"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: January 2018

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In Defense of Tautology in English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Tautology or redundancy, often defined as “useless repetition,” is undeservedly demonized in English. Expressions like “adequate enough,” “free gift,” “HIV virus,” “PIN number,” etc. are routinely ridiculed. But as I’ve pointed out many times in previous columns, the stigmatization of tautology is a relatively recent phenomenon in the English language.

Tautologies were an intrinsic feature of the English language, the same way that reduplications are core features of most African languages. (A reduplication is an intentional repetition of a word or the syllables of a word either for emphasis or for pluralization. Examples are “maza maza” in Hausa, “kia kia” in Yoruba, “gara gara” in Baatonum, “ngwa ngwa” in Igbo, which all mean “quickly.”)

Because tautologies used to be constitutive of the natural rhythm of the English language, the most respected writers in the language in past generations deployed all kinds of tautologies in their writings. William Shakespeare, for instance, used them copiously for emphasis and for stylistic effect. Some of his most famous tautologies are “most unkindest cut of all,” “more braver,” and “most boldest.”

In Julius Caesar, the character called Antony calls the wound inflicted on him by his boson friend Brutus as the “most unkindest cut of all.” In The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote: “And his more braver daughter could control thee.” Again in Julius Caesar, he wrote: “With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome.”

By today’s standards, “most unkindest,” “more braver,” and “most boldest” would be considered uneducated English. Only children and non-native English speakers with inadequate proficiency in the language now use these kinds of constructions, which grammarians call errors of “double comparative” and “double superlative.”

If tautologies, including double comparatives and double superlatives, were socially and grammatically acceptable in the English language—and were used liberally by the greatest writers in the language—why are they stigmatized now? Why are tautologies, especially double comparatives and double superlatives, now considered ungainly?

Eighteenth-century Prescriptivism
The answer lies in the rise and flowering of what has come to be known as Standard English. The whole idea of “standard English” to “fix” the English language and make its usage norms uniform across social classes and regions started in the 17th century, but became mainstream in the 18th century, first in Britain and later in America. Ironically, most of the standard English enthusiasts of the time used the rules of Latin, a foreign, “colonial” language, to “fix” and standardize the English language.

The eighteenth-century grammarians who imposed on themselves the task to fix and standardize the English language arbitrarily marginalized some vernacular varieties of the language, privileged others, imposed the rules of Latin in some usage conventions, and made new whimsical rules using the resources of logic, as I will show shortly. Tautologies got the short end of the stick during this time.

One of the most influential prescriptivist grammar books of this era was Robert Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar, which was published in 1762. In this book, Lowth introduced many of the grammatical prohibitions that endure to this day. Tautology was one of the usage norms he and others arbitrarily banned.

He also banned double negatives, such as “I don’t like nobody.” He used the rules of logic to point out that double negatives cancel each other to produce a positive, so that “I don’t like nobody” translates to “I like somebody.” But natural languages don’t always obey the laws of logic. English is probably the only language in the world where double negatives are frowned upon.

In French, for instance, two negatives don’t make a positive; they make a stronger negative. For example, Je n'ai plus aucun argent in French literally translates in English as “I don't have no money anymore,” but it actually means “I don't have any money anymore.”

Shakespeare and his contemporaries used double negatives to lend vigor and emphasis to what they wrote. In Henry IV Part I, for instance, Shakespeare wrote: “Nor never could the noble Mortimer/Receive so many, and all willingly.” And in Richard III, he wrote: “You may deny that you were not the mean/Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.” If he lived now, he would most certainly have written, “You may deny that you were the mean/ Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.”

Interestingly, in spite of the vilification of double negatives by grammarians, it survives in nonstandard, low-prestige English varieties (such as Appalachian English in the United States, African-American Vernacular English also called Ebonics, vernacular southern US English, Cockney English in the east end of London, etc.) and in pop music.

Not Only Tautologies and Double Negatives
Other casualties of the arbitrary standardization efforts of the eighteenth-century grammarians are the ideas that prepositions shouldn’t end sentences and that split infinitives are bad. The grammarians who came up with these rules simply imposed the rules of Latin on English. On this, however, they weren’t as successful as they were with the previous rules.

In the natural flow of the English language, prepositions end sentences, but in Latin, they don’t. So eighteenth-century grammarians said the rules of Latin must be imposed on English. Where people used to say, “She is the one I gave the book to,” for example, eighteenth-century grammarians said “She is the one to whom I gave the book” should be preferred.

As I wrote in my book, the “no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence” rule is not only counter-intuitive and senseless; it is also antithetical to the natural rhythm of the English language. How do you, for instance, avoid ending with a preposition in the following sentences: “I don’t know what she is talking ABOUT” (who says, “I don’t know about what she is talking”?); “What does she look LIKE?” (who says, “What like does she look?”), “The details have been attended TO” (who says, “The details attended to have been?”).

Today, many serious writers ignore the rule because it’s patently stupid and unnatural. Late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is reputed to have mocked this Latin-inspired rule by saying, "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I shall not put"!

Another thoughtless Latin-inspired rule the eighteenth-century grammarians imposed on English is the rule on split infinitives. An infinitive is a two-word form of the uninflected form of a verb, such as “to go,” to see,” “to laugh,” etc. If you allow words, usually an adverb, to come between “to” and the verb that follows it, you are said to be splitting your infinitives, and that was supposed to be bad grammar.

