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Q and A on Outdated Nigerian English Words and Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Last week’s article titled “Top 10 Outdated and/or Made-up Word in Nigerian English” elicited a lot of quest...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Last week’s article titled “Top 10 Outdated and/or Made-up Word in Nigerian English” elicited a lot of questions from my readers.  In what follows, I attempt to provide answers to some of these questions.

I must say I always enjoy your column. I always look forward to it every weekend. Without it I feel empty. However, I’ll like to ask this question: don’t we have the right to make meaningful improvements in the English language, even though it did not originate from us? I agree that some of the words we use are obsolete, but I seriously feel limiting ourselves to speaking the way the Brits speak amounts to continuous colonization. Let's make it a little bit difficult for them so that they would learn from the integrated Nigerian version of English.

Your question and comment strike at a theme I’ve had to address since I started writing about English usage in Nigeria. There is certainly merit in systematizing and standardizing Nigerian English. I have advocated this in several of my previous write-ups. It is neither possible nor desirable for Nigerians to speak and write English exactly the way native speakers of the language do it. As Chinua Achebe once said, any language that leaves its native habitat and encroaches on the linguistic shores of others has to come to terms with the reality that it would be domesticated. That’s why there is no one English; there are “Englishes.”

However, there is value in being armed with what I once called multi-dialectal linguistic competence in the English language. By that I mean being familiar with the forms, peculiarities, points of similarities and dissimilarities, etc. between the major dialects of the English language—British English, American English, Nigerian English, etc. For instance, when I’m in Nigeria—or when I speak with Nigerians—I have no anxieties about saying I will “flash” somebody. I know I will be understood as saying that I will call their cell phone number briefly and hang up before they pick my call. But my multi-dialectal competence in English would ensure that I never say that when I am in America or in the UK because I could be (mis)understood as saying that I want to briefly expose my naked body in public.

Similarly, a Nigerian who has multi-dialectal linguistic competence in English would use “go-slow” in Nigeria to mean a traffic jam, but would know enough to know that in the UK “go-slow” means a “form of protest by workers in which they deliberately slow down in order to cause problem for their employers.” A Nigerian who tells his boss that he is late to work because of a go-slow could lose his job because he could be mistaken as implying that he is on a one-man industrial protest.

The whole point of my weekly interventions is not to condemn Nigerian English (which I, too, speak and write, by the way) but to enrich our competence in the different dialects of the language we call our official language—and to improve international intelligibility in English in the process.  Insisting that we stick to our version of the English language and ignore developments in the native varieties of the language amounts to what I once called self-limiting linguistic ghettoization, that is, unhelpful linguistic self-segregation.

I read with interest your article published in the Sunday Trust today. I am an avid reader and sometimes I come across words that I think are “made in Nigeria,” which are widely used but do not make much sense and which journalists have also adopted. Please could you comment on these two expressions: 1. “cousin sister/brother” 2. “My names are” (when people introduce themselves). Are these words and phrases correct?

“Cousin brother/sister” is clearly nonstandard. People are either your cousins or your brothers/sisters. They can’t be both—at least in Standard English. I think the basis for the expression in Nigerian English derives from the fact that we do not have equivalent lexical items for “cousin” in most of our native languages. People are either our brothers or our sisters.  

 The traditional African family structure places a lot of emphasis on cementing extended familial relationships. The farther away a familial relationship is, the more the need to nurture and bridge it through friendly, fraternal linguistic markers, such as the use of “brother,” “sister,” “uncle,” etc. to address people who may be our or our parents’ 42nd cousins. There is a surviving linguistic relic of this culture in black America where every man is a “brother” and every woman a “sister” even when there is no blood relationship between the people who call each other brothers and sisters.

For many Nigerians, nay Africans, the term “cousin” imposes a genealogical distance in extended families. So “cousin brother” or “cousin sister” is improvised as a linguistic compromise that acknowledges a strange native English naming practice but that retains an African cultural singularity. It’s linguistic creativity at its finest.

“My names are” is not Standard English.  This is what I wrote in response to that same question from a reader a while back: “The phrase ‘my names are…’ is unquestionably nonstandard by the conventions of modern English. Contemporary native English speakers don’t introduce themselves that way. My preliminary investigation shows that, that form of conversational self-reference occurs chiefly in Nigerian and Kenyan English. This may indicate that it’s an old-fashioned British English form that has survived in some of Britain’s former colonies.

“In modern English, most grammarians agree that ‘name,’ in the sense in which you used it, is a language unit and refers both to one’s first name alone and to one’s first, (middle), and last names combined. So the socially normative and grammatically acceptable way to introduce yourself is to either say ‘my name is Danjuma’ or ‘my name is Danjuma Olu Okoro.’ The fact of the addition of ‘Olu’ and ‘Okoro’ to ‘Danjuma’ doesn’t require that you inflect ‘name’ for number, that is, it doesn't require you to pluralize ‘name’ to ‘names.’ So it is wrong to say ‘my names are ….’”

Brilliant article, Farooq! What word should we use in place of "detribalized" then?

There is no exact lexical substitute in native varieties of English for the sense Nigerians convey when they describe a person as “detribalized.” It’s just like we have no equivalent for the term “racist” in most of our native languages because we have never had to deal with “race” in the same way that people in the West do. But close alternatives to “detribalized” are liberal, unprejudiced, open-minded, tolerant, etc.

I learnt a lot from what you wrote. In fact, I was a victim of the use of the word 'tribe' in my dissertation for my first degree. Colonial documents that I read, while working on my dissertation, used the word 'tribe' to refer to Nigerian ethnic groups. In my analysis, I unfortunately used the same word, which really infuriated my supervisor to the extent that he reduced my marks and I ended up with 2:2. When I read your article, I was elated that there are Nigerian academics that are prepared to educate Nigerians on the usage of outdated or Nigerian English slang and correct English.

It is unfortunate that that the words are becoming standard in Nigeria, including among Nigerian journalists. It is my hope that, with the type of piece you write, our writers will catch up with the developments in the English language in the interest of our children.
You mentioned that you wrote other pieces in the media. I don't want to impose on you, but if practicable I will appreciate getting copies to widen my modern knowledge of English.

Thanks for your kind words. The articles are "What's My Tribe? None!"(published in the Weekly Trust of February 27, 2009), "Of Tribe and Pride: Deconstructing Alibi's Alibi for Racial Self-Hatred" (published in the Weekly Trust of March 27, 2009), and "The Anti-African Racist Insults Obama Got Away With in Ghana"(published in the Weekly Trust of July 18, 2009).

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