Romeo and Juliet Don Land for Pidgin.

A couple of years ago I posted about BBC World Service’s then-new Pidgin service for West Africa; now I present a BBC story about a Nigerian production of Shakespeare:

Rukevwe and Julie na di name of di pidgin version of di play as Bernard Ogini write am. For dis video, Bernard wit some students of university of Ibadan south west Nigeria breakdown all di ogbonge english to pidgin so evribodi go fit understand am.

Benard say im want make pidgin become national language for Nigeria because na language wey everybody dey understand even wen dem no go school. “I wan use my talent change how pipo dey see pidgin language, I wan make dem begin teach di language for school for we kontri” na so Bernard tok.

I’m posting it for the sake of the video, which is fun to watch in and of itself (and has Pidgin subtitles to help out) and which contains, at the 0:58 mark (“fit dey our own culture”), a brief shot of our own bulbul, aka Slavomír Čéplö, enjoying the performance!


  1. What is na?

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    What is fit?

  3. SFReader says:

    Definition: (It) is. Used to describe something being something else. Depending on tone, can also be used in an interrogative sort of way. Example: -Dis one na gobe! (This is trouble!) – Na you wey wan come start wahala for my domot yesterday abi? (So, you’re the one who wanted to start trouble in my area yesterday right?)

  4. SFReader says:

    Definition: it is used to suggest the ability to do something. Example: abeg, you fit help me? (means: please, can you help me?
    i no fit talk (i can not talk)

  5. SFReader says:

    Learned this from Naija Lingo site which, of course, was mentioned on LH thirteen years ago.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Na is a focus marker and copula; fit is a stative verb “be able.”

    Mi papa na dɔkta.
    “My father is a doctor.”

    Na sikrɛt o!
    “It’s a secret!”

    A no bin fit tɔk.
    “I couldn’t talk.”

    The pidgin is pretty acrolectal, but I suppose that’s inevitable in the circumstances. Weird to see Pidgin written with English spelling conventions, but I suppose that’s for similar reasons.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    Using English spelling does have the unfortunate side-effect of bolstering the wholly mistaken idea (common in Nigeria, alas) that Pidgin is basically just bad English: “Broken English.”

  8. Stu Clayton says:

    When you try to assess this Pidgin as a kind of English, intended to be understood by English speakers, there’s no way around the assessment that it’s bad English. Pidgin speakers among themselves, however, are not trying to be understood by English speakers, so there’s no point in judging their success at doing what they’re not trying to do.

    Who are the people who run around dissing the way other people speak ? Well, everybody pretty much. Except when they’re outnumbered in face-to-face situations.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    But from a linguistic point of view, trying to assess Pidgin as a kind of English is as misguided as assessing Dutch as bad English; indeed, in some ways, even more so. Nigerian Pidgin is radically isolating, has word-level contrastive tone, serial verb constructions, primary distinctions in the verbal system based on aspect rather than tense, stative verbs instead of predicative adjectives … in everything but the very high level of obviously cognate vocabulary, English is much more like Dutch than Pidgin.

    The cited extract is misleading in being very English-influenced: the plural form “students”, for example, and almost all of the prepositions are acrolectal. It gives a false impression of what Pidgin is generally like in reality and borders on code-switching (something polyglot Nigerians are very good at.)

  10. @David Eddyshaw – how would it typically be spelled? I’m interested to see the difference.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think the answer is that it typically wouldn’t be spelt at all … the language has very low prestige (not unconnected with the “Broken English” misunderstanding), considering its wide use and considerable real-life importance. The BBC (and Bernard Ogini) are very much on the side of the angels in trying to address that.

    In technical grammars of West African English-lexifier creoles (there are several high-quality ones nowadays) the orthography is generally similar to that used for the only one of these languages which actually does have some prestige, Sierra Leone Krio. It uses the vowel symbols a e i o u ɛ ɔ, which match the structure of the languages well and have the further advantage that ɛ ɔ are familiar symbols to a lot of West Africans.

