WORDS FOLLOW TEJU.

Teju Cole has produced, under various noms de guerre, some of the finest writing on the internet for a number of years now (and some of it was turned into the novel Every Day is for the Thief, which I praised here); he is writing newspaper columns under the rubric “Words Follow Me” (today’s column), and they are collected here. I was particularly taken with “an english of our own,” in which he makes the case for Nigerian English (for which I provided a couple of online resources here):

What then of Nigerian English? The stage has surely been set for it, from the deceptively simple sentences of Things Fall Apart, to the compressed ritual rhetoric of Death and the King’s Horseman. A specifically Nigerian cadence and rhythm has been brought to the world’s ears. That early labour has found new strength in books like Everything Good Will Come, Half of a Yellow Sun and Waiting for an Angel.
These are not merely Nigerian stories; they are told in the Nigerian language of English…
Some examples: the word “sorry” in Nigeria is not restricted to apology, since it is also frequently used to express commiseration. You lose your house in a fire, and a Nigerian says sorry—don’t take it as an admission of guilt. When we say, “how is your side?” we are not making an anatomical inquiry. “At all!” actually means “no.” “Okada” and “danfo” can’t be more pithily described other than with those words, and “madam,” as an honorific, is far broader in its Nigerian use than elsewhere.
To our ears, “trafficator” doesn’t sound archaic (as it would to a Brit) or incomprehensible (as it would to an American): it is simply a signalling device in a car. This English bears many traces of the vernaculars around it, absorbing structural elements and modes of thought from them. Without a grasp of Nigerian English, Nollywood films would be mystifying.
Now I can already hear those who will say that the English language in Nigeria is an unstable thing, that it is all the time being transmuted and is changing before our very eyes: how can we know what is correct? But all languages in all places are being transmuted. Language never sits still. This is why I am a descriptivist and not a prescriptivist: how a language is used in the present is much more interesting than how it should be “properly” used.

To which I say: Correct correct!

Comments

  1. Some examples: the word “sorry” in Nigeria is not restricted to apology, since it is also frequently used to express co-mmiseration. You lose your house in a fire, and a Nigerian says sorry—don’t take it as an admission of guilt.
    Isn’t this usage common to all English speakers?

  2. I read a passage from Nigerian pulp fiction once and the English was very distinct. I wish I had a chance to read the whole book. The only thing I remember was that the word “futile” was used where we would say “impotent”.
    It was interesting in that it was clearly a well written book in a non-standard form of English. A lot of the times when you see nonstandard English written down it’s from people who also can’t write well, and you come to wrongly expect that. But the story was told very effectively.

  3. I read a passage from Nigerian pulp fiction once and the English was very distinct. I wish I had a chance to read the whole book. The only thing I remember was that the word “futile” was used where we would say “impotent”.
    It was interesting in that it was clearly a well written book in a non-standard form of English. A lot of the times when you see nonstandard English written down it’s from people who also can’t write well, and you come to wrongly expect that. But the story was told very effectively.

  4. I find this site so interesting, especially considering i stumbled upon it while looking up the meaning of my stage name. illi. My real name is Joseph, but I just thought the story about the illi or illesh was so fascinating. Sorry to detract from your original post. I just wanted to comment.

  5. Along similar lines, Zadie Smith mourns the passing of her childhood, lower-class, language in her new essay Speaking in Tongues.

  6. The usage of “sorry” that Cole describes doesn’t seem like it’s peculiar to Nigeria — indeed I think it is part of my own idiolect.

  7. Michael Farris says:

    One of the interesting paradoxes about societies that aggressively promote the use of colonial languages is that one of the reasons for presumably doing so (the status of the language outside the country) work against it as a symbol of national cohesion in that the local users aren’t the sole (or even primary) owners of the local norm.
    Over time of course a local norm will develop (it would be quite amazing if it did not) but the necessary differences between it and the international koine will work against it gaining acceptance where it’s needed if local users are to gain ownership of the national idiom.

