Sunday, April 27, 2014

Q and A on Nigerian English Expressions and Other Usage Concerns

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Are “motor park,” “garage,” and “motherless babies’ home” uniquely Nigerian English expressions? Is it rude to say “how are you?” to an older person? Why did I write “an herbalist” instead of “a herbalist” in my column last week? Find answers to these question in this week’s Q and A.

Are “motor park” and “garage” Standard English expressions? Someone told me they are not, but even Nigerian newspaper editorials, which should represent the best in language use, deploy “motor park” every so often. For example, a recent LEADERSHIP newspaper editorial said “Currently, the nation is still in grief following the massacre of over 100 people and injuring of more than 200 others by a bomb planted by terrorists in an overcrowded motor park in the nation’s capital city on Monday.” What can you say about this?

“Motor park,” especially the way it’s used in Nigerian English, is nonstandard. All the dictionaries I consulted say “motor park” is a uniquely West African English expression. According to the Macmillan Dictionary, “motor park” is used in West African English where Americans would say “parking lot” and where the British would say a “car park.” The Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition supports this view. But both dictionaries are wrong.

The West African English “motor park” is closer to a “bus station” in British English than it is to a car park. In fact, in its news report of the bomb blast that the LEADERSHIP newspaper editorialized about, the BBC called the Nyanya Motor Park a “bus station.” Several American news media outlets called it a “bus terminal.” 

But “bus station” and “bus terminal” are not exact semantic equivalents to the Nigerian “motor park.”  Nigerian “motor parks” serve as terminals for both bus passengers and passengers of commercial cars, which don’t exist in the West. I think either “motor vehicle terminal” or “motor vehicle station” would be appropriate since “motor vehicle” is an umbrella term for cars, buses, vans, trucks, lorries, etc.

The expression “motor park” arose in West African English because “motor” can mean “car or other motor vehicle” in British English. In American English “motor” doesn’t have that meaning; it is used where Nigerian English speakers would say “engine.” So while “motor park” may be intelligible to a British English speaker (to mean a place where motors are parked), it would be mystifying to an American English speaker.

It would be even more perplexing to an Australian English speaker. The Macmillan Dictionary says in Australian English “motor park” can mean “an area in the countryside with places to stay, restaurants, and other services for people who are traveling by car.”

It is perfectly legitimate to write “motor park” in a Nigerian context since the object of writing is communication. Most Nigerians would not understand the Standard English equivalents to the phrase. However, it is good to be aware that the expression has limited or no meaning outside Anglophone West Africa.

Nigerians also like to use “park” as the short form of “motor park.” As Professor David Jowitt points out in his Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction, merely saying “park” can lead Standard English speakers to think you’re referring to a piece of land reserved for recreational use.

You also asked about garage. Garage can mean the portion of a building where motor vehicles are housed. It can also mean, according to the Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition, “a commercial establishment in which motor vehicles are repaired, serviced, bought, and sold, and which usually also sells motor fuels.” It’s not the same thing as a bus station. Nigerians use “garage” and “motor park” interchangeably. They are both nonstandard.

What is wrong with the expression “motherless babies’ home”? A non-Nigerian friend of mine recently told me he had never heard anything like that. What do native speakers call motherless babies’ home?

A lot is wrong with the phrase “motherless babies’ home.” First, I think it’s cruel and unfeeling. Second, it’s not accurate; there are many children in so-called motherless babies’ homes who have lost both parents. So they are not only motherless; they are also fatherless. Third, “motherless babies’ home” is a peculiarly Nigerian, perhaps West African, English coinage. Native English speakers call it an “orphanage.”

I’ve heard many people in Nigeria say it’s rude to say “how are you?” to an older person? Is that the case in America and Britain, too?

Several people have asked me that question over the past few months. The idea that saying “how are you?” to an older person is rude is one of the strangest things I’ve heard in a long while. But as I thought more deeply about it, I realized that in some Nigerian cultures it’s considered bad form to ask an older person a question without first observing gerontocratic courtesies like prefixing or ending the question with “sir,” etc.

But “How are you?” is a mere conventional expression of greeting in the English-speaking world, and there is nothing remotely disrespectful about it even when it is directed at an older person. I should add, though, that it is now more common for people to just say “hi” or “hello” even to older people in informal contexts.

