Sunday, February 26, 2017

Black American Vernacular English Expressions You Should Know

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

In the spirit of America’s Black History Month, which is observed every February, I have decided to share with my readers African-American English expressions that I’ve learned in the course of my stay in America. While many of the expressions are southernisms (i.e., the distinctive English usage of southern United States irrespective of race), several are unique to American blacks irrespective of the region of the United States they may be. Of course, for historical reasons, there are more blacks in southern United States than anywhere else in the country. That is why “Black English” and “Southern English” are often alike.

Somehow, most African-Americans that I have met here don’t immediately realize that I am African until my Nigerian accent betrays me. So some of them speak to me in Ebonics (as African-American Vernacular English is now called), which used to throw me off. Over the years, however, I have come to understand many of these phrases. I thought it would help relations between Africans on the continent and American blacks if I highlight some of the phrases.

1. “Finnin to.” This expression is used to state a desire to do something, as in, “I’m finnin to slap him,” “He’s finnin to eat some food,” etc. The expression is a corruption of “I’m fixing to,” which is a Southern United States expression that means exactly the same thing as “finnin to.” I became familiar with “finnin to” when the soundbite of a rural, uneducated Mississippi black man by the name of Erick Hubbard went viral in April 2011. He was complaining about a devastating tornado that took away his burger. “I was finnin to eat my hamburger; it took it!” he said. I didn’t think he was speaking English until someone broke it down for me.

2. “Bourgie (pronounced boo-zhee). It is a corruption of the Marxist term “bourgeoisie.” American blacks use the word to describe someone who has pretentious airs and taste, who is fake. It is also used to describe black people whose politeness, cultivated manners, and courtesy are considered contrived, excessive, and unnatural. “She bourgie” is a common putdown for girls that are considered pretentious. 

3. “Uncle Tom.” This old expression for a servile black man who is excessively deferential to white people is still active in the idiolect of African Americans. The expression was particularly popular in the 1960s thanks largely to Malcolm X’s constant demeaning references to Civil Rights leaders as Uncle Toms.

4. “Dip.” It means to leave suddenly, as in, “I gotta dip.” 

5. “Ma Boo.” It means “my boyfriend” or “my girlfriend” in Black English. It’s a corruption of the French word beau (pronounced “bow”), which means boyfriend. 

6. “Booty” (pronounced something like boo-di). It is a Black American English word for a woman’s buttocks. The word’s Standard English meaning is, of course, loot or money/goods obtained illegally. When a woman is described as having “lotta booty,” (that is, “a lot of booty”) don’t for a moment think she has lots of loot to share with you.

7. “Bootylicious.” A woman with a lot of “booty” is called “bootylicious.” It’s a blend of “booty” and “delicious.” The word was popularized, but by no means invented, by Destiny’s Child (the music group that BeyoncĂ© was a part of). One of the songs in the group’s 2001 album is titled “bootylicious.” The Oxford English Dictionary recognized “bootylicious” as a legitimate English word three years after its appearance in Destiny’s Child album. It defines it as: "(of a woman) sexually attractive."

8. “Big ol’.” It’s the shortening of “big old,” but it often sounds like “big-o.” It’s an adjectival phrase often used to modify just about any noun: “he is a big ol’ idiot,” “that’s a big ol’ car,” “my big ol’ dad,” etc.  The nouns the phrase modifies may be neither big nor old. As I think about it, it seems to me that the phrase should more correctly be described as an intensifier, which is defined as a word or phrase that has no meaning except to heighten or deepen the meaning of the word or phrase it modifies. I should add that “big ol’” isn’t an exclusively African-American expression; it’s a southern American English expression, which now enjoys currency in other parts of the United States.

9. “Baad/baddest.” In Black American English, “bad,” or, more correctly, “baad,” isn’t the opposite of “good; it is, on the contrary, the superabundance of good. You should feel flattered, not offended, when a Black American says to you: “men, you baad.” It means “you’re really good.” The comparative and superlative forms of “bad” aren’t “worse” and “worst,” as they are in Standard English; they are “badder” and “baddest.” The “baddest guy” in town isn’t the worst guy in town; he is the coolest, most fashionable, and most socially adept guy in town. “Badass” also means “brilliant; very good.”

10. “My bad.” This phrase is used to offer apologies for a wrongdoing. If someone hits a person in error, for instance, they would say something like: “Oops, my bad.” It means: “I apologize; it was my mistake. Forgive me.” Many etymologists say the phrase was initially restricted to Black American basketball players in the 1970s and the 1980s, but it’s now part of general informal American English.