So if I say, “He told me to seriously consider the proposal,” I would be guilty of splitting my infinitives. I should instead say, according to eighteenth-century grammarians, “He told me to consider seriously the proposal.” Of course, the “unsplit” infinitive construction sounds stilted and odd, which explains why most modern writers pooh-pooh it. In their wildly popular book, Modern English Usage, the Fowler brothers called pedants of the split infinitive rule "bogy-haunted creatures."

Why Tautologies Should be Tolerated
Tautologies give vigor, intensity, and emphasis to our communication. They reduce ambiguity and enhance clarity, a reason lawyers love tautologies. Tautologies are particularly helpful in speech. If I say, for instance, “what is your PIN (personal identification number),” I can be misunderstood or misheard as saying, “Where is your pin (a sharp object that pokes)?” But if I say “PIN number” (which technically repeats “number” since the “n” in PIN stands for “number”), my hearer would be in no doubt about what I mean.

In defense of tautologies in speech, a linguist said the following in an online forum: “Those who have studied information theory will immediately realize that redundancy is very useful for error-correction. This is what phonology achieves. A lot of redundancies are imposed by phonotactic constraints (these constraints determine which sounds can occur where in a language, and whether they can occur at all). The redundancy in phonological representations acts as a safe-guard and reduces the probability that a sloppy or poorly-heard/noisy production is perceived as an unintended word.”

I entirely agree. Even in writing, disfavored redundancies like “repeat again,” “return back,” “free gift,” etc. are helpful ways to reinforce meaning.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Why Dangiwa Umar Should be the Standard-bearer of the Third Force

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

While there is a widening consensus that President Buhari, through his remarkable incompetence and bigotry, is inexorably leading Nigeria to infernal ruination, there isn’t a sufficiently robust discussion on who should replace him. Most politically unaffiliated people who have accepted that the presidency is above Buhari’s mental paygrade simply say the swashbucklers in PDP can’t be his replacement.

It’s time to move beyond that rhetoric. Who is a viable alternative to Buhari? Who has the capacity to steer us away from the path of perdition we’re headed under Buhari?  There is a curious reluctance to confront these questions forthrightly. This reluctance conduces to the flourishing of dishonest and exasperating bromides like “Well, we know Buhari is incompetent, but what is the alternative?” or “Although we agree that Buhari hasn’t lived up to expectation, there is really no alternative to him at this time."

It’s like being led to a pit of hell by a blind guide and saying, “Well, there is no alternative to this guide, so I have to come to terms with my earthly damnation.” That’s pointless, boneheaded self-immolation. Only people with a perverse taste for self-violence reason like that. There ARE several alternatives to Buhari.

In my December 16, 2017 column titled “There Must be an Alternative to Buhari and Atiku,” from which former President Olusegun Obasanjo quoted in his recent press statement, I suggested that we give a thought to Retired Colonel Abubakar Dangiwa Umar.

“How about we try someone else? Off the top of my head, I can think of retired Colonel Dangiwa Umar widely acknowledged as just, fair, principled, hardworking, cosmopolitan, widely traveled, and well-educated,” I wrote. “I’m not suggesting that he is perfect. He is not. No one is. It is our imperfections that make us human, but we all know what sorts of imperfections ruin nations and people. I don’t think anyone can accuse him of those sorts of imperfections—sloth, lethargy, corruption, clannishness, incompetence, indecisiveness, etc. He may decline to throw his hat in the ring. But there are many like him.”

I see that there is now a growing conversation around getting Col. Umar interested in a run for the office of president in 2019. But I am also aware that some people have raised concerns about the symbolic burden of his military background, particularly because of justified national anxieties about the domination of our politics by past military people. This is a legitimate concern.

Nevertheless, I believe Umar’s military background is incidental to his qualification for this job. It is the strength of his character, his urbaneness, his record of inclusivity, his contagiously genuine passion for pan-Nigerianism, his stubborn commitment to higher principles, his vast knowledge of the ways of the world, his intellectual curiosity, his unflappability in the face of stress and strain, and his broadmindedness that stand him out and that would potentially make him such a comforting departure from the blight we’re mired in now.

There are many others like him, but I am suggesting him for at least two reasons. One, the national mood appears to favor a northern presidential candidate, perhaps as a consequence of the internal power-sharing arrangements of most political parties. Second, the only northerner, in my estimation, who is “salable” outside his natal region based on his record is Umar.

His uncommonly principled stand against the cancellation of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which caused him to voluntarily resign his commission from the Nigerian military, will resonate with many voters in the southwest. He fought General Sani Abacha with all his strength when it was extremely risky to do so—and at the cost of libelous smears and threats to his life.

His exemplary, even-handed management of the 1987 religious crisis in Kaduna is still a reference point. "If you win a religious war, you cannot win religious peace,” he famously said. “Since the killing started how many Christians have been converted to Islam? How many Muslims have been converted to Christianity? It is an exercise in futility."

He is one of only a few northern Muslim leaders that northern Christians trust and have confidence in. Although he is a direct descendant of Usman Dan Fodio (his father was Wazirin Gwandu), he is on record as being severely critical of religious bigotry by Muslims, a reason he isn’t popular in his immediate constituency.

He was also one of only a few northerners to recognize the legitimacy of IPOB’s angst and to caution against government’s strong-arm tactics against the group. “One of the swiftest ways of destroying a kingdom is to give preference to one particular tribe over another, or to show favour to one group of people rather than another, and to draw near those who should be kept away and keep away those that should be drawn near,” he wrote in a press statement on August 30, 2017. “Like Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, many Igbos genuinely feel marginalized since they belong to the category of those who gave Mr President only 5% of their votes and appeared to have fallen out of his favour.”

