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When Food and Grammar Mix

By Farooq A. Kperogi Insufficient cross-dialectal linguistic competence (that’s my highfalutin way of describing lack of proficiency in ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Insufficient cross-dialectal linguistic competence (that’s my highfalutin way of describing lack of proficiency in both British and American English!) can sometimes literally put the wrong food on your table. That was the experience of a Nigerian big shot— with whom I am well acquainted— who visited Atlanta recently.

He was hungry, so he asked me to take him to a restaurant. On getting to the restaurant, he ordered for “rice and beans.” But when he got his plate, the only thing he recognized in it was rice. 

“Hey, madam, what is this green stuff in here? I ordered for rice and beans!” he protested.

 “Sir, I gave you rice and beans,” the old lady said politely.

My Nigerian big man friend took one careful look at the array of food on display and saw what he recognized as “beans.” So he motioned to the woman.

“Look, madam, I want that!”

“You mean you want black-eyed peas with the rice?”

The man hesitated. He was done with all these silly names. “Well, I don’t care what you call it, madam. I just want it!” he said exasperatingly. 

Since I couldn’t laugh at a big man, I strained very hard to suppress the sensation of laughter that welled up in me. The man learned the hard way that beans and black-eyed peas don’t refer to the same thing here. 

I can relate to the man’s dilemma. The term “black-eyed pea” is not part of the active gastronomic vocabulary of most Nigerians. It certainly wasn’t part of mine until I came to America. But I have since come to realize that Anglophone West Africans are about the only people in the English-speaking world who call black-eyed peas beans. This is perhaps because we don’t grow beans in West Africa; only black-eyed peas. 

Rice and green beans
Another kind of beans
This is what Nigerians know as rice and beans
I suffered a similar embarrassment when I first came to America. I recounted this in my Weekly Trust column sometime in 2005, and I will repeat it here. After several hours of hanging in the air and being fed with strange American culinary concoctions that made my delicate stomach churn violently, I arrived in Washington D.C. exceedingly hungry—and drained.

While I was waiting listlessly for my guide to take me to my hotel, I spotted a cafeteria at the airport and saw people eating food that I was familiar with in Nigeria. I heaved a deep sigh of relief. So I quickly rushed there to get some food lest I should collapse before my guide arrived.

The waiter came to take my orders and gave me the menu with a seemingly interminable list of food choices. I had not the foggiest knowledge of any of the food on offer. Then I saw people eating what seemed like “fried potatoes.”  In my British English orientation, “fried potatoes” is another name for chips. So I shoved the menu aside and simply asked the waiter to give me "chips."

My famished mouth was already watering in anticipation of the "chips" when the waiter brought some strange-looking, yellowish things along with raw tomato sauce.

I thought he mixed up the orders. So I said, “Sorry, I ordered for chips.” Instead of feeling remorseful for bringing the “wrong” order to me, the guy looked at me with a quizzical eyebrow and said, “Yeah, you have chips.” I instantly knew something was wrong.

After forcing myself to eat the “chips” for a while and finding that they violated my taste buds mercilessly, it occurred to me that I could actually direct the waiter’s attention to the people eating what I knew to be “chips.”

So I called the waiter again and told him, “This is what I asked for,” pointing to what the people sitting next to me were eating. And he exclaimed, “Oh, you mean French fries?” (Well, after France opposed the war in Iraq, a U.S. senator said the food should no longer be called French fries, but “Freedom fries!” Most Americans now simply call it “fries.” But I digress).

It was a costly linguistic baptism for me because I had spent a lot of money for the first order. (Airport food is usually needlessly expensive, not least in a busy international airport like Dulles in Washington, D.C). I had to pay extra money to order for the “French fires,” which I now knew better than to call “chips.”

It turned out that what Americans call chips is what the Brits call crisps. And what the Brits (and by extension Nigerians) call chips is what Americans call “French fries”—sorry, Freedom fries.

My daughter who just got to America a few weeks ago is dealing with the same issues. I took her to a restaurant called Popeyes recently. I ordered a meal for her, which comes with a “biscuit.” My daughter laughed out loud. “Daddy, how can I eat a real meal with biscuits? What kind of meal is that?” she asked.

Well, she learned that day that in America biscuit isn’t any of the various small flat sweet cakes she loved to eat in Nigeria-- and that she still loves to eat here; that is called “cookie” in American English. Here, biscuit is some small round bread leavened with baking-powder or soda that is served as a “side dish.” (A side dish, sometimes called a “side order” or simply “a side,” is light food that comes with the main dish of a meal, also called “entrée” in American English).

She has also learned not to call “sweet” by its name; it’s called “candy” here. Nigerians who often derisively say “na grammar I go chop?” [will grammar bring food to my table?] had better learn that grammar can sometimes literally take away food from one’s table!

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1 comment

  1. Hahahaha! I loved this! Nigerians don't like to adapt ! I'm happy your adapting..


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