11. “Dry begging.” In Black American English, this phrase means asking for something in a vague, circuitous way. For instance, instead of saying “I’m hungry. Could you kindly share your food with me?” a dry beggar would say something like: “That food looks really good. I haven’t eaten all day.” We call this “fine bara” in Nigerian Pidgin English. (Bara is the Hausa word for begging.)

12. “Finger-lickin’ good.” The phrase is used of food to mean it’s so good you would lick it with your fingers. It is actually not a uniquely Black American English expression; it was popularized by Kentucky Fried Chicken, an American fast-food chain, whose motto, until 2011, was “finger-lickin’ good.” I’ve included it in the list because I’ve heard the phrase mostly among African Americans here.

13. “We straight.” In Black American English, “straight” can mean “all right.” So “we straight” [we’re straight] means “That’s OK. No worries. We are all right.” President Barack Obama brought this expression to national limelight in 2009 when he visited a black-owned restaurant in Washington, DC called Ben’s Chili Bowl. After paying for his meal, a cashier, who is black, asked him if he wanted his change back. “Nah, we straight,” Obama said. If the cashier were white, Obama would probably have said something like: “No, it’s OK. You can keep it.”

14. Put your foot in it.” In Black American English, this phrase is used to compliment excellent cooking. It means a meal is remarkably cooked. My first encounter with the phrase some years back wasn’t pretty. I complimented the cooking of an African-American friend of mine. In response to my compliment, she said, “yeah, I put my foot in it.” I immediately became nauseous. I was about to throw up when she told me it was just an expression. I thought she meant she literally put her foot in the food. I didn’t realize it was a self-praise of her culinary exploits. 

It should be noted that the phrase has a completely different meaning in (old-fashioned) British English. It means to embarrass oneself by acceding to an agreement that places one in danger or at a disadvantage.

15. “Show me your guns.” “Guns” is an American English slang term for upper-arm muscles or biceps, so “show me your guns” means “flex your muscles.” It isn’t a uniquely Black English expression, but it’s popular among African Americans.

16. “Open a can of whoop ass.” This expression is used humorously to say you will give somebody a good beating, as in “I’ll open a can of whoop ass on you!” Like the previous expression, it isn’t exclusively Black American, but it’s very popular among speakers of Black American Vernacular English. Other written variations of the expression are, “open a can of whup ass” and “open a can of whoop-ass.” “Whoop” is the alternative spelling of “whip” (i.e., to beat severely with a whip or rod) in informal American English.

17. “Oowee!” This is a uniquely Black American English exclamatory expression. It is used in moments of intense and excitatory passions. It’s similar in many respects to the Nigerian Pidgin English exclamation “chei!”

 I became aware of the expression in Louisiana years ago when a respectable African-American actor almost yelled it on national television in a moment of unguarded excitation. My friend, who is African-American, told me the actor quickly suppressed the exclamation because mainstream America disdains it as ghetto grunt, ghetto being the economically depressed parts of cities where poor black people live. So he said it out loud for me. He claimed that every African American, irrespective of education and social status, says “oowee!” on their home grounds. That’s clearly an exaggeration.

18. “Shawty ” or “Shorty.” The word originally meant young man, as in “Sup, shawty!” [What’s up, man!] Over the years, however, rap musicians have changed the word’s meaning to a young sexy woman. The Urban Dictionary, a user-generated online dictionary, says the word started life in Atlanta’s Black community as a slang term for a short person before morphing into a term of endearment for just about anybody. Now, hip-hop music has appropriated it as a term for an attractive young lady.

 The etymology of “shawty” reminds me of the semantic evolution of the word “girl.” When the word first appeared in the English language, it used to mean a young person of any gender. Now it means a young woman.

19. “Where you ats?” It means “where are you now?” I should quickly point out that this expression isn’t common among older African Americans, many of whom actually find it unbearably irritating. A similar expression that cuts across the generational divide in the Black community is “who dat is?” which stands for “who is that?” Note that I am referring to informal Black vernacular English. Upper middle-class, “bourgie” blacks don’t speak like that—unless they want to identify with black masses.

20. “What’s good?” It’s an alternative expression for “what’s up?” “How are you?” “What’s new?” “What’s happening?” etc.

21. “God don’t like ugly.” This old African-American colloquialism is the non-standard form of “God doesn’t like injustice.” It is often said when a bad, morally depraved or ungrateful person gets poetic justice; when they, as it were, get their just deserts. If, for instance, someone takes advantage of other people’s generosity and help to climb to the high end of the social scale but turns around to betray the people who helped him, or refuses to pay the favor forward, and ends up crashing after what seemed like a perfect life, African Americans would say: “God don’t like ugly!” It’s an exclusively Black American homespun witticism that has endured several generations.

