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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 ru...

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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