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How Buhari is Changing Nigerian English (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has failed to bring about the “change” it...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has failed to bring about the “change” it promised Nigerians in 2015, which prompted his party to change its slogan from “change” to “progress,” but both the president and the political atmosphere he has inspired has changed the face of Nigerian English in noticeable ways. Below are expressions that emerged in Nigerian English because of Buhari.

1. “Body language”: No one who pays attention to Nigerian politics will fail to notice the incipience—and misuse— of this expression at around the ascendancy of the Buhari presidency. Supporters of the president who had no logical explanation for the relatively stable power in the country in the aftermath of his election attributed it to his “body language.”

The president’s supporters also said his “body language,” not deliberate policy changes, would fight corruption and inaugurate a new dawn in the country. Anyone who only understands Standard English would be mystified by this. By “body language,” Nigerian English speakers mean aura, that is, the intangible but nonetheless perceptible quality that a person inspires.

As a communication scholar, I teach body language, which we call kinesics or kinesis in the scholarly literature. It basically means the communication of messages, both subtle and overt, through the movement, in part or in whole, of the body. If I shake my head to show disapproval, I am using body language. If I spread my five or ten fingers to call someone a bastard, as we do in Nigeria in moments of inflamed passions, I am using body language. And so on and so forth. That’s how the expression is understood in international Standard English.

The notion of “body language” as the deterrent effect that the fear of a person inspires is uniquely Nigerian, and it started with the Buhari regime. You can’t read a person’s “body language” if you don’t physically see the person and observe their bodily motions. Invisible body language can’t make something happen. I had imagined, perhaps incorrectly, that people who talk of “Buhari’s body language” know enough to know that no one would have any clue what they are talking about outside Nigeria. I thought they weren’t ignorant of the Standard English meaning of the expression; I thought they were merely intentionally contorting and expanding the expression’s traditional meaning.

But, apparently, that’s not true. Most people use the expression out of ignorance of what it really means. For instance, while receiving members of the Muslim Businessmen and Professionals in his office on April 20, 2018, according to the Vanguard, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said, “There is no corruption in the presidency under the current government. This kind of body language is what is saving this country a lot of money now. Like what is happening in JAMB, Customs, FIRS, NPA, FAAN, NIMASA where we have witnessed improved revenue collection and returns to government for unspent resources.”

From the perspective of Standard English, that’s a senseless waste of words that doesn’t communicate anything. How can “body language” save the country a lot of money?

My own sense is that whoever came up with the expression was consciously imbuing an existing English expression with a new meaning in the service of a new, unlexicalized reality. But then many people started using the expression with no consciousness that the meaning associated with it is intentionally nonstandard; that it is a strictly made-for-Nigeria expression. I am not, by any means, discouraging the use of the expression in Nigerian contexts. I actually think the re-semanticization of the expression is evidence of linguistic creativity.

2. “Technically/technical.” The Buhari administration deploys the word “technically” or “technical” to modify and cover up blatant lies. When the president’s promise to defeat Boko Haram by December 2016 didn’t materialize, the government insisted nevertheless that it had “technically defeated” the group even when killings continued and still continue.

On May 3, 2018 when Buhari surreptitiously stopped in London to see his doctors after his American visit, his media aide called it a "technical stopover." "They had a technical stopover in London,” presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu told the Punch. “I am sure if you keep your ears to the ground, you will hear of his arrival soon.”

In everyday conversations in Nigeria, people now use “technically” or “technical” to jocularly cover up any obvious lie. Someone who failed his school certificate exams, for example, said he “technically passed.”  People who lose elections also say they have “technically won” it.

3. “Fatally wounded.” Nigerian military authorities popularized this expression when they claimed, in August 2016, that they had “fatally wounded” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. To fatally wound someone is to cause them to die from the wounds you have inflicted on them.

Nigerian military authorities insisted that by “fatally wounded,” they meant severely wounded. But fatal means “bringing death.” A fatal accident is an accident in which people die. “Fatally” is the adverbial form of “fatal,” and it means “resulting in death.” In fact, the usage example given for “fatally wounded” in the 2014 edition of the Collins English Dictionary is, “fatally wounded in battle.” Fatality also means human death. So when I say there has been a decrease in vehicular fatalities, I am saying fewer people now die in road accidents than in the immediate past.

4. “Hate Speech”: This is now an all-purpose term for any strong criticism of the incompetence of the Buhari government. It is now used in a mocking and jocular way on Nigerian social media to call attention to devastatingly vigorous criticism of the government.

The Standard English definition of hate speech has no relation with how the Buhari administration wants it to be understood. Cambridge Dictionary defines hate speech as, “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation (= the fact of being gay, etc.)”

5. “Cross the red line”: This is a Standard English idiom that means to act in a way that goes beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. Buhari coopted this expression in the service of his creeping tyranny. During his national broadcast on August 21, 2017, he said, “In the course of my stay in the United Kingdom, I have been kept in daily touch with events at home. Nigerians are robust and lively in discussing their affairs, but I was distressed to notice that some of the comments, especially in the [sic] social media have crossed our national red lines [sic] by daring to question our collective existence as a nation. This is a step too far.”

To cross the national red line has now come to mean to defy the tyranny of the Buhari regime. The expression has given rise to humorous derivatives such as “national red line crosser,” which means people who have no qualms calling out the incompetence and highhandedness of the Buhari regime.

6. “Soft targets”: This is a distastefully deceitful rhetorical strategy of the Buhari regime to minimize the horrors of Boko Haram’s atrocities against ordinary people. The government says Boko Haram now only attacks “soft targets.” This is merely a euphemism for poor people who, in the estimation of the Buhari regime, are inconsequential and worthless. To call victims of murderous terrorist brutality “soft targets” is to dehumanize them even in death. Unfortunately, many people, particularly from the northeast, have accepted this linguistic dehumanization of people at the bottom of the social ladder.

7. “Integrity”: This word has lost its Standard English meaning in Nigeria. Among Buhari supporters, “integrity” is a mythical and undefinable quality that only Buhari possesses. But to Buhari critics, it’s a word that inspires derision and that serves as a cover for fraud, corruption, and indefensible ethical violations. Buhari is now mockingly called “Mr. Integrity,” particularly when news of the untoward dealings of the regime he heads comes to light.

8. “The other room”: In response to his wife’s unusual criticism of his administration during a well-publicized BBC interview, Buhari said, in Germany, that his wife belonged to his “kitchen,” his “living room,” “and the other room.” It was a demeaning, belittling sexualization of his wife before the world.

“The other room” has many meanings in Standard English, but it generally means a place where alcoholic drinks are sold and served. However, Buhari infused a new meaning into this phrase. By “the other room,” the president meant his bedroom. It was one of the president’s lowest moments in 2016, but his unpresidential verbal indiscretion enriched Nigerian English’s lexical repertoire.  “The other room” is now a handy euphemism for “bedroom” in Nigerian English.

To be concluded next week

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