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Back-formation and Affixation in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi Coined by Scottish lexicographer  James Murray , back-formation is said to occur when speakers of a language inven...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Coined by Scottish lexicographer James Murray, back-formation is said to occur when speakers of a language invent new words by removing what is wrongly thought to be a suffix (i.e., element added to the end of a word) from an existing word. For example, the verb “burgle” (i.e., to forcefully enter and rob a house) didn’t exist until comparatively recently; it was neologized (another back-formation from the word neologism!) by extracting the supposed suffix from the word “burglary.”

The word “negate,” which also never existed until relatively recently, was formed from “negation.” Other popular back-formations that have been fully integrated into the English lexicon are “reminisce” (from “reminiscence”), “televise” (from “television”), “baby-sit” (from “baby-sitter”), “sculpt” (from “sculptor”), “chain-smoke” (from “chain-smoker”), “edit” (from “editor”), “back-form” (from “back-formation”).

There are at least three basic characteristics of back-formations in English. The first is that they are more often than not verbs. The second is that they are usually formed on the (initially) wrong assumption that older, more established words are derived from them (for instance, most people think “negation” is derived from “negate,” “baby-sitter” from “baby-sit,” etc) when, in fact, the reverse is true.

 Finally, back-formations are often met with stiff resistance from grammarians and semantic purists of all shades when they first emerge. But because they fill a real semantic and lexical void, they often ultimately prevail. All the examples I’ve cited above were once considered egregious grammatical taboos. And as I write this piece, some grammarians still frown at the following back-formations: “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), “self-destruct” (from “self-destruction”), and “couth” (from uncouth”).

Affixation is the direct opposite of back-formation. It occurs when speakers of a language coin a new word by adding to an existing word. If the addition occurs at the beginning of a word (such as the word “re-do”) it’s called prefixation. If it occurs in the middle of a word (which is rare in English, except in slangy expletives like “fan-fucking-tastic" used especially in American English to intensify the word “fantastic”), it’s called in-fixation. If it occurs at the end of a word (such as the “ness” in “fastness” which became an acceptable synonym for “speed” only recently, or the “er” forms in words like “driver,” “teacher,” etc) it’s called suffixation. I like to call this “forward-formation.”

Back-formation and affixation are core instruments for the lexical enrichment of languages, especially of the English language. The trouble with most of the Nigerian English back-formations and affixations that I identify below is that they are not entirely new morphological formations; they are rather the infusion of new meanings into already existing formations. So rather than being lexical back-formations and affixations, they are what I call semantic back-formations and affixations.

1“Vacate.” This is a popular word used in educational institutions in Nigeria to mean "take a long, formal break from school." It is a back-formation from “vacation,” the American English word for what British speakers call holiday. (In British English, vacation is only used to indicate the formal, temporary closure of universities and courts of law, not primary or secondary schools).

Many native speakers of the English language will find the Nigerian semantic extension of “vacate” strange, even incomprehensible. In standard British and American English, vacate usually means one of three things: to leave a job, post, position, etc voluntarily, that is, to resign (as in: he vacated the job when he got a better offer elsewhere); to abandon, to leave behind empty, or to move (as in: “You must vacate this house by tomorrow”); to rescind, to reverse, to cancel officially (as in: “the president vacated the death sentence on the political prisoner”).

2. “Opportuned.” This is the only original back-formation I can think of in Nigerian English. We use this expression as a lexical substitute for “have the opportunity,” or where “privileged” would be preferred in British and American English, as in: “I’m opportuned to serve my people as a senator.”

“Opportuned” is clearly a Nigerian English back-formation from “opportunity.” But it is entirely absent in the standard varieties of British and American English. There is, of course, such a word as “opportune” in Standard English, which is an adjective (NOT a verb) meaning “timely” or “well-timed” (as in: his opportune arrival saved the girl from drowning) or favorable/right (as in: an opportune place cultivate yams).

3. “Barb.” This is a verb in Nigerian English. It is used to denote cutting or shaving men’s hair, as in: “I went to the barbing saloon to barb my hair.” In no other variety of English is the word used in this sense. Related Nigerian English formations are “barbing” and “barbing saloon.” They are all clearly extracted or extended from “barber.”

In Standard English, “barb” is chiefly used as a noun to denote a metal arrow or hook that is curved backwards, among other meanings. It is also used figuratively to connote an aggressive remark directed at a person like a missile and intended to have a telling effect, as in: “his parting barb was ‘drop dead, bastard!’”

In American English, however, it is usual for “barber” to be used as a verb to mean “cut the hair and/or beard of,” as in “He barbers the president” and to mean "work as a barber" (as in: he barbers for a living).

 4. “Confusionist.” Nigerians use this word to refer to someone who causes confusion. It is a suffixation derived from confusion. I have never encountered this word in either British or American English, except as an alternative spelling for Confucianist, i.e., a follower of Confucianism. Its formation is evidently inspired by such models as “alarmist” from alarm, “conformist” from conform, “terrorist” from terror, etc.

 5. “Convocate.” This word, which emerged from a misrecognition of “convoke” (that is, to formally call together) is often used in Nigerian English as a back-formation from convocation, that is, the official ceremony at which university degrees are awarded. It’s customary for recent graduates from Nigerian universities to say something like, “our school convocated last Saturday.” But "convocate" does not exist as a word in any other variety of English. 

6. “Chanced.” This word is often used as a synonym for “privileged” or, if you like, “opportuned,” as in: “I was not chanced to see him yesterday.” But, in British and American English, when “chance” is used as a verb, it usually either means taking a risk in the hope of a favorable outcome (as in: "When you buy these stocks you are chancing") or coming upon something by accident (as in: "She chanced upon an interesting book in the bookstore the other day").

 7. “Followership.” A language columnist in a Nigerian newspaper once identified this “forward-formation” from “follow,” formed by analogy to “leadership,” as uniquely Nigerian. This isn’t entirely correct. The word also appears in many native-speaker environments. Although British grammarians frown at this word and prefer “followers” or “following” in its stead, the Random House Dictionary says “followership” has been present in American English since at least 1930.

 8. "Overspeed." This means excessive speeding in Nigerian English. This usage is also present in Indian and Pakistani English. But in contemporary American and British English, overspeed is an engineering jargon that denotes "a condition in which an engine is allowed or forced to turn beyond its design limit." It does not mean "speeding," the preferred word in American and British English for what we call "overspeeding" in Nigerian English.

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