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My Favorite Exclamatory Expressions in Nigerian English (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Exclamatory expressions are abrupt, emphatic utterances that help us convey emotions of joy, sadness, admi...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Exclamatory expressions are abrupt, emphatic utterances that help us convey emotions of joy, sadness, admiration, anger, surprise, sympathy, disappointment, disgust, etc. Common Standard English exclamatory expressions are “Congratulations!” “Well done!” “Bravo!” “How sweet!” “What a pity!” “Awww!” “What a shame!” “What nonsense!” “How disgusting!” “To hell with you!”  “Damn you!” “Thank goodness!” “Good gracious!” “Oh my God!” etc.

While Nigerian English users are familiar with and, in fact, deploy most of the everyday exclamatory expressions in Standard English, they also use a unique set of exclamatory expressions in their quotidian communicative endeavors that won’t be intelligible to most people who speak only Standard English. Some of the expressions are the result of the relexicalization of existing English words. Others are direct translations from native Nigerian languages. Still others are untranslated— and untranslatable—Nigerian interjections. See below my top favorite Nigerian exclamations:

1. “At all!” This expression is used in Nigerian English to indicate emphatic denial. If, for instance, you asked a Nigerian if he knew someone who had been convicted of a crime and he wanted to disclaim the remotest association with the criminal, he would say something like: “Ah, at all o! I don’t know him!” The expression is sometimes rendered as “at all at all,” especially in humorous contexts and in Nigerian Pidgin English. It’s certainly a distortion of the Standard English phrase “not at all,” which has two conventional uses: to indicate emphatic denial (in the class of the Nigerian “at all at all o!”) and a polite response to expression of gratitude (synonymous with phrases like “you’re welcome,” “it’s my pleasure,” “not a problem,” etc. In Standard English “at all” often just means “in any way,” as in “he could not see at all.”

2. “Eiyaah!” In Nigerian English—and in many Nigeria languages— this is the commonest interjectory expression of pity, sadness, and other kinds of soft emotions. It is often said where native English speakers would say “it’s such a pity!” 

3. “Chei!” This interjection is used to express disbelief, or deep admiration tempered with a dose of disbelief. I see parallels between it and the native English “Oh my God!” although it’s not an exact semantic parallel. I was surprised to discover that the word also appears in American youth slang. The Urban Dictionary, a user-generated dictionary of (American) slang terms, defines “chei” (which it also renders as “cheis) as “A word used in a moment of excitement or happiness.” That’s very close to the word’s meaning in Nigeria. I personally have never heard anyone say “chei” or “cheis” in America, but then, I don’t hang around the kinds of people who use it here.

4. “God forbid (bad thing)!” This is the default exclamatory expression to show impassioned, emphatic rejection of that which is considered unacceptably objectionable or detestable. In Standard English “God forbid” is also used to express the wish that something never happens, as in “If, God forbid, his children die before him, he would take his own life.” It is also used in Standard English to express the sentiment that someone would never do something, as in “God forbid that I would marry my own sister.”

So how is the Standard English usage of “God forbid” different from the Nigerian English usage of it? Well, they are different in at least two respects. One, in Standard English, as you can see from the examples above, “God forbid” is neither a standalone expression nor an exclamation. It’s just an idiomatic phrase. Second, native speakers don’t add “bad thing” to “God forbid.” In any case, “God forbid bad thing” is ungrammatical. Here are more grammatical alternatives to it: “God, forbid a bad thing from happening,” “God should forbid a bad thing from happening,” God forbid that a thing should happen.” But even these more grammatical alternatives make no sense in idiomatic English.

5. “Haba!” This exclamation of astonishment or disappointment that has crept into Standard Nigerian English seems to me to be native to the Hausa language. But a British linguist by the name of Roger Blench observed that “Habahaba! was a common expression of joking amazement in the US in the 1940s,” and wonders if there is any relationship between the Nigerian “haba!” and the obsolete American English “habahaba!” in light of the phono-semantic similarities between both expressions.

My sense is that the similarities are no more than a happy coincidence. Until fairly recently, “haba!” wasn’t widespread in Nigerian English. It was at best a northern Nigerian exclamatory expression. Most importantly, 1940s America had no direct or indirect cultural influence on Nigeria—not least northern Nigeria—that I am aware of. The late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first Nigerian to ever study in the United States and who brought early influences of American English into Nigeria through his political and journalistic career, had left America when “habahaba!” was in vogue. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the historically black Lincoln University in 1930, earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1933, and another master’s degree from Columbia University in 1934. He returned to Ghana—and later Nigeria—in the mid-1930s. So it’s hard to account for the linguistic migration and mutation of the American “habahaba!” to the Nigerian “haba!”

6. “How can?” This expression, which seems to me to be limited in popularity to eastern Nigeria, is used to express disbelief. It appears to be the shortening of “how can that be?” meaning “how is that even possible?” I have always wondered why the expression is very popular with Igbos. Is it, perhaps, a direct translation from Igbo rather than the short form of “how can that be?”

7. “Have it!” When Nigerians give something to someone, they almost always say, “have it!” or “take it!” Native speakers certainly won’t relate to this. Americans say “here you go!” or “there you go!” In British English, according David Jowitt, it’s common to say “here you are!” or “there you are!”

8. “Imagine!” The Standard English equivalents for this exclamatory expression of surprise or disbelief are “can you imagine that?” “imagine that!” or “fancy that!”

9. “Mtchewww!!!” or Mscheeeeeeew!!!” Thanks to the vibrant Nigerian social media scene, there are several phonetic spellings of this sound, which Nigerians let out to express utter disgust or contempt or anger. Nigerians call this “hissing,” but in his book Nigerian English: An Introduction, David Jowitt writes: “In Nigerian culture there is a sound produced by protruding the lips and drawing air inwards noisily, which expresses disapproval or derision, and this is called chissing, while what [Standard British English] calls ‘hissing,’ i.e., making the sibilant sound, the air forced through the teeth, is used in Nigeria to attract someone’s attention from a distance. There is no [Standard English] word that expresses the Nigerian sign of disapproval; ‘wince’ perhaps comes nearest to it.”

In other words, what Nigerians call “hissing” is only a lexical appropriation; it is not recognizable to native English speakers because they neither produce that kind of sound nor have a name for it. Heck, other Africans I have met can’t “hiss” even if their life depends on it.

10. “No wonder!” This expression is used to express surprise—or lack thereof— in Nigerian English. It performs the same function in Standard English, except that it’s not a standalone expression in Standard English; it’s often part of a sentence. Look at these examples:No wonder the baby is crying. She's wet.” “It's no wonder that plant died. You watered it too much.”

To be concluded next week

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