Sunday, October 26, 2014

How Nigerian English May Cause You To Be Mistaken for a 419 Email Scammer

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Have you ever sent an email to someone or some people in the United States, Canada, Britain or some other English-speaking Western country and didn’t get a response? Well, it is entirely possible that your email didn’t even make it to their inbox. If it did, it is also possible that certain uniquely Nigerian expressions in your email that were popularized in the West by Nigerian email scam artists triggered a scam alarm and caused you to be ignored. What are these “419 English” expressions that are like waving a red flag in front of a bull in the West?

First some context. A few days ago, a Nigerian Facebook friend of mine, who is also a professor here in the United States, put up a status update that inspired this column. He wrote: “Was I really wrong? Was the professor at the other end of the telephone line correct? She read my email and decided to withdraw her offer of introducing me to people in environmental education because my written English ‘is suspect.’ So I asked her to give me an example of something I expressed incorrectly. The first example was ‘I hope to read from you soon.’ She said the correct expression is ‘I hope to hear from you soon.’

“I cleared my throat and informed her that it was not a face-to-face communication and that I thought the word to hear did not fit into a totally text-based communication. She did not sound impressed and till date never returned my calls. Should I change my communication style and let orality creep into my text? Does anyone know the rules about such things?”

As I wrote in my contribution to his update, the American professor who called his English “suspect” and stopped communicating with him on the basis of his “suspect” English is most certainly rude and uncharitable. Unfortunately, however, ending email communication with "I hope to read from you soon" is not only unconventional among native English speakers; it's also one of the core phrases associated with 419 emails from Nigeria, which is frankly unfair because it's part of the lexical and expressive repertoire of Nigerian English. It's the worst example of what I call the pathologization of the linguistic singularities of a people.

However, this incident should cause us to reflect on the place of Nigerian English in inter-dialectal English communication, especially because 419 emails have done more to popularize Nigerian English to the rest of the English-speaking world than anything else. That means the stylistic imprints of scam emails from Nigeria vicariously criminalize many innocent Nigerians, as the Nigerian professor’s case and similar other unreported cases have shown.

Concerns about authorship attribution of fraudulent e-mail communications emerged fairly early in studies of Internet fraud. Computational linguists and information systems specialists have deployed strategies to perform software forensics with intent to identify the authors of fraudulent e-mails.  Oliver de Vel and his colleagues, for instance, employed a Support Vector Machine learning algorithm for mining e-mail content based on its structural characteristics and linguistic patterns in order to provide authorship evidence of scam e-mails for use within a legal context.

I know this because about 10 years ago I did research on the rhetorical strategies and stylistic imprints of 419 emails. In the course of my research I came across several forensic linguistic programs that developed email authorship identification markers based solely on phrases and expressions that are unique to 419 email scams. The software developed from these programs helps people automatically trash “419-sounding” emails. 

The problem, as you can expect, is that the software also deletes many legitimate emails from honest Nigerians since the alarm triggers for the software are uniquely Nigerian English expressions. "Hope to read from you soon" features prominently in the repertoire of "red-flag" expressions the software uses to identify 419 emails. (For evidence, search "I hope to read from you soon" on Google and see what comes up).

When my friend quoted his American acquaintance as saying that his English was "suspect" based on certain expressions, such as "I hope to read from you soon," I knew immediately that the American was hinting that some of his expressions raised Nigerian 419 email authorship identification red flags. The professor is probably familiar with 419 email authorship identification programs and the phrases that trigger them.

One won’t be entirely wrong to call the whole host of 419 email authorship identification programs as engaging in borderline linguistic racism because they basically pathologize and criminalize the stylistic idiosyncrasies of an entire non-native English variety. All of us who were born and educated in Nigeria can't escape Nigerian English inflections in our quotidian communicative encounters every once in a while. 

The 419 scam artists write the way they do because they are the products of the Nigerian linguistic environment. It's like isolating American English expressions that appear regularly in the emails of American scammers and developing an authorship identification program based on these expressions so that any email from any American, including even the American president, that uses any stereotyped American English expression is automatically "suspect."
Well, instead of dwelling in self-pitying lamentation, I’ve decided to highlight some of the stock Nigerian English expressions that email authorship identification programs use to identify Nigerian 419 email scammers—and unfairly criminalize many honest Nigerians.

