- Post 27 February 2010
- Last Updated on 27 February 2010
- By Farooq A. Kperogi
I have a finicky linguistic activist friend who perpetually insists that there is no such thing as Nigerian English. Our idiosyncratic English usage, he says, is often no more than the product of the ignorant perversion of the rules of Standard English, and ignorance doesn’t deserve to be rewarded with a grand, flattering label like “Nigerian English.”
Besides, he often adds, we can’t legitimately talk of Nigerian English since such a variety is neither codified in any systematic manner nor enjoys any prestige or recognition in the pantheon of the world’s Englishes. But that is a notoriously socio-linguistically untenable justification for denying the existence of Nigerian English.
Nigerian English, in spite of what any swaggering semantic purist might say, does exist. As I have consistently shown in this column, it has identifiable stylistic imprints, idiosyncratic vocabularies, distinctive turns of phrases, and is spoken and written habitually by our intellectual, media, and political elites. That it has not been consciously codified and systematized is inconsequential to its materiality.
As I will show shortly, Nigerian English is distinctive enough that its semantic and structural deviations from the dominant, so-called standard varieties have real material consequences for its speakers who have been geographically displaced from its primordial habitat, that is, Nigeria.
A couple of days ago, I saw a black man at the post office here in downtown Atlanta. He looked transparently bewildered and frustrated. And, because his looks struck me as manifestly Nigerian, I walked up to him and introduced myself. I then asked if he was Nigerian. My hunch was accurate: he is a recent Nigerian immigrant. So why was he irritated and disoriented?
He told me it was because “these damn Americans” couldn’t understand him when he said he wanted to take a “passport.” He was directed (misdirected, it turned out) to the post office when he first went to the CVS pharmacy to take a “passport.” Although he saw a photographer who obviously took “passports,” he was told to go to the nearby post office if he wanted a “passport.”
But the guys at the post office asked him for proof of American citizenship when he told them he wanted to take a “passport.” “Can you imagine that? Proof of citizenship to take a damn passport!” He seethed with raw, gnawing, impotent rage as he recounted his experiences to me.
This poor guy, who is only a few months old here, was suffering the material consequence of his Nigerian English. What we call “passport” in Nigerian English, I told him, Americans call “passport photos” or “ID photos.” I said to him that the Americans thought he wanted the government-issued document that you show when you enter or leave a country.
“But I didn’t say I wanted an international passport,” my acquaintance protested. Well, “passport” is the only word Americans (and Britons) use to denote the government-issued document for international travel. If he had said he wanted an “international passport,” I told him, he would probably never have been directed to the post office. He might have been advised to travel to his home country—or anywhere but America. The phrase “international passport” conveys a radically different meaning to an American from what it does to a Nigerian English speaker.
In contemporary American English, the word “international” is often used as the semantic equivalent of the term “foreign.” For instance, students from outside America aren’t called “foreign students” here; they are usually called “international students.” American news media organizations don’t call their non-American operations “foreign news desks”; they call them “international news desks.” (My friend at CNN tells me that Americans prefer “international” to “foreign” because “foreign” can suggest an invidious “othering.” Never mind that in official documents, their government refers to non-American residents as “aliens,” which is more alienating--pun intended--than “foreign”!)
So, it is entirely conceivable that an American would understand “international passport” to mean the passport of a country other than America. My explanations mollified my Nigerian acquaintance. He went back to CVS Pharmacy and took his “passport photo” without any further incident.
Several such encounters must be happening on a regular basis as the Nigerian diaspora in the West continues to expand, especially through the Green Card Lottery program.
I can also imagine recently arrived Nigerian immigrants in America having a communication breakdown with their American interlocutors when they use the idiom “pass out” in the peculiar way we use it in Nigeria. We use “pass out” to mean “graduate,” usually from a high school, as in, “I passed out of [or from] Okuta Community High School last year.”
This usage, of course, owes its provenance to British English where "pass out" is used to mean “graduate from a military college.” But the only sense of “pass out” known to most Americans is the idiom’s usage to mean “faint.” If you tell an American that you “passed out” of a school, she would probably think you mean that you fainted at that school!
But it’s not only in America that our peculiar Nigerian English expressions can cause a communication breakdown. For instance, “go-slow,” our expression for traffic jam (which we sometimes extend metaphorically to connote sloth, grinding red tape, insouciance, or governmental inaction—a reason that President Yar’adua is often called “Baba Go-slow”) is the name for a form of industrial protest in Britain where workers deliberately slow down their work.
It isn’t a far-fetched scenario that a newly arrived Nigerian immigrant in the UK could tell his British boss that he was late to work because of a "go-slow." And that could get him fired! The boss might think he is saying that he is on a one-man industrial protest, or that other workers are on a go-slow and that coming late to office is his own way of observing the go-slow in the workplace.
Well, the truth, though, is that speakers of other varieties of English face the same kinds of communication shocks that Nigerians face when they leave their primordial shores. New Zealanders, for instance, find that they get quizzical stares from Americans, Canadians, and Britons— indeed from everyone but a New Zealander—when they use the expression “it didn’t eventuate” to mean “it didn’t happen.”
