Saturday, July 27, 2013

The African Origins of Common English Words (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

When I first wrote about the African origins ofcommon English words on September 8, 2010, I promised that I would expand the list and update my conclusions when I had the chance to read the five books that have been written on the subject, which I hadn’t read at the time I wrote the article. 

The books are Newbell Niles Puckett’s Black Names in America: Origins and Usage, which was published in 1975; Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The Bantu Speaking Heritage of the United States published in 1979; Gerard Matthew Dalgish’s A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language published in 1982; Joseph E. Holloway’s Africanisms in American Culture published in 1990; and Joseph E Holloway’s and Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The African Heritage of American English published in 1993.

I read all these books over the past few weeks and particularly found Gerard Matthew Dalgish’s A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language and Joseph E Holloway’s and Winifred Kellersberger Vass’ The African Heritage of American English very informative, although I think that they hyperbolize and romanticize their evidence and conclusions in many places. I will start with common English words that trace their origins to black African languages, then write on the contributions that African languages have made to the structure and idioms of the English language, and either revise or restate my 2010 conclusions. I expect this series to run for at least three weeks. So let’s begin with the English words in common usage today that started as African words.

Boogie (or Boogie-woogie). Boogie is a chiefly American English word for “a form of instrumental blues, especially for piano, using melodic variations over a constantly repeated bass figure.”  Over the years, it has come to mean any pop music dance session. As a verb, boogie has several meanings in American English. One, it is used to mean dance to pop or rock music, as in “they boogied all night long.” Two, it means to make love. Three, it’s used as a slang term to mean “get going.” So “let’s boogie” can be understood in American English to mean “let’s get going.” That would be “mu je” in Hausa, “je ka lo” in Yoruba,” “ka anyi gaa,” in Igbo, “su da” in Baatonu, etc.

In A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language, Gerard M. Dalgish claims that boogie-woogie is of West African origin. He said it’s derived either from Hausa or Mandingo, and traces its etymology to “buga,” which means to beat in both Hausa and Mandingo. But in their book The African Heritage of American English, Joseph E Holloway and Winifred K. Vass claim that boogie-woogie is an American English domestication of the Bantu “mbuki-mvuki,” which they say means “to take off in dance performance.” They also acknowledge the possibilities of Hausa and/or Mandingo origins of the word.

 The Collins English Dictionary says the word is “perhaps from Kongo [where] mbugi [means] devilishly good.” But the Oxford English Dictionary says it’s of unknown origin. So does the Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary. Nevertheless no one questions that boogie-woogie was invented by free black slaves in the US state of Texas in the 1800s.

In spite of the black roots of the boogie-woogie musical dance, the evidence for the West African origin of the word isn’t compelling. The evidence seems to me accidental at best and forced at worst. I have two reasons for my conclusion. All the dictionaries I’ve consulted seem to agree that boogie-woogie didn’t appear in African-American English until sometime between 1920 and 1925, although there is some evidence that "Bogie" and "Hoogie Boogie” appeared in the titles of published sheet music between 1880 and 1901. The relative recency of the word’s appearance in African-American English (in its current form, that is,) leads me to think that it isn’t a linguistic holdover from slavery, which means it wasn’t passed on to African Americans from their enslaved African ancestors. That begs the question how the word came into African-American English (and later mainstream American English) from Africa.

The second reason why claims of the African origin of “boogie-woogie” stretch my credulity is that the word appears in many mutually unintelligible African languages—and with vastly different meanings. Although “buga” means to beat in both Hausa and Mandingo, the two languages belong to two different language families. While Mandingo is a Niger Congo language (spoken mostly in the Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, etc), Hausa is an Afro-Asiatic language (spoken in Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, etc.) The appearance of “buga” with a similar meaning in both languages is, I think, merely accidental. When you add the fact of the word’s comparative recency to the irreconcilable semantic diversity of its signification in the languages it supposedly originates from, you are left with a really slender thread of evidence for its African origins.

The Bantu word “mbuki-mvuki does really sound like the true origin of boogie-woogie except that eastern and southern Africans were never enslaved and brought to America. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was limited west and central Africa. If it can be proved that Africans enslaved from Cameroun, the Congo and Angola (where Bantu languages are also spoken) ended up in Texas, then an unassailable case can be made for the word’s African origins.

Bogus. This word means fake, counterfeit, not original, not genuine, etc. It came to the English language from American English, but Holloway and Vass say American English borrowed it from the Hausa word “boko,” which originally meant fake but is now used in modern Hausa to denote Western education (indicating the suspicion and contempt that Hausa people had—perhaps still have—for Western education in relation to Islamic education.) In the variety of French spoken in Louisiana (called Cajun French), “bogue” also means “fake, fraudulent, phony,” according to Holloway and Vass. Although they didn’t say so explicitly, there is an implicit assumption that Hausa slaves in Louisiana introduced “boko” to Cajun French, which was Gallicized (or, if you like, Frenchified or Cajunized) to “bogue.”

However, the Online Etymology Dictionary says bogus is derived “apparently from a slang word applied in Ohio in 1827 to a counterfeiter's apparatus. Some trace this to tantrabobus, a late 18c. colloquial Vermont word for any odd-looking object, which may be connected to tantarabobs, recorded as a Devonshire name for the devil.”

The Oxford English Dictionary declares that the word is of uncertain origin, but points out that when it first appeared in American English in the 18th century it initially referred to a machine used to make counterfeit money. It seems highly probable that the word indeed has Hausa origins.