22. “Who dat?” It means “who is that?” Black American English, in common with West African Pidgin English, usually either dispenses with the verb to be (such as in the expression “who dat?” instead of “who is that?”) or leaves it unconjugated (such as in the sentence “she be nice” instead of “she is nice”).   

But the phrase “who dat” has a cultural significance in America that goes beyond its semantic properties. It is popularly associated with the New Orleans Saints, an American football team located in the southern US state of Louisiana. During games, fans of the team always chant: "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" [Who is that? Who is that? Who is it that says they will beat the Saints?] 

As the reader can see, there are interesting echoes of West African Pidgin English in the syntactic structure of this quintessentially Black American English mantra. As I promised in a previous article, I will someday compare Black American Vernacular English with West African Pidgin English based on my familiarity with both languages.

23. “Black don’t crack.” It literally means “black doesn’t crack,” but it’s used in Black English to mean that the black skin is ageless, that black people don’t look their age, especially when they’re compared with members of other races. I heard the expression for the first time when I lived in Louisiana. A white American classmate of mine thought he and I were either age mates or that he was older than I was by a few years because of my youngish looks. When he discovered that I was 7 years older than he was, he exclaimed, “Damn, it’s really true that black don’t crack!”

I had no clue what in the world he meant, more so that the expression sounded ungrammatical to me. It was through my white friend that I learned that “black don’t crack” is an African-American expression to indicate that the black skin doesn’t crack, that is, it doesn't wrinkle. I immediately noticed that “black” and “crack” rhyme.

24. “Skin folk.” This is a Black English expression for members of one’s race. It’s modeled on the Standard English expression “kinfolk,” which means members of one’s nuclear and extended family. The phrase was popularized by Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American folklorist and author who once famously said “All my skinfolk ain't kinfolk.” It is a witty and creative way to say “not all people who share the same racial identity as me are my family.” In other words, there is more to friendship and affinity than mere racial similarity. African Americans say this when they are betrayed by fellow blacks.

25. “True that.” It means “that is true.”

26. “She/he is good people.” This means “she/he is a good person.” This is one of the most puzzling expressions I’ve ever heard in the English language, and I heard it first  from African Americans. But, apparently, saying “he is good people” to convey the sense that someone is a nice, reliable person isn’t exclusive to African American Vernacular English. It’s also common in informal southern and Appalachian English.

The 2008 edition of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines “good people” as “a person who can be trusted and counted on,” and says the expression has been attested in American English since 1891.

So, “good people” isn’t a plural noun in American regional English; it’s a singular noun, and “is good people” is a fixed expression.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Vote for “Naija” and Against “Nigeria”

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The National Orientation Agency is relaunching a pointless and misguided campaign to preserve the appellative “originality” of “Nigeria”—and to save it from voguish diminutive terms of endearment such as “Naija.”

Recall that late Information Minister Dora Akunyili was viciously scorned to no end when she started the campaign against “Naija” nearly 7 years ago. "It is very offensive to call Nigeria ‘Naija’,” she said on November 4, 2010. “We are making plans to write companies to stop using the word Naija. I have heard that name Naija in adverts. I want them to go back and remove that word. If anybody says this is Naija, ask the person, 'Where is Naija?' We have to stop this word because it is catching up with the young. If we don't put a stop to its usage now, it will continue to project us wrongly.”

After a steady torrent of piercing taunts from a broad spectrum of Nigerians, Akunyili was compelled to see the folly of her campaign and to discontinue it.

Now, NOA’s Director General, Dr. Garba Abari, is reviving the quixotic anti-Naija campaign that Akunyili abandoned years ago. He told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on February 21 that the news media, schools, and parents should insist that Nigeria be called “Nigeria,” not “Naija.” “That the more we use these misnomers referring to our country, the fallout of it is that, a significant percentage of our younger ones will not even remember that Nigeria is the original name of our country,” he said.

Dr. Abari is an accomplished political science professor whose intellectual temperaments are nurtured by the critical social scientific scholarly tradition. I have tremendous respect for his scholarship and his keen insights into political economy. But I totally disagree with his renewed crusade against “Naija.” There at least three reasons why he should quit this futile, intellectually impoverished campaign forthwith.

First, it isn’t unusual for citizens to invent humorous, endearing diminutives for the names of their countries. Americans, for instance, sometimes humorously call their country “‘Merica” or “‘Murica.” Its origins are traceable to the way rural, uneducated Americans call “America.”

Australians fondly call their country “Oz,” and it’s derived from the shortening of “Australia.” They also informally call themselves “Aussies” instead of “Australians.”

