Wednesday, September 25, 2013

US-based Nigerian Professor’s Assessment of Nigerian Universities

By Okey C. Iheduru, Ph.D.

I’ve decided to feature a guest column. It was serialized for three weeks in my Weekly Trust column, and is written by Professor Okey C. Iheduru who teaches political science at Arizona State University, USA. He was on a two-year sabbatical leave in Nigeria and shared his experiences of Nigerian higher education in an online discussion board called USAAfrica Dialogue Series to which I am subscribed. I thought he made many thoughtful and insightful observations that will benefit Nigerian university teachers and administrators. Enjoy.

This essay is a compilation of two postings I made beginning 28 August, 2013 in which I responded to a discussion on the listserve USA-Africa Dialogue Forum occasioned by a Call for Papers by the editor of the Unilag Journal of Politics. The subject of the heated debate was the propriety of demanding upfront payment from prospective authors by a supposedly peer-reviewed journal. In that intervention, I also promised to do a proper write-up of some of my two-year sabbatical/Fulbright and LEADS Scholar experiences, particularly as it concerns higher education in Nigeria.

I am a full professor of Political Science in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe. Given the time constraints I face (especially readjusting to life in America after two years plus the incinerating heat of the Sonoran Desert), this may never happen if I wait for the opportune moment. Consequently, I have decided to post short accounts of my experiences from time to time and whenever time permits.
I just completed a 2-year sabbatical/Fulbright Fellowship LEADS Fellowship at the National Defense College, Abuja in Nigeria during which I participated in six (6) National Universities Commission (NUC) program accreditation visits to one federal, two state and three private universities for Political Science and International Relations, Economics and Sociology.
I learned a lot about the opportunities and challenges of university education in Nigeria. I’ll never forget many of the exceptionally brilliant students my panels and I interacted with as part of our assignment. Some economics departments have advanced electronic labs for their formal modeling/econometrics courses, while some programs have easily accessible subscriptions to various research databases for their electronic libraries. When time permits, I’ll do a proper write-up on my experiences, more broadly.
I would like here to respond to the “Call for Papers” from the University of Lagos (Unilag) that asked prospective authors to also send money. During the accreditation visits (which are really meticulous and rigorous), I found that while quite a number of colleagues are doing serious scholarship, the overwhelming percentage is engaged in what you call “Vanity” journal (and book) publishing. Every department–100 PERCENT–that we evaluated had its own “journal” which is “edited” in-house. Thereafter the authors literally put a gun on the head of administrators to count those “publications” as part of the percentage of scholarship that can be locally published. Even Colleges of Education and Polytechnics have departmental journals in Nigeria–there was a CFP from one of them on this list recently.
None of these “journals” is indexed, either locally or internationally; so, colleagues who live/work five kilometres away from the institutions may not even know that such publications exist. Some institutions have been posting some of their publications online to give them visibility and possibly generate citation counts. There are claims (I have no proof; it wasn’t my charge) that some of the articles are plagiarized or may even be exact copies of papers published elsewhere with a new author and institutional affiliation.
Sadly, there is no nation-wide outlet to present, publish and/or professionally review recent work in the fields I evaluated since, for instance, the once-famous Nigerian Political Science Association and its journal died following the zoning of its leadership to the North who must have their “turn” at leading the association. A similar fate has befallen many scholarly groups–the Historical Society of Nigeria seems to be one of the few exceptions. Asked why these colleagues shouldn’t be reading and/or publishing in outlets put out by older institutions with seasoned academics with more credible track record, I was hushed down with: “Why should we be reading their own? Why can’t they read our own [journals]?” A PhD is a PhD, I was told, even if it’s awarded by a two-year old caricature of what others know as a university.
It’s worth noting that in one state university we visited, of the nine (9) lecturers on the Sociology faculty, six (6) obtained their PhDs (as well as their BSc and MSc degrees) from that very same department. Not only do you smell “in-breeding” you can assume they were also taught and mentored by senior colleagues who rose through the ranks based on publications in departmental journals. Indeed, many colleagues on the Deans and VC ranks today cut their academic teeth in the “Volume 1, Number 1″ syndrome of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s worth noting, though, that no more than 68 percent of faculty in all Nigerian Universities have doctorates; not easy to produce one, really.

It was amusing to find senior lecturers, associate professors/readers and even full professors with 50-100 “scholarly papers” almost 9/10 of which appear in these in-house and other publications. I’m not making any judgment regarding the quality of these publications since I have not read them. Yet, I find the culture very worrisome. Sometimes “books” (especially edited volumes) are published without a clear reason why such a “scholarly book” should be published. I earned some reputation as a snub whenever I explained my inability to honor “Prof, can you please contribute a chapter for my book” requests.