Boo-boo. I probably helped to popularize this word in Nigerian English when I wrote “President Goodluck Jonathan’s Grammatical Boo-Boos” in my January 27, 2013 column, which went wildly viral in Nigeria. The word means an embarrassing error. Holloway and Vass say the word is of Bantu origin. (Bantu languages are Niger Congo languages spoken in central, eastern and southern Africa and are believed to originate from east and southern Cameroun). The evidence for their conclusion is that in many Bantu languages “mbubu” means “a stupid, blundering act; error, blunder.”

It’s difficult to argue with this etymology of the word, except that no well-known dictionary agrees with it. The Oxford English Dictionary says booboo is an American English reduplication of boob, an informal British English word that has exactly the same meaning as booboo: an embarrassing blunder. It dates the reduplication of the word to the 1950s.  The Random House Dictionary, for its part, says the word has origins in “baby talk.”

For me, the phono-semantic evidence for the word’s African etymology is persuasive, but the historical evidence of its entrance into English vocabulary is weak.

To be continued next week

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The American Black Male as Endangered Species

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman has brought to the surface the precariousness of black maleness in America. The black male has been stereotyped as inexorably criminal, violent, and incompetent.  As a result, he inspires both terror and derision.

President Obama captured this with uncharacteristic candor when he said, "There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. That includes me….

"There are probably very few African-American men who have not had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me - at least before I was a senator….

"There are very few African-American [men] who have not had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off. That happens often."

Eric Holder, America’s chief law enforcement officer, who is black, also narrated his experience of being stopped by a police officer “while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.”

Like most black dads in America, he said regularly sits with his 15-year-old son and teaches him how to stay out of trouble with the police because blackness and maleness are often assumed to be guilty of criminality until proven innocent.

Although African Americans as a whole constitute only about 13 percent of America’s population, black males make up more than 40 percent of the country’s prison population. In fact, many studies say that there are more black males in America’s prisons than there are black males in America’s colleges and universities. (Recent findings have shown that this isn't exactly accurate, but the fact that such a comparison is even within the realm of possibility says a lot.)

It’s not a pleasant fate to be born black and male in America.  Not being a native-born American black male, I am sometimes insulated from the negative stereotypes associated with American black males, but it’s difficult to escape the stereotypes all the time. For instance, in 2005 in Louisiana, I was stopped by menacing, gun-toting police officers—in three police cars!—because I was merely suspected to be up to no good. I was told to drop my weapons even though I was barehanded. It was my Nigerian accent that saved me.

Last year in Mississippi, on an elevator at a hotel, an old white lady asked me and another Nigerian if we worked as cleaners in the hotel. She was probably frightened that she was alone on the elevator with two black males whom she thought couldn’t afford to be guests at such a pricey hotel.  She wanted to be sure that we worked there. If we weren’t workers, we were probably criminals who would rob her.

I have had many more mild versions of the odious discrimination that African-American males encounter all their life.  I frankly don’t know if I would have been what I am now if I had been born here. The odds against the black male are steep. It takes an uncommon determination and self-confidence to surmount them.

More than 80 percent of all local news here is always about crimes committed by “black males.”  Newscasters never fail to emphasize the race and gender of criminals, which has the effect of reinforcing stereotypes and of inadvertently compelling young black men to not only internalize the stereotypes but to live up to them. Psychologists call the tendency for people to behave according the dominant stereotypes that society holds of them “the stereotype threat.”

But an even worse danger to the black male than media stereotyping is the perniciousness of contemporary black youth culture. It glamorizes violence, crime, thuggery, pimping, drug use, etc. Young black males who are fed on the staples of this self-destructive culture from an impressionable age think it’s “cool” to commit a crime, do drugs, etc. and go to jail. It’s a source of “street cred.” You can’t succeed in your music career, for instance, if you’ve never been to jail.

Similarly, in black America, petty squabbles over inanities are “settled” with guns. An African-American woman told me a story last week of black-on-black gun violence that exemplifies this. She said she overheard a black male teenager boast to his girlfriend that he would kill his friend over some frivolous disagreement that they had had. The girlfriend pleaded with him not to make good his threat but he was unmoved. My friend called the police and reported what she heard. The police didn’t do anything. The following day, it was on the local news that a young black male had shot his friend dead. This is a frequent occurrence in the black community here. More black males kill each other than police or white racists kill them.

All this conspire to construct an image of the black male as an invariably violent criminal.

It’s getting so bad that many black parents now openly say they don’t want to have male children.  A black American female TV host by the name of Melissa Harris-Perry recently shocked her viewers when she said "I will never forget... the relief I felt at my 20 week ultrasound when they told me it was a girl…. I live in a country that makes me wish my sons away, wish that they don't exist, because it's not safe."

Are we about to enter an era in America when black women abort their babies when they discover they are boys? That would give a whole new meaning to black male endangerment in America.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Patience Jonathan’s “Son” and Other Fictive Kinship Terms in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

On July 18, Nigerian First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan famously said Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi was her “son” against whom she harbored no ill-will. “Amaechi is my son. I cannot fight him and I cannot kill him. He shouldn’t be used by outsiders against his own blood because this seat is vanity,” she said.

