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Q and A on the Grammar of Food, Usage and Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. I received a lot of questions over the past few weeks on a wide range of usage and grammar issues. See be...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I received a lot of questions over the past few weeks on a wide range of usage and grammar issues. See below my responses to a few of those questions. Is it “yam porridge” or “yam pottage”? Is it true that what Nigerians call “fried egg” isn’t called fried egg in America and Britain? How about “tea”? Is the word used wrongly in Nigeria? In this Q and A series I answer these and many more questions. Enjoy.

What do you call it: yam pottage or yam porridge?

Well, first, both expressions--that is, the co-occurrence of “yam” and “pottage” or “porridge”-- are uniquely Nigerian—and perhaps Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean—English coinages. Having said that, it’s worth pointing out that "porridge," as a standalone term, is a Briticism, that is, it’s an expression that is limited to British English. A dictionary defines porridge as “soft food made by boiling oatmeal or other meal or legumes in water or milk until thick.” Other varieties of English, including American English, know the word as “pottage” (sometimes spelled “potage.”)  I suspect that “porridge” is the British phonetic corruption of the original “pottage.”
Chicken pottage
The Random House Dictionary says “pottage,” which has existed in the language since Middle English, that is, from about 1175 to 1225, originally meant “something in or from a pot.” But pottage now generally means “a stew of vegetables and (sometimes) meat.” It can also mean any thick soup.
Porridge with milk
 It’s obvious that native English speakers’ understanding of porridge or pottage is markedly different from ours in Nigerian English. In Nigerian English, porridge/pottage—or yam porridge/pottage—is mashed yam with vegetables, tomatoes, and sometimes meat or fish. Unlike in native-speaker English, Nigerian pottage or porridge is not a soup; it’s a main meal.
Nigerian yam porridge/pottage
 So, since the Nigerian usages of these terms are mere linguistic appropriations, I would say “yam porridge” and “yam pottage” are both acceptable in Nigerian English. Note, though, that these terms would be incomprehensible to native English speakers.

Is it true that what Americans call scrambled egg, Nigerians call fried egg? Nigerians do not eat a real fried egg? Do you know something about it?

Yes, in all the years I lived in Nigeria I never saw “real” fried eggs. Well, I thought I did until I came to the United States and discovered that what we call “fried eggs” in Nigeria is called “scrambled eggs” in America—and Britain. Most Nigerians would call fried eggs “half-fried eggs” since the yolk (the yellow part of the egg) isn’t usually fully fried in traditional American and British fried eggs. In Nigerian fried eggs, the yolk and the whites are often thoroughly mixed and stirred while being cooked in the pan. That’s how scrambled eggs are made in America and Britain—and elsewhere.
This is how fried egg looks in America and Britain
Scrambled egg
However, it can get a little more complicated. The mai shai (roadside tea or hot chocolate and sliced break sellers) cook their eggs in ways you would neither call “fried” nor “scrambled” (in the native-English-speaker senses of these terms). The whites and the yolk are mixed and stirred like scrambled eggs, but they are often overcooked, giving the scrambled eggs a burnt look. Maybe we should call this “burnt egg” or, better still, “burnt scrambled eggs.”

Nigerian "fried egg" and plantain

I recently traveled outside Nigeria and was surprised to discover that most of us actually don’t drink tea in Nigeria. We call everything we drink in the morning “tea” even if it’s not.

You’re right that “tea” has become the generic term for all kinds of beverages in Nigeria. Most Nigerians mix “Milo,” powdered milk, sugar and water, and call it “tea.” Native English speakers would call that “hot chocolate” or “hot cocoa,” not tea. Tea is made by seeping tea leaves, such as Lipton tea, in water. When my daughter and I visited Nigeria in 2012, she made the same observation. “Daddy, why do Nigerians call hot cocoa ‘tea’?” she asked me.
Nigerians call this "tea"; other people call it hot chocolate or hot cocoa
Is the word “livestock” always followed by “is/was” or “are/were”? In other words, which of these sentences is correct: “livestock is an important part of agriculture” and “livestock are an important part of agriculture?”

The short answer to your question is: both are correct. But the long answer is: it depends. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it is perfectly permissible to use either a singular verb (that is, “is” or “was”) or a plural verb (that is, “are” or “were”) for livestock. These are the examples it gave of the word’s usage to underscore this point: “a market where livestock ARE bought and sold” and “a market where livestock IS bought and sold.”

Some authorities point out that in older forms of English, “livestock are” was the only permissible form. The English translation of the Bible, for instance, has the following sentence: “God remembered Noah, all the animals, and all the livestock that WERE with him in the ship.”

I found evidence for both singular and plural verbs in the British National Corpus, although the singular verb, that is, “livestock is,” is clearly more commonly used in contemporary English than “livestock are.”Harrap’s Essential English Dictionary, for example, defines livestock thus: “livestock IS animals kept on a farm, especially horses, cattle, sheep and pigs" (p.557).

Examples of current usage in native-speaker English press also tend to support the use of the singular verb. RTE News, an Irish news site, wrote the following sentence in an April 20, 2001 story titled “More suspected FMD cases confirmed in North”: “The Minister has also announced that a modest relaxation on the movement of farm animals in the North from byres to pasture although for the time being livestock IS still prevented from crossing public roads and lane ways.”

When is it correct to use “none is” and “none are”? I am sure I’ve heard native speakers use both constructions. Please help.

Incidentally, a native English speaker asked me this question on Facebook a couple of days ago. It’s true that native English speakers use both forms, but all the prestigious style guides favor “none is.” For instance, the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of American journalism, has this to say on the use of “none”:  “It usually means no single one. When used in this sense, it always takes singular verbs and pronouns: None of the seats was in its right place. Use a plural verb only if the sense is no two or no amount….”

What is wrong with the expression “letterheaded paper”?

The proper expression is “letterhead.” "Letterheaded paper" is a distinctly Nigerian English phraseology. There is no word like “letterheaded” in Standard English. Say “print it on your company’s letterhead” instead of “print it on your company’s letterheaded paper.”

In what instances can I use “a lot” and “many”?

A lot and many can be used interchangeably. However, a lot can be used both for countable nouns and uncountable nouns; many can only be used for countable nouns.

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