Many of these colleagues with very long list of “scholarly papers” have fewer than five (5) citation counts on Google Scholar, if at all they do. Of course, many of us Diaspora academics have relatively very little citation counts. It must be stated that, as at this point, the NUC has not taken up the responsibility to regulate this aspect of academic quality—not sure it should. What are department heads, deans, Senate and vice chancellors supposed to be doing?
From our Diaspora stand point, many of these publications are clearly “Vanity” journals and books, but the reality is that it costs a lot of money to publish them. Cash-strapped departments, faculties and/or universities have more weighty priorities. Perhaps, a much better write-up could have been on ideas/strategies to help these colleagues to get out of this morass—many of them teach 3-4 courses of 200-500 students a semester without TAs and get as small as N10,000 a year for academic conference presentations. Any ideas?
From Vanity Publications to PhD Production and Professorships in Nigeria
While I can understand and explain why some of the lecturers in some of the programs I evaluated as part of the NUC accreditation panels chose to engage in what we might term vanity publishing, I was surprised at the virtual absence of policies or discussions about quality assurance regarding scholarship outputs in many universities. Not one scholar I met had heard about Google Scholar (and its citation counts for every published piece of journal article, including those published IN NIGERIA), let alone other (sometimes controversial) measures of quality, such as Web of Science/Word of Learning and Pearson’s annual reports of “Impact Factor” of journals and academic publishers. It was therefore not surprising that a member of USA-Africa Dialogue Forum from the University of Lagos (Unilag) claimed that the Unilag Journal of Politics was “highly rated” without, of course, indicating who rated the journal and how, given that it is not indexed anywhere, and there is no rating agency in Nigeria. On two occasions, two editors of two different journals (very senior academics) proudly defended their journals to me by stating that they were “recognized and good quality because [they have] an ISSN number!”

While Google Scholar and other measures of quality sometimes exclude chapters in edited volumes, it should worry us that an academic that boasts 50-100 “professional papers” cannot equally boast ONE citation count (including the discounted self-citations) on Google Scholar! As I stated in Part 1, more than 90 percent of the CVs I reviewed listed as publication outlets “Volume 1, Number 1” or Departmental journals or self-published books or books whose publishers’ names and addresses are more innocuous and lesser known than the remotest streets in Ajegunle, Lagos or Ekeonunwa Street, Owerri. I concede that “writing for themselves” is not unique to Nigeria, but most scholars elsewhere don’t engage in this kind of massive inflation of output that is clearly indefensible.
Each of the six universities I visited had disproportionately more junior faculty (Assistant Lecturers–MA/MSc holders—and Lecturers I & II—anywhere from recent PhDs to PhDs with 3-6 years’ experience; and even master’s degrees with years of experience and/or professional certificates) than senior faculty (Associate Professors/Readers and Full Professors). A few of the Lecturer IIs and Lecturer Is were effective Acting Heads of Department (HODs). Yet, this contravenes NUC’s policy of Senior Lecturer as the minimum for the HOD to be able to provide a modicum of “academic leadership” to the unit. Some of the Assistant Lecturers and recent PhDs were quite good, but a large number were both victims and perpetrators of another form of fraud. In response to the NUC’s directive that the PhD is the minimum qualification for teaching in universities, several new universities have mounted PhD programs, some without NUC approval, even though they lack the resources and capacity (faculty members) to mentor the PhD students—who are mostly their academic staff without the doctorates. Many “older” universities have also expanded PhD enrollments to soak up the demand, even as some departments have upwards of 70 master’s degree students in a department boasting less than four full-time lecturers with PhDs.
While some departments (especially in most of the older universities) are still graduating quality PhDs that are garnering local and international awards and publications in some of the most competitive outlets in the world, a large number of the new PhDs are actually “arrangee PhDs.” In some cases, ONE retired professor is hired (often as an adjunct) with the sole terminal purpose of mentoring and awarding the PhD to one or two students—often relatives, pals or concubines of “the Ogas at the top” and/or a favored staff member. Once the deal is done, there is no more PhD program and the old bloke collects his money and goes home, or perhaps to another mercenary assignment.
Where the programs exist formally, it is not unheard of for ONE professor to “produce” over 10 doctorates in ONE year. One household name in Political Science has become notorious for serving as SUPERVISOR to several PhD candidates in more than SIX universities at a time! His detractors call his mass-produced protégés “Pure Water PhDs,” but they are all happily teaching in a university near your villages! I politely turned down an offer to supervise a well-connected PhD candidate in one of the universities in central Nigeria. I would have had no other affiliation with the institution. My eldest brother, a former professor at a university in Georgia, USA, had to recall two PhDs already awarded for insufficient work in 2011 as Dean of Postgraduate Studies and later Acting Vice Chancellor at a private university in Nigeria.