As soon as the statement became public, the hypercritical Nigerian social media commentariat erupted in boisterously earsplitting cyber guffaws over what is thought to be yet another addition to Dame Patience’s long list of entertainingly uproarious grammatical boo-boos that I once characterized as “Patiencisms.”
Gov. Rotimi Amaechi and Dame Patience Jonathan
Since the First Lady is only 7 years older than Governor Amaechi and is not a member of his Ikwerre ethnic group, much less his “his own blood,” Nigerians have tauntingly branded the First Lady a Lazarus Child Mothering Earthly Jesus Christ. (She is teasingly called “Lazarus” because she once claimed that she had died and resurrected in a German hospital—like Lazarus in the Bible. She is called a “child mother” because, it is said, if she is Governor Amaechi’s mother, she must have "had" him at 7, and she is mockingly called Jesus Christ because a renegade member of the Rivers State House of Assembly recently described her as his “Jesus Christ on earth”).

Nevertheless, although the First Lady is a ruthless butcher of the English tongue, let’s cut her some slack here. When she called Governor Amaechi her “son” and her “own blood,” she was deploying what anthropologists call fictive kinship terminologies to describe her putative relationship with Governor Amaechi. Unlike in the West where kinship is traced primarily through blood ties, marriage, and adoption, most African (and other non-Western) societies democratize notions of kinship to include social, cultural, ethnic, communal and even national ties.

In America, every Nigerian is my “brother” or “sister” or “uncle” or “aunt.” In Abuja or Lagos, every Kwara State citizen is my “relation,” and in Ilorin every Baatonu person is my “own blood.” I know of no Nigerian who doesn’t extend the semantic boundaries of English kinship terms in the way Dame Patience did—and that I just did. For instance, Northern Elders Forum spokesman Professor Ango Abdullahiin, in a July 17 interview with the Sun. described the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua as his “younger brother.”  Of course, they are no blood relations.

I have identified below a few popular Nigeria-centric re-encodings of English kinship terminologies:

1. Cousin brother/cousin sister. Someone once asked me if the terms “cousin brother” and “cousin sister” were proper English. The following was my response: “‘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 black man is a ‘brother’ and every black woman is 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.”

I have since discovered that “cousin brother/sister” isn’t original to Nigerian English. Indian English (which includes the English spoken and written in Pakistan and Bangladesh) invented the term much earlier than Nigerian English, but I haven’t seen any evidence that Nigerian English borrowed it from Indian English. It could very well have emerged independently in Nigerian English. Or it is possible that it was introduced into Nigerian English by the legion of Indian teachers who came to (northern) Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s.

As someone pointed out to me late last year when I first wrote about “cousin brother/cousin sister,” the addition of “brother” and “sister” after “cousin also helps to create gender clarity for non-native English speakers since cousin is non-gendered in Standard English.

 2. Aunty. In Nigerian English “aunty” functions as an honorific title often prefixed to the name of any older female. The word has been so effectively vernacularized in the Yoruba language that when I was a little boy I used to think it was the Yoruba word for “sister.” Increasingly, female teachers in elementary schools are also called “Aunty” by their students. It’s either used as a standalone title or as a prefix to names. Native speakers use aunty only to refer to the sister of one’s father or mother or the wife of one’s uncle.

3. Uncle. In Nigeria, like in many other non-Western cultures, uncle isn’t merely the brother of one’s father or mother or the husband of one’s aunt; it is used to denote any older male who may not necessarily be a blood relation. That’s true of Black English in Southern United States, too. Children call older male family friends “uncle.” I haven’t noticed this among white Americans, although “uncle” is also used in Standard English in a non-familial sense to mean a person who offers help, advice, and encouragement.

4. Nephew and niece. From my informal observation, these terms don’t enjoy wide currency in everyday Nigerian English because they have no equivalents in most of our native languages. As a result, they seem distant. They erect a needless relational wedge between extended family members. Although the terms achieve semantic precision, it requires a conscious cognitive transference to make sense of them in a Nigerian cultural context. People more readily relate to “my brother’s/sister’s son” or my “my sister’s/brother’s daughter” than “my nephew” or “my niece.” In a majority of cases, people call their nephews their “sons” and their nieces their “daughters.”

5. Father and mother. These terms are not limited to one’s biological parents. The Western uncle and aunt may be called “father” and “mother” in many Nigerian cultures. “Daddy” can be a completely non-biological relational construct. For instance, big-name Pentecostal pastors in Nigeria are called “Daddy.” Older women that one respects can be called “mummy” even if they are not one’s blood relation. It is a step higher in intimacy and deference than “aunty.”

5. Grandfather/grandmother. When I introduced my dad’s younger brother to my daughter and said he was her “grandfather,” she said, “No, he’s my great-uncle.” She is right--but only in Standard English. I told her in Nigeria we call our granduncles (also called great-uncles) and our grandaunts our grandparents.

6. In-law. Unlike in native-speaker English where in-law means only the blood relatives of one’s wife or husband, Nigerian English speakers extend the meaning of the term to sometimes include the townspeople or even ethnic group members of one’s spouse.

7. My son/my daughter/my children. These terms are sometimes used by people to refer to children with whom they have no familial relation. “How are my children?” is a common greeting by Nigerian adults who want to ask after people’s children. I guess it sprouts from the African notion that it takes a village to raise a child.

8. Wife/husband. In many Nigerian cultures (Yoruba culture being a prominent example), a wife isn’t just a man’s partner in a marriage. Nor is a husband merely the male partner in a marriage. A woman may also informally address her husband’s younger or older brothers or male cousins as her “husband” and vice versa. It gets weirder still:  in Yorubaland, women call their husband’s sisters their “husband.” In some Nigerian cultures, grandfathers jocularly call their granddaughters their “wives” and grandmothers jocularly call their grandsons their “husbands.”