1. “Reply me as soon as possible.” You can’t get a typical Nigerian to say or write “reply TO me” even if his life depended on it. That’s why Nigerian newspaper headlines are often filled with expressions like “Jonathan replies Obasanjo,” “Buhari replies Gumi,” etc. instead of “Jonathan replies to Obasanjo,” “Buhari replies to Gumi,” etc.   If the intended audience of one’s communication is exclusively Nigerian “reply me” will be perfectly OK, but it helps to know that the verb “reply” always co-occurs with “to” in the standard varieties of English spoken in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. So if you end your email with “I hope you will reply me as soon as possible,” be sure that someone somewhere in the West who has had enough pesky 419 email solicitations will automatically assume that you’re a 419 conman. 

2. “Request for.” Only Nigerian English speakers “request for permission.” A typical 419 email solicitation goes something like this: “I request for your help to transfer the money for investment in your country.” In native varieties of English, “request” doesn’t take a preposition. Instead of “request for your permission,” native speakers say “request your permission.” Instead of “I request for your help,” native speakers say “I request your help,” etc. 

3. Bookish English. One of the enduring stylistic idiosyncrasies of Nigerian English is the tendency to use big, formal, unusual, and archaic words in informal contexts. For instance, the word “demurrage” appears in almost all 419 emails. This is a recondite, archaic English word commonly used in informal Nigerian English to denote a charge required as compensation for the delay of a ship or freight car or other cargo beyond its scheduled time of departure. Professor David Jowitt  calls this character of Nigerian English “bookish English”—the tendency to hold on to words and expressions that have run out of fashion in, and receded to the linguistic backyard of, modern native-speaker usage. I called them “weird words we’re wedded to in Nigerian English” in a January 20, 2010 article. Other regular bookish English words in informal Nigerian English are “imprest,” “estacode,”and  “parastatal.”

To be continued next week

Related Articles 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Top 10 University Student Slang Words in Popular Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Slang words are often, by nature, transitory and limited to particular age groups, subcultures, eras, and even professions. But a few slang words do endure and make the transition from marginality to respectable mainstream usage. A notable example of a word in common usage today, especially in British English, that started life as a student slang term is “don,” an alternative word for a university teacher. An English-grammar website called World Wide Words says it was undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge universities who first used “don” as a slang term to refer to their teachers. And then the term caught on.

“The source [of the word] is the Spanish Don, originally a term of high rank, which derives from Latin dominus, master or lord, which has also bequeathed English words such as dominate and dominium, as well as domine, a one-time term of respect for a clergyman or a member of a learned profession and — as dominie — for a schoolmaster in Scotland. Around the middle of the seventeenth century, English began to use don for a leader or a man of importance or ability; to be a don was to be an adept at some activity, whether literature, cricket or a craft skill. Undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge began to humorously apply don to the tutors and fellows of their colleges, with perhaps an echo of domine, and the term went into the language,” the website says.

There are many words in mainstream Nigerian English that also started as university student slang words but are now in general use in Nigeria. In fact, many Nigerians don’t recognize these words and their meanings as nonstandard. I list 10 such words below.

1. “Dub.” It means to cheat during exams by copying another person’s test answers word for word. It’s obviously derived from a metaphorical extension of the sense of dubbing that means “make a copy of a recording,” as in "dub music from CD to tape." 

Slang terms are notoriously difficult to periodize and etymologize because they are usually first primarily spoken for a long time before they are written, but it seems to me that “dub” entered Nigerian English in the early 1980s and reached the peak of its popularity in the 1990s. I thought it had lost currency in contemporary Nigerian English until I saw it used many times on a popular Nigerian online discussion site called by people who are obviously not students.

2. “Gist” (sometimes misspelled as “jist”). This is probably the most popular Nigerian student slang term that has transitioned to mainstream Nigerian English.  In both formal and informal Nigerian English “gist” now means light informal conversation, especially about other people’s private business. A Nigerian celebrity gossip website called “” derives its name from this sense of the word. 

It can be used both as a verb (as in, “I’ll gist you about my ex-boyfriend”) and as a noun (as in, “I have hot gist for you about your friend”). Many Nigerians don’t seem to be aware that this usage of the word is nonstandard; that it started life as student slang, probably in the 1970s, in southern Nigerian universities. In Standard English, “gist” doesn’t have a verb form. It’s always a noun, and it means the main point of something, usually a message, a literary work, etc. Example: The gist of his 300-page book is that Nigeria can be salvaged.