I stumbled on one of your articles this morning which led me to many more. I must say kudos to you for all you're doing! May I enquire about your use of ‘‘an'' for a word like ''herbalist'' in one of your articles when clearly it is pronounced ''herbalist'' and not ''aberlist''? Kindly educate me on that.

This is probably the 10th question I’ve received on my use of the phrase “an herbalist” in my last week’s article. Someone flat out said I was wrong. Well, in American English, the “h” in herbalist is silent, like it is in “honor,” “honorable,” “honorary,” “hour,” “heir,” “honest,” etc. Herbalist is pronounced /erbalist/, and so it is preceded by the indefinite article “an.” Of course, in British English the “h” in “herbalist” is pronounced, which explains why British English speakers say “a herbalist.” Because I’ve lived continuously in America for close to a decade, I sometimes unconsciously prefer American usage conventions. That’s why I wrote “an herbalist.”

I think readers will find the following usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary helpful:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Re: Republic of Songhai Formerly Known as Nigeria

Find below some of the reactions to my column from last week. I will do a follow-up and flesh out some of the issues I couldn’t fully address in last week’s article. Enjoy.

This is great! Nigeria is long overdue for physical and psychological rebranding. I felt so happy during my first visit to Kebbi State when I realized that interesting relics of the old Songhai Empire still exist. My very pan-Africanist history teacher in Form 3, Mr. Theo Amen Edokpayi, sowed enduring seeds of appreciation for African history and places/people like ancient Oyo Empire, Timbuktu University, Ibn Battuta, Songhai Empire, etc. With 'leaders' who care more for lucre, there is no chance that we can deviate from the path of sordid adulation for colonial slavery as evidenced in the 'honour' for a mere mistress who dreamt up a label, Nigeria, during a tryst with Frederick Lugard. Truly, a renaming will be a sure indicator that a psychological emancipation and a journey towards real change and genuine rebirth has begun. You have eloquently shifted from grammar to historical nationalism. Of all the pieces you ever wrote, this is one that will live and be examined again in 20, 50 or a 100 years to come.
Akinjide Jide Babalola, Abuja

The non-reading and historically amnesiac leadership in Nigeria, as it is composed today, would prefer honouring Lord Lugard, one of the racists that gave the country this pejorative name in the first place. They are still slaves, though they don't know. Haven’t you seen our leader's picture talking with Hillary Clinton? They don't have the brains and the self-respect to change it. Perhaps our future generation would but not this corrupt blood-sucking drunkard pawns of imperialists. 
Abdulrazak Ibrahim, Brazil

 Despite the fact that we were taught at different levels of our educational career that the word "niger" invariably means "black" when it appears in species names in botanical and zoological binomial nomenclature (like the fungus "Aspergillus niger"), I neither associated the word "niger" in the name "River Niger" with blackness nor knew it was the white man who gave the river its name!
Abdulrahman Muhammad, India

I've just read your essay titled "Republic of Songhai, formerly known as Nigeria" in the hard copy of the Weekly Trust newspaper before I saw this post. I'm one of your fans on Facebook, but I’m sorry to say that I disagree with your views on the subject.

You stated correctly that the name Nigeria was a colonial appellation denoting "the land of the niggers". Among the reasons you adduced for changing our country's name to "The United States of Songhai" included the need to have an African identity; to glorify a once-famous West African empire; and to do away with a colonial mentality. To that end, you cited the cases of Benin Republic and Ghana, which both changed their colonial names in favour of indigenous African empires.

I'm not challenging your arguments, but I’m of the opinion that Nigeria should not change her name, for the following reasons: Sometime in the 1950s or 60s, Egypt and Syria together formed a united country called "The United Arab Republic" or UAR. Today in 2014, Egypt remains Egypt and Syria is still Syria, suggesting that the name change has not worked.

The Asian country called "Myanmar" today was previously known as "Burma", until a military junta changed the name in the 1980s or 90s. International organizations such as the UN have adopted the new name, but how has that helped the country? Is Myanmar now more developed as a result of the name change? Is she more democratic than Burma? Wasn't it Myanmar where pro-democracy activist Aung Suu Kyi spent many years in jail, and where indigenous Muslims of the Rohinga tribe face state-sanctioned terrorism in the hands of the country's Buddhist majority? Here in West Africa, how has the name change by Ghana and Benin Republic helped the two countries to achieve progress? Isn't the country called South Africa, an English phrase, still the most advanced in Africa?