9. Half-brother/sister. Notions of half siblings (half-brother/ and half-sister) are not lexicalized in many Nigerian languages. This makes sense since even cousins are called brothers and sisters—or, more commonly, “cousin brothers” and “cousin sisters.”

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Re: Egypt’s Political Crisis and Nigeria’s Misralogists

See below a sample of the thoughtful reactions my last week’s column with the above title generated.

I must commend your “Notes from Atlanta” which are usually profuse with poignant analyses of contemporary issues around Nigeria and the globe. Your “notes” of today offered various reasons why different segments of Nigeria reacted to the military coup in Egypt that ousted Morsi from power.

I wish to add that what you called the Nigerian Shitte`s community`s  “excitement”, much as they were snippets of individuals` kneejerk  comments than a formal reaction of the community, had less to do with solidarity with Assad of Syria but more grounded in disgust for an “intolerant Sunni theocracy” that Morsi had unfortunately come to personify.

Under Morsi, religious minorities like Shiites and Copts began to face waves of persecution. There were reports of churches and Coptic men and women being attacked and raped by “Allahu Akbar”-chanting Muslims, reminiscent of the videos of human-organ-eating rebels of Syria. Only few days before Morsi was ousted, four Shiites were murdered in cold blood and their corpses, in bestial glee, dragged along streets, very much like Ghaddafi`s corpse was treated. Please see the link below.

Morsi`s government was so afflicted with a rabid phobia for Shiites that a Salafi member of  its parliament campaigned against allowing Iranian tourists into Egypt, arguing that it was safer to have bikini-clad tourists swarming Egypt than to allow the Shiites in who would spread their “dangerous” ideology! Morsi failed to adequately present himself as the President of Egypt, leaving gaps for Egyptians to see him as the President for the Brotherhoods.
Thank you once more for your riveting weekly notes.
Sheikh Aminu (

I'm in the fourth group. I think secularism is the best system for the modern nation state, and I might not have supported the Brotherhood if I were an Egyptian. But I oppose Morsi's removal based on principle. Electoral outcomes must be respected and people should not use non-legal means to overturn such outcomes. I also believe that Morsi is being judged unfairly because what happened in his one-year rule was a direct consequence of a flawed transition. No one can rule democratically without a constitution and a parliament and it wasn't Morsi's fault that he ruled without these organs. I also believe that it is unfair to conclude that he had failed after just one year in office in a country that has no existing culture of democracy; there will inevitably be a learning process. But if the liberals truly felt they must remove Morsi, then they should have worked to elect a liberal majority parliament which would then impeach him and revise the constitution. But inviting the military was dumb (I have never thought of Egyptians as dumb until now) and they will surely regret it. I agree with the points in your July 7 column (which I’d missed) about the limited power of mass uprisings to effect wholesale and enduring change.
Dr. Raji Bello, Abuja

It could happen, but it would not. The government of Nigeria is more than ready to murder whoever tries to rebel against it. Recall the anti-fuel subsidy removal demonstrations? Why was it not very successful? It's because of the merciless, brutal killing of the protesting citizenry by the government of various states, Kano, for example. By the way, I was surprised at your mentioning that hitherto you didn't know Bashar Al-Assad was a Shi’ite.
Muhsin Ibrahim, Jalandhar, India

I must say I fall under the first group. I couldn’t sleep that night and I almost cried for what they did to the Brotherhood. I never realised what I was doing till I read this column. But, Alhamdulillahi, I still like Morsi and The Brotherhood for Allah's sake, not for sectarian reasons.
Ummi Noor, Abuja

I wanted to Google “Misralogist,” wondering what that could mean. I'm not a Shiite but I fall into the second category, and I see the build-up of political Islam from its height in the days of Sayyid Qutb and the gradual death of political Islam. The admixture does not work and cannot work.
Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, Belleville, Michigan, USA

The events in Egypt throw up new challenges for modern secular democracy. When you elect a government and, after a year in office, it begins to show signs of failure or it fails to deliver to the electorate its promises, as obtained in Nigeria and Egypt, what do we do? What is the way out to avoid a military incursion as evident in Egypt? I fear worse scenarios in Nigeria as evident also in the current crisis in Rivers State and many other places.
Dr. Muhammad Kabir Isa, ABU, Zaria

You obviously missed the sixth group of Misralogists, the Marxist/International Misralogists. This is what we wrote:

The tragedy of the Egyptian revolution is essentially one of lack of genuine (Marxist) revolutionary leadership. So far, the great movement of the workers and other oppressed layers of the society has come under the leadership of three main political forces: the Military, "Political Islamists" and Liberal Democrats. None of these forces is revolutionary and herein lies the contradiction of the Egyptian revolution: revolutionary masses coming under reactionary leadership. Understanding this contradiction is necessary for understanding the dynamics of Egyptian revolution.

Muslim Brotherhood had exposed its bankruptcy when it went into alliance with the Military and therefore betrayed the revolution. By preserving the capitalist order and shielding the wealth of Army Generals as well as their (Brotherhood’s) capitalist backers, the Brotherhood oversaw an economy characterized by worsening unemployment and standard of living of the masses. This is the objective basis for the rise of Egyptians against Morsi rule and Brotherhood. The fact that Muslim Brotherhood went into alliance with American and Israeli imperialism to further consolidate the blockade on Gaza population reveals the utter reactionary character of the party.
Musa Bashir, Kano

This piece provides more insights on the turmoil in Egypt. Those of us who blame the whole episode on the West will have to look further. I must confess that this is the best analysis of the crisis I have read.

