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An English Bishop’s Unintentional Blasphemy in Igbo

By Farooq Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi My family and I are visiting with my parents-in-law in the Deep South U.S. state of Mississippi fo...

By Farooq Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

My family and I are visiting with my parents-in-law in the Deep South U.S. state of Mississippi for the Thanksgiving holiday. As usual, my father-in-law, Engineer Edwin Erinne, is regaling me with hilarious and intellectually rewarding anecdotes about a whole lot of things.

Our conversation pivoted to the inexorably rising power of China in the world and about what factors might impede China’s dominance of the world’s cultural space in the fashion that England and America have dominated the world in the last century.

I told my father-in-law that my graduate students and I discussed this topic last week in my Survey of Global Communication seminar.

The major roadblock to China’s potential global cultural hegemony that I foresee, I told my students, is linguistic. Mandarin Chinese, China’s official language, is a notoriously difficult language to learn, mostly because it’s a tonal language where a slight change in pitch of the voice can change the meaning of words. Most of the world might have a hard time learning it.

My students asked me to illustrate how changes in tones can change the meaning of similar-sounding words, so I used an example from my native Baatonu language using the word “kon” (wrong spelling because of loss of accent marks) to illustrate my point. Depending on the tone, it can mean a bat, a mat, to throw, to get lost, a kind of knife, etc.

 I also gave an example with the Yoruba word “oko,” which can mean a husband, a hoe, a vehicle, etc. depending on the pitch of the voice.

My students couldn’t grasp any of the tonal nuances I demonstrated. They couldn’t detect the variations in my pitch when I changed my tonal inflections. They were literally tone-deaf. 

My in-law agreed that people who speak non-tonal languages like English have a hard time appreciating and enunciating tonal subtleties in tonal languages and gave a hilarious example to make his point.

He said a British missionary gentleman in Owerri who spoke the Igbo language with admirable proficiency (except for his inability to distinguish tones in the language) once caused raucous laughter in the church when he unintentionally blasphemed God through tonal violence.

According to him, the British bishop wanted to say “Chineke nwere nnukwu ike” (which would mean God is great/God is powerful/or literally God has great strength— if the pitch in “ike” were high), but he ended up saying “Chineke nwere nnukwu ike” (with a low pitch on “ike”), which translates as “God has big buttocks”!🤣

My in-law said the rip-roaring laughter that gripped the church in the immediate aftermath of saying this lasted several minutes and thoroughly embarrassed the British bishop. 

I’ve heard and read of many communicative miscues that resulted from tonal errors, but this was the most hilarious I’ve ever heard. Happy Thanksgiving, America!

1 comment

  1. Mentor Sir, you are now witly jocular. But I will not like you to use demagoguery skills like Nigerian politicians would always do by diverting the gastronomic pleasure associated with Thanksgiving Holiday. Aside the hilarious jokes and banters: show us the sumptuous meals you were served and kindly share with us here.

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