My point is, the whole world now lives in a global village where nations compete with each other for natural and human capital needed to achieve progress. Experience has shown that changing the name of a country does nothing in achieving those goals.
Nura Alkali, Abuja

Captain Thomas Sankara started by changing Upper Volta's name to Burkina Faso. So, this suggestion is in order. It will, at least, create that psychological path to change.
Aliyu O Musa, UK

You have written well. The slave masters christened this country. It is time to rename it! Our leaders must listen to us.
Abdulsalam Yakubu, Ayangba, Kogi State
Prof, the right choice should, in my view, be Republic of Kanem Bornu. It was historically older, and large part of the original kingdom is still in present Nigeria.
Matawalli Geidam, Damaturu, Yobe

I have always believed that the country's name should be changed but has never ever pondered on an alternative name. This suggestion should be taken seriously.
Kevin Ebele Adinnu, Cote Di’Ivoire

I remain grateful to Dr Usman Ladan and his mentor, Bala Usman, whose versatile method of teaching history back at ABU laid the foundation for my understanding of the point you are trying to make. I support the renaming of Nigeria for another reason: rebranding not only nomenclaturally but also socio-politically.
Tajudeen Sanni, Uganda

You have nailed the issue of state-building in Africa. A great pity Songhai rule subsided and declined in the 1590s before falling in to oblivion.
Guy Thomas, Cameroon

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

12 Popular Misusages in Nigerian English (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

See 12 Popular Misusages in Nigerian English (I) for numbers 1 through 4

5. “Hotel.” Nigerian English speakers, especially those with low- or mid-level proficiency, habitually interchange “hotel” with “brothel” both because “hotel” and “brothel” kind of sound alike and because, well, many Nigerian hotels are glorified brothels. But a hotel is a building that provides temporary accommodation to travelers while a brothel is a house of prostitution. A non-Nigerian lady once told me that she caused a stir among her Nigerian hosts when she said she had stayed in a hotel for days during a previous visit.

6. “Herbalist.” In Nigerian English an herbalist is a witch doctor, a practitioner of black magic, and sometimes a ritual murderer or an enabler of ritual murder. That is not what the word means in Standard English. An herbalist, also called an “herb doctor,” is a therapist who heals sicknesses through the use of herbs. He practices “herbalism.”

 I consulted several dictionaries to see if any of them has entry for a meaning of an herbalist that even remotely comes close to how most Nigerians understand it. Here is the result: Webster's Unabridged defines herbalist as a person whose life is “dedicated to the economic or medicinal uses of plants.” Webster's New International Dictionary defines it as someone who is “skilled in the harvesting and collection of medicinal plants.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as someone who is “trained or skilled in the therapeutic use of medicinal plants.” Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged defines it as a person “who grows, collects, sells, or specializes in the use of herbs, especially medicinal herbs.” All the dictionaries also point out that botanists used to be called herbalists.

 As the reader can see, unlike in Nigeria, there is no negative connotation associated with “herbalist” in Standard English. An herbalist is not the same thing as a babalawo.

7. “Offer.” The way Nigerians use this word in an educational context mystifies me to no end. Nigerian university and high school students often say they “offer” a course where other English users would say they “take” a course. For instance, in response to my Weekly Trust column deploring the discontinuation of the teaching of history in Nigerian secondary schools, someone wrote to tell me that he was the only one in his class who “offered history.” It had been a while since I heard someone say or write that, so I was initially puzzled. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that he meant he was the only one in his class who “took history” as a subject; others chose government. 

This popular misuse of “offer” in Nigerian English has real consequences for mutual intelligibility in international communication. In my December 18, 2011 column titled “Top Hilarious Differences between American and Nigerian English,” I recounted the story of a Nigerian who “wrote to tell me that an American university admissions officer was bewildered when she told him she wanted to ‘offer a course in petroleum engineering’! I told her in America—and in Britain—students don’t offer courses; only schools do. To offer is to make available. Students can’t make courses available in schools; they can only take or enroll in courses that schools offer.”

 So the school “offers” the course, the teacher “teaches” it, and the student “takes” it. A student can’t offer a course.