Closer home, Sierra Leoneans call their country “Salone” (or “Sweet Salone”), and it’s formed from the elision of sounds from the name “Sierra Leone,” possibly from the way uneducated Sierra Leoneans pronounce “Sierra Leone.” In Nigeria’s southwest, early Sierra Leonean immigrants and their descendants were called “Saros.”

I can give more examples, but the point I want to make is that the intentional phonological contortion of the name of a country by its citizens for humorous, emotional, or socio-linguistic reasons isn’t unique to Nigeria. Nor is it disrespectful. And it certainly isn’t something to get bent out of shape about.

Second, as I pointed out in my April 19, 2014 column titled, “Republic of Songhai Formerly Known as Nigeria,” the name “Nigeria,” which Abari—and Akunyili before him—want to protect and preserve, is a product of outmoded, nineteenth-century European obsession with race and skin color.
“Nigeria” isn’t native to us; it’s an anglicized Latin word that denotes blackness. It traces lexical descent from the Latin “niger,” which means “black” or “dark,” and shares etymological affinities with the obnoxiously negrophobic racial slur, “Nigger.”

River Niger, the longest and most important river in Nigeria from which our country’s name is derived, is named after our skin color. Why should we in the 21st century still be stuck with a name that has fallen into disrepute and that, in the first place, invidiously and needlessly calls attention to our skin color?

If we must name our country after the longest river in our land, why not adopt one or all of its local names? Yoruba people call Rive Niger “Oya,” the Baatonu people call it “Kora,” Hausa people call it “Kwara,” Igbo people call it “Orimiri,” etc. I’m aware, though, that adopting any local name for Nigeria might ignite unwarranted ethnic jealousies. So why not rename it after an ancient African polity like Songhai— on the model of Ghana, Mali, etc.?

In a March 20, 2016 column titled, “Why Nigeria Can’t Pronounce ‘Nigeria’ Correctly,” I wrote: “When it came time to name the polity that British colonizers cobbled together, they decided to name it ‘Niger area,’ in honor of River Niger. ‘Niger area’ was later shortened to ‘Nigeria.’ In essence, Nigeria means ‘dark area.’ With such a name, is it any wonder that constant, reliable electricity has eluded Nigeria since independence? We are writhing under a primal appellative curse!

“Well, that was a joke! A country’s name has no bearing on the incompetence of its leaders.”

This leads me to the third reason why the campaign for the lexical preservation of “Nigeria” is misguided. Most Nigerians can’t even correctly pronounce “Nigeria,” which is a testament to its foreignness—and the unnaturalness of its phonological properties in Nigeria’s socio-linguistic universe.

In a March 31, 2013 article titled, “More Words Nigerians Commonly Mispronounce,” I wrote: “It is perhaps the biggest irony of our ‘nationhood’ that almost no Nigerian pronounces the name of our country ‘correctly.’ Last year, I’d planned to write an article on the imperative to change Nigeria’s name to something other than Nigeria, and part of the argument I wanted to advance was that the name ‘Nigeria’ is so foreign to us that almost no Nigerian pronounces it correctly….

“Well, there are regional and ethnic variations in the way ‘Nigeria’ is pronounced in Nigeria. While Hausa people pronounce Nigeria as ‘naa-jey-riya,’ the rest of the country pronounces it like ‘nan-ji-ria.’ Many language groups in southern and central Nigeria that don’t have the ‘j’ sound in their languages either pronounce it as ‘nan-ye-ria’ or ‘nan-gey-ria.’ The British people who imposed the name on us pronounce it as ‘nai-jee-ree-a.’ So do Americans and other native English speakers.”

So, “Naija” is at once a diminutive of endearment, a practical, phonological short-cut to “Nigeria,” and a silent socio-linguistic resistance to a racist, antiquated colonial exonym. What Dr. Abari and the NOA should be championing isn’t the puritanical lexical preservation of an odious name but its replacement with a suitable, indigenous, more dignifying endonym. Before then, I vote for “Naija.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Orwellian Doublespeak About Buhari’s Health

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Doublespeak is intentional manipulation of language to conceal uncomfortable truths or to cleverly tell outright lies. The term came to us from George Orwell, although he didn’t use it himself. The term he used in his famous book titled 1984 is “newspeak,” which he said consists in limiting the range of words people use and in stripping language of semantic precision in order to facilitate government propaganda and mind management.

 The mainstreaming of Orwellian doublespeak in Trump’s America is already causing an enormous spike in the sales of Orwell’s 1984, which was first published in 1949, especially after a Trump administration official by the name of Kellyanne Conway defended habitually intentional falsehoods by the Trump administration as merely “alternative facts.”

