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Bad Grammar about Grammar in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. There is a category of usage errors in Nigerian English that I like to call bad grammar about grammar. By...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

There is a category of usage errors in Nigerian English that I like to call bad grammar about grammar. By this I mean our tendency to misuse and encipher the terminologies of grammarians with our unique meanings. Find below a sample of such errors.
"Grammar." Many Nigerian English speakers use the term “grammar” to mean pretentious unfamiliar words, what George Orwell once elegantly called "exaggerated Latinisms." For instance, if a speaker or writer were to use words like “tintinnabulation,” “propinquity” “concatenation,” etc., Nigerian English speakers would describe such a speaker as “blowing grammar.” But that’s a nonstandard meaning of “grammar.” Grammar merely means the branch of linguistics that is concerned with syntax (arrangement of words in sentences), morphology (rules for forming words) and, sometimes, semantics (study of meaning). In other words, grammar basically means the science of correct usage of a language. Many of the words and sentences that Nigerians call “grammar” are often, ironically, riddled with bad grammar.

The technical name for what Nigerians call “grammar” is “inkhorn term” or “sesquipedalia.”  (Americans call inkhorn terms “vocabulary words,” which strikes me as tautological since “vocabulary” and “word” are almost interchangeable). Most inkhorn terms have Latin and Greek origins and made their way into the English language in large numbers from about the mid-16th century. That came about because English began to be used in place of Latin as the language of scholarship and science. So a whole host of Latin words were Anglicized.

 I once read about how Samuel Johnson, one of the first English literary critics to incorporate inkhorn terms in his literary criticism, provoked a confused mixture of admiration and condemnation when he abandoned Anglo-Saxon terminology in preference for Latinate expressions in his critique of a work of art. Instead of writing that a literary work lacked enough wit to make its effect last, he wrote that the work had “insufficient vitality to preserve it from putrefaction.”

 Most “original” Anglo-Saxon words are monosyllabic and consist of no more than four letters. Examples: come, go, see, you, that. Most contemporary polysyllabic English words are foreign borrowings.

Inkhorn terms have always been controversial since their infusion into the lexis of the English language, as the Johnson example above shows. George Orwell fiercely railed against it. In his celebrated “Politics and the English Language” essay, he wrote: “Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.”

In sum, to call inkhorn terms “grammar” is bad grammar.

“Grammarian.” This is the Nigerian English word for someone who uses many inkhorn terms. Of course, this is not the conventional, dictionary meaning of grammarian. A grammarian is someone who studies the science of correct usage of language. Most grammarians, in fact, avoid inkhorn terms. Native English speakers have no word that I know of for someone who uses many inkhorn terms. 

“Lexicographer.” When Nigerians don’t use “grammarian” to refer to someone who uses big words, they use “lexicographer” or “lexicologist.” A Nigerian online publication referred to bombastic, ostentatiously wordy former House of Representatives member Patrick Obahiagbon as a “lexicographer.” But the dictionary definition of “lexicographer” or “lexicologist” is “A compiler or writer of a dictionary; a student of the lexical component of language.” As far as I am aware, Obahiagbon has never written a dictionary, nor is he a student of the lexical component of the English language. 

“Jargon.” I grew up in Nigeria thinking that "jargon" meant grammatically incorrect, nonsensical English. This understanding was based on how the word was widely used in my immediate surroundings. While memorizing the dictionary in my teens, I remember being concerned that the meaning of "jargon" that I encountered in the dictionary completely displaced what I initially thought it meant. I thought my dictionary was probably not advanced enough to capture the whole range of significations of the word.

The word only means the specialized technical vocabulary of a group or a discipline, usually not accessible to the general populace, as in, the jargon of the legal/medical/journalistic profession. Based on this meaning, jargon can also be extended to mean incomprehensible talk or gibberish. But it is not unusual to hear many educated Nigerians tell people, in a state of anger, that they are speaking or talking "jargons" even when the accused are speaking plain, comprehensible English! I once speculated that this Nigerian use “jargon” the way they do because the word almost sounds like “jagajaga"— a Nigerian Pidgin English word that encapsulates everything that we deem objectionable.

“Colloquial English." Many Nigerian English speakers use this phrase to mean bad, old-fashioned English. In truth, however, colloquial English simply means conversational English, that is, informal spoken English as opposed to formal written English. Everybody—from Britain to America to Nigeria—speaks colloquial English when they speak in casual, everyday settings. Perhaps, Nigerians have such a negative view of the word "colloquial" because it almost sounds like "colonial," a word that now has a pejorative connotation in Nigeria and elsewhere.

"Queen's English." Nigerians often say people speak—and, rather oddly, write— the Queen's English when we are impressed with their command of the English language. However, the Queen's English, also called Received Pronunciation (or just RP), now simply means English as SPOKEN (not written) by educated people in southeastern England. It is also the accent taught in British public schools and, until recently, it was the only pronunciation used in British broadcasting. There is no way a Nigerian who did not grow up in southern England—or who didn't attend a British public school— can speak the Queen's English. To use the expression as a synonym for "Standard English" is obsolete even in British English.

"Phone." Pronounced "fonei," it is a jocular mimicry of the linguistic term "phoneme," which dictionaries define as "one of a small set of speech sounds that are distinguished by the speakers of a particular language." Nigerian English speakers use this word to refer to pretentious American or British accents or overly excessive care in pronouncing words correctly.

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  1. I believe that the Nigerian word 'jagajaga' was borne out of the misconstrued meaning of the word jargon. And not the other way round.

  2. As the argument continued, Nkechi screams, "you are all saying jargon". That is another way Nigerians use the word jargon. This meaning is supported by its second (not the first) definition in which reads, "unintelligible or meaningless talk...". This means incoherent or disordered words and Nigerians are still correct there.

    I think I share isymama's sentiment (did I use this word right =D), that the Nigerian word "JagaJaga" came from jargon as Nigerians typically use it.


    By the way, the first definition of jargon in reads, "the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group: e.g. medical jargon."

    This definition is not a familiar one to the Nigerian English lexicon.

  3. hello Farooq A. Kperogi.
    As Nigerian Pidginmostly used in informal conversations, but the Nigerian Standard English is used in politics, formal education, the media, and other official use. but thanks for sharing these errors with us. I have still confusion about this topic. I am looking forward to reading more posts about this topic.


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