Friday, November 4, 2011

On Nigerian English, and my own English

Colleen Jolly should be thankful that she hasn't started a Nigerian branch of the 24 Hour Company yet.

I recently ran across a news article which included the following quote from a representative of the (Nigerian) National Union of Electricity Employees:

We are in receipt of a provocative memo sent to Chief Executive Officers of PHCN by Mr. H. Labo, citing biometric exercise for staff as a pre-condition for payment of the negotiated 50 per cent salary increase.

We are not surprised at this satanic verse. This confirms our earlier fears that some people within the system were bent on importing crisis into PHCN, where none exist. For the avoidance of doubt and contrary to Point ‘A’ of the memo ‘that all employees are expected to undergo biometric exercise, as agreed by Federal Government and PHCN Labour Unions,’ this assertion by Labo is the biggest lie of the millennium.

The language used in the quote resulted in mental images of Olivia Newton-John shaking her finger and contorting her face (biometric exercise), and of Salman Rushdie (satanic verse). I also mused on corporate organization; even Oracle does not have multiple chief executive officers. And if this dispute (which presumably involves biometric enrollment of employees) is truly the "biggest lie of the millennium," then I think we'll have a relatively peaceful millennium.

While the language provides chuckles to me, it presumably does not provide chuckles to the Nigerians who read it. In fact, those same Nigerians may question the language that I use, or that weird u-infused language that Steven Hodson, Johnny Worthington, and others use.

Because of my curiosity about the topic, I ended up reading a piece entitled Back-Formation and Affixation in Nigerian English. The piece describes eight phrases in Nigerian English which differ from American and British English. Here is one of them:

"Vacate." This is a popular word used in educational institutions in Nigeria to mean "take a long, formal break from school." It is a back-formation from "vacation," the American English word for what British speakers call holiday. (In British English, vacation is only used to indicate the formal, temporary closure of universities and courts of law, not primary or secondary schools).

Many native speakers of the English language will find the Nigerian semantic extension of "vacate" strange, even incomprehensible. In standard British and American English, vacate usually means one of three things: to leave a job, post, position, etc voluntarily, that is, to resign (as in: he vacated the job when he got a better offer elsewhere); to abandon, to leave behind empty, or to move (as in: "You must vacate this house by tomorrow"); to rescind, to reverse, to cancel officially (as in: "the president vacated the death sentence on the political prisoner").

Read the other seven here. (I wonder if I need to barb.)

However, before discussing these unique features of Nigerian English, the article points out how my own dialect of English has evolved. For example:

[B]ack-formation is said to occur when speakers of a language invent new words by removing what is wrongly thought to be a suffix (i.e., an element added to the end of a word) from an existing word....

The word "negate," which ... never existed until relatively recently, was formed from "negation." Other popular back-formations that have been fully integrated into the English lexicon are "reminisce" (from "reminiscence"), "televise" (from "television"), "baby-sit" (from "baby-sitter"), "sculpt" (from "sculptor"), "chain-smoke" (from "chain-smoker"), "edit" (from "editor"), "back-form" (from "back-formation")....

[B]ack-formations are often met with stiff resistance from grammarians and semantic purists of all shades when they first emerge. But because they fill a real semantic and lexical void, they often ultimately prevail. All the examples I've cited above were once considered egregious grammatical taboos.

I have used the words "negate," "televise," "baby-sit," "chain-smoke," and "edit" constantly over the last several decades, never realizing that they were controversial at one time. As a writer, I cannot imagine a language with the word "edit." However, if I were sitting in a room with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson discussing changes to the Declaration of Independence, I would not have asked Adams to edit the document; the term didn't exist until 1785-1795. (By the way, Jefferson didn't compose a rough draft; he composed a Rough draught.)

Why do I share this? Simply to illustrate that just because someone over yonder colours his or her words differently, it does not mean that the person is incorrect. My Californian-Virginia English is not a worldwide standard. (Thankfully.)
blog comments powered by Disqus