    To give a flavour:

    Papa Gɔd we de na ɛvin,
    Na yu wan gren na Gɔd, mek ɔlman pre to yu ɛn ɔna yu;
    Wi de pre mek yu rul wi;
    mek wetin yu want, bi na dis wɔl, lɛkɛ aw i de bi na ɛvin.
    Gi wi wetin wi fɔ it tide.
    Padin wi fɔ di bad tin dɛn we wi dɔn du, lɛkɛ aw wisɛf de padin dɛn pipul we de du wi bad.
    Mek wi nɔ lɛf fɔ biliv pan yu ɛnitɛm we Setan tray wi; nɔ mek Setan ebul wi.
    Na yu de rul di wɔl, na yu gɛt pawa, ɛn na yu gɛt prɛz ɛn ɔna, fɔ ɛva ɛn ɛva.

    (This is not exactly the same language as Nigerian Pidgin, but is close enough to be easily comprehensible to a Pidgin speaker.)

  12. Etienne says:

    Jim: Allow me to answer your question, amplifying David Eddyshaw’s: Nigerian Pidgin does not have a standardized spelling (Few creoles and fewer pidgins have a standardized spelling system universally accepted by users): part of the difficulty with such standardization involves the perception that a pidgin/creole is bad English/French/Portuguese (i.e. whatever the source language of the core vocabulary of the pidgin/creole is –what is referred to in creolistics as the lexifier): as a result many users wish or expect to see the pidgin/creole spelled in such a way as to highlight the relationship to the lexifier (The Nigerian pidgin examples given here are an excellent example of this).

    There is an inherent tension between this sort of etymological spelling, however, and the reason for using the pidgin/creole in the first place, i.e. making pidgin/creole speakers participate more fully in society: for English and French pidgins/creoles, especially, an etymological spelling can genuinely hinder intelligibility, and thus a counter-trend arises whereby the pidgin/creole is written using a strictly phonological spelling. This is fiercely opposed by individuals literate in the lexifier: to their eyes the use of such a phonological spelling makes the pidgin/creole look like a “primitive” language whose users can barely be called literate.

    Obviously, these social clashes are often tied to political beliefs/national allegiances and related ideologies: thus, in Réunionnais creole, the two most un-French-like spelling systems, Lékritir 77 and the KWZ spelling system (The latter owes its name to the generous use it makes of those three letters, which are quite rare in French) were both created by local nationalists (defenders of increased local autonomy or even independence), whereas the more etymological spelling system(s) is associated with more conservative (=defenders of the political status quo, i.e. La Réunion as part of France) groups.

    In the wake of this sort of social division the spelling used by linguists in reference grammars or scholarly articles, incidentally, is all too often quite distinct from those which users are divided about.

    And I second David Eddyshaw’s comment regarding how misleading these examples of written Nigerian Pidgin are: I knew a Nigerian, a fellow grad student, and once had the pleasure, at a student party, of “listening in” to a conversation in Nigerian Pidgin he was participating in with fellow Nigerians living in Canada. I wrote ‘listening in” in brackets above, because I found Nigerian Pidgin wholly incomprehensible, and indeed it took me a few minutes before I was certain that these Nigerians were indeed speaking Nigerian Pidgin to one another, and not some indigenous Nigerian language (Yoruba or Igbo were my first guesses during the first minute or so of the conversation). Do please note that all of the participants were educated Nigerians who spoke excellent English and who had been living for years in an English-speaking environment: if even their Nigerian Pidgin is incomprehensible, I suspect Nigerian Pidgin used by speakers unacquainted with English in Nigeria itself would be even more un-English-like, and indeed I suspect I might be unable to acoustically tell it and indigenous Nigerian languages apart.

  13. ktschwarz says:

    According to the dictionaries, ogbonge = superb, amazing, correct. So “ogbonge english” for England English is the flip side of “Broken English”.

  14. the language has very low prestige
    Not really. In fact, the point of the project was to show how it is the primary language of daily communication even among educated people. In fact, among those speakers, it is associated positively with Nigerian – as opposed to constitutionally enshrined tribal – identity and as such, a point of pride.

