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A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Patience Jonathan’s Recent Televised Histrionics

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Amid the righteous indignation that has attended the tragic abduction of more than 300 school girls in Chi...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Amid the righteous indignation that has attended the tragic abduction of more than 300 school girls in Chibok, Borno State, by Boko Haram terrorists, Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan managed to regale the Nigerian public with a much-needed comic relief during a televised rebuke of the principal of the secondary school from which the girls were abducted.

A tape of the First Lady’s melodramatic questioning of the distraught principal of the school, which has gone wildly viral on social media sites, shows her saying the following:

“Do you come with two teachers? You were not informed, too? Eh? Kontinu [Continue]. No problem. God will see us. There is God. There is God in everything we are doing. Those bloods that are sharing in Bronu [Borno] will answer.

“What of two teachers, Wayec [WAEC; West African Examination Council], two teach..., ehn two, ehn…. What of two teachers that can tell us that they conducted that exam? Do you come with any? Prispal [Principal], no too? Na only you waka come? Okay!

“Now the First Lady is calling you. Come, I want to help you. Come to find ya [your] be... ya [your] child, ya [your] missing child. Will you keep quiet? Chai! Chai! There is God o! There is God o! The bloods we are sharing, there is God o! There is God o! There is God o! There is God o! There is God o! There is God o! [followed by a transparently contrived and exaggeratedly melodramatic wailing and the tape fades].”

This transcript of the First Lady’s catechistic grilling of the principal is less sensible, and certainly less theatrical and comical, than the oral rendition, but it’s a great starting point for a socio-linguistic analysis. (See the video below. Start from 1:03).

Out of curiosity, I asked a native English speaker to watch the video and let me know what she understood the First Lady as saying. She understood only about 30 percent of it. When she read the transcript, she was able to make sense of about 40 percent of it. It immediately became apparent to me that one has to be inserted in, and have an intimate familiarity with, Nigerian cultural idioms to be able to wholly decode the First Lady’s speech act.

It is true, of course, that Mrs. Jonathan’s spoken English falls short of even the prevailing standards of acceptability in Nigerian English, but no Nigerian born and raised in Nigeria would have a hard time understanding her. So here is how I decoded Patience Jonathan’s performative utterances to a native English speaker.

1. “Do you come with two teachers?” By the logic of Standard English, the question suggests that the First Lady wants to know if the principal habitually comes to some place, presumably the Presidential Villa, with two teachers. That is obviously not the sense she wanted to communicate. She wanted to know if the principal came with two teachers. That sense is correctly communicated by saying, “Have you come with two teachers?” American English speakers would say, “Did you come with two teachers?” The First Lady’s utterance is therefore a simple case of an incompetent grasp of elementary English syntax and tense.

2. “God will see us. There is God. There is God in everything we are doing.” There is an extravagant overload of Nigerian socio-cultural and linguistic codes that need to be unpacked in these incoherent utterances. First, to theists, the idea that “God will see us” in this earthly existence is borderline blasphemous. That utterance suggests, at least by the logic of Standard English, that God currently doesn’t “see” us either because He is unable or unwilling to do so, but that He plans to see us at a future date. Theists would say God already sees us and always will. But it’s clear that the First Lady meant to say “God sees us” or, perhaps, “God will judge us.” Tenses are obviously not Mrs. Jonathan’s strong suit.

As a standalone sentence, “there is God” is almost meaningless in Standard English. It is both unidiomatic and unnatural to the syntactic structure of English. Syntactically, it would make more sense to say “God exists,” or “God is real,” but since the First Lady wasn’t having an argument with an atheist about the existence of God, she probably meant to say something like “God lives in us.”

However, as a native speaker of a Niger-Congo language, I can relate to the expression “there is God.” It’s a direct, unidiomatic English translation. In Baatonu, my native language, “Gusuno wa” (which directly translates as “there is God”) is uttered in moments of acute feelings of anxiety about injustice or unpunished wrongdoing. I am guessing that the First Lady was translating an equivalent expression from her native language into English when she said “there is God o!”. She has my sympathy here, because I can’t think of an exact idiomatic equivalent of that expression in English.

“There is God in everything we do” is probably best rendered as “God knows all we do” in Standard English. So in one speech act the First Lady simultaneously denudes God of the capacity to see us AND affirms His abiding presence in all we do. In other words, God doesn’t currently see us, yet He dwells in us. This contradictory reading is, of course, the consequence of mixing English and Nigerian of socio-linguistic codes. In truth, the sense Mrs. Jonathan sought to express was this: God is a just God who abides in all we do and will someday sit in judgment over our deeds in this world.

3. “Those bloods that are sharing in Bronu [Borno] will answer.” I must admit that this one threw me off a little bit. “Blood” is almost never pluralized in English. It’s “blood” whether it’s singular or plural. When blood is pluralized to “bloods” it can mean one of two things. In American English it means members of a street gang in Los Angeles, California. (The “b” in the “blood” is usually capitalized, that is, it’s usually written as “Blood.”)  In British English slang “bloods” can mean “handsome young men.”

 So, I thought: who are these “bloods”? Maybe Boko Haram members? And what are the “bloods” sharing? Maybe the abducted girls? And what will they answer?

 Upon deeper reflection, I realized that the First Lady actually meant that the blood that is being shed in Borno will someday avenge. Again, here, you have to be versed in the Nigerian cultural cosmology to understand how the dead can strike back. It basically means the unearned agony that the dead suffered will someday ignite a karmic retribution against the people who murdered innocents in cold blood.

4. “Na only you waka come?” This is a Nigerian Pidgin English expression for “Did you come alone?” It is a classic case of code-switching. The First Lady switched from her cringingly error-ridden version of Nigerian English to Nigerian Pidgin English without warning. But it was a socio-linguistically ill-advised switch because most people in Nigeria’s far north don’t speak or understand Nigerian Pidgin English. It was apparent from her flustered looks that the principal had no clue what “na only you waka come?” means.

5. “Chai! Chai! There is God o! There is God o!” I’ve written about popular exclamatory expressions in Nigerian English (see “My Favorite Exclamatory Expressions in Nigerian English (I)” published on October 13, 2013 and “My Favorite Exclamatory Expressions in Nigerian English (II)” published on October 20, 2013), but I missed “Chai!” It’s probably a variation of “Chei!” which I said is “used to express disbelief, or deep admiration tempered with a dose of disbelief.” I observed that it’s somewhat equivalent to “Oh my God!” in English.

The “o” that regularly peppered the First Lady’s utterances is what I once called a “terminal intensifier” in a May 20, 2010 article titled “Broken English, Pidgin English, and Nigerian English.” “O” appears at the end of most utterances in Niger-Congo languages –and in Nigerian Pidgin English—and does nothing more than accentuate the meaning of the expression that precedes it.

6. “The bloods we are sharing, there is God o!” “Bloods” sharing again? This made my blood run cold. I thought: is this some inadvertently confessional admission that the First Lady and her husband (since she said “we”) are a blood-sucking conjugal dyad? It didn’t take long, however, to realize that she was probably repeating the sense I explained in point number 3, but used “we” to mean that the whole Nigerian society is somehow complicit in Boko Haram’s mass murder of innocents. That doesn’t make any sense, though, but sense-making isn’t the First Lady’s priority.

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President Goodluck Jonathan's Grammatical Boo-Boos
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