Whatever foibles Umar has, ethnic and religious bigotry aren’t one of them. Given the unprecedented dissension and acrimony that Buhari’s government has instigated in the nation, we need a clearheaded, mild-mannered, even-tempered nationalist to bring us together, to calm frayed nerves, and to inspire us to dream again. I see Umar fitting this role.

He will certainly lose in the northwest and in such northeastern states as Borno, Yobe, Bauchi, and Gombe. In these states, most—certainly not all—people would vote for Buhari even if he were to go on a murdering spree of people there. Those who survive the carnage would still vote for him. But remember that the votes of this bloc were never sufficient to make him president.

If he were to square off against Buhari in a free and fair election in 2019, Umar would handily win the deep south, the southeast, most of the southwest, and the northcentral, except, perhaps, Niger State. In essence, he would reduce Buhari to the ethno-regional champion he had always been, which was reversed because of the purchase his candidacy got in the southwest and the Christian north in 2015 as a consequence of Jonathan’s intolerable misgovernance.

But if Jonathan was clueless, Buhari embodies cluelessness on steroids. Buhari’s cliquishness, insouciance, and down-the-line incompetence are a clear and present danger to Nigeria’s continued existence. Reelecting him in 2019 would be the kiss of death for the nation.

 It's impossible for Nigeria to survive a 4-year extension of Buhari's misrule, which is characterized by rampant injustice, invidious selectivity, insecurity, unexampled nepotism, smartly dressed corruption, sloth, intellectual laziness, hardship, and directionlessness. You know a country is utterly leaderless when it has a president who proudly says “I am not in a hurry to do anything” while the country he supposedly governs burns.

Umar won’t be perfect. He would falter. The intoxication of power may alter him. And maybe not. But the beauty of democracy is that it imbues us with the power to change ineffective leaders. It is the incremental rectification of past electoral mistakes that aggregates to qualitative change in democratic societies. No society makes progress by reelecting transparently incompetent leaders.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Existential Threats of Nomadic Pastoralism to Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The bitter, bloodstained rage that has defined relations between farmers and cattle herders in central Nigeria in the past few months has once again brought to the fore the dire existential threat nomadic pastoralism poses to Nigeria. If it's not artfully contained, it could be the death of the country.

There is no question that nomadic pastoralism is an anachronism. It doesn’t belong in the 21st century, and is a burden both on its practitioners and on everyday peasant farmers who are its victims.
When you read about the menace of cattle herders in Nigeria, you would think Nigeria has the most cattle in the world. But figures from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that we’re not even in the top 18, as of late 2017. South Korea, with more than 3.3 million cattle (representing 0.31 percent of the world’s cattle), is number 18 on the table.

A different figure from 2015 provided by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations said we were number 14 with 23,141,388 cattle, representing just 1.58% of the world’s cattle. What is significant, though, is that there are no records of herder/farmer sanguinary conflicts in countries with larger populations of cattle than we do.  And that’s because open grazing doesn’t exist in those countries.

To give just one example of how this anachronistic practice is ruining and displacing lives, in my local government, most peasant farmers have abandoned farming (and I know this is true of most traditionally agricultural communities) because of the menace of cattle herders. Farmers toil day and night to tend to their crops only for herders to destroy them in a day.

 Last year, one of my younger brothers expended time, money, and energy to cultivate huge yam, peanut, and corn farms. He returned from school (he is an undergraduate) one day to find that almost all of his crops had been eaten by herds of cattle. Now he says he will never farm again. And he is not alone.

But he was even lucky. Many people who caught herds of cattle feasting on their crops and had the boldness to protest got killed by herders. A distant relative of mine was beheaded more than a year ago when he protested the invasion of his farm by herds of cattle. When a farmer was murdered by cattle herders in similar circumstances in March 2017 in Yakiru, a nearby community, farmers retaliated by killing four herders, and Miyetti Allah, as usual, threatened retaliation.

The press statement by the group’s state chairman by the name of Usman Adamu is worth quoting. “Fulanis from across the country and neighbouring countries gathered here last week and they requested for my permission to go and retaliate but I insisted that they should sheath their swords,” he said. “From there, they started pointing accusing fingers at me that government was paying money to me, that is why I don’t want them to retaliate despite incessant attacks on Fulanis. So, we want the Kwara State Government to bring the killers of Fulanis to book; if not, our people are ready to fight for their right. Then, we want this one to be the last because Fulanis of these days have changed. See what is happening in Nasarawa, Zamfara, Jos and other states. If you see what our Fulanis did in Imo, and if you are Muslims, honestly, you will cry. And if somebody said it was Fulanis that did that, you will not believe it.”

This is a self-confession of mass murder, and no one has done anything about it. As a consequence of the refusal of many people to go to farm, there is unaccustomed hunger even in rural areas that used to boast self-sufficiency in food production.

This topic is a particularly difficult one for people like me who don't fit easily into the prevailing simplistic frames that the media and the commentariat deploy to engage in this discussion. I come from Baruten, a rural, predominantly Muslim area of Kwara State that is culturally indistinguishable from Northwest Nigeria even though the people there don’t speak Hausa. Islam has been the predominant religion of the place since at least the 14th century.

