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Top 50 Words Nigerians Commonly Mispronounce (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. I have finally yielded to the pressures of my readers who said I should write on Nigerian (mis)pronunciatio...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I have finally yielded to the pressures of my readers who said I should write on Nigerian (mis)pronunciations of common English words. I was initially reluctant to write this for a whole host of reasons. For one, pronunciation is not an ingredient of Standard English; only vocabulary and grammar are. 

In any case, different national varieties of English have different pronunciations and accents, and none is more “correct” than the other. So there is no such thing as English without an accent. All spoken English is inflected with an accent. Heck, every spoken language has an accent. That is why phonologists (people who study pronunciation and accents) like to remind us that “A person without an accent would be like a place without a climate.”

Although “Received Pronunciation” (also called “Queen’s English,” “King’s English,” or “BBC English”) and “General American” (which closely approximates the demotic accents of people in Midwestern America) are the most socially prestigious pronunciations in British and American English, a great majority of people who speak perfect English don’t conform to any of these standards. So Standard English and “proper” pronunciation are two quite different kettles of fish. As Sydney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut noted in their Longman Guide to English Usage, “Standard English is… spoken by people with different accents.”

If that is so, I thought to myself, why isolate Nigerian English pronunciation for censure? Well, I guess it’s because Nigerian English isn’t a native variety and there are many important respects in which it radically departs from the two dominant varieties of the language. It would benefit people who are interested in international intelligibility in the English language to be aware of some of the major differences in the way common English words are pronounced, especially in comparison with the dominant dialects of the language.

The second reason for my initial reluctance was my knowledge of the fact that Nigeria has a vast variety of pronunciations and accents. These accents and pronunciations are influenced by geographic location, mother-tongue influences, social class, and educational levels.  Many Hausa speakers of English, for instance, interchange “p” and “f” and render the “th” sound in the article “the” as “za,” etc. People in southern Kaduna, Plateau State, and other communities in central Nigeria tend to interchange “v” and “b,” while Igbos of southeastern Nigeria mix their “l” and “r.” 

The Yoruba of southwest Nigeria have difficulty with “sh,” “z,” “v,” “ch,” and “p” sounds because these sounds don’t exist in their language. Similarly, the people of Akwa Ibom and Cross River states in Nigeria’s deep south can’t pronounce “g” (unless it’s a weak, terminal “g,” such as in “obong”), “j” (which they often render as “y”) and “g” (which is often pronounced as “k”) because these sounds don’t exist in their native languages.

 And most Nigerian speakers of English across regional and social class barriers render the “th” in words like “thank” as “t” so that there is no difference in pronunciation between “thank” and “tank.” Hausa English speakers are the exception: they pronounce the “th” in words like “thank” as “s” in their attempt to approximate the word’s “proper” pronunciation so that “thank” often sounds like “sank.” I can cite examples for all of Nigeria’s over 400 languages. So when one talks of Nigerian (mis)pronunciation of English words, what does one really mean?

In the list that follows (which is by no means exhaustive), I resolved my dilemma by limiting myself to only the words that, from my informal observations, Nigerians seem to pronounce alike irrespective of their ethnic, regional, and social class differences. This is, of course, a problematic claim to make since there are Nigerians who have never traveled out of Nigeria but who have near perfect BBC English accents. There are also Nigerians who once lived in the UK, returned to Nigeria, and retain their British accents. I have also come across Nigerians whose accents approximate General American either because they had lived in America in their formative years or because they attended American schools in Nigeria. But these categories of Nigerians are not representative of the general population.

In this series, I contrast Nigerian pronunciation with both Received Pronunciation and General American. The phonetic transcription I use here is not necessarily standard; it is intended to help my readers understand how to pronounce the words I’ve isolated for discussion.

1. Amoeba. Nigerians pronounce this word just the way it is written, that is, “amo-iba.” But in both Received Pronunciation and General American, it is pronounced “ameeba.” It rhymes with “Habeeba” except that the terminal “a” sound in “ameeba” isn’t as strong as it is in “Habeeba.” There is a good chance that you would never be understood in America or Britain if you said “amo-iba.”

2. Apostle. Nigerians pronounce this word as “apostul,” but the “t” in the word is silent in both British and American English pronunciation. It sounds like “aposl” in British English and “apaasl” in American English. But note that the “t” is pronounced in “apostolic” (i.e., apos-tolik”).

3. Arch/Archbishop. Many Nigerians I know pronounce the “ch” in these words as “k,” so that “arch” becomes “ak” (and those with pretensions to American accent would say “ark”). Both American and British English speakers pronounce the “ch” in the words like the “ch” in “chair” or “chance.” This is also true of “overarching.”  Nevertheless, the “ch” in “archetype” and “archetypal” are pronounced as “k,” thus “a(r)kitaip” or “a(r)kitaipl.” The same pattern applies to “archangel.” It is pronounced “a(r)k-einjl.”  I enclose the “r” in parenthesis because while Americans roll their “r” wherever it appears in a word, most Britons (and Nigerians) don’t articulate it unless it begins a word.

4. Architect. Contrary to the way many Nigerians pronounce this word, both American and British English speakers sound the “ch” as “k.” So it is “a(r )kitekt.”

5. Attorney. It was one of my American friends who first called my attention to the way Nigerians pronounce this word. She told me every Nigerian she has met (and she has met quite a lot) pronounces “attorney” as “antoni,” especially if it appears in the term “attorney general.” I am guilty of this, too, especially in my unguarded moments. I don’t know what is responsible for the intrusive “n” sound in the general Nigerian pronunciation of the word. It’s probably because of the false attraction of the name “Anthony” and because we prefer “lawyer” to “attorney” in our everyday speech and therefore hardly have a reason to observe the absence of “n” in the word.

6. Ballet. The last “t” in the word is silent. It’s pronounced “balei,” sort of like the “bale” in “Balewa.” It’s a kind of dance. When I visited Nigeria last year, an upper middle-class family in Abuja told me their daughter was enrolled in a “ballet class” and I was scared for a moment because I thought they said their daughter was in a “bullet class.” It didn’t make any sense to me that they would send their 6-year-old daughter to go learn how to shoot bullets. It later dawned on me that they meant “ballet class.” If I, with a thick Nigerian accent, couldn’t understand them at first, I wonder how speakers of other varieties of English would. Ballet came to English by way of French, and the last letters of many French words are never pronounced.

7. Bomb/Bomber/bombing. The second “b” is these words is silent in all native varieties of English. It is pronounced “bom”/boma/bomin. Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan is famous for saying “the bomBers, who born them?” When I was growing up in Kwara State, we used to call our state’s football team “Kwara BomBers.” It wasn’t until I got to the university that I learned that the “b” in bomb—and the word’s other inflections—is never pronounced.

To be continued

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  1. Mispronunciation of English words is a common feature of spoken English in Nigeria.Most Nigerians, including those who teach English Pronunciation, sometimes forget to apply the right pronunciation when speaking. Words like elait/eili:t/,gogle/gu:gl/,maket/ma:kit/,pepa/peipa/,pepe/pepa/,etc, readily come to mind. Spend time speaking impeccable English many people would turn you down for showing off!

  2. Thank you, Farooq. This has been truly educative to me. I am looking forward to subsequent posts on this very important topic


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