Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Prepositional and Collocational Abuse in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Prepositions are those pesky little words such as “to,” “on,” “from,” “for,” “of,” “with,” etc. that connect parts of sentences.  They are the main ingredients of many popular English collocations, that is, groups of words that almost always appear together in a sentence. For instance, phrases such as “put up with,” “accused of,” “on behalf of,” “in line with,” etc. “naturally” appear together. We never stop to question why the above sentences can’t appear differently, such as in these forms: “put up for,” “accused to,” “of behalf in,” etc. 

We immediately recognize these constructions as wrong because they lack what I call collocational cadence, that is, they don’t naturally co-occur in everyday speech. So they sound “weird” to the ear.
There are many popular Nigerian English expressions that violate the collocational rhythm of native-speaker varieties of the language. I present a few of them below, which mostly revolve around the misuse (or, in some cases, lack of use) of prepositions.

“Conducive.”  Nigerians are fond of saying that a place is or is not "conducive" without adding the preposition "to" after “conducive” to make a complete sense—that is, by the standards of American and British English where "conducive" ALWAYS co-occurs with the preposition "to." For instance, instead of saying, "our universities are not conducive," Britons and Americans would say "our universities are not conducive TO learning or living or scholarly productivity." Sometimes where Nigerian speakers of the English language make a complete sense by adding something to “conducive,” they tend to use the preposition “for” in place of “to,” as in: “our universities are not conducive for learning or living or scholarly productivity.” To “conduce to” is to make happen, to contribute to.

“Enable me do.”  Many scholars of Nigerian English have identified the tendency to omit the preposition “to” in the collocation “enable someone/something to do something” as one of the key features of our dialect of the English language. "Enable" and "to" are indissolubly "married" in American English and British English; one cannot appear without the other. So where Nigerians would write or say "I hereby apply for a loan to enable me buy a car," British or American English speakers would write or say "I hereby apply for a loan to enable me TO buy a car."

Professor Igboanusi, a prolific and well-regarded University of Ibadan scholar of Nigerian English, once pointed out that American English, like Nigerian English, also dispenses with the preposition “to” in the phrase “enable someone/something to do something.” That is wholly inaccurate. Only Nigerian, and perhaps Ghanaian, English omits “to” where “enable” occurs in a phrase. 

A non-Nigerian who has followed my writings on the distinctive stylistic imprints of Nigerian English was saved a potentially devastating 419 scam because he remembered my previous mention of the peculiarly Nigerian tendency to never let “enable” and “to” to co-occur in the same sentence. He said he received a well-written notification from a US State Department letterhead that he had won the Green Card Lottery. He was naturally overjoyed, he said, until he got to the end of the letter where this phrase appeared: “to enable us process your ….”

 He said the omission of “to” after “us” in the sentence activated memories of one of my writings on the subject and caused him to doubt the authenticity of the letter. And, sure enough, when he called the US State Department to confirm if the letter originated from them, he was told that no such letter was sent to him; that it was a scam. So, you see, awareness of the rules of grammar can save you from certain troubles.

“I replied you.” In native-speaker English varieties, “reply” always co-occurs with “to.” Where Nigerians would say “she didn’t reply my letter,” native speakers of the English language would say “she didn’t reply TO my letter.” “Reply” and “respond” are wholly synonymous. If we would never write “she didn’t respond my letter” we should also never write “she didn’t reply my letter.”

“Contest election.”  To “contest” something is to dispute it or to make it the subject of a legal proceeding in a court. But to “contest FOR” something is to struggle to gain power or control over something. But there is a tendency for Nigerians to say politicians “contested elections” when they actually mean the politicians “contested FOR elections.” If someone hasn’t gone to court to dispute the results of an election, he shouldn’t be described as having “contested an election.” This distinction is important for mutual intelligibility in international communication in English.

 As I wrote in a previous article, Americans and Britons tend to prefer the more conversational “run for” in place of “contest for.” Example: Goodluck Jonathan will run for re-election in 2015.

“Request for.” While Nigerians blithely omit prepositions when we use "enable," "contest," "reply," etc., we gladly pluck some from the air and insert them where they are normally not used in native varieties of the English language. An example is the phrase "request FOR." In American and British English "request" is never followed by a preposition. For example, where Nigerians would say "I requested FOR a loan from my bank," native speakers of the English language would write "I requested a loan from my bank." Of course, when "request" is used as a noun, it can co-occur with the preposition "to” such as in the phrase “a request to supply equipment to your office.”

"Off the light/generator" or "on the light/generator."  Nigerian English treats the prepositions “on” and “off” as verbs. No other variety of English I know of does that. Where other varieties of English would say “put/switch on the generator” we would say “on the generator.”  When "off" is used as a verb in informal American English, it means to kill someone intentionally, as in: he said he would off her if she turned down his proposal to marry her.

"Over and above." Nigerians understand use this prepositional phrase literally, although it is an idiomatic expression in native-speaker varieties of the English language. For instance, it's usual to come across expressions like, "He was promoted over and above me," where "over and above" merely intensifies the sense that someone was favored to our disadvantage in a promotion exercise. But in both American and British English, "over and above" only means "in addition to" or "besides" (example: they made a profit over and above the goodwill they got). Anytime you replace "in addition to" with "over and above" and it doesn't add up, you're probably misusing the idiom "over and above"— by the standards of American and British English.

Concluding thoughts:
It isn’t only Nigerian English that dislocates the collocational harmony of the English language. American English does, too. It’s just that America’s preeminence in the world ensures that the deviations of its variety of English sooner or later get social prestige and acceptance.  For instance, it used to be that “wait on somebody” meant to be a servant to somebody. But, in American English, it is now synonymous with to “wait for somebody.”