That's why I get bent out of shape when I read intolerably ignorant comments suggesting that the transhumant herders' murderous spree in Nigeria, particularly in the Christian North, is animated by Islamic jihadist impulses. I don't read past the sentence where I encounter such undiluted ignorance. It's not only factually inaccurate, it also renders invisible the pains of Muslims who are at the receiving end of the ever-increasing murderous aggression of the rootless, perpetually migratory Bororo pastoralists and their enablers.

It's true, though, as I've argued in previous columns, that it isn't just southerners and northern Christians who deploy simple-minded ethnic and religious categories to make sense of the growing mass murders by transhumant cattle herders; some settled, urbanized Fulani Muslims do the same. The worst culprit, perhaps, is Miyetti Allah, as we’ve seen from the association’s press statements.

Their pronouncements give fuel to the suspicions, which have historical justifications, that the murders by cattle herders who happen to be Fulani are motivated by religio-political considerations. The truth, of course, is that most of the herders who clash with farming communities aren’t, in fact, Muslims. They aren’t Christians either. Their whole religion is their cattle. And they clash with settled Fulani people, too.

Farmer/herder clashes are almost as old as humanity itself. Even before the incursion of bloodthirsty Bororo pastoralists into Nigeria, farmers occasionally had clashes with settled herders over grazing, but the clashes weren’t usually as bloody and as frequent as they are now. So something new is certainly happening, and the sooner we find out what it is and nip it in the bud, the better for everyone.

Limiting cattle to grazing reserves so that they don’t wander off into people’s farms and spark needless bloodletting is certainly a way forward. That’s the practice in all progressive societies.
But we should also take care not to conflate “Fulani,” “cattle herding,” and “criminality.” The media have unwittingly conspired to construct an image of all Fulani cattle herders as inhuman outsiders. That’s wrong. Those of us who grew up with Fulani herding communities know that this image is false. The vast majority of cattle herders are peaceful and law-abiding and are, in fact, in some cases, also victims of the new marauders.

As I pointed in my tribute to my father a year ago, my father was raised by Fulani herders for the first 12 years of his life. My grandfather had herds of cattle that Fulani herders kept in trust for him. I also have adoptive Fulani cousins that my uncle and my aunt raised.

My grandfather had a love child with a Fulani woman; the love child, a woman who had three children with a Fulani man, was brought back to live with us—along with her three children. I know many people who have similar connections with the “bush” Fulani.

Whatever we do, it helps to remember that the vast majority of Fulani cattle herders are everyday Nigerians who have lived relatively peacefully in their communities for centuries.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Case for “Flashing” to be in Dictionaries

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In last week’s column, I nominated “flashing”—along with “k-leg”—as a candidate for inclusion in dictionaries. Many readers requested that I share the column where I first wrote about “flashing. I am doing just that today.

The article that follows was first written on January 6, 2010 in the People’s Daily and was expanded extensively in my book. I have mentioned in other columns that in both American and British English, one of the dominant meanings of “flash” is to briefly expose one’s nudity publicly. So be careful not to use the word outside Nigeria. You might trigger a tragic miscue.


An American friend of mine who was born in Nigeria but who left the country when he was a teenager in the 1960s shared with me an unpleasant experience he had with “flashing” when he visited Nigeria in 2010. He shared his phone number with his childhood friend and asked to have his friend’s number in return. Instead of going through the trouble of writing or reading out the number to him, his Nigerian friend said it would be easier to just call him. So he said, “Hold on a minute. Let me flash you.”

My American friend said he ran as fast as he could. “I didn’t want to see the naked body of an aging man in public,” he told me. “I thought he had gone crazy!” He never saw his Nigerian friend ever again. It was only after he shared the story with me that he realized that his friend would think it was he who had gone crazy. He had no idea that “flashing” meant an intentional missed call in Nigerian English.

So be careful where you use the word. Nevertheless, I think the word exemplifies lexical creativity.

My former American student who is now my Facebook friend wrote a status update on Dec. 31, 2009 that got me thinking about Nigerian linguistic inventiveness. He wrote: “Ok, I'm REALLY sick of how the Colombians will call you, hang up immediately, and wait for you to call them back so that they don't waste their own cellular pay minutes.”

This lily white, perfectly gracious American who has friends in the South American nation of Colombia could have saved himself the torment of writing his status update with these needless overabundance of words if he knew the Nigerian meaning of “flashing.” Nigerians call what he described in so many words “flashing.” He could have simply written something like: “OK, I’m REALLY sick of Colombians flashing me.” All fairly affluent—and diasporan— Nigerians contend with this reality on a daily basis.

As linguists know only too well, language reflects people’s material reality. Americans have not lexicalized the act of necessitous people briefly calling financially well-situated friends and relatives, and hanging up in hopes of being called back because it is not in their mobile telephonic culture. In most cellphone plans in the United States, phone users get charged both for making and for receiving calls. So there is no incentive to “flash” anybody.

The comments that followed my ex-student’s status update showed that “flashing” is a decidedly “Third World” peculiarity, and most countries that practice it have different creative neologisms to capture it. For instance, a commenter said Pakistanis and Indians call it “one-ring.” “One-ring,” he said, is both a noun and a verb. So it is typical for Pakistanis or Indians to say something like, “That wasn’t a real call; it was a one-ring.” Or “he one-ringed me.”

Another commenter wrote that people in some poor European countries, where call recipients don’t get charged for incoming calls, also “flash” their more prosperous friends and relatives. He said the word “squeal” (which ordinarily means to utter a high-pitched cry like a pig or to confess) has been appropriated in the service of expressing the sense we convey in Nigeria when we say someone has “flashed” us.

