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Q and A on Nigerian English Salutations, Pronouns, and Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.   Twitter: @farooqkperogi Does the greeting “how was your night?” also occur in native varieties of Engl...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. 
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Does the greeting “how was your night?” also occur in native varieties of English? Or is it unique to Nigerian English? Why do native English speakers use human pronouns for animals but use the non-human pronoun “it” for babies? Is “thrice” proper English? For answers to these questions, read on:

Someone argued with me that the expression “How was your night?” is typically Nigerian and African and that native speakers don't use it. How true is this?

I have never heard any native English speaker say “how was your night?” to anybody as a form of salutation, and certainly not as casually as Nigerians say it. It's a uniquely Nigerian English salutation that has the potential to lead to disastrous communication breakdowns across cultures. For one, it is a very personal and intrusive question, although in the Nigerian context it's mere phatic communication to which most people simply say “fine” or, more curiously, “thank God!” (Phatic communication is defined as “conversational speech used to communicate sociability more than information,” such as the fact that no one expects you to tell them exactly how you feel in response to the greeting, “how are you?”).

Because “how was your night?” isn’t phatic communication in native varieties of English, it can connote unwelcome and invasive curiosity about someone’s intimate private moments the previous night. In other words, it has sexual undertones. But it can also be a legitimate question to ask someone you’re close to who had, for instance, returned from a long trip the previous night, or who had been battling insomnia or other kinds of illness that justifies wanting to know how their night was, etc. But I would personally prefer “did you have a good sleep last night?”—or something along those lines—to “how was your night?”

This transgressive salutation is relatively new in Nigerian English. It certainly wasn’t widespread when I lived in Nigeria. Interestingly, I first heard of it from my then 2-year-old second daughter, Maryam, when she lived in Nigeria. Each time I spoke with her on the phone, the first thing she usually said to me was “how was your night, daddy?” At first, I misheard her as saying “how is your life?”

There isn’t any legitimate socio-linguistic explanation I can think of for this strange salutation. No Nigerian language I know of has its cultural equivalent. So it’s unlikely that it’s a calque. (A calque is defined as “an expression introduced into one language by translating it from another language.” A good example would be the salutation “two days!” which is common in northern Nigeria. It’s derived from a translation of “kwana biu” from Hausa, which means “long time, no see,” itself a calque from Chinese but now idiomatic in English). To ask a stranger “how was your night?” in my Baatonu language would be considered unacceptably transgressive of the bounds of civility and decency. I suspect that the greeting was initially the argot of a small group of people, perhaps university students, before it made its way to popular usage in Nigeria. I would appreciate it greatly if anyone would be kind enough to share with me what they know about the origins of this expression.

Why do native English speakers address pets by using human personal pronouns like “he” and “she” but use the non-human pronoun “it” to refer to babies, even when the babies’ sex is known? I have never been able to understand that. Maybe you can help me understand it.

I struggle with this, too. Because I am not a pet person, I tend to use “it” for dogs and cats, but my American friends whose pets I use that pronoun for don’t usually appreciate it at all. They are often quick to replace my “it” with either a “he” or a “she.” In fact, my own children, who are linguistically American, never waste a moment to correct me; they insist that I use personal pronouns to refer to animals.

But what are the grammatical rules regarding this?

There are two. The first rule says we should reserve the pronoun “it” for non-human subjects, including animals. The second rule says we should use personal pronouns for animals we have a personal, sentimental attachment to, such as our pets. I have no personal, sentimental relationship with any animal. That’s why I use “it” as my pronoun of choice for animals—to the annoyance of my American friends.

It’s also important to note that in children’s books, authors confer human qualities on animals, which means they are required to use human pronouns for animals. So children in the West grow up using personal pronouns to refer to animals and continue the practice into adulthood. That’s why Westerners tend to use human pronouns for animals even when they have no personal or sentimental attachment to them.

This leads me to your second question. English grammarians traditionally recommend the use of “it” when talking of an unborn baby, presumably because we don’t know the baby’s sex. Modern science has rendered that assumption obsolete. I knew the sex of all my children before they were born.

But another reason “it” is recommended when talking about newborn babies is that it’s often hard to tell the sex of newborns when we are seeing them for the first time and had no foreknowledge of their birth. In order not to cause offence (such as calling a boy a girl or a girl a boy) it is thought that “it” is a safe pronoun to use.

Nevertheless, because many modern parents would object to their child being referred to as an “it,” it’s always nice to ask of the child’s sex. But in asking the question, one still can’t avoid using the pronoun “it,” as in, “Is it a boy or a girl?” This is all the more perplexing because replacing “it” with either the masculine pronoun “he” or the feminine “she” could cause the same offence one was trying to avoid in the first place. It’s noteworthy, though, that “is it a boy or a girl” is idiomatic in the language.

To sum up, in modern usage, it’s perfectly permissible to use a human pronoun for newborns if you know their sex. “It” is recommended only if one is unsure of the sex. In the West, human pronouns are increasingly used for animals both because people in the West have closer personal attachment to animals than the rest of us do and because children’s book and animated cartoons humanize animals, which forces authors of such children’s work to deploy human pronouns.

Is the usage of 'thrice' correct? It has just never felt right for me even though people use it a lot. For me, it is once, twice, three times. Not thrice. Can I get a clarification please? I've argued with people over the years on this.

“Thrice” isn’t grammatically incorrect, but it’s not in as much popular use as “once” and ‘twice” in British and American English. Wikitionary says “Unlike once and twice, thrice is somewhat dated in American and British usage, sometimes used for a comical or intentionally archaic effect. Three times is the more standard and typical usage. On the other hand, once and twice are almost always preferred over one time and two times respectively. Thrice does however retain some currency in compounds like thrice-monthly, and it is still standard and stylistically neutral in Indian English.”

The Cambridge English dictionary also says “thrice” is archaic or unique to Indian English. But that’s not entirely accurate.

While it’s true that “thrice” occurs more frequently in Indian and Pakistani English than it does in any other variety of English, it also appears in other modern varieties of English. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, a 1.9 billion-word database that monitors modern English usage from 1.8 million web pages in 20 different English-speaking countries, shows 302 matches for “thrice” in modern American English, 370 matches in modern British English, 110 matches in Canadian English, 114 matches in Irish English, 497 matches in Indian English, 454 matches in Pakistani English, 93 matches in Nigerian English, 92 matches in Australian English, 44 matches in New Zealand English, 126 matches in Bangladeshi English, 104 matches in Singaporean English, 119 matches in Malaysian English, 174 matches in Philippine English, 33 matches in Hong Kong English, 167 matches in Sri Lankan English, 43 matches in South African English, 81 matches in Ghanaian English, 93 matches  in Kenyan English, 58 matches in Tanzanian English, and 27 matches in Jamaican English.

So it’s not a completely obsolete word. 

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