Saturday, March 19, 2011

Patience Jonathan's Peculiar Grammar

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Nigeria’s First Lady “Dame” Patience Jonathan has by now securely established well-deserved notoriety for herself as someone who is compulsively incapable of stringing together a single sentence that is not a comical ridicule of the English language.

There is probably no public figure in Nigeria’s recent history who has publicly and mindlessly murdered basic English syntax with as much recklessness and regularity as “Dame” Patience Jonathan, whose middle name is now “umblera” on account of her widely publicized, laughably consistent mispronunciation of “umbrella” (the People's Democratic Party’s icon) when she stumped for her husband recently. (Watch the "umblera" video below).

Although I have been greatly entertained by the First Lady’s hilariously uneducated speech mannerisms and solecisms, I used to be one of her greatest defenders during informal conversations with my friends. I had frankly thought that she had not had the privilege of getting a formal education, and so I had attributed her rib-tickling gaffes to illiteracy. I had challenged some of my friends to tell me if any of their illiterate sisters, suddenly thrust to the limelight, could do better than “Dame” Patience Jonathan in public oral delivery and grammatical correctness.

You can imagine my outrage when I discovered that the First Lady actually earned a National Certificate in Education (NCE) from the Rivers State College of Arts and Science in 1989 and a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology from the University of Port Harcourt, her husband’s alma mater, in 1994. But what is even more scandalous is that she was a high school teacher for many years. Hmm. What did she teach her students? And in what language did she teach them?
Nigerian First Lady "Dame" Patience Jonathan
The Nigerian cyberspace—what I christened “Cyberia” in one of my academic writings—has lately been agog over the First Lady’s humorously embarrassing grammatical and pronunciational somersaults. That’s how I got to know about this. Her “umblera” (mis)pronunciational salvo is undoubtedly her most popular. It has drawn tens of thousands of eyeballs on YouTube, inspired several creative spoofs and remixes, and is, I am reliably told, a hit ringtone among Nigerian mobile phone users. (I wonder how the “Dame” sings Rihanna’s hit single “Umbrella,” especially the “ella, ella” hook; I can’t wait for someone to do a spoof of that!)

Other hilariously egregious errors attributed to the First Lady include the following:

“My husband and Sambo IS A GOOD PEOPLE”

“The president was once a child and the SENATORS WERE ONCE A CHILDREN”

“My fellow widows” [she reportedly said this while addressing widows. We know whom to hold responsible if President Jonathan drops dead!]

 “The people sitting before you here were ONCE A CHILDREN”

 "It is not easy to CARRY SECOND in an international competition like this one”

“The bombers, who BORN them? WASN’T it not a woman? They were ONCE A CHILDREN, now A ADULT, now they are bombing women and children making SOME CHILDREN A WIDOW”

 “My heart feels sorry for these CHILDREN WHO HAVE BECOME WIDOWS by losing their parents for one reason or another”

 “We should have love for our fellow Nigerians irrespective of their NATIONALITY.”

Four things are clear from these statements. First, the First Lady has clearly no sense of subject-verb agreement—much like her husband. Second, she doesn’t know the difference between “child” and “children.” She evidently never listened when her teacher taught “singular and plural” in her primary school. Third, she obviously has no clue that “fellow” is used to refer to people who share a commonality with you, so  she doesn’t realize that by calling the widows “my fellow widows” she means that her husband is dead, too. Fourth, she has not the vaguest idea that “widow” is not an all-purpose word for people who have lost their loved ones. That’s why she (correctly) uses it for women whose husbands are dead AND (incorrectly) for orphans, i.e., children whose parents are dead.

I can forgive her use of the Nigerian Pidgin English expressions “carry second” [place second] and “born” [gave birth to]—and her misuse of the word “nationality” when talking about Nigerians who actually all share the same nationality. After all, her husband, who claims to have a Ph.D. in zoology, recently said at a political rally that we are “diverse in terms of different human species.” If a putative Ph.D. in zoology (the branch of biology that studies animals, including humans) doesn’t know enough to know that all humans belong to the same species, why should we expect a less educated, grammatically challenged “Dame” to know that all Nigerians belong to the same nationality?

But, seriously, the stupefying ignorance of Nigeria’s First Family provokes many troubling queries. If the president and his wife, who should be our role models, can’t even obey the most basic rules of our national language (which, by the way, they, like all of us who went to school, learned from elementary school to university) why do we express phony outrage in the national media every year when we are confronted with data of mass failure in English in school certificate exams?

We expect our kids to pass “O” level English in high school, and we collectively wail hypocritically when mass failure is recorded in school certificate exams. We also, as an official policy, expect our kids to pass “O” level English as a precondition to even read Nigerian languages in our universities. But we lower the standards—and expectations— when we assess the performance of our political and public leaders. Suddenly, we remember that English isn’t native to us. What galling double standard!