Aminu Isa, Lokoja

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Egypt’s Political Crisis and Nigeria’s Misralogists

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Before you rush to look up the meaning of “Misralogist” in the dictionary, let me clarify that the word is entirely my coinage. Misra is the Arabic name for Egypt, and since there is such a thing as Egyptology (defined as the study of ancient Egyptian cultural, linguistic, political, religious and archeological artifacts) I thought I should make up “Misralogy” to denote the study of, or passionate interest in, the politics and religious expressions of contemporary Egypt. Thus, a “Misralogist” is someone who engages in Misralogy.

There is no logic to this coinage. I merely invoked it as a jocular term to capture the intense interest Nigerians have shown—and continue to show— in Egyptian affairs in the wake of the recent military “coup” in the country. This isn’t altogether misplaced Afghanistanism (a 1940s American English coinage that means excessive interest in the politics of a faraway country at the expense of pressing issues at home) since Nigeria and Egypt share many similarities.

I’ve identified at least five groups of Nigerian Misralogists that have emerged over the past few days. The opinions of each group are inflected by thinly disguised preconceived religious, ideological, and political biases.

First, you have social media-savvy northern Nigerian Sunni Muslim youth who are angry as hell about events in Egypt. They are outraged that Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi (a Sunni Muslim democrat) has been cheated out of political power because of his religious convictions and wonder if Western notions of democracy and Islam can cohabit. But they probably wouldn’t care if the victim had been a Western-backed Egyptian Muslim “secularist” such as Mohamed ElBaradei.

Their angst was complicated by news that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar mosque, Egypt’s oldest mosque and an important Sunni institution, had endorsed the “coup” and that the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two bulwarks of Sunni Islam, supported the overthrow of Morsi.  Nigerian Sunni Muslim Misralogists on Facebook and Twitter were so angered by this “betrayal” of a Sunni leader in distress that they chose to label Saudi Arabia “Saudi America” and the United Arab Emirates “United American Emirates.”

Then you have the relatively small but vocal and growing community of Nigerian Shiites who were quite beside themselves with excitement over what they called the praiseworthy abortion of a budding, intolerant Sunni theocracy. In their social media networks, they gave wide publicity to the statement credited to Syrian leader Bashar Assad that the overthrow of Morsi represented the fall of political Islam. "What is happening in Egypt is the fall of so-called political Islam," Assad was quoted as saying in a Syrian government-funded newspaper called Al- Thawra. "This is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interests."

I didn’t understand why northern Nigerian Shiite Muslims passionately cheered the overthrow of Morsi and gave wings to Assad’s statement until I discovered that the Syrian leader is a Shiite Muslim of the Alawite persuasion.

 It turned out that even before the “coup,” relations between Morsi’s and Assad’s governments were intensely conflictual. For instance, Assad’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, had called the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood a "terrorist" organization and a "U.S. tool." Of course, this accusation flies in the face of new revelations in a July 10 Aljazeera investigative report, which shows documentary proofs that the US government “quietly funded senior Egyptian opposition figures who called for [the] toppling of the country's now-deposed president Mohamed Morsi.”

Well, in matters like this, facts are not allowed to get in the way of age-old political battles. Shiites regard the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the most concentrated expressions of the hegemonic political ambitions of Sunni Islam. In 1982, according to the Huffington Post, President Assad’s father, Hafiz Assad, brutally suppressed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. “The Syrian forces, led by the president's brother and special forces from their minority Alawite sect, razed much of the city in a three-week air and ground attack, killing between 10,000 and 20,000 people,” the online paper said. (The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is said to be one of the arrowheads of the current bloody rebellion against Assad.)

This background provides the context for the adversarial, tit-for-tat rhetorical battles between Assad and Morsi. For instance, in a September 26, 2012 address to the UN General Assembly, Morsi urged Assad to step down as president in order to halt "the catastrophe in Syria." He even supported foreign intervention to help rebels overthrow the Syrian government. Assad returned the favor on July 3 and admonished Morsi to also step down and hand over power to the “overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people [who] reject him and are calling on him to go."

Nigerian Muslim Misralogists appear to analyze the Egyptian political crisis on the basis of this long-standing doctrinal and political divide.

The third group of Nigerian Misralogists is composed of secularists (Muslims and Christians alike) who, while professing to cherish the virtues of democracy, nonetheless exult in the overthrow of Morsi’s government because they fear that it would have morphed into a violent and oppressive theocratic autocracy. It was through this group of Misralogists that I learned that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's creed is: "Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations."

For Nigerian secularists and “moderate” Muslims, the last part of the creed, that is, that “death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations,” evokes eerie echoes of Boko Haram’s ideology. I read people write something like: “I like democracy, but I hate democracy for terrorists who have vowed to kill in the name of God.”

The fourth group consists of old-guard secular pro-democracy activists who deplored Morsi’s overthrow for the simple reason that it represented a rude, undemocratic repudiation of the choice of the Egyptian people. They drew parallels between the usurpation of Morsi’s presidential powers and the arbitrary invalidation of Nigeria’s June 12, 1993 presidential election by the General Ibrahim Babangida military regime.

