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Nigerian English: Variety Or Vulgarity

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English, Sound-Letter Distinction

Nigerian English –Being the most geographically dispersed language in the world, the English language has been nativised in different parts of the world to reflect the sociocultural realities of its host communities.

Since language is a carrier of thoughts and the ultimate tool for the construction of worldviews and ideologies, a foreign language cannot be used in total adherence to its native features, particularly when such a language is adopted in another clime. Therefore, the existence of Nigerian English is not open to debate. In the words of a renowned professor of English, Adeleke Fakoya, the only variety of English available to a Nigerian (living in Nigeria) is Nigerian English. Having established in this piece that Nigerian English is a full-fledged variety of English, what remains open to debate is whether everything uttered by a Nigerian can simply be labelled Nigerian English.

One of the essential features of language is systematism, which implies that language is rule-governed. This does not rule out the naturalness of language use. It, however, means that if a language or a variety of it must serve certain purposes, such as pedagogy and other official uses, it has to be regulated. Modern linguists and sociolinguists have argued that terms such as ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ are inappropriate for describing a language in use. Since I subscribe to this notion, too, I equally wish to posit that such terms still need replacements with milder concepts such as ‘standard’, ‘non-standard’, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’.

Now, concerning the topic of this treatise, I submit that Nigerian English is a recognised variety, but there is still the need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Every ungrammatical and unpolished expression should not be hidden under the licence of Nigerian English. Not only that, the variety should not be the embodiment of errors. As an attempt to illustrate the separation of the wheat from the chaff, I will highlight some lexical, syntactic and semantic features which typify Nigerian English, and I shall juxtapose them with usages that are outright errors.

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At the lexical level, scholars have listed some words/expressions that can be described as Nigerian English. Such words oftentimes depict the peculiarity of Nigerian English and are born out of contact with indigenous languages; they, however, do not affect global intelligibility and can pass as lexical items in Nigerian English. Some of such words, as itemised by Okoro (2009), are:
Not on the seat (understood as not being available in the office)
Big man (a wealthy person)
Cash-madam (an affluent female trader)
Bottom power (undue influence with sex)
Co-wives (the wives in a polygamous family)
While these items will pass as Nigerian English, the following misuses of words should be considered errors, not Nigerian English:
I will come if I am opportune (error).
This man is well knowledged (error).
These errors are due to faulty analogies around participial adjectives such as:
I will come if I am allowed.
This man is well respected.

Such inconsistencies should be acknowledged as instances of errors born out of inappropriate mastery of the language, not examples of Nigerian English.
At the semantic level, while expressions such as ‘big mummy’ may be considered contextually appropriate for one’s parent’s elder sister (an aunt), the use of expressions, such as ‘too sweet’ to mean ‘very delicious’, ‘dowry’ to mean ‘bride price’, ‘round up’ to mean ‘round off’ (or ‘round out’ in American English) and ‘junior/senior brother’ for ‘younger/elder brother’, has to remain errors or, at best, non-standard Nigerian English.

At the syntactic level, hiding under Nigerian English to deploy expressions such as ‘come now now’ (instead of: ‘come immediately’) and ‘They are not around’ (instead of: ‘My father is not around) is just an attempt to evade the responsibility of learning a language.

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Instructively, I wish to state that the issue of the standard variety of any language is not a serious societal one. Non-standard varieties are heard more often. After all, it sounds more natural and conversational to say ‘it was me’ than to say ‘it was I’, despite that the latter is the standard form. Even in Britain, the popular standard known as ‘Received Pronunciation is now considered snobbish.

Notwithstanding this sociolinguistic situation, every language or variety of a language (such as English) should still have its standard forms. In this case, one can tell when there is a preference for the non-standard variety, either for its situational appropriateness or out of improper mastery of the rules of the standard variety. Consequentially, the standard version will be available, with its well-defined rules, for people who would love to learn and deploy it accordingly.

In rounding off this treatise, Nigerian English is an independent variety of English that caters for the realities of its host country. As such, the variety is not the embodiment of errors, and every instance of inappropriate usage should not be cited under the pretext of speaking or writing Nigerian English. Again, this piece submits that efforts have to be intensified to develop Nigerian English for pedagogical purposes, especially as regards its teaching in the formative stage of language learning. It is afterwards that efforts can be made to back up its usage in formal and examination situations, through policy formulation and implementation.

© 2021 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (2021)
Department of English,
Lagos State University

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