I have always wondered what the external examiners (the second level of review after the candidate has passed the oral defense at the departmental level) have to say about this madness. But again, if the candidate has to pay the N350,000.00 to N500,000.00 cost of scheduling a doctoral defense (includes transport, accommodation, per diem for the External Examiner; and other incidentals), plus over N700,000.00 total cost of the program (from start to finish), few External Examiners would like to look too deeply and probably rock the boat. A repeat visit is always a consideration. Candidates are often compelled to foot this bill (pending reimbursement by the university via the Supervisor, which may never come or may be misappropriated by the Supervisor) because waiting for the university to provide the funds might mean waiting a year or two more to defend. Besides, if you’re fed up with having to fork out N10,000.00 to N20, 000.00 as “reading fee” for every graduate seminar paper, wouldn’t you gladly mortgage grandma’s grave to extricate yourself from the clutches of your “Profs”?
Rigorous external review of portfolios for promotion to professorships is still the norm in most universities, especially at the federal and state universities, although occasional deviations occur. Some private universities also follow this practice, but many are too young for observers to know how that process actually works. It is known, however, that several private universities are notorious for the tendency of their proprietors to unilaterally promote staff, rather than allow the Senate and/or Governing Council to perform this function. A program can receive a failing or interim accreditation if it does not have the right staffing mix (Assistant, Lecturers, Associate and Full Professors) as stipulated by the NUC, among other indicators. That could spell trouble for enrollment, especially in highly sought-after programs (Law, Medicine, Accountancy, etc.) and consequently for the university’s bottom line.

Some proprietors have also dictated the admission of students without requisite admissions requirements (e.g., many of the ex-Niger Delta militants ended up in some private universities as part of the Amnesty Program. I wish Boko Haram lunatics would be amenable to such a treat, despite the headaches that would create for lecturers and administrators!). One proprietor reportedly wondered why lecturers refused to award First Class degrees to students if that is what they wanted. The man understood the “price system” better than the “foolish professors” paid with the students’ tuition! The NUC, of course, frowns at such indiscretions and has not hesitated to sanction the affected institutions whenever accreditation panel’s report such violations.

One of the most pervasive but difficult fraudulent practices that the NUC’s Quality Assurance Department (which is responsible for program accreditation) has to contend with is the use of “academic mercenaries” by universities during accreditation exercises. Programs that have been staffed for 3-4 years by an army of full and part-time assistant lecturers would suddenly list full-time and/or part-time associate professors/readers and full professors in order to meet the NUC staffing mix requirements. The worst culprits seem to be the sectarian universities. It is common to find some lecturers (including retirees, civil servants, pastors, etc.) on the payroll (perfunctorily) of two to three universities simultaneously.
As an accreditation panelist, you know a mercenary HOD when he/she is unable to answer simple questions about personnel, curriculum, exams, budget, etc. concerning her/his unit. In one university I evaluated in mid-2013, the “Dean of the College of Natural Sciences” happened to be an old acquaintance of mine with whom I have lived in the Phoenix metro since 2004.
Interestingly, he told me (perhaps without realizing the riskiness of his flippancy) that he was returning to his “base in the [Phoenix] Valley in two weeks.” A different panel, not mine, evaluated his College. The employment letters of many of the mercenaries, including my friend’s, in the personnel files we reviewed are always backdated by at least six months. While many public and private universities (including those in the United States) will not be able to meet their obligations to their students without these often under-paid and poorly appreciated adjuncts, my concern is the intentional fraud that is being brazenly perpetrated in Nigeria. Sure, NUC should (and does occasionally) crack down more on this practice; but it is not feasible to turn accreditation panels into EFCC hounds, given the mountain of documents and files and the tortuous reports they have to write in two extremely hectic days. These are my thoughts; the good news is that many concerned Nigerians are beginning to focus on the challenges in our educational system. I am happy to be part of the conversation and I welcome any ideas and suggestions for concrete action to stem the hemorrhage. In the name of generations of children.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Grammar Q and A on Errors in Nigerian Media English Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In what follows, you will find my answers to readers’ questions about the use of the phrases “man of the year,” “gentlemen of the press,” and “President Jonathan’s vice” (when talking about Vice President Sambo) in the Nigerian media. I’ve also answered questions about the difference between “beside” and “besides,” and reproduced an insightful response to the column I wrote twoweeks ago.