The fifth group is what I call Jonathanian Misralogists whose sole concern with Egypt’s power tussle is that it should never serve as an inspiration to overthrow Goodluck Jonathan’s inept government.

Few events in far-flung corners of Africa have captured the political imagination of Nigerians as keenly as Egypt’s current political turbulence has. Is it because what happened in Egypt could conceivably happen in Nigeria?

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Influence of American English on Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The trouble with labeling anything American English these days is that American English is now actually international English, which is unrelentingly diluting even British English at an alarming rate. I once read the story of a starry-eyed British linguist who came to America to study how American English deviates from British English. Between the period of his research and the time of the publication of his book, the expressions he identified as uniquely American, which he had hoped would amuse and amaze British speakers, had become so commonplace that many British readers wondered what the point of his book was.

Today, British English has become so thoroughly Americanized that one has to be really careful when differentiating between the two varieties of English. Perhaps, we can rephrase George Bernard Shaw and say America and England have now become two countries that are increasingly being united by a common language. That is why it no longer makes any sense to learn British English these days since the British are themselves relentlessly Americanizing their English.

Having said that, it is still possible to isolate expressions that are peculiarly American and British. And there are instances when Nigerian English brings these two old varieties in a creative, if improper, linguistic conversation. Perhaps the best example I can think of is the word "torchlight," which Nigerians use to denote a small portable battery-powered electric lamp.

The British word for the same object is simply "torch" and the American name for it is "flashlight." So Nigerians took the British "torch" and combined it with the American "light" to produce a unique word that is both British and American—and neither British nor American! Of course, "torchlight" also exists as a separate word in both British and American English, but it only refers to the light produced by a flashlight—or a torch, if you will.

The word "short-knicker" belongs in this category. It is also derived from mixing American and British English. "Shorts" is the preferred American word for trousers that end at or above the knee. The British prefer "knickers," although as I said earlier, American English usage is now so widely spread in Britain that these distinctions are sometimes meaningless. But the important point to note is that Nigerians formed this word when it still made sense to talk of distinct American and British English.

I have also found out that Nigerian use of the phrase "international passport" to refer to "passport" is traceable to America. By "passport" I am referring to the document issued by a country to its citizens, which allows them to travel abroad and reenter their home countries; I am not referring to "passport photos," which Nigerians like to call "passports"— against the conventions of British and American English. In American bureaucratic circles, "international passport" is commonly used to denote non-American passports.

There is, for instance, the "International Passport Act" and an "International Passport Office Program" here in the United States. The act and the program address the passport issues of people from other countries who travel to the United States for various reasons. So "international passport" in America simply means foreign passports. Ordinary Americans do not prefix the adjective "international" when referring to their own passports. Perhaps the first Nigerians who traveled to the United States were confused by this nomenclature and passed down the confusion to later generations of Nigerians.

And the Nigerian English idiom "off head" seems to be traceable to the American expression "off the top of my head," which is now also common in British English. Both expressions describe the sense of doing something with little or no preparation or forethought.

There are several expressions I was taught to avoid when I was in secondary school that I find widely used here. Some examples are: "tight friend" (instead of "close friend"), "point accusing fingers" (instead of "point fingers"), "senior/junior brother" (instead of "elder/younger brother"), "re-occur" (instead of "recur"), "oftentimes" (instead of "often"), etc. I first noticed these expressions in my students' essays and almost felt as if I was reading essays written by Nigerians. But it is my personal philosophy never to assume any expression to be wrong until I actually confirm this through inquiry. And, sure enough, what I thought were usage errors in my students' essays turned out to be respectable usage patterns in American English.

On many occasions, I can't help being amused by the conflict between what Bayo Oguntuase, the language activist who wrote for the defunct Sunday Concord, identified as usage errors unique to Nigeria and what I encounter here. For instance, he once wrote that the expression "(the) same to you" as a response to an expression of goodwill is wrong. He said the correct response should be "I wish you the same." Well, "same to you" is perfectly legitimate in American English.

Oguntuase also once wrote that the word "congrats" was a Nigerian invention. That, too, is wrong. The word is the American short form of "congratulations"; Nigerians merely adopted it. Even the British now use it widely. But the biggest surprise for me is the discovery that Americans also use the expression "I am coming" to indicate that they will be returning soon, although this usage is nonstandard even here. But I had been socialized into thinking that the expression is merely the literal translation of our Nigerian languages: na wee in Batonu, ina zuwa in Hausa, mon bowa in Yoruba, etc.

I also discovered that the expression "to rub minds," which a language columnist in Nigeria once described as uniquely Nigerian, is actually an old-fashioned American English expression. Americans now use the word "brainstorm," which sounds rather formal, even pretentious, in Nigerian English.

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First published in Sunday Trust on May 20, 2013

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I Predicted What’s Happening in Egypt Now

I make no claims to possessing prescient powers, but a February 19, 2011 article I wrote titled “Egypt’s Mubarak is Gone, So What?” prefigured much of the turmoil that has attended the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. I recall that when the article was published, some people wrote to protest what they thought was my off-handed dismissal of the gallantry of Egyptian protesters who braved seemingly insurmountable odds to unseat a 30-year-old dictatorship.

