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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 t...

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


  1. Nice piece of work. As a native speaker of Nigerian Pidgin English (Surprised? Yes, you get native speakers in Delta state ~ with no understanding of any other language), I would spell 'happen, taya and wia' as 'happen, tire and where', other wise I'll end up spelling 'be and you' as 'bi and yu'

    wetin dey happen now/na/nau? (it's an attempt to pronounce 'now', it's 'nna' only when it comes at the beginning, say,
    nna wetin dey happen? (hey what's happening/ hey what's up?)

    P.S I took my WAEC in 1997. Who knows?

  2. Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your insightful thoughts with me.

    Let me respond to some of the issues you raised.

    If by "now" you mean the English word by the same spelling, you're wrong. It doesn't fit the sense we imply when we use "nau" in Nigerian Pidgin English. Nna, na or whatever other variation you have of the word is clearly Igbo; it's NOT a corruption of the English "now."

    You said you would spell some of the Nigerian Pidgin English words I cited differently. Well, that's the nature of pidgins; their grammar and spellings are not often standardized, so there is no consistency in how they are written or spoken. When/if they are standardized they become creoles.

    Lastly, you wonder if I am surprised that you are a "native speaker of Nigerian Pidgin English." Well, if you read my article carefully, you wouldn't ask that. I wrote: "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." By "creolized" I mean that Nigerian Pidgin English is becoming the first (or native) language of many people, and by "Nigeria's deep south" I mean the Niger Delta.

  3. Great post! I was trying to figure out how Nigerian pidgin english sounds. It was referenced in Chimamanda Adiche's books, which made me very curious. Being from India, Indian English (believe is considered a dialect) has its own unique flavor.

    For example, a lot of people will say "give an exam" as opposed to take an exam.

    The other one is "my head is paining" as opposed to hurting.

  4. Please Professor,Is Pidgin a debased and corrupted variety of some prestige language? Please discuss with examples.


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