Thursday, August 28, 2008

I Say "Tomato" You Say... "Pumpkin"?

If British English is the Bentley of the English language, American is the Mustang Coupe, and Nigerian is the Pinto.

I am amazed that there are young people here who cannot speak the language of their tribes, what they call "their language."  They are left only with this strange, broken-down English.  The other day, I sat in a room with several people and couldn't understand anything.  The only reason I knew they were speaking English was that one of the girls involved in the conversation doesn't speak any other languages.

Sometimes I want to correct people when speaking or when I see something written.  But I don't.  On the one hand, it may not be wrong, just different.  It would be like telling a Brit to say "sweater" instead of "jumper" or "french fries" instead of "chips."  (I am sure Katrina could give plenty of Australian examples as well.)  And British terminology like this accounts for some of the trouble I have with Nigerian English.

Biscuit, not cookie

Trousers, not pants

Sweets, not candy

Mad, not crazy

On the other hand, words are used wrongly or have assumed entirely new meanings.  Grammar rules are paid as much mind as a midget ref at an NBA game.  Half the time nobody sees, and the other half they don't care.  A few examples:

  • Grapefruit is called grape, differentiated by grapes only by the s.
  • The part of a dress or shirt that covers the shoulder and arm is called a "hand".  I should ask someone what a "sleeve" is.
  • From the church bulletin, "The soul of man is the centre of its activity, so your activities will become limited, your spread will be restricted except you satisfy your soul with certify, qualitative, adequate, sufficient knowledge."
  • An advertisement for Odade Publishers, the Nigerian LexisNexis partner, found in the program for the NBA conference discusses what you can do with their product in the following way: With LexisNexis Analytics, you would access distilled information from the "invisible web".  You would monitor media in 9 different languages.  You would quickly spot patterns, draw conclusions and gain strategic advantage over competitors and opponents.  My favorite part is actually in the next point about why you should get Odade LexisNexis,  After saying a brief bit about the training sessions the company has done, the advertisement says, "We would do more!"  You would, would you?  But what?  Why don't you?

I came across an article about a year ago that actually discussed this issue.  Nigerian English is so different from Standard English (however you define that) that it is hurting Nigeria economically.  Nigerians encounter problems trying to do business outside their country, or trying to attract developers to Nigeria, because their English not only makes communication difficult, it makes them sound less smart than they really are.

Because it's not just terminology, but the grammatical structures that are different from other forms of English, the Nigerian version isn't looked at as much as another dialect as it is as wrong.  Australian, British and American English are all different.  A speaker of one might have a bit of difficulty understanding the speaker of another due to some different terminology, but the grammatical structures of the sentences will still be the same.  It might be like an elderly person trying to talk to someone using new slang.  But the way some people talk in Nigeria, it's more like a high-class, very cultured old woman trying to talk to someone speaking Ebonics (which has it's own grammar rules).

Of course, there is also pidgin English spoken around here, which they just call Pidgin.  This doesn't bother me as much.  Perhaps because people don't usually think they are speaking proper English, and because it's very interesting to see elements of native languages in various pidgins.  It's harder for me to understand the pidgin here than it was in Zambia, because I don't know anything about the local languages. 

In Zambia, I understood the Bantu grammatical structure, so I could not only figure out what people meant, but usually figure out why they said what they said.  Once, when I was carrying Nchimunya across the compound, Ba Lenix said to me, "Ah, Ba Nchimunya, you are having a baby."  This made me laugh very hard and exclaim "oh no!  I'm not having a baby!"  But I understood he meant I was holding the baby.  In Tonga, the sentence would have been "Ba Nchimunya, mulajisi mwana."  Jisi is to have, and since I was holding Nchimunya, I had him at that moment.  The la in the middle of the word represents the present tense, so words with it are usually translated in the is/are -ing form.   Because I understood this, I was able to tell Ba Lenix that his translation was technically correct, but that the saying "having a baby" has a specific connotation in English that basically means "pregnant."

I'm trying to learn a bit about the local languages of Nigeria.  Hopefully, then I'll have an easier time both with Pidgin, and with their version of English.

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