Other people thought my cynical take on popular rebellions and revolutions undermined the restorative capacities of mass movements. But events in Egypt in the last few days have shown that my cynicism wasn’t groundless, after all. We now know that the series of mass protests that brought down Mubarak did not change the Egyptian power structure in any fundamental way. We also know that, after all is said and done, the Egyptian military is still the custodian of the real power in the country. That’s why the military would give a democratically elected president an ultimatum to come up with a power-sharing agreement with the opposition or risk a coup.

Of course, I am not by any means suggesting people should recoil in fatalistic resignation while their oppressors have a field day. Revolutionary tremors are good for every society every once in a while. But it helps to know the limitations of mass protests, especially leaderless mass protests that merely ruffle the feathers of the ruling class.  See relevant excerpts of the article below:

“In the well-justified triumphalism that has greeted the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, we all seem to have deadened our historical consciousness to the consequences of popular revolutions. Almost without exception, the gains of revolutions are often too fleeting to be worthy of the emotional and intellectual energies invested in them.

“Let’s start from close home. Uthman Dan Fodiyo’s religious revolution in the 19th century was inspired, among other things, by the urge to purge northern Nigerian Islam of a decaying, oppressive monarchy and of the syncretism of idolatry and Islam that had defined public life at the time. But the precise conditions that Dan Fodio and his followers fought to uproot have returned in newer, more vicious forms.

 “His successors have constituted themselves into a parasitic, profligate, patrimonial monarchy—in contravention of the spirit and letter of leadership in Islam where knowledge and consensus, and not heredity, are the bases of leadership. Were Dan Fodio to return today, he would certainly wage another revolution against his heirs.

“Similarly, the liberatory afterglow of the Russian Revolution lasted only a few years. From Josef Stalin onwards, Communist Russia was just as oppressive and as primitive in its cruelty as the Tsarist era it extirpated.

“And the emancipatory effects of the Iranian Revolution have all but evaporated now. It has been replaced by suffocating clerical despotism, repression, and a paranoid leadership. I have more than a dozen Iranian friends, one of whose fathers was, in fact, a leading light in the Revolution. They are all now thoroughly disillusioned. They complain that their country, like ours, is wracked by unspeakable corruption and cronyism and burdened with an insecure, insensitive, and out-of-touch leadership. Now, the youth of the country want another revolution to flush out the beneficiaries of the earlier revolution. A potentially explosive ferment is brewing there as I write this column.

“I can go on, but the point I want to make is that revolutions, historically, do no more than replace one set of oppressors with another. The emergent beneficiaries, of course, at first sound radical and refreshingly different and make the right noises and spout the noblest sentiments. They may even radically overhaul the system for a while and succeed in inspiring a renewed sense of purpose and direction in ordinary people. But shortly after, the reversal would set in: the revolutionaries become indistinguishable from the reactionaries they overthrow.

“In the case of Egypt, it’s an even worse scenario. What happened in Egypt wasn’t, properly speaking, a revolution. It was merely a rebellion. Like in Tunisia, disparate resentments quickly coalesced into a mass resistance, then blossomed into a protest, and culminated in a rebellion without ever achieving the status of a revolution. In a revolution, a vanguard takes ownership of the rebellion and uses it as a ladder to climb to substantive power. But all that the popular rebellion did in Egypt—and in Tunisia earlier—was to overthrow the public face of an oppressive power structure while leaving intact the power structure itself. The outcome, if you ask me, is hardly worth the effort.

“I know this is a very cynical take on a heroic and historic event that has captured the imagination of the whole world. But it doesn’t hurt to inject our mushy effusiveness over the ‘triumph’ of the Egyptian masses with a little dose of reality check. If even real revolutions—where a vanguard of fighters takes over power—are often customarily no more than a flash in the pan, why should we be overly optimistic over a rebellion that merely scratched the surface of an entrenched, well-coordinated power structure? Mubarak has only been replaced by the military which, in any case, has always been the power behind the throne. Nothing, really, has changed.”

Multilingual Illiteracy: What Nigeria Can Learn from Algeria’s Language Crisis

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. 

Apparently, Nigeria and Algeria share more similarities than the correspondence in the terminal sounds of their names and the fact of their being formerly colonized, oil-exporting African countries that were once engulfed in prolonged political turmoil as a result of the unjust annulment of free and fair elections in the early 1990s. It turns out that both countries also share the reality of a severe language crisis, especially among their young populations.

Two unrelated discoveries instigated this comparison. First, it appears to me that the rest of the English-speaking world thinks many Nigerians speak and write inexcusably atrocious English. Second, I recently read an insightful blog post by a Cambridge-educated Algerian linguist by the name of Dr. Lameen Souag on Algeria’s “language crisis,” that is, the fact that many Algerians under 40 years are unemployable because they are not fluent in French (their colonial language), Arabic (their official language), or Berber (their native language), leading an Algerian professor to label them “trilingual illiterates.” The issues raised in the blog post have several uncanny parallels with Nigeria.

But let me begin with the first issue. How do I know that the rest of the Anglophone world thinks a whole lot of Nigerians murder the English tongue habitually? Well, my method of discovery of this fact isn’t exactly scientific, but it’s insightful nonetheless. When I examined my blog’s web analytics (that is, the third-party data that tells one who visited one’s site, from where, what search terms led them to the site, etc.), I realized that an unusually large number of search terms that led people to my blog from countries other than Nigeria revolved around queries on why Nigerians speak or write horrible English. For instance, an Internet user from Japan landed on my blog on the day I am writing this article, that is, on July 5, with the following search term on Google: “why do people in Nigeria have such bad English?”

