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Q and A on American English, Nigerian English, and Kenyan English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Question: When I watch American soaps, they seem to care less about tenses. Or...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

When I watch American soaps, they seem to care less about tenses. Or maybe it’s something beyond me, I don’t know. For instance, a typical dialogue goes like this: “Daughter: 'dad, do you snore ‘cause I do. Dad: 'yeah you GET that from me'.” Should not the “get” be GOT? Could you clarify this for me please?

Well, it's not true that Americans don't care about tenses. They do. The example of the use of present tense in the dialogue you cited is called the “historical present” in grammar. It's perfectly legitimate even in British English. It's used to make a past event more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present.

 In conversational English, the historical present is particularly used with such “verbs of communication” as “get” (as in, “OK, I get it: you’re a genius!”), “forget” (as in, “I forget his name”), “tell” (as in, “your dad tells me you want to talk to me”). Other verbs of communication that are expressed in the historical present in speech are “write” and “say.”

 I agree with you, though, that Americans tend to use the historical present more often than the British. Of course, the historical present is rarely used in Nigerian English, except by our creative writers who deploy it in their fictional narratives.

In the hypothetical dialogue you cited, however, it would be perfectly legitimate to replace “get” with “got.” In fact, in formal contexts, “got” would be especially appropriate.

What’s the difference between “customer” and “client”? Or are the words interchangeable?

 At one level, “customer and “client” can mean the same thing. But careful writers and people who show sensitivity to grammatical propriety often observe the finer semantic nuances that exist between the words, as I will show shortly.

The American Heritage Dictionary, one of the English-speaking world’s most respected dictionaries, says both “customer” and “client” can denote “one that buys goods or services.” But the dictionary nonetheless goes further and identifies five other definitions for “client” that it does not associate with “customer.”

For instance, it says a client is: “the party for which professional services are rendered, as by an attorney.” (Attorney is the preferred word for “lawyer” in American English).  It also says a client is “one that depends on the protection of another.”

So, to put it crudely, a client is a “customer” with whom you have a protective, continuing, often service-oriented, business association.  You may never know your customers because they are usually transitory, informal, and professionally unaffiliated with you, but your clients have a more or less permanent professional relationship with you and, therefore, their trust and comfort must be constantly won and re-won. They are consciously courted and sustained.

 In general, customers purchase goods and services and disperse—and may never come back. Clients, on the other hand, do more than that; they often seek professional advice and knowledge from businesses.

So lawyers, medical doctors, designers, etc. tend to have clients rather than customers. Newspaper vendors, market women, etc., on the hand, tend to have customers rather than clients.

 Interestingly, in Nigerian English a “customer” simultaneously refers to one who buys and one who sells. That’s why both buyers and sellers call each other “customers” in Nigerian markets!

Which is the correct phrase: “at the weekend” or “on the weekend”?
It depends on what variety of English you are speaking. American English speakers say “on the weekend” while British English speakers say “at the weekend.” New Zealanders say “in the weekend.”

I am sure there are regional differences even within these varieties that conflate these distinctions, by which I mean it’s entirely possible to find people, say in the American south or the Appalachian, say “at the weekend” even though that’s not mainstream in America, etc. But I was only pointing out the differences in the standard, mainstream usages.

I’m a frequent reader of your articles. Although I’m not a Nigerian I enjoy reading different point of views wherever I can. I came across some of your write-ups and I was inspired. Anyhow, I’m Kenyan by nationality. Our media, politicians etc., have coined words that have left me confused. A particularly common one is, “Kenyans have made up [their] mind.” For example, during political rallies, depending on which political party is addressing contentious issues, a politician standing in front of a mammoth crowd will declare "Kenyans have made up [their] minds."

Of course, our news media will repeat the same. So, I’m left thinking/wondering what happens to the rest of Kenyans that don't buy into any political party’s agenda? Do they become less Kenyans? Hopefully you get my drift.

You raise interesting questions about the deceitful use of language for political purposes. This is not, however, limited to Kenya. It happens in Nigeria, too. In fact, it happens everywhere in the world and, for that matter, in every generation. George Orwell was the first notable person to call attention to this type of language usage.

 In his famous 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English language,” Orwell said, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”  This is done, he pointed out, through staleness of imagery and lack of precision. The expression “Kenyans have made up their minds” is certainly not only stale but also fraudulently imprecise. No one, not least the politicians, have conducted any scientific opinion poll to determine whether or not Kenyans have made up their minds on any issue.

The expression is intended only to anesthetize the Kenyan population into a false sense of consensus with the points of views of the politicians making the claims. But more than this, it’s also convenient and ready-made; it doesn’t require any thinking to say it. Orwell identified three features of the political language of his time: dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, and pretentious diction. This is true of our time, too. The evidence can be found in the example you cited.

Many of the examples you give English usage errors are also found in other African countries. One common English expression in Kenya that always drives me crazy is: "he resulted to" instead of "he resorted to." What do you think of the expression "he painted him to a corner?" This expression drives me crazy, too. It is quite common in Kenyan English.

I have been thinking of doing an exploratory comparative analysis of “African Englishes.” But the thought of the sheer labyrinthine complexity such an undertaking would entail frightens me into impotence. You are now giving me the inspiration to summon the pluck to do it.

But these are my preliminary thoughts on your comments: It seems to me that we can isolate and map African Englishes and show their similarities, differences, and continuities. The varieties of English spoken in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania seem to share enough similarities to warrant being grouped as "East African English."

The English spoken in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia has traditionally been labeled "West African English" in the scholarly literature.  For historical reasons, Nigerian English and Ghanaian English are particularly sufficiently proximate in lexis and structure to deserve being called close linguistic cousins.

Many, perhaps most, of Ghana's high school English teachers in the 1960s were Nigerians, and most of Nigeria's high school English teachers in the 1970s and the 1980s were Ghanaians. (For instance, most of my English teachers in the first two years of my high school education in Nigeria were Ghanaians).

So it's easy to see why the varieties of English spoken in the two countries are robustly similar. Liberian English, because of its American heritage, is a West African outlier, although it has had a lot of Nigerian influence lately.  Now Nigerian home movies appear to be spreading Nigerian English across West Africa, perhaps across all of Anglophone Africa.

I know very little about Southern African English, i.e., the English spoken in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, etc. But I expect them to share many similarities.

I find your examples of Kenyan English usage interesting. Some of my British grammarian friends tell me that the "result to/resort to" error is also present in British English. I have also encountered it a number of times in Nigerian newspapers. So it's not uniquely Kenyan. But it is completely absent in American English, as far as I know, because Americans roll their r's [“resort” is pronounced “resoRt”] and so don't have a reason to confuse "resort" with "result."

To "paint oneself or somebody into a corner," that is, to put oneself or somebody in a difficult situation, is a time-honored American English idiom. So the expression "he painted him into a corner" is legitimate. Kenyan English only missed the preposition "in" in their version of the idiom.

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