What became obvious from the discussion that my ex-student’s status update generated is that the existing corpora of contemporary English in the UK and in America have no lexical items to capture a prevailing telephonic idiosyncrasy in poor countries where endemic poverty compels people to "flash" or "one-ring" or “squeal” people who are thought to be comfortable enough to afford to call back. Since nature abhors a vacuum, English-speakers across the world who live with this emergent techno-cultural peculiarity are expanding the semantic boundaries of proximate vocabularies to express their reality.

Sooner or later, lexicographers will have to come to terms with these semantic extensions since English is now for all practical purposes the world’s lingua franca.

If these linguistic inventions had emerged in native-speaker environments, they would certainly have been codified in notable dictionaries by now. For evidence, see how several American idiosyncratic words that were never captured in any dictionary made it to the Oxford Dictionary last year. The word “unfriend,” which means “to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook,” was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2009.

Other America-centric words that made it to the dictionary are, sexting (“the sending of sexually explicit texts and pictures by cellphone”), intexticated (“distracted because texting on a cell phone while driving a vehicle”), freemium (“a business model in which some basic services are provided for free, with the aim of enticing users to pay for additional, premium features or content”), funemployed (“taking advantage of one’s newly unemployed status to have fun or pursue other interests”), birther (“a conspiracy theorist who challenges President Obama’s birth certificate”), teabagger (“a person, who protests President Obama’s tax policies and stimulus package, often through local demonstrations known as “Tea Party” protests”), deleb (“a dead celebrity”), tramp stamp (“a tattoo on the lower back, usually on a woman”), etc.

Well, now we know that there are at least two other words apart from “flashing” that may compete for the attention of lexicographers: “one-ring” and “squeal.” There may be more. But I think “flash”— along with all its inflections— is more deserving of being recognized and codified in respectable dictionaries than either “one-ring” or “squeal.” “Flashing” is semantically closer to the action it describes than the Indian/Pakistan “one-ring” (which actually doesn’t exist in the English language) or the European “squeal” (which is markedly semantically distant from the action it describes.

“Flash,” of course, has many meanings, the most vulgar being to expose one’s genitals in public. But there are other technologically derived meanings of the word that make it proximate to how it is used in Nigerian English. Flash, for instance, means to gleam or glow intermittently, as in “the lights were flashing,” which is what literally happens when someone “flashes” your phone. It also means to appear briefly, as in “the headlines flashed on the screen.” When people “flash” us, their caller IDs appear briefly on the screens of our phones.

Another word in the Nigerian linguistic repertoire that bears testament to our linguistic creativity is the word “co-wife” or “co-wives,” which we use to denote female partners in a polygamous marriage. I smiled proudly the other day when a recent BBC report used “co-wives” in a story about South African President Jacob Zuma’s marriage to his third wife.

Other Nigerianisms that serve our communicative needs but that are absent from the word banks of Standard English varieties are, “naming ceremony,” “chewing stick,” “pounded yam,” etc. As we internationalize the cultural and culinary practices that these words denote, through our ever-expanding diasporas, we also need to self-consciously export the creative linguistic products that accompany them.

Of all the regions of the world, Africa has made the least contribution to the English language. It’s time to reverse that.

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Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Why Power Makes Otherwise Sane People Brain-Damaged

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

Almost everyone I know wonders aloud— and in silence— why people in power change radically; why they become so utterly disconnected from reality that they suddenly become completely unrecognizable to people who knew them before they got to power; why they get puffed-up, susceptible to flattery, and intolerant of even the mildest, best-intentioned censure; why they appear possessed by inexplicably malignant forces; and why they are notoriously insensitive and self-absorbed.

Everyone who has ever had a friend in a position of power, especially political power, can attest to the accuracy of the age-old truism that a friend in power is a lost friend. Of course, there are exceptions, but it is precisely the fact of the existence of exceptions that makes this reality poignant. As the saying goes, “the exception proves the rule.”

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Look at all the power brokers in Nigeria—from the president to your ward councilor—and you’ll discover that there is a vast disconnect between who they were before they got to power and who they are now.

Also look at previously arrogant, narcissistic, power-drunk prigs who have been kicked out of the orbit of power for any number of reasons. You’ll discover that they are suddenly normal again. They share our pains, make the right noises, condemn abuse of power, and identify with popular causes. The legendary amnesia of Nigerians causes the past misdeeds of these previous monsters of power to be explained away, lessened, forgiven, and ultimately forgotten. But when they get back to power again, they become the insensitive beasts of power that they once were.

So what is it about power that makes people such obtuse, self-centered snobs? It turns out that psychologists have been grappling with this puzzle for years and have a clue. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley, extensively studied the brains of people in power and found that people under the influence of power are neurologically similar to people who suffer traumatic brain injury.

According to the July/August 2017 issue of the Atlantic magazine, people who are victims of traumatic brain injury are “more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.” In other words, like victims of traumatic brain injury, power causes people to lose their capacity for empathy. This is a surprising scientific corroboration of American historian Henry Adams’ popular wisecrack about how power is “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”

The findings of Sukhvinder Obhi, a professor of neuroscience at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada, are even more revealing. Obhi also studies the workings of the human brain. “And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, ‘mirroring,’ that may be a cornerstone of empathy,” the Atlantic reports. “Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the ‘power paradox’: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.”

