"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 04/16/20

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