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Q and A on Idiomatic Expressions, Pronunciation, and West African English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.   Is it “catch cold” or “catch a cold”? Is the expression “bushman” Standard English? Or is it an exclusi...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is it “catch cold” or “catch a cold”? Is the expression “bushman” Standard English? Or is it an exclusively Nigerian English expression? Is “radical” a negative or positive word? Why do some native speakers drop their “g” in words that end with “ing”? Find answers to these and other questions in this week’s Q and A. Enjoy.

I'm a really avid reader of your highly cherished columns albeit I never wrote to you before. Please I want to know which is correct between the following sentences: “I hope you didn't catch cold” and “I hope you didn’t catch a cold.” I heard one grammar police say that the indefinite article “a” must be used in the sentence, but I came across quite a number of expressions made by pukka grammarians without the article "a" in the sentence. Please I want you to judge this case in your subsequent Q & A session. Secondly, I want you to shed more light on the following sentences: “Don't go there” versus “Go there not.” It seems to me the latter isn't often used in spoken English. Is it wrong to do so?

The short answer to your first question is that modern English dictionaries and style guides say it is perfectly permissible to use “catch a cold” and “catch cold” interchangeably. But, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, this has not always been the case. In the past, to “catch cold” (without the indefinite article “a”) only meant to be exposed to chilly weather, the kind that causes one to shiver, as in “if you stay out too long in the Harmattan you will catch cold.” To “catch a cold” (with the indefinite article “a”) only meant to suffer from the common cold, which causes people to sneeze, cough, have a sore throat, a runny nose, etc. “Catching cold” may cause one to “catch a cold.”

However, when I searched the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the definite records of modern English usage in Britain and America, I found that native English speakers still preponderantly use “catch a cold” to mean contract the common cold (better known as catarrh in Nigeria) and “catch cold” to mean exposed to chilly weather. I personally like that distinction.

Now to your second question: “Don't go there” is more common and more natural than "go there not." The latter would, however, be appropriate in poetic contexts.

Sahara Reporters, the online news site, described a murdered Nigerian Islamic scholar as a "radical Islamic scholar." The use of the word "radical" to describe him caused a fit of rage amongst some Nigerian Muslims. I thought the use of the word was apt. Now my questions is, considering the literal meaning of the word "radical," what is wrong with using it to describe anyone who preaches for societal and moral change? Is there any negativity or disapproval attached to the word?

Both Sahara Reporters and the people who objected to the word “radical” are right. Radical has several meanings. One meaning of radical is, "introducing fundamental changes." That is a largely positive meaning, and that’s probably how Sahara Reporters intended the word to be understood. But another meaning of radical is: "far beyond the norm," that is, extremist. That's a negative meaning.

These days, thanks to American politicians and the mainstream American media, "radical" has come to assume a largely negative connotation. For instance, terrorists and their worldviews are routinely characterized as “radical,” so the general population has come to subliminally associate the word “radical” with disruptive, daredevil extremism. The notion of “radical” as desiring new, fundamental, progressive changes is receding and is being replaced with the notion of anarchic “extremism.” Many dictionaries haven’t captured this quiet semantic shift yet.

Is the expression “bush man” Standard English? Or is it just Nigerian English? I can’t seem to find it in any dictionary or book of idioms.

“Bush man,” especially the way it’s used in Nigerian English, isn’t Standard English. It’s a Pidgin English expression that has found its way into the standard varieties of English spoken and written in Anglophone West Africa. Last year, for instance, when Ghanaian president John Dramani Mahama delivered a lecture at Kennesaw State University in the United States where I teach, he used the expression “bushman” in ways his audience didn’t understand. In a passage he read from his recently published autobiography, he jokingly described one of his high school classmates as a “bush man.” Most people in the audience had no clue what he meant. I know this because no American laughed. Only the few Ghanaians and Nigerians in the audience giggled.

Most native English speakers in Britain and America understand “Bushman” (plural: Bushmen; note the uppercase “B”) to mean the hunter-gatherer ethnic group in southern African now known as the “San.” The term emerged in the 18th century from the Afrikaan wordboschjesman,” which literally translates as “man of the bush.” It was the word the white settlers in South Africa used to refer to the San people who number nearly 100,000 and who can be found in Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and South Africa. Western anthropologists and journalists who studied and wrote about the San people adopted the Afrikaan name for the people and helped popularize it beyond the shores of southern Africa.

“Bush man” also appears in Australian and New Zealand English to mean a pioneer or a man who literally lives in the bush. It can also mean a person who travels or lives in the bush and is intimately familiar with the ways of the bush.

In West African English, “bushman” or “bush woman”—or any variation of the term, such as “bush people”—is a pejorative term for an unsophisticated person who isn’t versed in the ways of the world. It’s traditionally reserved for farouche, provincial rural dwellers, but it can be used to refer to any unworldly person, especially one who lacks social skills. In American English, such a person would be called a “hillbilly” or a “hick.” In British English, such a person would be called a “country bumpkin” or a “yokel.”

If President Mahama had described his high school classmate as a “hick” or a “hillbilly,” the Americans in the audience would have understood him and laughed.

As a regular reader of your column, I am always happy and enjoy reading it. Please, I want you to help out on this matter. Here in the UK, I have heard people pronounce the word “thing” as “think.” On other occasions, I have heard people pronounce many words that end in '-ing' as '-ink'. Am I mishearing them?

You’re not mishearing, except that it’s not a “k” you hear; it’s a soft “g.” That was one of the first things I also noticed when I first came to the United States. Upon inquiry, I discovered that dropping the "g" in words that end with "ing" is considered colloquial and sometimes uneducated.  Not dropping it is considered formal and educated. In Britain and America, you can sometimes tell people’s social class by whether or not they drop their “g” in words that end with a “g.”

Politicians here who want to identify with the “unwashed masses” sometimes drop their “g” during political campaigns even though they pronounce their “g” in their everyday speech. I drop my "g" when I pronounce words that end in "ing." I guess it's a result of my Nigerian upbringing. Nigerians generally drop their “g” irrespective of their education and social class.

It’s common to see the word “run” used to mean politicians vying for elective positions, as in “he is running for governor of his state.” Is it appropriate?

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Yes, it is. In American English, politicians "run" for elections. In British English they "stand" for elections. In Nigerian English they "contest" elections. 
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