I recently had an argument with a passionate defender of the Dame’s habitually unenviable grammatical and speech aberrations. My interlocutor advanced the sadly familiar infantile argument that the First Lady's foibles should be excused because English isn’t our native language. But a single question I posed to her shut her up. I asked her if she would honestly want her daughters to imitate the Dame’s speech mannerisms and indefensible grammatical imperfections. She was quiet. When I pressed her further, she shamefacedly said “no.”
But a First Lady is supposed to be a role model for young girls. So I wondered aloud: if you don’t want your girls to grow up to be like “Dame” Patience Jonathan, why should you defend her consistently embarrassing slips? You got it: hypocrisy!

The excuse that English isn’t our native language and therefore shouldn’t be the basis for judging the public address of public figures is just downright silly and duplicitous, especially for a woman whose first name is an English word (is there no word for “Patience”—and, for that matter, “Good Luck”!— in Ikwerre or Ijaw?), who bears the English title “Dame” even though she has never been conferred that title by the Queen of England (whose language she has formed a habit of murdering), and whose people’s “traditional” sartorial symbol is a colonial felt hat handed down to them by English colonialists!

(For the record, I have no problems with the Niger Delta's symbolic fedora; I only have a problem with people who ignore its obvious colonial origins but rail at people who insist on a basic proficiency in the English language, another hold-over of our colonial encounter with England).

The First Lady has three options. One option is to speak to us in Ikwerre (which I am told is her native language) and get an English interpreter. The second option is to address her audiences in Nigerian Pidgin English, which she speaks quite proficiently and which most Nigerians understand. The third, and perhaps best, option is for her to remain silent. She doesn’t have to speak in public. A popular aphorism says, “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Related Articles:
Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing!
Jonathan's Embarrassing U.S. Visit: A Response to Critics


Below are the latest howlers from Nigerian First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan. They were uttered at various fora after this article was published. Call them "Patiencisms" if you like.

1. "I will rather kill myself than commit suicide." She said this while condemning suicide bombings in Nigeria.

2. "At least we all have HIV/AIDs except that some of us are negative and some of us are positive." (From her World AIDS Day speech).

3. "I donate my family on behalf of 20 million."

4. "History will not be completely without Ojukwu..."

5. " Ojukwu is a great man. He died but his manhood lives on." OK, that is creepy. Is she a necrophilist (a person who has sex with dead bodies)? Or how does she know that Ojukwu's "manhood" (the informal word for a man's private parts) "lives on"?

6 . The Nigerian Television Authority on March 3, 2013 reported the First Lady to have said "Congratulations to your elbows" in Abidjan. Apparently, she was attempting to use the outdated English idiom "more power to your elbows" (which Nigerians render as "more grease to your elbow").


Tanimu Umar said...

A masterpiece. I was shocked to learn of the Madam Jonathan's educational qualification. It is very obvious that she didn't earn those certificates-she must have bought it.
The irony of it all is that instead of showcasing her husband to the voting public, her grammatical blunders will have a counter-productive effect.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this with us. I believe by exposing them (the so called public figures) to public criticism, they will mind their utterances.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! This is by far the very best commenyary i've read on Patience Jonathan's embarrassing grammar and mispronunciation! Keep it up please.

DR Abdullahi Dahiru said...

Excellent piece.
I think Nigerian's do not care much to criticize these type of blunders by high profile Nigerians and hence they don't feel challenged to improve their grammatical imperfections.

Adayi said...

I always knew the First Lady had issues with the English Language but... Haba! This is completely unacceptable.
Anyway, good comic relief. "my fellow widows", still can't stop laughing at that one.

Anonymous said...

Great piece.The 1st lady deserves all the whipping she's getting.But I couldn't help but notice a hypocritical tendency of most Nigerian muslims in the question you posed asking if she didn't have an Ijaw equivalent for her name Patience.Why do Nigerian muslims always have issues with Nigerian non-muslims whose names are in English when their own names such as Faroog is neither Igbira or whatever other ethnic language they may hail from? Or are they saying a muslim yourba for instance must bear an arabian name to be legitimately muslim? I demand an answer.

Ikechukwu Onyebuchi Igbokwe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ikechukwu Onyebuchi Igbokwe said...

Well written. I thought she should read prepared speeches to avoid stage-fright-induced flip-flops.

Do you know we have Nigerian Professors who use English language wrongly? and shamelessly?

Language failure is a good research topic

kiki said...

Much ado about nothing

Anonymous said...

Instead of focusing on the problems of the nation, you go around promoting folly


Anonymous said...

She is better than the former First Lady of Nigeria. I prefer her. No matter what you said she is active, does her work well that the former. She initiated Women for change that will benefit Nigeria women.

Anonymous said...

Actually her native language is Ijaw (Okrika dialect).

Anonymous said...

Instead of bringing out issues that will transform your country, the north from extreme poverty you are here criticizing people in your blog. You have forgotten that there is a high level of illiteracy in the north than any other region. Thank the first lady for initiating ideas that will help transform the women. Find a better thing to do if you don't have any.

Anonymous said...

Is the first ladys' english our problem in Nigeria? The purpose of communication is to pass your message across and she does that.English is George bushes native language and he still managed to murder it on several occassions.We should cut her some slack please..

Anonymous said...

Is the first ladys' english our problem in Nigeria? The purpose of communication is to pass your message across and she does that.English is George bushes native language and he still managed to murder it on several occassions.We should cut her some slack please..