Take President Buhari, for example. Before he became president, he was—or at least appeared to be—empathetic. He supported subsidies for the poor, railed against waste, thought Nigerians deserved to buy petrol at a low price because Nigerian oil was “developed with Nigerian capital,” and so on. He even said foreign medical treatment for elected government officials was immoral and indefensible, and wondered why a Nigerian president would need a fleet of aircraft when even the British Prime Minister didn’t have any.

"One of the major killers of our economy, apart from corruption, is waste,” Buhari said in London in February 2015. “Let me give an instance: Presently, there are more than 6 aircraft in the presidential fleet. What do you call that? Billions of naira is budgeted every year for the maintenance of these aircraft, not to talk of operational costs and other expenses.

“You may want to ask what a Nigerian President is doing with so many aircraft when the Prime Minister of Britain flies around using the same public aircraft like an ordinary Briton. Go and check and compare with that of any developed country in the world: the office of the Nigerian President is a very expensive one in spite of our high level of poverty, lack, and joblessness….

“Now, for me, when we come into office, all this waste will be blocked and properly channelled into our economy….

“What is the difference between me and those who elected us to represent them? Absolutely nothing! Why should Nigerian president not fly with other Nigerian public? Why do I need to embark on a foreign trip as a president with a huge crowd with public fund? Why do I need to go for foreign medical trip if we cannot make our hospital functional? Why do we need to send our children to school abroad if we cannot develop our universities to compete with the foreign ones?”

Nothing but power-induced brain damage, which triggers narcissism and loss of empathy, can explain Buhari’s dramatic volte-face now that he’s in power. This fact, psychological researchers say, is worsened by the fact that subordinates tend to flatter people in power, mimic their ways in order to ingratiate themselves with them, and shield them from realities that might cause them psychic discomfort.

“But more important, Keltner says, is the fact that the powerful stop mimicking others,” the Atlantic reports. “Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people ‘stop simulating the experience of others,’ Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an ‘empathy deficit.’”

Researchers also found out that excessive praise from subordinates, sycophantic drooling from people seeking favors, control over vast resources they once didn’t have, and all the performances of power conspire to cause “functional” changes to the brains of people in power. On a social level, it also creates what Lord David Owen, a British neurologist-turned-politician, called the “hubris syndrome” in his 2008 book titled In Sickness and in Power.

Some features of hubris syndrome are, “manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence.” Sounds familiar?

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Powerful people can extricate themselves from the psychological snares of power if they so desire. Professor Keltner said one of the most effective psychological strategies for people in power to reconnect with reality and reverse the brain damage of power is to periodically remember moments of powerlessness in their lives—such as natural disasters, poverty, etc.—or have what American journalist Louis McHenry Howe once called a “toe holder,” that is, someone who doesn’t fear you and who can tell you uncomfortable truths without fear of consequences.

Winston Churchill’s toe holder was his wife, who once wrote a letter to him that read, in part, “I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be.” Was Aisha Buhari performing the role of a toe holder when she publicly upbraided her husband in a BBC interview?

I don’t know. I do know, however, that it didn’t have much effect, precisely because Buhari has no self-awareness of the literal damage that power has done to his brain. I hope someone gives him—and other people in power in Nigeria— this piece to read.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Soyinka’s “K-leg” English and My Word of the Year

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

My first column this year is a reflection on Professor Wole Soyinka’s language use in his December 30, 2017 article titled, “Blame Passing, Social Media Automated Mumus – The New Year Gift To A Nation.” In the article, Soyinka translated a Yoruba proverb as follows:  "Some voices alerted the k-legged porter to the dangerous tilt of the load on his head. His response was- Thank you, but the problem actually resides in the legs". 

At issue is the expression “k-legged porter.” People who have read my grammar columns and my book will be familiar with the fact that “k-leg” is an idiosyncratic Nigerian English expression for what native English speakers call “knock-knee.” But Soyinka is clearly not unfamiliar with this fact. He isn’t just a maestro of the language, he was educated and socialized in native English environments and has near-native mastery of the language. Because he has mastered the rules of the language so well, he occasionally chooses to bend them in the service of communicative and cultural convenience—like Chinua Achebe did. Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

If Soyinka had intended for his article to be read by native English speakers, he would have rendered “K-legged porter” as “knock-kneed porter.” But I can bet my bottom dollar that 90 percent of Nigerians have no clue what “knock-knee” means. I'm delighted that someone of Soyinka’s stature has chosen to use this uniquely Nigerian, but supremely evocative, expression in an article. That’s how to internationalize the distinctive expressive repertoires that define our everyday dialogic encounters.

In my more than one decade of writing about Nigerian English usage, I’ve noticed that many Nigerian English users instinctively refrain from using expressions I’ve identified as peculiarly Nigerian. This isn’t necessary. To imagine that, as a Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria, you can speak or write English that doesn’t reflect and inflect a Nigerian flavor is akin to assuming that you can have a place without a climate. That’s an existential impossibility.

 In addition to “flashing” (intentional missed calls, about which I wrote several columns), “K-leg” is my Nigerian English candidate for inclusion in prestigious, well-established global dictionaries like Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Chambers Dictionary, Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English, etc.

But words don’t just get listed in dictionaries because some linguistic nationalist desires it. Sometimes, it takes a concatenation of improbable circumstances for this to occur. Take the word “trek” as an example. It used to be an exclusively South African English word for “long walk” by way of Afrikaans, the Dutch-inflected language spoken by white South Africans. After repeated use of the word by prominent South African writers, it got a big boost with the iconic science fiction TV series called “Star Trek.”  "Trek”—along with its various inflections such as “trekker,” “trekking,” even “trekkable”— is now an everyday word in every English variety, and competes with the older, better-known “walk” or “hike.”