    As for the discussion regarding spelling, this was an issue raised at the conference I took part in in Ibadan last week. The general consensus was that there is a significant resistance to top-down standardization or indeed any standardization in general because that would assume that there is one proper way of speaking Pidgin or even that one group owns Pidgin and oh boy, no one wants to go there. Even the transcription of the corpus data shows a lot of variation in spelling (which is mostly English-based, though less so than that of BBC Pidgin) and while this is a problem for the likes of me who want their data normalized, it is a trade-off we were willing to make.

    your definitions are correct, to some extent:
    is a individual-level copula (think Spanish ser), as opposed to the stage-level copula dey (Spanish estar):

    My name na bulbul / How you dey? – I dey good.

    Clause-initial na is actually a clefting marker; it often does introduce focused constituents, but not always, for example:

    I dey like starch { well |r well } // starch ‹
    na starch >+ I dey like //

    By the way, there is a report from the conference now online as well.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think ogbonge is basically “original” (from Igbo), though hooray meanings like “superb” could easily be derived from that, I imagine.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    the language has very low prestige

    Not really.

    Glad to hear it. Sounds like things have changed since I was in Nigeria (I also may have had a skewed idea of things from living in parts where Hausa is the usual Nigerian interlanguage.) Still, to be contrarian, being the primary language of everyday communication among even educated speakers by no means necessarily ensures prestige. Even so, in a better world, Pidgin would be a sensible candidate to be Nigeria’s official language. I’m all in favour of it if Nigerians are coming to feel the same way.

    Not sure if I follow your “individual-level” vs “stage-level” distinction. I thought na was a copula “be something” whereas de does duty both for “be somewhere/exist” and as a preverbal imperfective marker? I think with gud it carries a non-time-stable nuance (like “be” in AAVE.)

    Ayofor and Green’s Cameroonian Pidgin grammar does give examples of na focussing objects in situ without clefting, and says it’s common in that language at any rate, e.g.

    Yu aks na mi kweshɔn dɛn!
    “You ask me a question then!”

    MInd you, although these languages are all very similar, they’re by no means identical. Yakpo’s grammar of Fernando Po Creole English is detailed enough to show that Pichi has got quite a few peculiarities of its own (like a distinct narrative perfective: yay!)

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    Come to think of it, Cameroonian Pidgin Yu aks na mi kweshɔn dɛn! could be a parallel to Kusaal constructions which embed verbless clauses meaning “that’s a X” inside other clauses:

    Fʋ maal bɔɔ la tis mam?
    “What is this that you have done to me?”

    where Bɔɔ la? is a verbless clause which means “What’s that?”
    I don’t know enough about the syntax of other West African languages to know if that sort of thing is widespread in the region (and I’m not altogether clear what to make of it in Kusaal, come to that.)

    I have some dim memory of something a bit like this (predicators as constituents) in Bloomfield’s always-to-be-spoken-of-with-awe Menomini grammar. Have to look it up …

  18. David,

    Not sure if I follow your “individual-level” vs “stage-level” distinction.
    This is a standard typological distinction.

    Ayofor and Green’s Cameroonian Pidgin grammar does give examples of na focussing objects in situ without clefting
    Yes, and as the corpus data (as analyzed by Caron) and native speakers’ intuition have shown, this is not possible in Nigerian Pidgin.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:


    Seems to be more or less equivalent to what I supposed the distinction was, which is reassuring.

    Interesting about the Cameroon/Nigerian difference.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    The BBC report on the conference says

    … pipo dey see Pidgin language as local language for poor pipo and pipo wey no go school.
    But tori be say, oyibo dem dey study di language and dey plan beta future for am sake of say dem believe say soon, di language go grow pass oda languages for Africa…

    which seems to suggest that the low-prestige thing hasn’t (yet) gone away. A work in progress rather than a description of how things already are? No question about the widespread use and importance of the language, but that doesn’t automatically create prestige (as I’m sure Étienne will confirm with French-lexifier creoles.) For all that it ought to.