And George Bernard Shaw’s fittingly pithy but ironic observation that America and Britain (and all people associated with them linguistically) are two countries separated by a common language still holds true till today.
In my Weekly Trust column sometime in 2005, I once related the story I heard of a British gentleman who shocked his American female host out of her wits with his perfectly polite Briticism, which turned out to mean something outrageously vulgar in American English.
The Brit came to America for an official duty, and was received by a respectable, married American lady who worked for the State Department. In order to make the guest feel at home, the lady offered to take him out, along with other people, for a dinner in some exclusive restaurant in Washington, D.C.
But since the guest was still weary from jet lag and needed to catch a few hours’ nap, the American lady told him to let her know when he woke up from his sleep and ready for the dinner.
After exchanging the conventional parting civilities, the man wanted to affirm that he would indeed heed her request to let her know when he was ready for the dinner. So he said, “When I wake up by 8: 00 p.m. I will come and knock you up.”
The man did not anticipate what followed. The American lady gasped for breath and almost froze. Her eyes popped out. She was utterly outraged and embarrassed. But the man was confused. And the man’s confusion confused the American lady even more!
In American colloquial English, to knock up a woman means to get her pregnant! But in British English, it means one of many things, the most common being to knock on somebody’s door—literally. Other meanings of the phrase in British English are "to make quickly" or a period of practice before a play, e.g. in soccer.
So the American lady thought she had had the misfortune of relating with a shamelessly lewd old reprobate, and the man probably thought his American host suddenly had some nuts loose in her brain.
In my first semester of teaching undergraduate students in Louisiana, I also fell victim to this “clash of languages” several times.
One day I had occasion to give my students homework on a Monday and I wanted them to turn it in on the Friday of the same week. So I told them to submit the assignment “next Friday” as we would say in Nigeria. However, on the Friday of that week, nobody turned in their assignment. When I asked for an explanation, they told me, “But you said NEXT Friday!” Then I said, “So what? Today is the NEXT Friday I spoke of on Monday!” They said I should have said “this Friday” on Monday if I wanted the assignment that Friday.
They were right. In American English, when “next” is prefixed to any day of the week, it usually implies that the speaker is talking about the subsequent week. Saying “next Saturday” even on a Sunday does not convey the sense that the speaker is referring to the Saturday in the week. Well, my students got away with not submitting the assignment that Friday.
On another occasion, while giving a midterm exam, I instructed my students not to write on their "question papers." They all looked blankly at me, and I initially thought that they had problems with my Nigerian accent. So I not only enunciated it more clearly— and more slowly— but also wrote it on the board.
But they still said, “What’s that?” And when I pointed to their “question papers,” they said, “Oh, you mean we should not write on the tests?” Write on the test? How the hell do you do that? Test is an abstract noun. How can you write on an idea? Anyway, I have since stopped calling question papers by their name; they are “tests.”
Again, when I said to my students that I would “mark” their “scripts” and return to them, or that I would reduce their "marks" as a penalty for not adhering to certain instructions that I gave in the exam, I was greeted with bewildered stares. I later learned that the correct American English equivalent for “mark scripts” is “grade tests” and, instead of saying I would “reduce their marks,” I should have said, “I will take off points.”
I also recall a communication breakdown I encountered at the university bookstore the first month I came here. I went to the university bookstore to buy a type of padded envelope that Americans use to “post” letters that contain pictures. I forgot the name of the envelope, however, because I had never used it before. The cashier wanted to help me, so she asked what I wanted to use the padded envelope for. And I said, “To post a letter.”
She couldn’t figure out what it meant to “post” a letter. So she said, “On a Web site?” I was lost. I later learned that day that Americans don’t post letters; they “mail” them. “Post” is used only in reference to uploading materials on the Internet. Of course, they have no postal addresses; only “mailing addresses.” However, they are yet to invent “mail offices”; thankfully, they still have post offices.
And when Americans say “momentarily,” they don't mean "suddenly"; they mean “soon” or “now.” I remember the first time I boarded an American airplane and the pilot announced that the plane would take off “momentarily,” I got really panicky. I thought the plane had developed a mechanical problem and was taking off suddenly. When nobody joined me in my panic, it dawned on me that “momentarily” is probably the American equivalent of the equally crazy British word, “presently,” which also means “soon.”
Other major British English expressions we use in Nigeria that absolutely make no sense here are “full stop,” which Americans call “period”; “brackets,” which they prefer to call “parenthesis,” (what they call brackets here is what British people call square brackets— like this: [ ]); “dual-carriage way,” which they call “divided highway”; “roundabout,” which they call “rotary” (pronounced row-ta-ree); “ring road,” which they call “beltway”; “lift,” which they call “elevator” (elevator was actually a trademark for the major manufacturer of lifts in America but has now been genericized to stand for lift, just like Coke has been genericized in parts of the US to stand for soft drinks); “biscuits,” which they call “cookies,” (their biscuits are something else!); “sweets,” which they call “candies”; “chips,” which they call “(French) fries.”