All governments lie, but the brazenness and consistency of the lies of the Buhari government are simply remarkable. It competes favorably with the Trump administration in prevarications and loud, bold defiance of basic ethical proprieties. Nowhere has this become more apparent in recent time than in the information that government officials share with the Nigerian public about President Muhammadu Buhari’s health.

 I have no evidence for this, but my hunch tells me that Buhari isn’t nearly as sick as his detractors make it seem, but the illogic, intentionally deceitful and mutually contradictory language of government spokespeople in explaining away the president’s prolonged absence from Nigeria have conspired to fuel unhealthy speculations about the state of his health.

As I told the BBC World Service in a February 7, 2017 interview, the labyrinth of tortuous lies, fibs, half-truths, and conscious deceit that emanate from the government make it impossible to even guess the truth. 

The president’s media advisers admit that the president is in London on a “medical vacation” (which is doublespeak for “he is sick and needs medical attention”), and his latest letter to the National Assembly said he was awaiting the results of medical tests, but the Acting President and the Minister of Information say he is “hale and hearty” (which means he is vigorous and doing well). No one can be simultaneously on a “medical vacation,” be awaiting the results of medical tests, and be “hale and hearty.” That’s a logical impossibility.

It gets even stranger. Senator Abu Ibrahim, a senator from Katsina State who said he was in touch with the president, told newsmen that the president was neither on medical vacation nor hale and hearty, but only “exhausted by the weight of the problems the country is going through.” So London is the president’s destination of choice to rest, while millions of people who voted him into office squirm in the severe existential torment his administration either deepened or caused? Interesting!

On February 7, Presidential Media Adviser Femi Adesina also told Channels TV that he was "daily" in touch with the President, but doesn't "speak with him direct." How does one "keep in touch" with someone thousands of miles away without "directly speaking" with him?

Well, Adesina said he does that by being "in touch with London daily." I am not making this up. You can watch the interview on ChannelTV’s YouTube channel. But it gets worse still. He added: "People around him will speak daily. Daily." You would think the word "daily" was in danger of going out of circulation and needed to be verbally curated on national TV.
This doublespeak recalls my grammar column of December 10, 2009 on the late President Yar'adua's health. It was titled “Yar’adua’s Health: Amb. Aminchi’s Impossible Grammatical Logic.” Read it below and note the similarities with what is going on now. Enjoy:
Nigeria’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Alhaji Garba Aminchi, was quoted by an Abuja newspaper to have fulminated against the unnervingly prevailing buzz that President Yar’adua is in a persistent vegetative state and in grave danger of imminent death. “And all these insinuations are lies,” he was quoted to have said. “To the best of my knowledge, I see him every day, and he is recovering….”

To the best of his knowledge, he sees the ailing president every day? So our ambassador is not even sure if, indeed, he sees the president every day, but he is certain nonetheless that the president is recovering. Huh? This is a supreme instantiation of a case where thought, language, and materiality have parted company.

At issue here is the idiom “to the best of my knowledge,” which is also commonly rendered as “to my knowledge.” This expression, according to the Macmillan Dictionary, is used for saying that you think something is true, but you are not completely certain, as in, “To the best of my knowledge, the President has not decided if he will resign because of his failing health.” The Free Dictionary defines the idiom thus: “as I understand it.” The Oxford Dictionary also defines it as, “from the information you have, although you may not know everything.”

So, the idiom is deployed principally to express thought-processes that reside in the province of incertitude, of inexactitude. If, for instance, someone were to ask me (and somebody did indeed ask me a couple of days ago) if Yar’adua was dead, I would say “well, to the best of my knowledge he is alive.” Here, the phrase “to the best of my knowledge” admits of both the possibility that he could be alive or dead. In other words, it betrays the uncertainty and tentativeness of the information I have about the query.

Now, for Ambassador Aminchi to use the idiom “to the best of my knowledge” (which admits of uncertainty) in the same sentence as “I see him every day and he is recovering” (which connotes cocksure certitude) evokes an eerily bizarre disjunction between thought, speech, and reality, one that is impossible to conceive of even with the wildest stretch of fantasy. This is as much a grammatical slip as it is a logical labyrinth.

One perfectly legitimate interpretive possibility from the ambassador’s statement is that he actually sees a figure in Saudi Arabia in the likeness of President Yar’adua that is convalescing from a sickness, but is uncertain if this is merely the apparition of a spooky specter masquerading as Yar’adua or if it’s Yar’adua himself. In spite of this dubiety, however, he is positive that the real Yar’adua is recuperating.