  8. Thank you for the generous words, Hat. You do well well.
    With regards to the use of “sorry,” I believe there is a specific West African sense of it, one I don’t find here (in the US). Not so much “I’m sorry your house burned down” or “I’m sorry for your loss” but simply “sorry,” used the same way you would say the word if you were apologizing.
    What I failed to mention is that the word “sorry” itself is already put to quite a number of uses in American and British Englishes. This specific Nigerian usage, though, seems to be a direct translation of the Yoruba “pele”: a word that you say when you’re guilty, when you’re comforting the afflicted, and when someone next to you sneezes i.e. for anything over which anyone might be sore. If the most common American idiolects are that expansive with the word, it’s news to me.

  9. AJP: Isn’t this usage common to all English speakers?
    The first thing I noticed about England was how everyone says “sorry” all the time, for instance, bumping into someone on the street, or if they just want to get past, instead of “excuse me”. They didn’t seem to be regretful or commiserating at all, it was just a way of saying “I see you and I’m going in front of your personal space now anyhow, so don’t get upset and punch me out.” “Sorry” is a Britishism that sticks out the same way as “mind the gap”.

  10. michael farris says:

    Three other weird Britishisms that AFAIK aren’t normally covered in textbook usage:
    Using ‘cheers’ instead of ‘thank you’.
    sorted – no direct American equivalent, done, sure thing sometimes come close but … actually pretty close to Polish załatwiony (taken care of)
    right – used to begin (and sometimes end) conversations. Again no American equivalent.

  11. Your last column is fantastic, Teju. I agree with you completely–and also second Hat’s praise.

  12. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Some people in England (including my mother) say ‘Sorry?’ to mean ‘What?’ or ‘Could you please repeat that?’. I don’t know where she picked it up.
    Teju, you’ve got a really interesting blog going there, congratulations. I don’t know about America, but the use of ‘Sorry’ you describe doesn’t sound to me any different from what you might hear in England, but I’m probably missing something subtle.

  13. A.J.P. Crown says:

    right – used to begin (and sometimes end) conversations. Again no American equivalent.
    If you mean to mean ‘exactly’ (genau in German, ‘jus det’ in Swedish, or ‘akkurat in Norwegian) I’ve heard Americans use it (in America, or at least in NY) a lot.

  14. Michael Farris: sorted – no direct American equivalent, done, sure thing sometimes come close but … actually pretty close to Polish załatwiony (taken care of)
    I’ve heard those as well, (Cheers is a drinking toast, right? or is that an Americanism–or does it mean goodbye?)
    “Sorted” I have always heard used as a two word verb with “out”, as in “I’m going to go visit him and get him sorted out.” or “No one can sort that out.”

  15. The usage of “sorry” that Cole describes doesn’t seem like it’s peculiar to Nigeria
    Are you sure you’re focusing on the word by itself? I say “Sorry to hear that” under such circumstances, but I don’t think I’ve ever said simply “Sorry!” in response to someone else’s tale of woe—it would sound unnatural (to me) in American English. If someone said their house burned down and I responded “Sorry,” I would feel as if I were admitting to arson.

  16. “sorted – no direct American equivalent, done, sure thing sometimes come close but … actually pretty close to Polish załatwiony (taken care of)”
    “Squared away” is what we use; civilians even.
    “right – used to begin (and sometimes end) conversations. Again no American equivalent.”
    “OK” is used exactly like that.
    The use of “sorry” as commiseration is so common in the US among women that back in the 80′s it used to be something they were advised to avoid in corporate life because it 1) was tantamount to accepting responsiblity for messes they hadn’t made and 2) sounded ingratiating and servile. So it is certainly used here, and it is gender-marked. I still hear it a lot.

  17. I agree with Hat. “Sorry” alone isn’t a condolence, but an apology.
    In England it seems to be a sort of weak, formal apology, where we would say “Excuse me”.

  18. I agree with Hat. “Sorry” alone isn’t a condolence, but an apology.
    In England it seems to be a sort of weak, formal apology, where we would say “Excuse me”.