In my June 20, 2010 article titled “Top Cutest and Strangest Nigerian English Idioms,” I wrote this about “k-leg”: “This is the Nigerian English word for the inward slant of the thigh that Americans and Britons call ‘knock knee’ (adjective: knock-kneed). But in Nigerian English, ‘K-leg’ means more than knock knee; it is also often used figuratively to refer to something that has gone awry, as in: ‘his plans have developed K-leg.’

“My sense is that this expression slipped into educated Nigerian English through Pidgin English, although Americans also use the expression to describe K-shaped legs of tables. But I have never read or heard ‘K-leg’ being used either literally or figuratively in reference to human beings in either American English or British English.”

Upon reflection, I think it is entirely possible that the expression was formed on the model of “bowleg” (adjective: “bow-legged”), the colloquial term, in all native English varieties, to denote the deformity in which legs curve outward at the knees. Since the name deploys the imagery of the bow to lend vividness to the condition, Nigerian English speakers also invoked the imagery of the alphabetic character “K” to denote the inward bend of the thigh. I find this to be admirable lexical inventiveness worthy of formal recognition in English lexical pantheons.

My Word of the Year: Necrocracy/Thanatocracy
I solicited my readers for suggestions on the word of the year for 2017. I received a fair amount of suggestions from several of you. Thank you!

I have settled on the word “necrocracy” as my word of the year for 2017. It means government by dead people, which President Buhari’s appointment of at least 10 dead people (and counting) into governing boards of government agencies exemplifies.

On December 28, 2016, President Buhari grieved over the death of Senator Francis Okpozo of Delta State through a formal press release signed by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity. “The President hopes that all who mourn Senator Okpozo will carry forward his legacy of unwavering dedication to the unity of Nigeria, even as the nation would fondly remember his contributions to peace, development and justice in the Niger Delta. President Buhari prays that God Almighty will comfort the family of the late senator and grant the soul of the departed eternal rest,” the statement read.

 Then, a year later, on December 30, 2017, the president appointed the man whose soul he prayed to be granted “eternal rest” chairman of the Nigerian Press Council. Dead people can’t have any rest, much less an eternal one, if they are called upon to be part of governance from the great beyond.

The late Okpozo is one of at least 10 dead people the Buhari government has appointed to governing boards of government agencies. Since governing boards of government agencies are the engines of government, Buhari can be said to have inaugurated an era of necrocracy in Nigeria.

The word is formed from two Greek roots: “necro” and “cracy.” In Greek, necro is a prefix that denotes death. Examples of derivatives from the prefix include necrophilia/necrophilism/necromania (which means sexual attraction to dead bodies), necromancy (the occult art that claims to bring the dead back to life), necrolatory (worship or undue veneration of the dead), necrology (an obituary or a list of people who died recently), etc. Of course, most people know that “cracy” is a Greek suffix for power or rule or form of government.

The synonym for necrocracy is thanatocracy. People who have read my November 1, 2015 column titled “El-Rufai’s Kufena Hills and Metaphors Of Death in Nigerian Public Discourse” and my September 23, 2017 column titled “El-Rufai’s Morbid Fixation with Death of His Political Opponents” would be familiar with the word “Thanatos.” In the 2015 column, I wrote: “Thanatos is the ancient Greek god of death, so ‘thanatological’ is an adjective for anything concerned with death.” Since “cracy” is the Greek suffix for form of government, thanatocracy means government by the dead.

Before Buhari formally signed Nigeria up for necrocracy or thanatocracy, this system of government used to be associated chiefly with North Korea whose dead leader, Kim Il-sung, is officially recognized as the “Eternal Leader” of the country.

Nigeria’s thanatocracy isn’t by way of its leader (although Buhari is on the way to achieving this status in the Muslim North); it’s because the current government is so dead incompetent that it appoints dead people, including those whose death it officially grieved over in newspapers, to head government agencies while it works day and night to cause the death of its living citizens through its insensitive, reverse Robin Hoodist policies.

In addition, a government that took six months to appoint the most underwhelming cast of characters as ministers in Nigeria’s history is as good as dead. A government which unprecedentedly took nearly three years to appoint members of the government boards of government agencies (some of whom are literally dead), which halted governance for than half of the life of the administration, is decidedly a necrocracy. I can think of no better word that defined the essence of the Buhari administration and its governmental system than necrocracy or thanatocracy.

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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Brace Up for the Next Petrol Price Hike

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

What follows is an abridged version of my October 29, 2016 column titled “Coming Petrol Price Hike And NNPC’s Subterfuge,” which contributed to shelving a planned price hike in 2017, but it still speaks to what is going on now.

On October 25, 2011, Buhari said, "If anybody says he is subsidising anything, the person is a fraud.” (Watch the video here). But on December 29, 2017, NNPC honcho Maikanti Baru said Buhari authorized NNPC to “subsidise petrol for Nigerians" after saying the current appropriate pump price for petrol is N171 per liter. The subterfuge never ends. The price hike may be delayed because of the coming elections, but see what happens thereafter.