Other American subversions of age-old English collocations and prepositional phrases are “different than,” instead of “different from” and “in behalf of” instead of “on behalf of,” although “in behalf of” is still regarded as nonstandard in American English. 

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The Case Against Nigeria’s Break-up (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

What I have said about the Yoruba people is also true of many other ethnic groups in Nigeria. For instance, the word “Hausa” is not even a Hausa word; it is the ancient Songhai word for “southerner.” (The Songhai people, whom we today call the Zarma or Zaberma of Niger Republic, are Hausaland’s immediate northern neighbors. Interestingly, according to historical sources, it was the sixteenth-century Songhai scholar by the name of Ahmed Baba al Massufi who first used the word “Yariba” in a scholarly article (written in Arabic) to describe people in what is now Oyo, Osun, and parts of Kwara.  Hausa-speaking people copied the name from al Massifi’s book and popularized it. The Songhai would seem to be prolific in naming our names in Nigeria).

Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman also demonstrated convincingly that the pre-colonial caliphate in the North was not nearly as cohesive as most accounts of the period crack it up to be. It was a loose collection of independent states whose people only developed a politically consequential collective sense of identity in the face of the threats of colonialism.

The case of the Igbo is equally dramatic. The word “Igbo” never referred to all the people we call Igbo today. According to
Igbo historians, the term “Igbo” was initially a derogatory epithet that was used to denote “less cultured neighbors.” The Onitsha Igbos, who considered themselves the most culturally sophisticated on account of their Benin-style monarchy, called their republican, “stateless” neighbors, “Igbo” as an insult. It was only in the 20th century that the name shed its pejorative connotation and became used as a collective term for people in southeastern Nigeria. And British colonialists had a lot to do with that.

So, one of the ironies of the emergent ethnic nationalism in contemporary Nigeria is that it was inspired by British colonialism, which advocates of a “sovereign national conference” blame for the “forced” union that is Nigeria.

The point of these examples, though, is not to suggest that ethnic groups didn’t exist before colonialism—or that organized ethnic self-identification and self-expression didn’t precede colonialism. To make that argument would be crassly ahistorical and even self-hating.

However, my point is that contemporary expressions of exhibitionist ethnic nationalism all across Nigeria—expressions that sometimes elevate and exaggerate collective fictions (such as the notion of the “Yoruba race”) and that sometimes deny the reality of cultural and linguistic sameness (such as the distinction without a difference between the Efik and the Ibibio whose languages are more mutually intelligible than Egba and “Yoruba” are)—are the consequence of our colonial encounter with Britain.

In other words, exclusionary, maximalist and expansionist notions of our ethnicity are a byproduct of the same process and structure that produced Nigeria. In a sense, therefore, our current ethnic identities are also a holdover from colonialism. Should we now reject these identities because they were "forced" on us by colonialism?

Do we, perhaps, need to first renegotiate the basis of our colonially-inspired ethnicities before we renegotiate the basis of our nationhood? Where do we start and where do we end? And how do we want to do that, anyway? By bringing together a motley gaggle of perfidious, self-interested, and insular rascals with maximalist positions to shout at each in a so-called conference of ethnic nationalities?

For me, that’s a disingenuous and intellectually lazy way to confront the delicate art of nation-building and statecraft.

I agree that Nigerians should discuss ways to move the nation forward, but it is, to my mind, reactionary to begin talking, in the 21st century, about how we became a nation. What use is that knowledge to us? It's all too commonplace to deserve being dignified with a conference.

It's not our “forced” union that's responsible for the ethnic tensions in Nigeria. Of course, it's too much to expect different ethnic groups to exist in one country and not have tensions. Tension is a basic feature of all relationships.

There is no country on earth that does not have its share of racial or ethnic tensions. But the fact that Ife and Modakeke, who are all Yoruba, murdered each other for years on end is evidence that our “forced union” is not the problem here. The fact that Sunnis and Shiites, who are all Hausa, mindlessly killed each other in Sokoto a few years back should be proof that homogeneity in and of itself cannot guarantee a tension-free relationship. So is the age-old fratricidal Umuleri/Aguleri/Umuoba-Anam war in Igboland

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that there is something sacrosanct or inviolable about the Nigerian state. Nigeria is not some pre-ordained, divinely inspired union that must not be tampered with.

But the reasons often proffered by irredentists for contesting the basis of the union are not convincing. I personally think we have more reasons to sustain the union than we have to discontinue it.

One of the biggest germinal tragedies of Nigeria, as Chinua Achebe pointed out in his The Trouble with Nigeria, is that Nigeria never had the fortune to have a corps of far-sighted national leaders. We have not had our Mahatma Gandhi or Kwame Nkrumah—(a) transcendent national leader (s) that would symbolically embody our nationalist aspirations.

Even the seminal thoughts of our so-called nationalists, Achebe pointed out, were hallmarked by what he called a pious materialistic woolliness and self-centered pedestrianism. The so-called nationalists derived the social basis of their legitimacy by sharpening the striking edges of ethnicity and religious bigotry. And that, sadly, is the tradition that continues to define our politics to this day. Unfortunately, we worship the memories of these “nationalists” and risk the wrath of millions of people if we dare as much as question their life and politics.

Many Northerners think of Ahmadu Bello as an infallible saint, an unerring guardian of our values. Many Yorubas think of Obafemi Awolowo as God's representative on earth who was beyond reproach. And many Igbos think of Nnamdi Azikwe as a God-send, although to a lesser degree than Northerners and Yorubas idolize their regional heroes.

But it was the originative divisive politics of these three politicians—and their minions— that has robbed us of a chance to cultivate a sense of nationhood. Their heirs continue with this tradition. And they're passing this virus to people of our generation.

To be continued

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