This is obviously not what the ambassador wants to be understood as saying. So, one or two of three things are happening here. The first is that the ambassador is being barefacedly mendacious in order to conceal the graveness of the condition of Yar’adua’s health. And this won’t be out of character. After all, English diplomat and writer Henry Wotton once famously defined an ambassador as an "honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." Only that, in this case, our ambassador is lying abroad for the bad of his country.

The second possibility is that the ambassador is simply clueless about the meaning of the idiom. And a third possibility is that he has been misquoted or mistranslated by the reporter who wrote the story.

Now, this isn’t an idle, nitpicking censure of an ambassador’s innocent slip by a snooty, self-appointed grammar police. This issue is not only about the health of Yar’adua; it is also about the health of our country. Since Yar’adua took critically ill, the nation has been in even much graver illness. In somber moments such as this, we cannot afford the luxury of tolerating intentionally deceitful and irresponsible political language from public officials.

Link between Bad Language and Misgovernance

In his famous 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell railed against this very tendency among the public officials of his day. He wrote: “Political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Do you see any parallels here between Ambassador Aminchi’s illogical grammar—and indeed that of most Nigerian public officials—and the public officials of Orwell’s days?

Interestingly, the problem endures to this day even in Britain. On Nov. 3, 2009 the Guardian of London reported that a British parliamentary committee excoriated “politicians and civil servants for their poor command of the English language” epitomized in the “misleading and vague official language” of prominent politicians.

Tony Wright, chairman of the committee, said: “Good government requires good language, while bad language is a sign of poor government. We propose that cases of bad official language should be treated as ‘maladministration’.”

Maybe the committee chairman’s sentiments are a bit of a rhetorical stretch, but someone should tell Ambassador Aminchi that he cannot simultaneously be unsure that he sees the ailing president and yet be certain that the president is recovering. That’s impossible grammatical logic. And that can only sprout from a mind that is wracked by psychic disarray.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

American Influences in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The trouble with labeling anything American English these days is that American English is now actually international English, which is unrelentingly diluting even British English at an alarming rate. I once read the story of a starry-eyed British linguist who came to America to study how American English deviates from British English.

Between the period of his research and the time of the publication of his book, the expressions he identified as uniquely American, which he had hoped would amuse and amaze British speakers, had become so commonplace that many British readers wondered what the point of his book was.

Today, British English has become so thoroughly Americanized that one has to be really careful when differentiating between the two varieties of English. Perhaps, we can rephrase George Bernard Shaw and say America and England have now become two countries that are increasingly being united by a common language. That is why it no longer makes any sense to learn British English these days since the British are themselves relentlessly Americanizing their English.

Having said that, it is still possible to isolate expressions that are peculiarly American and British. And there are instances when Nigerian English brings these two old varieties in a creative, if improper, linguistic conversation.

“Torchlight.” Perhaps the best example I can think of is the word "torchlight," which Nigerians use to denote a small portable battery-powered electric lamp.

The British word for the same object is simply "torch" and the American name for it is "flashlight." So Nigerians took the British "torch" and combined it with the American "light" to produce a unique word that is both British and American—and neither British nor American! Of course, "torchlight" also exists as a separate word in both British and American English, but it only refers to the light produced by a flashlight—or a torch, if you will.

“Short-knicker.” The word "short-knicker" belongs in this category. It is also derived from mixing American and British English. "Shorts" is the preferred American word for trousers that end at or above the knee. The British prefer "knickers," although as I said earlier, American English usage is now so widely spread in Britain that these distinctions are sometimes meaningless. But the important point to note is that Nigerians formed this word when it still made sense to talk of distinct American and British English.

“International passport.” I have also found out that Nigerian use of the phrase "international passport" to refer to "passport" is traceable to America. By "passport" I am referring to the document issued by a country to its citizens, which allows them to travel abroad and reenter their home countries; I am not referring to "passport photos," which Nigerians like to call "passports"— against the conventions of British and American English. In American bureaucratic circles, "international passport" is commonly used to denote non-American passports.

There is, for instance, the "International Passport Act" and an "International Passport Office Program" here in the United States. The act and the program address the passport issues of people from other countries who travel to the United States for various reasons. So "international passport" in America simply means foreign passports. Ordinary Americans do not prefix the adjective "international" when referring to their own passports. Perhaps the first Nigerians who traveled to the United States were confused by this nomenclature and passed down the confusion to later generations of Nigerians.

“Off head.” And the Nigerian English idiom "off head" seems to be traceable to the American expression "off the top of my head," which is now also common in British English. Both expressions describe the sense of doing something with little or no preparation or forethought.