  19. The use of “sorry” as commiseration is so common in the US among women that back in the 80′s it used to be something they were advised to avoid in corporate life
    I simply don’t believe that. I was in corporate life in the ’80s and never heard such a use. I think you’re thinking of the prevalence of apologies among women, who were indeed advised not to say “I’m sorry” every time something went wrong, because it kept them from being taken seriously. The crucial point is that they were apologizing, not commiserating. I’m willing to believe it’s some new thing I’m not familiar with because I’m out of the loop, but it is not a usage of long standing.

  20. The use of “sorry” as commiseration is so common in the US among women that back in the 80′s it used to be something they were advised to avoid in corporate life
    Not in Chicago, but then this is an aggressive city. “Never apologize, never explain.” Because then some idiot might actually think you HAD done something improper. I would say that “I’m sorry” or “I’m so sorry about your loss” is a formula expression, maybe even trite, used to express sympathy for a death in the family, and I now know of any gender marking with it, expect as much as in many families the wife is in charge of the family’s social arrangements.
    The British “So sorry” I always associate with male. Maybe to soften physical movements that could be perceived as being more aggressive than women would be perceived?

  21. I now know of any gender marking with it>I don’t know of any gender marking with it

  22. mollymooly says:

    Some people in England (including my mother) say ‘Sorry?’ to mean ‘What?’ or ‘Could you please repeat that?’.
    Terry Eagleton: ‘The lower class says “ay?”, the lower middle class says “pardon?”, the middle class say “sorry?”, and the upper class say “what?”‘

  23. Hat, I’m with you on my interpretation of Nigerian “sorry”.
    Trafficators – originally the name given to the semaphore indicators on early 1950s British cars such as the Morris Minor, as seen here – they popped up when the driver wanted to signal a turn. Evidently the name was applied in Nigeria to all vehicle indicators.
    “Cheers” to mean “thank you” – very common, certainly in Southern English English, usually given as “Cheers, mate”, as in: “I’ve opened the gate so that you can drive your white van in.” “Cheers, mate.” Probably indeed derived from the use of “cheers” as a toast.
    Sentence-initial right – this is not used as the equivalent of “exactly”, but as a marker to gain attention – the closest American equivalent is probably “Listen up”, or sentence-initial “OK”, as in “Right, I’ve opened the gate so that you can drive your white van in.”
    Sentence-ending “right” – normally used with a questioning tone, and conveys a vague sense of threat and self-justification, and is used to mean “can you not understand what I am saying to you?” as in “Do you have to drive your white van in here?” “I’m just doing my job, right?”
    Sorted – can have a variety of meanings, from “taken care of” (“Did you pick up that delivery in your van?” “Sorted.”) to “being in a satisfactory position” (“I’ve got a case of beer in for the match tonight, so I’m sorted.”)

  24. rootlesscosmo says:

    When I worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad (1963-86) radiophone communications very often had sentence-initial “Yeah,” whether or not they were affirmative responses to a previous message.

  25. michael farris says:

    “Okay…”, works sometimes as an impersonal conversation initiater in American (though I’ve heard ‘right’ in cases where _anything_ would sound (to me) strange in American).
    As a conversation ender I may be relying too much on a single incident. Some years ago I was in a streetcar with a British (slight) acquaintance and out of sense of politeness began a conversation. After a few turns, my interlocutor said “Right!” in a non-questioning manner and looked straight ahead in a way that seemed (to me) to be an unambiguous signal that the conversation was over.
    Being a perverse sort of individual I ignored that and did my part to keep the conversation going only to hear the same “Right!” (followed by him breaking eye contact and staring ahead in a determined fashion) a few more times (each time after a few perfunctory conversational terms about general interest topics).
    Feeling in an especially evil mood that day I stayed on the streetcar several stops past where I normally would have gotten off (just to see how far I could push him) and I relished the look of blind panic in his face when he realized I was getting off the streetcar at the same stop he did. By that time I was bored with the game and indicated I was going in a different direction and let him flee with a casual “see ya”.
    I don’t think I use single word ‘sorry’ as an expression of sympathy (though I might be wrong). I think I’d be more like to say “(I’m) sorry to hear that” or “oh, I’m so sorry” or even just “I’m sorry”. But the single word interjection “sorry” is only an apology/excuse in my idiolect.

