Nigerian English As Excuse For Sloppy Scholarship

I recently stumbled upon a cringe-inducing journal article on Nigerian English written by two University of Ilorin lecturers by the names of M.S. Abdullahi-Idiagbon and O.K. Olaniyi. It's titled "Coinages in Nigerian English: A Sociolinguistic Perspective" and published in the 2011 (issue3) edition of the oddly named "Africa Nebula" journal.

In more ways than one, this article dramatizes the severity of the atrophy of serious scholarship in Nigerian universities. It is not only written in indefensibly poor grammar and ungainly prose, especially for people who earn a living teaching English usage in a leading Nigerian university, its main contribution to the scholarship on Nigeria English is depressingly and unforgivably ignorant.

The thrust of the article is that Nigerian English has spawned a multitude of coinages. While some of the coinages are situational and transitory, others have achieved idiomatic status. This is a trite and well-worn fact that has been exhaustively captured in the scholarly literature several decades ago. But the point at issue here is the examples it gives to instantiate the occurrence of "coinages" (that is, newly invented words) in Nigerian English.

In what follows, I isolate only the most bizarre examples that the authors mentioned in their article as examples of Nigerian coinages. I show why these examples are not Nigerian coinages.

1. "No-go area." This isn't a Nigerian coinage by any stretch of the imagination; it is a British English expression that means an area that is dangerous or impossible to enter or to which entry is forbidden. All the authors needed to do to know this is do a simple dictionary search.

2. "Free and fair." This is a well-established collocation in American English to describe elections that are adjudged to be free from manipulation. (A collocation is a group of words that habitually appears together in a sentence more often than would be expected by chance. Common English collocations are "heavy drinker," "quick shower," "commit suicide," "spic and span," etc.) There is nothing remotely Nigerian about "free and fair." It is infinitely mystifying that people who teach university-level English for a living would claim it's a Nigerian coinage.

3. "Come of age." This is a standard idiomatic expression in both American and British English. It means to reach a certain age that marks a transition to maturity. Margret Mead (1901-1978), a famous American anthropologist noted for her studies of adolescence and sexual behavior in Polynesian cultures, wrote a famous book titled, Coming of Age in Samoa. An African-American author and activist by the name of Anne Moody also wrote a well-received book about poverty and race in rural Mississippi titled, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Maybe they are both Nigerians!

4. "Moneybag." This is a Standard English word. It means a person who possesses great material wealth. The only thing Nigerian about the word is the way it's spelled in Nigerian newspapers; Nigerians tend to write it as two separate words (i.e. "money bag") while native varieties of English spell it as one word.

5. "Juggernaut." This word came to the English language in the 17th century from India. It originally meant "a huge wagon bearing an image of a Hindu god," which reputedly crushed its devotees to death under its wheels. From the 19th century, it began to be used metaphorically to describe any massive inexorable force that crushes everything in its way. It's also used to describe crushingly destructive political movements that are led by a charismatic leader. When Nigerians describe politicians or political movements as juggernauts, or political juggernauts, they aren't "coining" anything; they are merely continuing with - or in some cases expanding - a usage pattern that began in nineteenth-century England.

6. "Political heavyweights." This is a standard expression in British and American conversational English. Its meaning is derived or extended from boxing. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines its extended meaning as "a person of influence or importance in a particular sphere." And here is the example it gives of this usage: "a political heavyweight with national recognition."

7. "Overjoyed." I was puzzled beyond words when the authors identified this word as a Nigerian coinage. They even took the trouble to isolate its usage in a Nigerian newspaper. Let me quote what they wrote: "The compound word, ‘over joyed' was found on page 38 of ‘The Nation' newspaper on the 19th of March, 2010. The word ‘Joy' is supposed to be noun. The compound word was used as an adjective in the sentence – ‘the man was overjoyed…' ‘Over joyed' is a transfer of the sense in being very happy or joyous."

I didn't make this up. That's what they wrote--and it's only a representative sample of the poor quality of their writing and analysis. I am going to ignore the error-ridden, tortured prose and preposterous claims and simply say that there is an entry for "overjoyed" in all modern dictionaries. It means extremely happy.

8. "Settlement." Settlement is a financial terminology (among its several meanings) that means the completion of a transaction, e.g. delivery of goods by the seller and payment for the goods by the buyer. The word's usage in Nigerian English to mean bribery is merely a humorous semantic extension or distortion, not a coinage. It extends - or distorts - the element of payment in the concept of settlement in legitimate business transactions.

9. "Kickback." Kickback is not by a long shot a Nigerian English coinage. In all varieties of English, it means a commercial bribe paid by a seller to a purchasing agent in order to induce the agent to enter into the transaction. It also means a payment made to a person in a position of trust to pervert his judgment. In other words, it's a synonym for bribe or payoff. All dictionaries have an entry for it.

10. "Step aside." This is a standard idiom in American English. It literally means to move out of someone's way. It is also used figuratively to mean retire from office so someone can take over. The British tend to prefer "step down" or "stand down" for this latter sense of the phrase. Although the phrase became a part of the active idiolect of Nigerians when former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida used it in national broadcast 1993 to announce his retirement from the seat of power, it is by no means a Nigerian coinage.

11. "Cool down." Again, this is a Standard English idiom that is sometimes used figuratively to denote loss of intensity, as in "his enthusiasm cooled down considerably." It is beyond me why anyone would claim that this phrase is a Nigerian coinage.

12. "Allah"/ "emirate." The authors claim that "the sources of these words are the Islamic religion and the Hausa – Fulani cultures respectively." About "Allah," they also wrote: "a word such as Allah, i.e., the Arabic language word for God is traceable to the Arabian nations and Northern Nigeria." The ignorance in these statements is simply astounding! First, Allah is an entirely Arabic word that didn't come to the English language by way of northern Nigeria. The Hausa language also loaned it from Arabic.

Second, "emirate" is the Anglicization of the Arabic word "amir," which means ruler or chieftain or king or president or leader. The Hausa-Fulani adopted the term AFTER it has entered the English language, not the other way round. In fact, in the Hausa language, kings are called "sarki," not "emir." You would think people who live in Ilorin would know this elementary fact!

What is just as outrageous as the appalling illiteracy of the article is the fact that it was supposed to have been peer-reviewed by experts in the field of Nigerian English before it was published. One of two things must be true: either the people who reviewed the article are just as hopelessly ill-informed as the authors or the journal in which it's published isn't the peer-reviewed journal it claims to be.

But, well, what do you expect from a journal that goes by the name "nebula," which means (among other negative significations) cloud, that is, darkness? In Latin, from where it originated, it literally means "mist." In other words, it is a journal that displays intentional ignorance as a badge of honor!

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Author can be contacted at farooqkperogi@gmail.com