Is it proper for someone to use "MAN OF THE YEAR" for a woman? I am asking this because the Champion newspaper in Nigeria once conferred a MAN OF THE YEAR award on the Nigerian Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Stella Oduah.

Not, it’s not only improper to give a woman a “man of the year” award; it is also sexist and archaic. The expression “man of the year” is virtually dead in contemporary native-speaker media English. It has been replaced with the gender-neutral “person of the year.” TIME magazine, which started the “man of the year” tradition in 1927, has been using “person of the year” since 1999.

Nigerian journalism is unfortunately plagued by outmoded patriarchal arrogance as reflected in the popular notion in Nigerian journalistic circles that “gentlemen of the press” is the only acceptable way to address journalists. It’s customary for Nigerian journalists to say something like: “there are no ladies in the press; only gentlemen.” Well, that’s some male chauvinistic bunkum that has no place in logic, reality, or current English grammar.

 I also see that public officials in Nigeria, including the president, habitually address journalists as “gentlemen of the press” during news conferences. That’s so wrong and so unforgivably antiquated. The phrase “gentlemen of the press” was popular in America and, I think, in England in the 1920s when men dominated journalistic practice. There is even a 1929 movie by that name.

But in modern times, at least in environments where English is a native language, no one addresses journalists as “gentlemen of the press.” Journalists are properly called “members of the press” or simply “the press.” If you want to be quaint and stilted, you might say “ladies and gentlemen of the press.” From my inquiries and observations, Americans generally ignore the protocol of calling out members of the news media during news conferences.

Can you say “President Jonathan’s vice” when referring to the Vice President of Nigeria? Many senior journalists in Nigeria refer to Vice President Namadi Sambo as “Jonathan’s vice.” Is that correct?

It’s certainly an odd choice of words to refer to one human being as another person’s “vice.” This isn’t just bad grammar; it’s also muddled thinking. When “vice” is used as a noun, especially in reference to a human being, it usually means a moral weakness, a frailty, or a form of evil or depravity. So you can’t call a human being a “vice.” You can only say a human being has a vice. If you were to come to America and say “President Jonathan’s vice,” the only logical and grammatically legitimate meaning that can be drawn from the phrase would be that you’re talking about President Jonathan’s moral failings. Americans are unlikely to understand you as talking about Namadi Sambo.

In the British press, it is usual to refer to Vice President Joe Biden as “Obama’s deputy.” That’s infinitely more grammatical than saying, as Nigerian journalists are wont to, “Obama’s vice.” In other words, “President Jonathan’s deputy” is a better, more acceptable way to refer to Vice President Namadi Sambo than “President Jonathan’s vice.”

Of course, Americans don’t use the term “deputy” in reference to their vice president. They say “Obama’s Vice President,” not Obama’s deputy—and certainly not “Obama’s vice”—when they talk about Joe Biden.

What is the difference between “beside” and “besides”? Or do they mean one and the same thing?

No, they are different. Beside means “next to” or “at the side of” as in: he sat beside me in the bus. Beside can also be used to make comparisons as in: while my brothers think I’m a genius, I look like an idiot beside you.

Besides (notice the “s” at the end), on the other hand, can function as an adverb to mean “in addition,” as in “Most people won’t vote for PDP in 2015; besides, it’s a dying party.” Besides can also function as a preposition to mean “in addition to” or “as well as,” as in “besides her intelligence, she is also beautiful.” Or “Besides the PDP, which other party is disintegrating?”

So “beside” and “besides” can’t be used interchangeably.

Which is the correct phrase: “on alert” or “at alert”?

It should be on alert.

Thanks for your piece on the aforementioned topic. However, you need to have a second look at your rendition of the Hausa word 'tukuici'. Although it could mean 'gratuity' as you inferred, it does not include token given to taxi driver or for services revered in a restaurant outside the normal fee for the dish served. [I never said it does; I was only drawing parallels with the meaning of “gratuity” or “tip” in American English].

In Hausa land where I come from, 'tukuci' simply means a token given to someone who has been sent by another person to deliver something valuable to someone. It has nothing to do with age or status of the person who delivers the message. In other words, 'tukuici' is a token appreciation for the receipt of a worthy gift. The gift could be a piece of land, textile material, animal, cash, traditional title, appointment into public office, or even good news. In particular, it is the tradition of our traditional rulers to give out 10% as 'tukuici' of whatever cash value or farm produce given to them by one of their subjects.