Anonymous said...

Dear all, the President may have done his PhD in Ijaw language as English is not our native language in Nigeria as it is in George Bushes America. I also understand that when Patience Jonathan met with Michelle Obama, they communicated mostly with sign language as Michelle does not get on well with Patience version of english.

Anonymous said...

Na the man..wey dey talk oyinbo well, well dey rule our land..... that man...he talk oyinbo pass english man!! lyrics from Fela Kuti's "mr grammarticalogylisationalism is the boss"

Well the tides have turned or Fela was wrong!!!

It's awful but, I live in Los Angeles and see signs all around and frequently from people here both young and old proving those of us who paid attention to enunciation and spelling were wasting our time. I feel I should not cast throw stones because it allows me to get away with awful punctuation!!!

Lawal Umar Maradun said...

Thank you Farooq for your keen concern over the unfair treatment of English both written and spoken among our fellow Nigerians. However, I should like to react to one of the commentators that said high level of illiteracy dwells in the north. It would interest him or her to note that the north rejected Western education from the beginning not because there was no literacy in the area.

Anonymous said...

Watch out for the grammatical blunders committed by the people supporting patience in this blogg! i no fit laugh, like leader like follower

Dining Chair Slipcovers said...

I can't but stop laughing. This is real comedy I tell you. But sincerely speaking, I think it is a shame when our leaders can't express themselves in simple english.

NizzyBug said...


Anonymous said...

Now u can see, Farooq, the divide in our country. Rather than assess ur comments objectively, my fellow country men and women are taking side already. The First lady's grammer is an embarrassment but, yet her 'people' from the South are annoyed that 'Farooq' who happens to sound from the North and a muslim, is unnessarily critising her excellency. It is pathetic. Thats why there will never be a 'occupy Abuja' movement in Nigeria. Ethnic and religious sentiments wont allow that to happen. Come to think of it, if it were Turai or the Maryams that had committed these plunders am sure the Southern press must have capitalised on that and the whole world must have heard.

Neeyee said...

@farooq,d first lady is a real enigma when it comes to grammatical misappropriations in anglophone, but i just want to correct a certain aspect of your eight paragrah where you wrote - "After all, her husband, who claims to have a Ph.D. in zoology, recently said at a political rally that we are “diverse in terms of different human species.” If a putative Ph.D. in zoology (the branch of biology that studies animals, including humans) doesn’t know enough to know that all humans belong to the same species" - well, he is actually correct, we know that all humans belong to the same species (homo sapiens) but the nomenclature does not end there, as with other animal phyla and classes we also have sub - phyla, classes, family, are some examples of human species, if you are african - Homo sapiens africanus, american - Homo sapiens americanus, there are even others like the Homo sapiens idaltu that have died out, Homo sapiens caudex, this is a specie of humans that will be present in 2041 (as you all know we are still evolving, albeit very slowly), note: do not see this as a play of words, there is a basis for classifying what is what and what will be, going into the empirical basis will appear like gibberish to the uninitiated, just want to correct and enlighten you,
so, still on the matter now - bobo jona, his excellency sir was speaking word although i cant say d same for the dame, her excellency ma,
by the way, am also a zoologist(LASU)...chao

Anonymous said...

It's not fair o! why are we all making fun of sb else's mistakes. All humans make mistakes.

Even some of the comments here contain mistakes.

Anyway whether we all like it or not she is still First Lady at least for the next 3years.

And all of you who speak Queen's English you are not even near being the First lady of your local government.

Cathie Freeman said...

Hilarious! I just can't get over this. I can't stop laughing. I think she better go with option 4: Keep quite. But then, she lights up every meeting esp when the atmosphere is getting too tense, just give our DAME the mic.

Naijarian said...

Well, typical of Nigerians... Rather than address the issue, they'd chose to attack the post. A first lady is supposed to at least be proficient enough in english as not to invite ridicule. The Dame's english is not even primary school standard...

Oluchi said...

OMG!!! Is she really educated? I thought she wasn't. What a shame!!!

Unknown said...

Well, I have noticed some anonymous commentators are so selfish by defending Patience. Let me make it clear that cultural or ethnic chauvinism will lead us only to a hugely dangerous path. To criticise the norhern Nigeria or not, one must admit that the northerners have brought unprecedented development in the Southern Nigeria, better than in the North. Also, I have heard a commentator here saying "she is the first lady" and Farooq is nobody. This is ignorant, barbaric and blinkerd thinking! Can an educated knowledgeable cultured be compared with a novice, simpleton ignorant person? They are uncomparable. So, the difference is obvious. For those who are criticising Farooq that he should better write on the challenges of our country, are not aware or rather are biased or blindfolded to veracity; they better read his write ups on Sunday Trust and Weekly Trust newspapers. I finally, noticed many errors in grammatical formations of the vicious critics.

Anonymous said...

In any case, improving her English is doable it would aid to her duties if she took some classes to achieve this. Bad grammar is not an impediment she has no power over, like blindness or such. it would be a mark of respect an consideration for us if she would make the effort to provide us elegant representation n her office as our First Lady.