  26. Given that so much attention is being paid to changing uses of “sorry” in Nigeria, England and America, I daresay I am not entirely out of place in remarking that Hat’s use of “noms de guerre” may indicate a change in meaning, compared with when I grew up in Texas. There, bushy-tailed punctilious young intellectuals said “noms de plume”.

  27. Sorry

  28. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I guess I agree with Language. I think the minimum I would say as a condolence is ‘I’m sorry’.
    Has anyone discussed here ‘Excuse me?’ meaning ‘What did you say?’ that came in the mid-Eighties (in my hearing, at least), with the emphasis ‘exCUSE me???’, to mean ‘What did you just say, motherfucker?’? It’s interesting because it is using an exaggeratedly polite form to say something rude. Also it’s like Robert de Niro’s ‘Are you talking to me?’ in sounding pretend-innocent or weak before that impression is (in theory) reversed by the production of a gun from the sleeve.

  29. “At all!” actually means “no.”
    Could this be a Spanish or Portuguese influence? The Spanish “en absoluto” doesn’t mean “at all” as one might guess, but “not at all”. I don’t know if the same applies to Portuguese, but as the capital of Nigeria has a Portuguese name I wouldn’t be too surprised if there was a Portuguese influence on the way of speaking.

  30. mollymooly says:

    I once had a prolonged misunderstanding with a French/Arabic native speaker after I asked (in English) a negative question and the response was “of course!” when it should have been “of course not!”

  31. Timothy Lumsden says:

    Sorry, but what exactly does “My people, how far” mean in Nigerian English?

  32. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Sorry, but don’t you mean ‘what would it mean in BBC English’?. Sorry.

  33. Timothy Lumsden says:

    Right then – I know what it means in BBC English. But apparently it means something unique in Nigerian English, at least according to Teju Cole’s opening paragraph. Cheers.
    I’d give it a bit more practice with your use of “Sorry”, if I were you.

  34. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Yes, sorry, I will. Sorry. So what does it mean in BBC English?

  35. Timothy Lumsden says:

    There is nothing strange about the syntax, and the words, in this order, have a meaning in standard British English. It could mean, for instance, that the speaker calls on a group he identifies with and asks them about a distance travelled.
    It’s all right there in Teju Cole’s first paragraph. So could anybody else (who’s interested in helping out, rather than taking the piss) tell me what it means in Nigerian English?

  36. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Excuse me? Taking the piss? Are you talking to me? You’re the one who’s calling himself after a television sitcom, Timmy.

  37. Timothy Lumsden says:

    A more appropriate response would have been “Language, Timothy”. But anyway, what does it mean?

  38. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Talking of piss, here is a video they showed today in my daughter’s English class.

  39. Hat’s use of “noms de guerre” may indicate a change in meaning, compared with when I grew up in Texas. There, bushy-tailed punctilious young intellectuals said “noms de plume”.
    I was simply using the actual French term rather than the pseudo-French term that has become naturalized in English. Not that there’s anything wrong with pseudo-French terms that have become naturalized in English.

  40. Sorry, but what exactly does “My people, how far” mean in Nigerian English?
    From Naija Lingo:
    how far
    an informal greeting or enquiry about the out come an event.
    Example:
    bros, how far?

  41. Timothy Lumsden says:

    Cheers.

  42. A.J.P. Crown says:

    From Naija Lingo:
    abi
    Definition: is it not? OR isn’t it?
    Example
    1. abi na my food you wan chop? Den you go clean my domot first! 2. na television you wan buy. Abi?

    Here is proof, if it’s needed, that English dialects are in desperate need of this Nigerian equivalent of oder? or eller?. I’ve forgotten the Hungarian for the moment.