I can vividly remember as a child that I didn’t feel excited delivering gifts to people who did not give commensurate 'tukuici' for the gifts I delivered to them. Indeed, a number of gift recipients lost their gift for habitual failures to give out adequate 'tukuici'. It is not uncommon for someone to even negotiate 'tukuici,' especially when it involves good news. For instance, it is acceptable in Hausa tradition for a chief or a political leader to deliver news of someone’s appointment into high office through a third party. The bearer of the good news could easily demand a specific 'tukuici' before he/she delivers the message. The method of delivering this kind of message normally starts with 'albishirika/ki' and the answer to this is usually 'goro' (kola nut). 'Goro' in the sense it is used here is metaphorical; it does not refer to your normal kola nut. It means cash or other valuables.

An inquisitive child of a good friend once asked my friend the English equivalent of 'tukuici' and he responded by saying it means gift, but the child justifiably rejected the meaning. When the father turned to me for affirmation of what he had told his son, I simply told him there is no English equivalent for 'tukuici' for the simple reason that it is not in the culture of the English people to give out 'tukuici'. Indeed, I am yet to come across any Nigerian or African language that has the exact equivalent of the Hausa word 'tukuici'.

Alhaji Abubakar Udu Idris, mni

Politics of Grammar Column

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Q and A on English Usage and Idiomatic Translations

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In this week’s edition of my Q and A series, I answer more questions from readers. Enjoy.

Can “either” and “neither” be used with more than three items? I’d always thought it should be used with only two items. In one of your recent Weekly Trust columns, you used “neither” and “either” with more than three items, and I was confused. In your article titled “What’s Really President Goodluck Jonathan’s Ethnic Group,” you wrote: “For me, the most exasperating ignorance that pervades Nigeria is what I call Nigeria’s tripodal ethnic reductionism, which is the infuriatingly ill-informed notion that every Nigerian is—or should be— either Hausa or Yoruba or Igbo.  The unanticipated rise of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan—who is neither Hausa nor Yoruba, nor Igbo— as Nigeria’s president has ruptured this simplistic narrative.”

You know, when we read your articles, we don’t just read them for the content, which is often stellar; we also read them for grammar and style. I hope you’re aware of that.

When I wrote the article you referred to, I was conscious of the age-long disputations over the grammatical propriety of using “either” and “neither” for more than two items. People who argue that “either” and “neither” should be restricted to only two choices or items point out that the words traditionally mean “each of two” or “one or the other of two.” Based on this, they say the words should not be used where there are more than two options.  That was correct from about the 14th century to the early/mid-19th century.

However, as several prestigious dictionaries and usage guides attest, that pedantic, prescriptivist usage rule has evolved over the years. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, says “either” and “neither” can legitimately be used to refer to “any one of more than two.” Similarly, in their authoritative and well-received book titled The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum write: “while ‘either’ coordinations are characteristically binary, multiple ones like ‘either Kim, Pat or Alex’ are also possible.”

In their book, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik write: “Although commonly stigmatized, (a multiple correlative like either) can add clarity to constructions whose complexity might otherwise cause confusion. For this reason, such constructions are sometimes used even in careful written English, eg in the rubric of an examination paper: Candidates are required to answer EITHER Question 1 OR Question 2 OR Question 3 and 4.

Finally, in the Longman Guide to English Usage, Sydney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut wrote:  “There is nothing wrong with using ‘either’ and ‘neither’ as adjectives for more than two: Come on either Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.”

I can go on, but the bottom line is that in modern usage, “either” and “neither” can be used for more than two items or choices. The semantic evolution of "either" and "neither" is akin to that of “alternative,” which used to mean “one of two,” but which is now widely used to mean “one of a number of things” as in “millions of alternatives.”

I am accustomed to saying "jokes apart" when I want to get serious after joking, but I was checking my dictionary this morning and I saw the phrase "joking apart/aside," which means the same thing with what I know as “jokes apart.” I want to know which one is more correct than the other.  

Although it may sound strange to many Nigerians, the correct idiom is "joking apart" or "joking aside."  Sometimes it’s rendered as “all joking apart/aside.” The phrase "jokes apart," I’ve discovered, is unique to Nigerian English and Indian English. I am yet to figure out why only Nigerian and Indians render the phrase as “jokes apart.” Although both varieties of English are descended from British English, their unique phrasing for the idiom is certainly not British. A search for the phrase in the British National Corpus yielded not a single match. (The British National Corpus is a “100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English, both spoken and written.”)

Could it be a holdover from old-fashioned British English? That’s doubtful, too. I will update this response when I get a definite answer.

I think it’s noteworthy that popular Nigerian comedian Julius Agwu titled his 2013 autobiography “Jokes Apart: How Did I Get Here?”