The Oxford Dictionary says “gist” was originally a French word, and was rendered as “gesire.” It meant “to lie,” that is, to be located somewhere. In the 1600s, “gesire” entered English as “gist” first in legal vernacular and later in popular usage. Its meaning has remained unchanged since then—except in Nigerian English. 

3. “Form.” This word is used as a verb in Nigerian English to mean put on airs, that is, affect manners with intent to impress others, as in “the guy is just forming; that’s not the way he speaks naturally.” I thought the word was self-evidently slangy until I found that it is used even in formal contexts by Nigerian English users. Someone with a high level of proficiency in English also once asked me if the word was standard. That was when it really dawned on me that the word had crossed over to mainstream usage in Nigeria.

4. “Popsy.” This annoying word for father in informal Nigerian English was also initially a student slang term. It’s probably coined from a mimicry of “pops,” the colloquial American English term for father, which says is “derived from baby talk.” But, more crucially, “popsy” is a real word in British English and means—wait for it—an attractive young girl! It is also sometimes used as the diminutive form of poppet, a term of endearment for a girl or a child in informal British English. So good luck with calling your dad “popsy” in Britain.

5. “Mumsy.” This is the feminine version of “popsy,” also probably derived from the American English “moms,” the informal term for mother. Nevertheless, the Oxford Dictionary also says “mumsy” started to be used as a humorous variant of “mummy” (which Americans spell as “mommy”) since the 19th century. Maybe, that’s where the Nigerian English “mumsy” comes from. But in contemporary British English “mumsy” is chiefly an adjective of disapproval to describe women who are drab and unfashionable. Cambridge Dictionaries Online gives this example of the word’s usage: “As she became more successful, she changed her mumsy hairstyle for something more glamorous.”

6. “Swags.” Swag is universally recognized as the short form of “swagger,” a pompous manner of walking intended to impress others. But Nigerian youngsters tend to add an “s” to the end of the word, which makes it sound like British thieves’ slang term for stolen goods.

7. “Runs.” This slang term is too semantically slippery to be adequately captured in one definition, but it generally tends to be used to denote borderline illegal or immoral activities. It has graduated from a student slang word to a mainstream colloquial term, and appears to collocate frequently with “girl” or “babe,” as in “runs girl” or “runs babe,” which refers to polished, well-dressed girls, often university students, who engage in a form of soft prostitution.  Patrons of “runs babes” on university campuses are called “aristos,” the short form of aristocrat. But “runs” can also mean “run errands” with no suggestion of illegality or immorality, as in “let me do some runs before my 2 o’clock appointment.” 

8. “Jambite.” This refers to a first-year undergraduate, what Americans call a freshman, or what the British call a fresher. It’s formed from the acronym JAMB, which stands for Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, the agency that regulates entry into Nigerian universities. This previously marginal student slang term has gained mainstream acceptance in Nigerian English. It’s not unusual these days to see the term used in official communication from university administrators. 

9. “Number six.” It means one’s brain. To be told to use one’s “number six” is to be exhorted to be sensible. As Roger Blench observes in his draft Nigerian English Dictionary, this expression started as student slang. My recollection of the origins of this expression is that biology teachers in secondary schools often assigned the number 6 to the cerebral cortex, the grey matter of the brain. If my recollection is wrong I’d appreciate a correction from anyone who knows how the connection between number 6 and the human brain started in Nigeria.

10. “Toast.” This word competes with “gist” for the most popularly used Nigerian student slang term in mainstream Nigerian English. Used primarily as a verb, it means to talk to a girl. In the pre-Internet age, there used to be pamphlets that gave teenage boys tips on “how to toast a girl.” Now several Nigerian websites give tips to young men on “how to toast a girl.” As with most slang terms, toast has no basis in anything. It just erupted out of nowhere in student dorms.

 When toast is used as a verb in Standard English it usually means one of two things: to make something brown through exposure to heat (e.g. to toast slices of bread) or to say nice words before drinking a glass of water or wine in honor of a person or an event (as in, “let us toast the birthday boy!”).

Related Articles: