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Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Nigerian English has a whole host of what I call stereotyped phrases of salutations that would strike ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Nigerian English has a whole host of what I call stereotyped phrases of salutations that would strike most native English speakers as curious at best and incomprehensible at worst. While some of these phrases are creative coinages or semantic extensions based on the socio-cultural uniqueness of Nigerian cultural expressions which the English language hasn’t lexicalized, others are the products of an insufficient familiarity with the conventions and idioms of the English language.

In the list that follows, I identify top 10 salutations that regularly appear in popular Nigerian speech and writing.

1. “Say me well to him/her/your family," etc. Nigerians use this ungainly verbalism when they want to send expressions of good will to someone through another person. This uniquely Nigerian English expression would be puzzling to native speakers of the English language because it is structurally awkward, grammatically incorrect, and unidiomatic. I have no earthly idea how it emerged in Nigerian English. But it certainly isn’t a British English archaism or a literal translation from native Nigerian languages, nor is it Biblical English or a distortion of contemporary British or American English—four of the dominant sources of Nigerian English that I have identified in earlier write-ups here.  

Whatever it is, the expression has attained idiomatic status in Nigerian English and should probably be patented and exported to other parts of the English-speaking world as Nigerian linguistic invention in English. 

Some examples of fixed phrases that native English speakers use to express the same sense Nigerian English speakers convey when they say “say me well to…” are “give my hello to him/her,” “tell him/her I said hi,” “give him/her/your family my (warm) regards,” “give him/her my best wishes,” “say hello to him/her for me,” etc.

2. “Well done!” This is a special form of greeting in Nigerian English. It is reserved specifically for a person who is working or doing something worthwhile. It is an example of the appropriation (or linguistic “hijacking”) of an existing English lexical item to give expression to a peculiar Nigerian socio-linguistic habit. The way “well done” is used in Nigerian English approximates such expressions as “sannu da aiki” in Hausa, “eku ise” in Yoruba, “daalu olu” in Igbo, “ka soburu” in Batonu (my native language), etc., which have no parallels in native varieties of the English language. That is why there is usually a communication breakdown when Nigerians use the expression “well done” in native-speaker English environments. The usual retort among native speakers is, “Well done for what?” Or “what have I done well?”

As I’ve written here many times, in native varieties of English, “well done” either functions as an adjective to describe thoroughly cooked food or meat (Example: That piece of meat is tough because it is not well done), or as an exclamation of applause— synonymous with "bravo." It is also used as an adjective to describe something that has been done well (e.g. "Thank you for a job well done"). It is never used as a special form of salutation for people who are working. 

An American friend of mine who is faintly familiar with Nigerian English once asked me why Nigerians reserve a special form of salutation to acknowledge people who are doing something. My response was that it is analogous to the greetings reserved for special times of the day in the English language. We say “good morning” when we meet people in the early hours of the day and say “good afternoon” when we meet them during the midpoint of the day, etc. There may really be nothing “good” about the time we greet them. Heck, we even say “good morning” or “good evening” or “good day,” etc. to people on their sick beds! Nigerians use and understand “well done” in the same socio-linguistic context. The people we say “well done” to in Nigerian English don’t need to be doing anything well; they just need to be doing something.

3. “Sorry!” Nigerian English has extended this word’s original native English meaning. The word’s dictionary meaning is that it is an exclamation to indicate an apology or to ask an interlocutor to repeat or clarify something you don’t understand during a conversation. In Nigerian English, however, it is used as an exclamation not just to express apology but to express concern or sympathy for a person who has had a freak accident (such as when someone skips a step and falls) or a person who has suffered a personal tragedy (such as when a person loses a loved one).

 Nigerians say “sorry” whether or not they are personally responsible for the accident or the misfortune of the person to whom they say “sorry” to. This usage of the word, which is completely absent in native varieties of English, is an approximation of such expressions as “sannu fa” in Hausa, “pele” in Yoruba, “ndo” in Igbo, “kpure kpure” in Batonu, etc. 

The closest that native English speakers come to saying “sorry” in ways Nigerians say it is when they say something like “I’m sorry to hear that (you lost your dad!)” to a person who is bereaved, etc. But note that “sorry” in this context is synonymous with “sad,” not to “sannu” or “pele” or “ndo,” etc. in native Nigerian languages. The real linguistic equivalents in native varieties of English to the Nigerian English usage of “sorry” seem very distant and lacking in empathy and warmth.

 In America, for instance, if someone misses a step, falls on the ground and breaks an ankle, the usual expression to show concern would be to say something like “Oh my God, are you OK?” I wish someone would tell them: “Of course, I am NOT OK! Can’t you see I’m bleeding and have a broken ankle?” As Elizabeth Pryse, author of the hugely popular English without Tears, once noted, the expressions that native English speakers use to show concern for other people’s personal tragedies and misfortunes come across to Nigerians as unfeeling and cold and detached. Most Nigerians feel offended when native English speakers say “take care,” “watch out,” “are you all right?” etc. when they have freak accidents.

4. “Happy birthday/Christmas/New Year/Sallah, etc. in arrears.” Nigerian English speakers use the words “in advance” and “in arrears” in relation to salutations where native English speakers normally use “early” and “belated.”  Where Nigerian English speakers would say “happy Christmas in advance,” for instance, native English speakers say “happy early Christmas.” 

OK, I need to make a caveat here. The use of the phrase “in advance” in anticipatory seasonal or anniversary greetings isn’t peculiarly Nigerian. I have seen it used by other users of the English language, including among some native British, Australian, and New Zealand speakers, although it is rarely used in American English. “Early” seems to be preferred to “in advance” in American English. 

However, the use of “in arrears” in salutations about recently passed seasonal or anniversary events seems to be a peculiarly Nigerian English invention. Native speakers certainly don’t use that expression; they use “belated” instead, as in: “happy belated birthday,” happy belated Christmas,” etc. “In arrears” is confined to financial transactions in native-speaker linguistic climes. It’s often used, for instance, to say someone is behind in their debt, as in: “he is in arrears with his utility bills.”

To be concluded next week

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