I am a regular reader of your good work in the Sunday Trust. I really appreciate it. Please, could you share with us how native English speakers greet people when they break their Ramadan fast? In other words, what is the English equivalent to the Hausa sannu da shan ruwa? What about gyara? Does it have an English equivalent?

There are many expressions that are simply untranslatable to other languages because of the vastness of the socio-cultural differences between the languages. Sannu da shan ruwa is one such expression. A literal translation of sannu da shan ruwa (greeting on drinking water) makes absolutely no sense in English, and an idiomatic translation of the expression in English is impossible. So if I were to meet a native English speaker who is a Muslim and I need to greet him or her after iftar, I would simply say "sannu da shan ruwa” (or, if I want to be linguistically nationalistic, I would say “bese ka noru,” which is the literal and idiomatic Baatonu equivalent to the Hausa sannu da shan ruwa) and explain what the expression means instead of trying to get an English equivalent for it, because it doesn't exist.

Read my previous articles on this issue here and here.

It is conceivable, however, that in the near future, if enough Hausa people live in environments where English is a native language, these kinds of unique socio-cultural phrases will be literally translated into English and adopted by the speakers—if such phrases fill a cultural void. That is what happened with the expression “long time no see.” It is a direct translation from Chinese, which makes no grammatical sense in English. Another example is the phrase “enjoy!” often uttered in (American) airlines and restaurants after people are served a meal. It’s an attempt to translate the French “bon appetit,” which would literally translate as “good appetite” in English, but which actually means “enjoy your meal.” It’s a unique French sociolinguistic quiddity that English speakers now have a need to mimic. (Native English speakers don’t traditionally utter any special expression before meals).

The closest American linguistic and cultural approximation to “gyara” (which is rendered as “jara” in certain variants of Nigerian Pidgin English) can be found in the word “lagniappe” (pronounced LAN- YAP), which my dictionary defines as “A small gift (especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase.).” That is precisely what “gyara” means in Hausa.

In my December 4, 2010 article titled “Neologisms and Ebonics in American English,” I wrote:  “The word ‘lagniappe,’ for instance, is an exclusively Louisiana invention, even though it is now usual to hear many people in the [American] South use it….

“It means ‘a small gift, especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase.’ But this definition does not adequately capture the cultural meaning of the word. Its exact socio-linguistic equivalent is “gyara” in Hausa (now incorporated into Nigerian Pidgin English as jaara).

“It is also used to indicate any kind of addition or extras. While the word sounds and looks French, its semantic content is decidedly African. I once wrote about the intriguing convergence of French, Spanish, and African influences in Louisiana’s racial, cultural, and gastronomic landscape. This convergence also manifests in the socio-linguistic experience of the people in many ways. It is conceivable that the “gyara” culture was brought to Louisiana by former [Hausa] slaves.”

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Ali Mazrui’s Prophetic 2009 Advice for Obama on Syria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

For those who may not know him, Professor Ali Mazrui is a prominent, well-regarded US-based scholar of Kenyan descent who has been named one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. He is the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at New York’s Binghamton University. His 1986 television series titled “The Africans: A Triple Heritage” is regarded as a classic.

Amid the current hoopla over President Barack Obama’s plan to declare a war against Syria in order to bring “peace” to it ( reminds me of the late irreverent American comedian George Carlin’s quip that “Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity”) I couldn’t help recalling Professor Mazrui’s astonishingly prescient counsel to Obama on Syria—in 2009.
Professor Ali Mazrui

About a month after Obama’s first inauguration as president of the United States, Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, interviewed Mazrui about Obama. (Democracy Now is a popular, liberal syndicated American news analysis program).

Even after referring to Obama as “the most powerful single black individual in the history of civilization… that’s ever walked planet earth,” Mazrui didn’t allow the triumphalist mood of Obama’s victory to blind him to the realities that confronted the president.

First, he told Goodman that he agreed with an African-American activist who had written that Obama could end up providing “US Empire with a black face.”  Then he adds:  “People are swallowed up by the position they occupy. I would hope [Obama] would help reshape the position he occupies—the presidency of the United States…. The only thing I hope he will avoid is initiate another military conflict for the United States, because since the 1930s, every single American president has initiated a conflict—either large-scale war or some kind of confrontation with another country involving weapons. …My hope is that he will break the tendency for American presidents to feel the way to be presidential and commander-in-chief is to be ordering army into action on another society.