  21. The BBC report on the conference (you can hear Slavo/bulbul talk after 1:20). The more I listen to Pidgin, the better I can understand it (with the help of the subtitles, of course).

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kofi Yakpo too!

  23. My next question is, does na in Tok Pisin have anything to do, historically, with that of African creoles? In Tok Pisin, na serves as a simple phrasal coordinator (‘and’), and as subordinator in certain complex sentences (similar to ‘and’ subordination in English).

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t think the origin of West African creole na is really known, but I’ve come across proposed derivations from Portuguese and Igbo. Both are based on the supposition that the homophonous very general locative preposition na is the origin of the focus marker/copula.

    The Portuguese explanation invokes na “in the” (feminine); Igbo actually is a very general locative preposition much like Pidgin na in that sense; cognates occur in other West African languages. Gbe, which is often supposed to play a starring role in the genesis of these languages, has “to, for”, but that is actually a specialised use of the verb “give” and I think the resemblance is coincidental.

    Bulbul may very well know more about it than I do (which wouldn’t be hard.)

    Obviously if West African na is from Igbo or Portuguese the resemblance to Tok Pisin na must be purely coincidental. I don’t know anything about Tok Pisin, but from what you say it sounds like the words have rather different meanings. And the chance of accidental resemblance with CV function words must be very high.

  25. I don’t think the origin of West African creole na is really known
    True. Same goes for the origin of the West African creole in general: there are theories and most of them converge on Sierra Leone, around Freetown or a nearby center of trans-Atlantic slave trade; the variety spoken there was then exported to today’s Delta State and across the Atlantic. The Portuguese had some influence on it (cf. the verb “sabi” = “to know”) and there’s definitely influence from Ewe and Edoid languages which points to all of them being there at the birth, but no one really knows. We are hoping that an expedition to the archives of the countries and other entities involved in that particular part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade will bring some more insights, including insights into some of its conspicuous grammatical features like na.

  26. Trond Engen says:

    If na is a focus particle, it looks like it could owe a lot to English now.

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    Seems to work phonetically, I agree. On the other hand, it can hardly underlie locative na, and if it was at the back of the focus/copula na the focus meaning would have to be primary, and the copula a secondary development. Still, copula-na is peculiar in being grammatical without any overt subject, despite these languages otherwise not being pro-droppy at all, so maybe that’s not so implausible.

    What would remain to be explained was how na had lost the in-situ focus function in Nigerian Pidgin. But that would in any case need explaining; I think in-situ focus na exists in Krio, which in some sense seems to be the mother (or at least stepmother) of all these languages.

    @Bulbul: is this all going to issue in an up-to-date grammar of Nigerian Pidgin in due course? (I hereby pre-order one, if so …)

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    The writing of Pidgin words as if they were the corresponding English etyma reminds me of a book I read some years back which maintained that the break between late Latin and the first written evidence of the Romance languages was essentially orthographic; for centuries people had been writing Latin (more or less) but actually reading it as (say) Very Old French; it was only when they abandoned the attempt to write their language as if it were still Latin that a new language suddenly seemed to appear.

  29. That was discussed in at least one old LH thread, but I have no idea where.

  30. Trond Engen says:

    Couldn’t na have several origins? The Igbo allround preposition “by, at” (?) could have been identified with English now as a focus marker, making it a very useful element in the pidgin phase. I may even venture to suggest that the development to copula was helped by ambiguity in whether it belonged to the subject (“Me, now, ….”) or the compliment (“… at the market”).

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    Couldn’t na have several origins?

    Yes indeed. It would be wholly in the spirit of these languages if it were so, as the BBC video rightly says. The wonderful thing about these creoles is exactly how they’ve grabbed stuff from all over and made it into single languages every bit as internally coherent as French. Human linguistic creativity at its peak.

  32. Stu Clayton says:

    More’s the pity that many writers of French fail to demonstrate external coherence. So much so that the internal coherence appears to be an exercise in preening as a policy. I refer to the Higher Writing.

Speak Your Mind