  43. “Sorry about that”, “Thanks a lot” are all used enough sarcastically that they’re no longer usable straightforwardly. “Excuse me” has to be clearly distinguishable from “ExCUSE me”.

  44. “Sorry about that”, “Thanks a lot” are all used enough sarcastically that they’re no longer usable straightforwardly. “Excuse me” has to be clearly distinguishable from “ExCUSE me”.

  45. michael farris says:

    Not to mentions ExCuse MEEEEEEE!!

  46. A.J.P. Crown says:

    That last one is originally by Steve Martin, isn’t it?

  47. @Hat:

    I was simply using the actual French term

    Had to rush to my Petit Robert and the Wikipedia on that one. It was new to me that “nom de plume” is apparently not used in French! However, what I was getting at is the conventional meaning of “nom de guerre” in French and English, namely a pseudonym used in a political or bellic context to provide a certain cover. Looking at Teju Cole’s site, I saw nothing suggesting a need for any of that. I was wondering why you didn’t merely say nom de plume.

  48. “Abi” to make a question in Nigerian English comes from Yoruba, in which ‘abi’ ends a statement to turn it into a rhetorical yes or no question. “O l’owo pupo, abi?” (He has a lot of money, doesn’t he?)It doesn’t have a real; Hungarian eqiivalent, there are any number of tag words that can end a Magyar sentence butb none function as an independant grammatical maker like ‘abi’ or Japanese ‘ne’ or ‘ka’.

  49. what I was getting at is the conventional meaning of “nom de guerre” in French and English, namely a pseudonym used in a political or bellic context to provide a certain cover. Looking at Teju Cole’s site, I saw nothing suggesting a need for any of that.
    I put it to you that anyone disguising themselves on the internet is engaged in a war with the forces of privacy invasion. (I would also point out that I was not talking about the linked site, which is his newspaper column, but about his earlier ventures in blogging, under such noms de blog as “commonbeauty” and “elck.”)
    I was wondering why you didn’t merely say nom de plume.
    Basically a desire to avoid the obvious.

  50. “Alias” and “street name” also work.

  51. “Alias” and “street name” also work.

  52. Anyone curious about the polymathic zaelic’s credentials in Yoruba should read this thread; he studied with Wande Abimbola, among others. (And anyone who likes “old time Jewish music the way we imagine it was played in eastern Europe both before and after the Holocaust” should check out his band, which I raved about here.)

  53. his earlier ventures in blogging, under such noms de blog as “commonbeauty”

    Well I never. I ran across that name in one of your archives that you linked back to this week. Following the “commonbeauty” contributor link, I was quite struck by what I read there, though it was little. I actually wondered whether the person had suddenly died.

  54. 1
    Nice to see you again, zaelic. You’re right about “abi”– it has migrated into Nigerian English directly from Yoruba. Very similar to German “oder”: “Er hat viel Geld, oder?” This same sense is achieved if you put “abi” at the beginning of the sentence, to say something like “Or doesn’t he have a lot of money?”–in Nigerian English, “Abi he doesn’t have a lot of money?”
    The other strong sense of “abi” in Yoruba is simply as the conjunction “or”– “o ni owo ABI ko ni owo”– “he has money OR he doesn’t have money.” This sense is also there in Nigerian English–you could say “he has money abi he doesn’t have money”–but as far as I can tell, this embedded usage is less common than the prefix/suffix one.
    2
    British English “right” as a sentence starter: I wonder if that isn’t cognate to one recent African-American usage of “yo.” Yo, to my ears, “yo” has become so flexible that it’s almost free of content, yo.
    Firstguy: Yo, let’s do this.
    Secondguy: Word up, yo.
    Britstandingnearby: Right.
    I want a t-shirt that says “Yo Is The New Hwæt.” I also see the Beckettian possibilities…
    Est: Yo.
    Poz: (silence)
    Est: (silence)
    Poz: Right.
    Est: Yo, let’s bounce.
    Poz: Word.
    (They do not move)
    etc.
    3
    “How far” in Nigerian English sounds to me very similar to “wassup,” both in the sense of “how are you?” and “gimme an update on your progress with a specific task.” There’s also a sense, taking the latter definition farther, in which it conveys mild exasperation: you might say “How far with these corrupt leaders now?” That’s the sense I intended in the last line of my newspaper essay.
    But it’s perfectly normal to say “how far?” or “which one?” with no expectation of a response beyond a nod or handshake. A simple “hello,” which is the sense I intended in the first line of a my essay.