“At the moment, I am not optimistic that he will necessarily be just a peacemaking president with the conflicts that are on. So my dream was he would be the first president not to stop the conflicts—not that he will be the first president not to preside over a war because he is inheriting two wars anyhow, and with one of them, the Afghanistan, he is not planning to end it really; he is planning to escalate it for a while. So that is disappointing.

“I hope he wouldn’t start a war with Syria. He would be mad if starts a war with North Korea. In general, I hope he won’t start any war and break this idea that the commander-in-chief has to be engaged in an actual war to be a credible president of the United States.” (Watch the videos below).

When Mazrui said he hoped Obama wouldn’t start a war with Syria in 2009, Syria was relatively peaceful and stable. The so-called Arab Spring hadn’t even started much less spread to Syria. And, as far as I know, America’s relations with Syria weren’t so tense in 2009 as to provoke anxieties about a possible war with the country. Why then did Mazrui single out Syria and North Korea as countries Obama should never start a war with? I frankly don’t know. His counsel could well have been based on some information he was privy to.

But the advice seems even more relevant now than it was when it was given in 2009. Obama survived his first term without initiating any war with any country; he only maintained and, in some cases, escalated the wars he inherited from former President George Bush. But will he disappoint Mazrui and start a war with Syria, and thereby join the long list of US presidents since the 1930s who have always had a need to affirm their presidential machismo by fighting often pointless wars with other countries?

Well, Obama’s unanticipated decision to seek the approval of the US Congress before striking Syria (after initially threatening swift, unilateral strikes) may well be his backhanded way to buck the trend of presidential war-mongering. Many analysts say Obama’s request is unlikely to be approved by the Congress. We are waiting to see how accurate this prediction will be, but poll after poll has shown that most Americans oppose a war with Syria.  As a September 3, 2013 Washington Post survey puts it, “there is deep opposition among every political and demographic group in the [country].”

As most people know, however, this is way beyond Obama. It is about America’s insatiably bloodthirsty military-industrial complex which, to put it mildly, profits from war and chaos in other parts of the world. A Democratic Congressman by the name of Alan Grayson, who represents the State of Florida, captured it well when he said, “nobody wants this [war with Syria] except the military-industrial complex.” As anyone who has watched the movie “White House Down” would tell you, the military industrial complex would stop at nothing, including planning the assassination of the president, to make the case for war without end.

In spite of all the odds and dangers it would entail, Obama still has a chance to give some materiality to the “change” slogan that was the signature of his campaigns for the US presidency. If he manages to avoid a war with Syria—and does not start any war with any country throughout the rest of his presidency—he could at least somewhat EARN the unmerited Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 2009. 

Most importantly, he would go down in the annals as the only US president since the 1930s who hasn’t initiated an attack against any country. That would make Professor Mazrui, his late father’s compatriot, proud.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Q and A on Nigerian English Grammar and Pronunciation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In what follows, I answer questions on native-speaker English lexical and idiomatic equivalents to uniquely Nigerian English expressions, the difference between “celebrant” and “celebrator,” and the distinction between “cross-check” and “double-check.” I also answer a question on the (mis)pronunciation of “ask.” Enjoy.

Is the expression “this one that...” uniquely Nigerian English? A Bournvita Ramadan commercial I watched in Nigeria featured a conversion between two women, one of whom told the other: “this one that you are looking fresh, do you fast at all?” She replied that it was the Bournvita beverage she regularly took during the fasting period that made her look fresh. What expression(s) could correctly replace “this one that” in the above context? I find “now that,” “considering that,” “with the way you are looking...,” and “since you are looking fresh...” somewhat unsuitable.

Yes, the expression is uniquely Nigerian and derives from Nigerian Pidgin English whose structure is almost wholly based on native Nigerian languages. If a native English speaker were to express the same sense expressed in the Nigerian English construction “this one that you are looking fresh, do you fast at all?” he would say something like, “You look too fresh to be fasting. Are you sure you’re really fasting?”

What do native English speakers call 'tsaraba' (a present that someone who returns from a journey gives to people at home). What about tukuici?

The English equivalent for tsaraba is a "gift." You're probably saying "just that? I already knew that!" But if the gift has a special sentimental value (for instance, if the gift is unique to the place you traveled to), then it's called a "souvenir" or a "memento" or a "token." Whatever I buy for my friends and family when I visit Nigeria from America isn't just a gift; it's also a souvenir. So T-shirts with inscriptions like "I love Atlanta," etc. are mementos or tokens. But edible things like bread, biscuits, etc. are mere gifts.