“Tight friend”/ “Oftentimes,” “re-occur,” etc. There are several expressions I was taught to avoid when I was in secondary school that I find widely used here. Some examples are: "tight friend" (instead of "close friend"), "point accusing fingers" (instead of "point fingers"), "senior/junior brother" (instead of "elder/younger brother"), "re-occur" (instead of "recur"), "oftentimes" (instead of "often"), etc.

I first noticed these expressions in my students' essays and almost felt as if I was reading essays written by Nigerians. But it is my personal philosophy never to assume any expression to be wrong until I actually confirm this through inquiry. And, sure enough, what I thought were usage errors in my students' essays turned out to be respectable usage patterns in American English.

“Same to you.” On many occasions, I can't help being amused by the conflict between what Bayo Oguntuase, the language activist who wrote for the defunct Sunday Concord, identified as usage errors unique to Nigeria and what I encounter here. For instance, he once wrote that the expression "(the) same to you" as a response to an expression of goodwill is wrong. He said the correct response should be "I wish you the same." Well, "same to you" is perfectly legitimate in American English.

“Congrats.” Oguntuase also once wrote that the word "congrats" was a Nigerian invention. That, too, is wrong. The word is the American short form of "congratulations"; Nigerians merely adopted it. Even the British now use it widely.

“I’m coming.” But the biggest surprise for me is the discovery that Americans also use the expression "I am coming" to indicate that they will be returning soon, although this usage is nonstandard even here. But I had been socialized into thinking that the expression is merely the literal translation of our Nigerian languages: na wee in Batonu, ina zuwa in Hausa, mon bowa in Yoruba, etc.

“Rub minds.” I also discovered that the expression "to rub minds," which a language columnist in Nigeria once described as uniquely Nigerian, is actually an old-fashioned American English expression. Americans now use the word "brainstorm," which sounds rather formal, even pretentious, in Nigerian English.

“Assignment.” The notion of “assignment” as work assigned to students by a teacher didn’t come to Nigeria via British English; it came to Nigerian English through American English. British linguist Roger Blench once suggested that it was probably popularized by American Peace Corps volunteers who taught at Nigerian secondary schools early in the life of the nation. However, in contemporary American English, “homework” is now generally preferred to assignment.

“Kerosene.” British English speakers don’t call lamp oil kerosene; they call it paraffin. “Kerosene” is chiefly American English, but it’s also popular in Indian English, Australian English and New Zealand English. But British East Africans prefer “paraffin” to “kerosene.” It isn’t clear why most Nigerian English speakers aren’t even remotely familiar with the British English “paraffin” even though Nigerian English is derived from British English.

“Y’all.” The most surprising Americanism in contemporary Nigerian English is the appearance of “y’all” especially in the lect of young people on social media. This expression, which is the shortening of “you” and “all” to represent second-person plural, is often associated with the English of southern United States (called “southernism”) and African American Vernacular English. It is fascinating that the Internet has caused an American regional expression to gain traction in Nigerian English. 

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Dangerous Criminalization of Fulani Ethnicity

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The Nigerian mass media—and the online echo chambers they have spawned on social media and elsewhere—have normalized the pathologization and criminalization of the Fulani ethnic identity through their popularization of the odious “Fulani herdsmen” collocation. Criminalizing and pathologizing an entire ethnic identity is often the precursor to genocide.

That’s why an ignorant and hate-filled preacher by the name of Apostle Johnson Suleiman could glibly tell his church members to extra-judicially murder “Fulani herdsmen.” “And I told my people, any Fulani herdsman you see around you, kill him,” he said in a widely circulated video. “I have told them in the church here that any Fulani herdsman that just entered by mistake, kill him, kill him! Cut his head!”

Before I am misunderstood, let me be clear that I am not defending, excusing, or minimizing the mass murders attributed to some “Fulani herdsmen” in Agatu, southern Kaduna, and elsewhere. No human being deserves to be killed by any group for any reason. For as long as I breathe, I will always defend the sanctity of human life. That’s why, although I’m not a Shiite, I came down very hard on the Buhari government for its horrendously bestial mass slaughter of innocent Shiites in 2015.

But we can condemn a wrong by a people without tarring an entire community numbering millions of people across vast swathes of land in West Africa with a broad brush. The Fulani people are far and away the most widely dispersed ethnic group in West Africa. And, although they dominate the cattle herding trade, they are not all cattle herders, and most cattle herders aren’t violent and murderous. Nor are all cattle herders Fulanis.

