite me to their home to celebrate Christmas, New Year, and Thanksgiving. When my wife and daughter visited here in 2007 and 2008, we visited each other constantly.

 Mark’s first daughter, who was only 12 when we first met, already knew so much about Nigeria and my hometown. She told me her greatest desire was to visit Nigeria someday and see the place of her dad’s birth.

The story of the Dunaway family’s coming to Nigeria is an intriguing one. The older Dunaway, Mr. Archie Dunaway, was originally from the racially volatile state of Mississippi in southern United States. By John’s account, his dad, like most white Mississippians at the time, nursed a lot of racial animosity toward black Americans. Then one day, he was told that he had been called by God to be a church minister. Although he’d never wanted to be a church minister, he said he had no problems with the call if it won’t require him to minister to black folks in America.

Well, after his seminary training, he was told that he would be sent to some derelict village called Okuta in a malarious African desert in the predominantly Muslim Borgu division of northern Nigeria. This was in the late 1940s. He was devastated. But, John told me, the older Dunaway consoled himself by saying God must be telling him something.

Till he died in Zimbabwe, John told me his dad’s greatest joy was being in the company of black people. (He was denied a visa to return to Nigeria, with which he'd totally fallen in love, because Yakubu Gowon determined that he had sympathies for the Biafran cause). His wife, who was a nurse, also loved black children with a passion. Both husband and wife shed their southern racist upbringing and embraced the common humanity that binds us all.

When the Dunaways returned to the United States in the late 1960s at the onset of the Nigerian Civil War, they were confronted by a different racial reality. John told me he found that he felt more comfortable with black people than he did with his white peers. That’s hardly surprising. He wasn’t only born in Nigeria; he attended elementary and high schools in Nigeria and was therefore blind to the prevailing racial stratification in America.

But he soon realized that the black kids he met in America were different from the ones he left in Nigeria. This was a period when racial segregation was still ruthlessly enforced, when Civil Rights agitations were getting more intense than ever before, and when people feared that America was headed for a catastrophic race war.

He said would often ignore the racial divisions, which didn’t make any sense to him, and go play with black Americans his age— to the astonishment of his white friends. But he was always greeted with hostility and, occasionally, physical violence. Black American kids his age never trusted his motives. They couldn’t believe he just wanted to hang out with them because he felt more comfortable in their midst than he did in the midst of white kids.

They didn’t trust him. How could they? How could the black American kids have known that John’s best childhood friends were black, that his parents brought up scores of black children as if they were their own biological kids? How could they appreciate the fact that John’s upbringing made him impervious to something as incidental and as superficial as racial differences?

 Unfortunately, John couldn’t quite escape this awkward quandary even as he grew older. As an adult, he was also once called a “racist” when he told some black Americans that he was more African than they were in experiential terms.

The significant thing, though, is that the legacy of the Dunaways continues to live in my hometown. The Baptist Primary School in my hometown (which I attended) was built by them. They built the first secondary school in the community (Baptist Grammar School), which I also attended. In fact, the Baptist Hospital in Okuta—where I was born—was built by the Dunaways. So, in more ways than one, I am a “child” of the Dunaways.

This was even more so for my dad’s kid brother, Malam Ismaila Kperogi, who was almost literally brought up by the Dunaways. They sent him to the same schools they sent their kids. After his high school education, they sent him to the UK for higher education. My uncle says the Dunaways decided against sending him to the United States because they feared that exposure to the searing anti-black racism prevalent in the American society at the time would make him hate Americans.

Yet, in spite of the praiseworthy efforts of the Dunaways and their successors, few people in our community converted to Christianity. To this day, you can count the number of Christian families in Okuta on the tip of your fingers. My grandfather was one of the earliest converts to Christianity because of his friendship with the older Dunaway and his desire to give his children Western education. My dad refused to convert because he was actually brought up by my granddad’s relative who was an Islamic scholar. By 1949 when my granddad converted to Christianity, my dad was already a teenager with fairly well-formed views on religion. My dad’s kid brother, Ismaila, reverted to Islam after returning from the UK. Of my grandfather’s 8 children, 3 are Christians and five are Muslims.

So I grew up in an extended family that was multi-religious—in a community that is otherwise over 90 percent Muslim. At home, we celebrated Muslim and Christian festivals in common and had never had any conflicts arising from religious differences. It is this background that explains my tolerant outlook to religion.

Unfortunately, on March 12 when I called John to inform him that my wife had a baby boy whom we have named Adam in honor of my dad, his wife picked up the phone and told me John had died about two months earlier. I was devastated. I cried like a baby.

John was one of the kindest, pleasantest, most gracious human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to relate with. He was deeply religious but incredibly tolerant and respectful of other people’s faiths. He also loved Nigeria and Nigerians with the same sincerity that his mom and dad did.

He considered himself Nigerian to his death. If I remember correctly, he had a Nigerian passport. Each time he visited his childhood friends in my hometown every once in a while, he told me how he always joked with law enforcement officers who stopped him for identification. He would often tell them he was a white Nigerian. He said he cherished the shock he often saw on the faces of the officers. With his inimitable mimetic skills, he would affect a Hausa- or Yoruba-inflected English accent to tell me how he talked with Nigerians who doubted his claim to being a Nigerian.

His death is especially painful because he and I often discussed the subject of death. He would tell me that considering my granddad died at over 100 years, I had the longevity gene in me and would probably live as long as my granddad did. (Well, that’s not necessarily true; my dad’s immediate younger brother died in his 60s). He said most people in his family don’t live very long. And he died at the age of 57.

Sometime toward the end of last year John told me that he had been struck by partial stroke but said he was hopeful that he would recover. A few weeks later, he told me the results of several tests at different hospitals came back negative. So my anxieties subsided. But on February 3, this athletic, health-conscious, God-fearing, complaisant man just stopped breathing, according to his daughter. And there went a distinguished, if unsung, white Nigerian American.

 May his soul rest in peace.