Several such search queries (such as “why do Nigerians write terrible English,” “why is Nigerian English so hard to understand?”) have led people from all over the world to the many Nigerian Englisharticles on my blog on a daily basis. The queries can, of course, be legitimately accused of vulgar empiricism; encountering the mangled English of a few ignorant young Nigerians on cyberspace is not sufficient to warrant a search on why Nigerians speak bad English. A whole lot of Nigerians do speak and write perfect or near-perfect English. But you have to be living under the rock to not notice the alarming decline in the quality of English among our youth.

The conclusion I am inclined to draw from the queries that lead people to my blog (and, I presume, to many other language sites) is that many English-speaking people who relate to Nigerians—most of whom I imagine to be young Nigerians under 30—on the Internet go away with the impression that Nigerians have an appallingly awful mastery of the official language of their country. Such a conclusion would have been inadmissible if I had not myself noticed—and written about—the progressive atrophy in the quality of spoken and written English among Nigerian youth.

This is particularly disquieting because the fall in the quality of spoken and written English in Nigeria is happening simultaneously with the loss of proficiency in our native languages. As I noted in an August 26, 2012 article on the English Nigerian children speak, we are raising a generation of Nigerians whose first and only language is a deformed, ghettoized, and impoverished form of English that is incomprehensible to other members of the Anglophone world. I shudder to think the fate that awaits these hapless children in our increasingly globalized world.

I am equally troubled by what I call the prevalent multilingual illiteracy of the present generation of Nigerians. A typical educated Nigerian speaks between three and four languages: a native minor/minority language, a regional language (usually Hausa for northerners and Yoruba for speakers of dialects of Yoruba that are mutually unintelligible with standard Oyo Yoruba), Pidgin English, and English. Many people defy this typology. For instance, an educated native Hausa speaker may speak Hausa, English, and some Pidgin English—and maybe Arabic.

But our proficiency in these multiple languages is gradually deteriorating. Except for Hausa and, to some extent, Yoruba, all Nigerian languages are endangered because of a lack of language loyalty, an incompetent mastery of the rules of the languages, and the tendency toward what linguists call code-mixing and code-switching, that is, an inelegant admixture of English and our native languages.

The desire to speak English is often blamed for the pitiful state of our native languages, except that our mastery of English, on whose behalf we devalue our native languages, is also so awful that other speakers of the language can’t help but notice. (Any form of English that is unintelligible to the rest of the English-speaking world is useless.)  And Pidgin English, the other major “language” we speak, is an anarchic, linguistically deficient language that not only has limited utility outside Nigeria, but that is incapable of being the medium for serious scholarly inquiry and global communication.

That leads me to the Algerian language crisis, the kind of which Nigeria seems headed. According to a WikiLeaks cable titled “Trilingual Illiterates: Algeria’s Language Crisis,” “Decades of government-imposed Arabization have produced an under-40 population that, in the words of frustrated Algerian business leaders, 'is not fluent in anything' and therefore handicapped in the job market and more vulnerable to extremist influence.... The 20-40 age group now competing for jobs speaks a confusing mixture of French, Arabic and Berber that one business leader called 'useless,' as they cannot make themselves fully understood by anyone but themselves."

I’ll ignore the politics of this observation, which emerged from US embassy staff in Algeria, and instead concern myself with its socio-linguistic implications. Although Berber is the ancestral language of 99 percent of Algerians, only between 27 and 30 percent of the people speak it. And, although Modern Standard Arabic is Algeria’s official language, most of the population speaks a debased, creolized form of Arabic called Darja, which is unintelligible to people in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. Competence in French, Algeria’s colonial language, is also low. Only about 11 million of Algeria’s nearly 38 million people speak some form of French. It is said that only the children of wealthy Algerians and educated people over the age of 40 speak standard French.

This confused linguistic state has had real material consequences for Algerians, as the following excerpt from a WikiLeaks cable shows: “Over an iftar dinner at the Ambassador's residence towards the end of Ramadan, several Algerian business representatives lamented what they called the ‘lost generation’ of Algerian workers, who are left out largely because of their inability to function at a professional level in any single language.

“Ameziane Ait Ahcene, Northrup Grumman's deputy director for Algeria, complained that he had to recruit in francophone Europe to find skilled accountants and engineers who were fluent in spoken and written French. Mohamed Hakem, marketing and communications director for the ETRHB Haddad group, shared the same sentiment, adding that the process of providing language training in French or English to new recruits was often prohibitively expensive and added too much time to the recruitment process. Often, Hakem ALGIERS 00001121 002 OF 002 said, ‘it takes one to two years’ to re-educate an Algerian graduate in specialized vocabulary and international standards for technical and scientific work in particular. Hakem said the lack of ability for most Algerians ‘to communicate with anyone other than themselves’ isolates Algerian youth and makes them more vulnerable to extremist ideology.”

Nigeria is getting to this stage—if it hasn’t already gotten there. We are seeing a generation of youngsters who can’t speak their native languages well and who confuse the “coolness” and “street cred” that come from a mastery of textese, Internet abbreviations, and an exasperatingly debased form of English as passports to a better life. They don’t realize that they are preparing themselves for a perfectly catastrophic linguistic, social, cultural, and economic crisis in the near future.

Like in Algeria, nobody wants to employ people who can’tcommunicate with anyone other than themselves.”  Proficiency in a language, especially an international language, confers not only cultural and social capital; it also confers material capital.

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