Another petrol price hike is coming. It’s not a matter of “if”; it’s a matter of “when.” So either brace yourself for it or get ready to fight it. Of course, I’d be the happiest person to be wrong about this.
Every petrol price hike follows an unfailingly well-worn pattern in Nigeria. First, government flies a kite of an impending price hike through the bush telegraph and the traditional media, and then gauges the reaction of the public. If government sees that public reaction is intensely hostile, NNPC or some other government agency would issue a forceful but often wily denial, which lulls the people into a false sense of security and comfort.

Weeks or months later, supply would run out either because importers refuse to import petroleum products or because some union decides to go on strike to drive home the imperative of “total deregulation,”—or suchlike sterile subterfuge. A biting artificial scarcity ensues, price of petrol skyrockets, and the country grinds to a screeching halt.

Then an astonishingly fraudulent rhetorical rape of people, preparatory to the price increase, follows. The usual stale, sterile promise of “total deregulation” in the interest of the “masses” would be given. The masses of the people, we would be told, don’t “benefit” from low petrol prices. Faux anger would be whipped up against an intentionally unnamed, amorphous oil cabal and other elite groups that supposedly benefit from low petrol prices, which putatively robs government of the revenue it needs to build infrastructure and improve the lot of the people.

Of course, we would be reminded that our low prices conduce to petrol smuggling to neighboring countries, which purportedly hemorrhages our economy, and that, in any case, most Nigerians already pay way above the official price for petrol. And so on and so forth. Government calls this rhetorical fraud “sensitization” of the masses as a prelude to the increase in petrol prices. Of course, the real name for that is propaganda; deceitful, scorn-worthy, mendacious propaganda.

It’s probably the most bizarre and the most intellectually barren propaganda in the world, not only because it’s been repeated verbatim since the 1960s but also because it seeks to convince people to accept that their own existential annihilation is beneficial to them, even when their lived realities give the lie to these cheap, stupid lies.

This elaborately choreographed scam has started. On August 7, 2016, Sunday Punch reported oil marketers to have said that the current price of petrol wasn’t profitable for them. They said, “the actual or real cost of petrol was N151.87 when all the pricing components are adequately captured.”
On September 4, we read again that all “former and present Group Managing Directors of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation,” after a one-day meeting with Minister of State for Petroleum Ibe Kackikwu, issued a statement saying, “the petrol price of N145/litre is not congruent with the liberalisation policy especially with the foreign exchange rate and other price determining components such as crude cost, Nigerian Ports Authority charges, etc remaining uncapped.”

This emboldened marketers, two days later, to insist that the “real cost of petrol” is “N165 per litre.” Then on October 25, we heard that an NNPC Group General Manager by the name of Mele Kyari said at a conference in Lagos that “Sale of petrol at N145 is no longer sustainable.” In the aftermath of the panicky online chatter the statement inspired, NNPC was forced to deny that there would be an immediate increase in the price of petrol.

But the denial was, as usual, double-tongued. You need to read the whole story of the denial closely to know what I am talking about. "According to [the NNPC spokesman]," the Daily Trust reported, "IF THERE IS GOING TO BE ANYTHING LIKE A PRICE HIKE, the agency responsible for fixing the price of petrol, the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency, PPPRA, WOULD DEFINITELY SENSITISE NIGERIANS ON IT AND GIVE REASONS FOR THE HIKE."

It's the same sadly familiar trickery. Who the heck wants government’s "sensitization" and "reasons" for any impending hike? Government has been "sensitizing" and giving "reasons" for price hikes since the late 1960s, and they are all awfully the same: they are the same predictably fraudulent and flyblown clich├ęs of elite lies and insensitivity that I identified above.

"Sensitization" and "reasons" won't mollify the hurt the increase would inflict on ordinary Nigerians. "Sensitization" and "reasons" won't stop the cost of everything from food to transportation from escalating. "Sensitization" and “reasons" won't increase the meager, stagnant, and irregular salaries of people who work for government.

I warned Nigerians before that the petrol price hikes would be never-ending as long as government refuses to invest in refineries and cut off the suffocating stranglehold of the fraudulent oil cabal once and for all.

I said government would continue to put forth one unimaginative subterfuge after the other to justify bilking everyday Nigerians and hastening their descent into untimely graves. We had been told that government no longer paid subsidies, and that the money saved from the withdrawal of petrol subsidies would be used to build infrastructure and make life a little better for everyone. Now they have changed the story: they now say they are still paying subsidies. The next lie would be that subsidies are bad, unsustainable, and should be got rid of.

They said they had totally "deregulated" the oil market and that only the forces of demand and supply would regulate prices. They even went so far as to say petrol prices would crash. Another big lie. The lies would get to the end of their shelf life soon, and the truth will come out.

Brace yourself for the next price hike—and another after that. And yet another thereafter—until all vulnerable and helpless people drop dead, and Buhari and his vultures have no more poor people to feast on.

Buhari's Nigeria is the perfect neoliberal nirvana that even the compulsively evil IMF and World Bank never imagined could ever exist anywhere on planet Earth: a place where mass stupidity reigns so supreme that people would actually protest against protesters protesting government's piecemeal death sentence on them. These low-IQ Buhari automatons “love” and “trust” their president who doesn’t care about them.

Take this from me: Until Nigerians actually unite and resolutely resist this sneaky move, what will follow in the next few weeks would be artificial scarcity of petrol, which would cause prices to go through the roof. The government, in cahoots with oil marketers, would allow the artificial scarcity—and the extortionist prices that accompany it—to linger long enough for people to heave a sigh of relief when the actual increased price they have in mind is finally announced.