8. “Local.” This is invariably a bad word in Nigerian English. It is often used in place of “inferior,” “uncivilized,” “crude,” “insular,” “backward,” “substandard,” etc.  But that’s not the Standard English meaning of the word. In Britain, America, Australia and all places where English is spoken, “local” simply means belonging to a nearby place. When used as a noun it can mean a person who lives nearby. There is not the slightest whiff of inferiority in the word in all varieties of English except in Nigerian (and perhaps Ghanaian) English. 

Here is what Professor David Jowitt wrote about this in his Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction: “…‘local’ [in Nigerian English] is synonymous with a range of other adjectives, according to context: ‘parochial’, ‘narrow-minded’, ‘primitive’….By extension again, however, almost anything can be described as ‘local’: a house, a school, a piece of furniture, an agricultural implement. In all these cases the use of ‘local’ imputes inferiority to the object so described. In [Standard British English], on the other hand, ‘local’ does not have connotations of imputed inferiority; and a common use of the word is in attributed position preceded by ‘the’, e.g. ‘the local priest (=the priest serving a limited area…).”

Let me give a recent example to illustrate the widespread misunderstanding of the word “local” in Nigerian English. In a January 30, 2012 news report about the death of the wife of Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police, the New York-based Sahara Reporters wrote: “Hajia Maryam Abubakar died of cancer in a local clinic in Kano.”

Several commenters berated Sahara Reporters for using the word “local” to qualify the clinic where the IGP’s wife died. Others thought the woman would have survived if she had been taken to a “standard” or “better” hospital instead of a “local” one. I will republish just two representative samples: “What a report!! What has local clinic got to do with it? Are you mocking the IG, even at the loss of his wife? How wicked can you be? When did Nigerians descend to this level?” “Why a local clinic? What’s d Acting IG doing? Her life would have been saved if she's in a better hospital.”

By contrast, Nigerians understand the word “international” to mean “of high quality.” That is why almost every private primary and secondary school in Nigerian urban centers has “international” in its name. My first daughter used to attend a school called “Unity International School” in Abuja, although there is not a single non-Nigerian in the school. In Standard English “international” means involving at least two or more nations.

9. “Machine.” This is often used in popular Nigerian English as a substitute for “motorcycle.” There is nothing in the Standard English meaning of “machine” that implies that it can be used exclusively to refer to a motorcycle. 

10. “Reply.” Nigerians almost always use this word without the preposition “to.” During a training I was invited to give reporters and editors in Nigeria last December, I asked who could identify what was wrong with this headline that appeared in almost all Nigerian newspapers: “Jonathan replies Obasanjo.” Nobody did. When I pointed out that it should be “Jonathan replies to Obasanjo” the reporters and editors looked quizzically at me.

11. “South -South.” This phrase was invented in the 1990s by Nigeria’s Second Republic Vice President Alex Ekeweme to refer to Nigeria’s Deep South. It is now fossilized in the political lexicon of Nigerian English, and is used both as a noun and as an adjective, as in “I come from the South-South,” “South-South governors met yesterday,” etc. That is a nonstandard, peculiarly Nigerian usage. 

In the English language there are four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west), four ordinal directions (northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest), and eight secondary inter-cardinal directions, which are hardly ever used. North-central and south-central are also commonly used directional terminologies, especially in the United States, even though they are not part of the cardinal, ordinal, or secondary inter-cardinal directions.

There is no directional name called “South-south” in the English language.

But the problem with the Nigerian usage of “South-south” isn’t merely that English speakers from other nations don’t recognize it as a directional point; it is also that the phrase is already a standard attributive phrase in international politics to refer to the friendly relations between Third World countries. It regularly appears in expressions like “South-South Cooperation,” “South-South learning,” “South-South migration, etc. 

The phrase arose from the division of the world into the “global north” (which refers to the industrialized nations of Europe, America and East Asia) and the “global south” (which refers to the developing nations of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and parts of Asia). So cooperation between people in the global south, say between Nigeria and Venezuela, is called “south-south cooperation.”

If I were to advise Nigerian policy makers, who want to institutionalize the six geo-political zones in the country, I would encourage them to change “south-south” to “south-central.”

12. “Sufferness.” There is no such word in the English language; it should be “suffering.”

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