Most importantly, though, although “settled,” urban Fulanis are mostly Muslims, cattle-herding Fulanis are mostly neither Muslims nor Christians. Their whole religion is usually just the welfare of their cattle. In addition, cattle-herding Fulanis don’t recognize, much less have loyalty to, Nigeria’s prevailing geopolitical demarcations. In other words, they are not invariably northerners.

So if they have sanguinary clashes with farmers, those clashes aren’t instigated by religion or region. They are just age-old farmer/herder clashes. I admit, though, that it isn’t just Middle Beltan and southern Nigerian victims of farmer/herder clashes that use the lenses of Nigeria’s primordial fissures to gaze at Fulani herders; northern Nigerian Muslim politicians, especially those that have a Fulani bloodline, also use these lenses to defend and protect their “kinsfolk,” often ignorantly and opportunistically.

In 2000, for instance, General Muhammadu Buhari traveled all the way from Kaduna to Ibadan to protect Fulani herdsmen who were at the receiving end of retaliatory killings by Yoruba farmers. Governor el-Rufai is also a self-confessed Fulani supremacist who once threatened retaliation against other ethnic groups on behalf of Fulani herders. I think it is these sorts of misguided parochialisms that conduce to the conflation of Fulani herder identity with the identity and divisive politics of urban northern Nigerian elites with tinctures of Fulani ancestry.

But this is all wrong. My late father was raised by Fulani herders for the first 12 years of his life. I also have adoptive full-blooded Fulani cousins who were raised by my grandfather and my paternal aunt. They were abandoned at birth in the hospital when their mothers died in labor in my hometown, and they were adopted by my grandfather. That was not unusual in my community in bygone days.  So when I talk of cattle-herding Fulani people, I do so with the benefit both of personal experience and scholarly immersion into their life, history and ways.

The Fulani nomads who destroy communities throughout West Africa, not just in Nigeria, don't have any sense of rootedness in any modern nation-state. They are, for the most part, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernity, and owe no allegiance to any overarching primordial, regional, or religious identity. That’s why they are called transhumant pastoralists.

But there are also bucolic Fulani herders who plant roots in communities, live peacefully with their hosts, and even speak the languages of the communities they choose to live in. In my hometown, the Fulani are so integral to the community that the king of the Fulani, who is appointed by our emir (who isn’t Fulani), is part of the 7 kingmakers that elect a new emir. These rooted, bucolic Fulani herders are often exempt from the episodic communal upheavals that so often erupt between sedentary communities and itinerant herders.

I recall that there was a particularly sanguinary class between Fulani herders and farmers in the early 1990s that caused so many deaths in western Borgu. Farmers chose to retaliate the killings of their kind and organized a well-planned counter attack that caused scores of itinerant cattle herders—and their cattle—to be killed. What was intriguing about the counter attack was that the farmers spared all settled Fulani herders. They told them apart from the transhumant herders because the local Fulani spoke the local language. Ability to speak the local language indicated that they weren't the "citizens without frontiers" who unleashed terror on farming communities.

 A similar incident happened in the Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State in 2000. In the retaliatory attacks against Fulani nomads who killed farmers, Yoruba-speaking Fulani cattle herders were spared. Like in Borgu and elsewhere, bucolic Fulani herders are intricately woven into the fabric of the communities in which they live.

I am saying all this to call attention to the reality that farmer/herder clashes aren't north-south, Muslim-Christian or ethnic conflicts. The Fulani who have lived in the south for ages don't see themselves as northerners living in the south—and they are NOT. In any case, they've lived there prior to the advent of colonialism that invented the Nigerian nation-state. Notions of southern Nigeria and northern Nigeria are colonial categories that have little or no meaning to both the bucolic Fulani nomads who live peacefully with their hosts and the blood-thirsty, marauding citizens without frontiers who inflict violence on farming communities all over West Africa, not just in southern or Middle Beltan Nigeria.

So which of the two categories of Fulani herders do the Nigerian media mean when they criminalize “Fulani herdsmen?” And which one does Apostle Suleiman want his church members to murder in cold blood?

But it gets even trickier. Sometime in 2003 in Gombe, itinerant Fulani herders called the Udawa killed scores of farmers most of whom were ethnic and linguistic Fulanis. Former Governor Abubakar Hashidu had to request federal military assistance to contain the menace of the Udawa. Similarly, hundreds of Hausa and Fulani farmers in Nigeria’s northwest get killed by transhumant Fulani herders every year. But such stories don’t make it to the national news because it isn’t “newsy” to read about Fulani herders killing Fulani farmers.

The media have a responsibility to let the world know that it is transhumant herders with no sense of geographic rootedness that are drenching communities in blood, not all “Fulani herdsmen,” many of whom are peaceful, organic members of the communities in which they live.

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