In northern Nigerian culture, tukuici is a token gift, usually in the form of loose change, given to children as a reward for running errands for adults. Native English speakers don't have an exact lexical equivalent for this, but a close equivalent, especially in American English, is a "tip" or a "gratuity," which is a small amount given to people, not necessarily children, as a token of gratitude (thus, “gratuity”) for services they have rendered, such as serving you in a restaurant, driving you in a taxi, etc. In Nigeria we don't tip or give gratuity to taxi drivers outside of the fare we pay them, and we certainly don’t give gratuity to waitresses at restaurants outside of the cost of the meal, but we tip or give gratuity to children.

In 2011, when I served as a youth corps member in Kogi State, the admin officer of the office I did my primary assignment asked me about my colleague who’d traveled to his state for the burial of one of his relatives. I responded by saying "he didn't come back," but our typist said I was wrong. She said I should have said, "he hasn't come back". Unfortunately, she couldn't convince me that I was wrong grammatically, and I didn't have anybody to ask then for more clarification. Please, I want you help and answer my question, so that I can know if I am the one on the wrong side, to correct it the next time I'm answering such a question.

Given the context you described, the sentence should correctly be "he has hasn't come back," NOT "he didn't come back." So the typist was right.  Here is why: You described an event that was still ongoing, that is, your colleague was still absent from work at the time you spoke. The best tense to express that situation is the present perfect tense, which is normally formed with the verb "have"— or its singular form "has."

"Didn't," on the other hand, is appropriate only in past perfect tenses, that is, in tenses where an action has been completed in the past and has no direct effect on the present. Suppose your colleague returned from his trip and you were asked a question like, "Did your friend return from his journey last week when the principal asked for all youth corps members?" you would be correct to say "no, he didn't" because the action (that is, being present or absent when the principal asked for youth corps members) was completed in the past.

However, American English tends to countenance the use of “did” or “didn’t” in present participle tenses, which annoys British English speakers to no end.

In English do we “double check” or “cross check” facts? I find “cross check” to be too Nigerian for my ears having never heard anybody use it outside the country. I might be wrong in my assumption.

The two verbs are similar but different. To "cross-check" is to find out which of several conflicting sources is correct, while to "double-check" is to examine the same source one more time to be absolutely certain that it is correct. I agree that Nigerians hardly use "double-check" in their everyday speech even when they express the sense of the verb. But I’ve also noticed that Americans hardly use “cross-check” even when it is the right word to use; they prefer “double-check” almost always.

What is the appropriate name for a person who is celebrating? Is it celebrant or celebrator?

Although both “celebrant” and “celebrator” are acceptable, I’d advise that you use “celebrator” because it’s more universally acceptable than “celebrant.” The word “celebrant” has many other meanings besides “a person who is celebrating.” It actually first means a person who participates in a religious ceremony, especially one who celebrates the Eucharist, a Christian rite that involves the consecration of bread and wine. “Celebrant” is also defined as “a person who officiates at a religious or civil ceremony or rite, especially a wedding.”

“Celebrant” came to be used as an alternative to “celebrator” initially in error in American English. Although it’s now an accepted variant of “celebrator” in American English, many careful and punctilious American writers avoid it. Of course, “celebrant” is almost absent in formal British English. Rather surprisingly, however, the Nigerian English default word for someone who is celebrating is “celebrant.” “Celebrator” almost never appears in everyday Nigerian English, even though Nigerians cherish the notion that they speak British English.

I really enjoyed your series on words Nigerians commonly pronounce. I look forward to your compiling a dictionary of Nigerian English mispronunciation. My question is: why didn’t you include “ask” in your list? Most Nigerians mispronounce it as “aks.” I thought it should be an obvious candidate for your list. Why did you miss it?

I omitted it because the mispronunciation of “ask” as “aks” or “ax” isn’t uniquely Nigerian. In fact, it isn’t, strictly speaking, a mispronunciation; it’s actually only a nonstandard dialectal pronunciation that is found in many native varieties of English. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary both say “ax” as a variant of “ask” has been around since Old English, that is, since about 1100. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “ax” was “an accepted literary variant until c.1600.”  

The Oxford English Dictionary adds that in Old English there were two equally valid variants of the word: ascian and acsian. People in southern England preferred “acsian,” which has survived in the contemporary “ax” or “aks” that you asked about.  In northern England people preferred “ascian,” which has survived in “ask,” and which is now privileged as the standard pronunciation.

“Ask” is still pronounced as “aks” in many parts of rural England, and in such “nonstandard” native-speaker varieties of English as African-American Vernacular English (also called Ebonics), Ulster Scottish English, and the midland and southern dialects of British English. Interestingly, most Americans incorrectly think that “ax” is a uniquely African-American mispronunciation of “ask.”

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