  55. “I simply don’t believe that.”
    You are right. I wrote exactly the opposite of what I was saying! I meant to say apology. There is a word for that, but I forget what it is.
    “”Okay…”, works sometimes as an impersonal conversation initiater in American (though I’ve heard ‘right’ in cases where _anything_ would sound (to me) strange in American).”
    I don’t know what is impersonal aout the use of “okay” in American.
    “Yo” is more about getting someone’s attention before statrting the sentence. It started out as sentence final, and it’s not very old. It is probably is a reduced form of “y’all”. Check out Paula Dean for how it’s used sentence finally. The way she uses it, and there’s nothing unusual about it, is the get the listener’s attention in order to eleict agreement.

  56. As an Irish person living in Poland, Michael Farris’ explanation of “sorted” as “załatwiony” helps me to understand both of them better.

  57. “Yo” is not “y’all”. *Y’all* is second person plural, more or less, okay, second person singular too, and is only in the south. *Yo* is African American and for a younger age group; here it’s at the beginning of a phrase to get someone’s attention, like “hey you”. “Yo, listen up man.”

  58. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Zaelic: It doesn’t have a real; Hungarian eqiivalent, there are any number of tag words that can end a Magyar sentence butb none function as an independant grammatical maker like ‘abi’ or Japanese ‘ne’ or ‘ka’.
    Tell that to Noetica. Ugye?
    Teju Cole: Very similar to German “oder”: “Er hat viel Geld, oder?”
    That was my point.

  59. “Yo” is not “y’all”.
    He didn’t say it was. He said, “It is probably is a reduced form of ‘y’all,’” meaning it developed historically from the latter. I don’t think that’s true, but it’s not at all the same as equating them, and he knows perfectly well what “y’all” means.
    *Y’all* is second person plural, more or less, okay, second person singular too, and is only in the south.
    It started in the south, but has spread wherever southerners have moved. And it is not singular, despite the misunderstandings of Yankees who hear people say “How y’all doin’?” to one person and don’t realize the speaker is asking about the listener’s family.

  60. He didn’t say it was.
    “reduced form” “developed from” to me means the same thing–some sort of metamorphosis with the meaning staying more or less the same. It can’t because those two words are from completely different geographical areas and different cultural groups. I would not agree that “y’all” spreads. It sure doesn’t spread here (even with huge numbers of people historically migrating from the south during the industrial revolution) but “yo” does. Maybe because modern English doesn’t really have a form for “O” as in “O holy night”. I want to say “evocative” but for some reason that doesn’t sound right.
    I didn’t know about the y’all thing being directed to the person’s family. When I was with a group of volunteers in Mississippi after Katrina, we were quite amused to start hearing it as we traveled south. I mention it to my students as an example of second person plural (regional use like ustedes or old castilliano vosotros) if they get really interested in conjugation.

  61. michael farris says:

    “old castilliano vosotros”
    What makes you think vosotros is old? It’s very current in Spain, if anything it’s more common than Ustedes there.
    As a native user of y’all, I never use it as a singular. I do use it with one person to mean that person as a representitive of a particular group (including but not limited to family).

  62. some sort of metamorphosis with the meaning staying more or less the same.
    No, the meaning does not necessarily stay the same, and often alters substantially. “Nice” used to mean “ignorant”; “bead” used to mean “prayer.”

