"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Why Do Nigerians Call "Fufu" "Swallow"?

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Why Do Nigerians Call "Fufu" "Swallow"?

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

My all-American teenage daughter asked me from what Nigerian language "swolo" was derived. I had no idea what she was talking about.

"Swolo? What's that?" I asked.

"Swolo like pounded yam, fufu, bataru [amala] that you love so much!" she said.

"Oh! So you meant to say "swallow?" I said, thinking I was correcting her.



It turned out that she had never imagined that the dough-like west African staple food we mold into morsels, mix with soup, and swallow without chewing was called "swallow." She didn't think it was an English word, and misheard it as "swolo."

"Why is it called swallow in Nigeria?" she asked.

"It's because, unlike other foods, we swallow it without chewing it," I said.

That didn't make any sense to her. She said, for starters, when we "force" her to eat fufu, she chews it before swallowing it. So the justification for calling it "swallow" didn't apply to her--and her siblings.

And this is the one that got me: since we swallow water without chewing it first, she asked, why don't Nigerians call water "swallow." Ha!

In any case, she insisted, after all is said and done, all food is ultimately swallowed. Why do Nigerians reserve "swallow" only for fufu and its gastronomic kindred like pounded yam and amala to the exclusion of other foods?

I frankly hadn't thought of it that way, but it does make sense from a literal point of view. Of course, language, stripped of culture, is useless.

I'm certain that "swallow" is a calque formation (i.e., a direct, unidiomatic translation from one language to another) from a Nigeria language, but I don't know what language it is.

In my native Baatonu language, "swallow" is called doka, which directly translates as morsel in English. From which Nigerian language(s) did we get the qalque formation "swallow"?

Comments from my Facebook friend conclusively show that "swallow" is a calque from Igbo. Specifically, its derived from the Igbo ''nni onuno,'' which translates as "swallowed food" in English. Apparently, there are dialectal variations in the way it's called in Igbo.

It's nni olulo in the Imo dialect of the Igbo language and nni onuno in the Anambra dialect. In some other dialects of the language, it is nri olulo or nni onunu, but they all denote the same thing: food that is swallowed.

I also learned that the Ibibio people Akwa Ibom State call it ume-men, which also translates as "food that is swallowed."

Related Articles:
When Food and Grammar Mix
Q and A on the Grammar of Food, Usage and Nigerian English
Politics of Grammar Column

9 comments:

Unknown said...

Good morning Dr, I am really impressed with your educative post. But, swallow food is called 'okele' in Yoruba.

Jwanshak Nwanse said...

I love this piece because it is norm-challenging and discourse-generating -as all of Prof's posts are. To start with, it was convincingly argued in the article that language and culture are inseparable. To add to the idea of food classification according to whether or not it is chewed, let's take as an example the Mwaghavul language in central Plateau.

"Swallow" is used to denote food that is unchewed. My Igbo brothers and many Nigerians are guilty of committing this crime against their digestive system by making its work more cumbersome as they won't allow digestion to properly start from the mouth.

In the Mwaghavul culture, it is only liquid food such as kunu and water that is consumed unchewed. During my national service year, my Igbo banking colleagues and other people who saw me eat "swallow" were disappointed to see me chew akpu, semo, garri, pounded yam, and so on. One could not hide his surprise but exclaimed: "aboki, you are chewing akpu?" "In my place, we chew everything, including water" I exaggerated to challenge his assumption and belief system. Later on, I asked Onyema my good friend how he swallows a sizeable morsel without first chewing it. He explained that as soon as the morsel lands in the mouth, his tongue wags to separate the soup from the "swallow". He then swallows the morsel and flushes it down with the soup. It was strange to me at first but before I left in October 2009, I unconsciously became Igbo, at least in swallowing without chewing food like akpu, eba and so on.

So, the idea of classifying food in terms of whether it is chewed or unchewed is immaterial to my culture and virtually all cultures on the Plateau -to the best of my knowledge- because every solid food must first be chewed.

In Mwaghavul, the food vocabulary expresses it differently. What Nigerian English labels "swallow" is generally called "gwom" with further specification to the type of "gwom" that's being referred to. "Gwom" is equivalent to Hausa "tuwo." Any other solid food apart from "gwom" is generally referred to by the descriptive label "mbii fii", meaning "dry food". "Gwom" is the staple food among Mwaghavul people. That explains why it is not uncommon for "gwom" to be used in other contexts to refer to food generally. As a result, a typical Plateau person can eat or drink whatever type of food during the day but for dinner, it must be the staple "gwom" or "tuwo". To the Mwaghavul mind and by extension Plateau people generally -to the best of my knowledge- although they love the type of food Igbos and other Nigerians following them describe as "swallow", in classifying food, what matters is not, primarily, whether it is (un)chewed but whether it is liquid or solid and if solid, whether it is "gwom" or "mbii fii"

Ganiyu Yusuff Adekunle said...

Nigerians called it swallow but I think the standard English word for those categories of food is solids.

Unknown said...

Prof, in Igbo Language, the kind of food you mentioned are called "Utara" in most Igbo towns. The "Nni onino" or "Nri olulo" are more of descriptive names derived from the Nigerian slang "swallow".

Unknown said...

Prof, in Igbo Language, the kind of food you mentioned are called "Utara" in most Igbo towns. The "Nni onino" or "Nri olulo" are more of descriptive names derived from the Nigerian slang "swallow".

Farooq A. Kperogi said...

Interesting! But what does utara literally translate as in English?

Chiemerie A. Okechukwu said...

Greetings Prof,
Utara is first an abridged form for pounded food, most notably carbs (though, I will not emphasize the class of food).

In buttressing the reply above, it is appropriately called Ụtara Ji or Ụtara Akpụ (Pounded yam or pounded cassava).

Just as the current street language of Nigeria refers swallow, in my place, it could go as Nri Ụtara. It is left for the one to whom the request is made to ask for clarity on the choice of Ụtara - whether of Akpụ or of Ji.

Chiemerie A. Okechukwu said...

Greetings Prof,
Utara is first an abridged form for pounded food, most notably carbs (though, I will not emphasize the class of food).

In buttressing the reply above, it is appropriately called Ụtara Ji or Ụtara Akpụ (Pounded yam or pounded cassava).

Just as the current street language of Nigeria refers swallow, in my place, it could go as Nri Ụtara. It is left for the one to whom the request is made to ask for clarity on the choice of Ụtara - whether of Akpụ or of Ji.

M said...

A mûnù! Arè dàh?