  63. A “reduced form of” to me means a contraction.
    reduced=smaller
    The price has been reduced.
    The soup stock was boiled until it was reduced by half.
    Unless Jim, whoever or whatever he is, might be likely to use it in some other way, like as linguistics insider jargon.
    Do you say “ignorant” has been *reduced* to “nice”? That doesn’t sound like a reduction so much as a shift in meaning.
    Soon we will be reduced to debating what the meaning of is is.

  64. the misunderstandings of Yankees who hear people say “How y’all doin’?” to one person and don’t realize the speaker is asking about the listener’s family [LH] … As a native user of y’all, I never use it as a singular. I do use it with one person to mean that person as a representitive of a particular group (including but not limited to family) [michael farris]

    Also a native user of y’all, I never use[d] it as a singular, but instead just as michael descrbes. Viewed at an analytical distance, it has the convenience of briefness. In “standard non-y’all” English, which lacks a morphological distinction between second-person singular and plural, you otherwise have to deploy a lot of words to “address” several people. To avoid misunderstanding, I should add that I am not claiming here that birds developed wings in order to be able to fly.
    As to what michael says about vosotros being “if anything more common than Ustedes” in Spain – I took conversation lessons with a Spaniard a few years ago who once spoke at considerable length to hammer that point into my Mexican Spanish propensities.

  65. And it is not singular, despite the misunderstandings of Yankees who hear people say “How y’all doin’?” to one person and don’t realize the speaker is asking about the listener’s family.
    W-wait, but if such a misunderstanding yankee then goes on to use it in a singular sense, then how is it “not singular”?

  66. (I mean to say, I’ve heard plenty of people use ‘y’all’ as a singular form of address, and they were generally not from the south.)

  67. michael farris says:

    Well the simple solution is that that’s a separate “y’all”.
    To put it another way, many NAmericans think ‘no comprende’ means “I don’t understand” in Spanish when it doesn’t and doesn’t really influence the Spanish expressions for “I don’t understand” (No entiendo, no comprendo) or the Spanish expression “no comprende” (he/she/you do(es)n’t) understand).

  68. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Yeah, Language. What Jez sez.
    Michael, no comprendo, but y’all come back now.

  69. if such a misunderstanding yankee then goes on to use it in a singular sense, then how is it “not singular”?
    It would be singular in that person’s idiolect (personal dialect), but that’s pretty irrelevant. Linguistics describes the usage of groups of users of a language; it is not concerned with one person’s oddities. If for some reason a bunch of Yankees decided to start using singular “y’all” among themselves, it would be annoying to everyone else but would start to rise to the level of an object of study to a linguist interested in microdialects; it would still be utterly insignificant by comparison with the actual usage of millions of actual speakers of the actual dialect in question. Frankly, I’m smelling straw man here.

  70. joseph palmer says:

    Local Englishes are always very interesting indeed. However linguistics has a wonderful way of completely ignoring the arguments against using/promoting them, in this case the resulting increased isolation (and economic poverty) of the Nigerian culture/people. Linguists like to pretend that people who speak/read a minority English will also always find it easy to become masters of standard English. That isn’t true.

  71. Another straw man. Linguists are not in the business of arguing for or against local dialects, they are in the business of describing them.

  72. If I may build the house of straw a little higher then…at what point is something an error and at what point does it become an alternate form of the language?
    We have Nigerian phrases being coined from English words with Nigerian grammatical rules. We have northern English speakers using southern “y’all” with northern grammatical, or maybe social rules. We have native English speakers saying “no comprende”–a phrase I am certainly very familiar with here and it means something like “why don’t those pesky immigrants hurry up and learn English”.
    Arabs like to say “I like it too much” instead of “I like it very much”–so is that now a “local English” or just a common error based on the grammatical form of the speaker’s first language?
    And what about using “can I” instead of “may I” for permission? Is this just an uneducated person or a child who hasn’t learned English properly?–oh, but wait, 50 years ago that was incorrect, but now it’s correct.
    So where is the line between error and localism?

  73. A cross post, but there’s plenty of straw out there for anyone who want to huff and puff.

  74. joseph palmer says:

    I thought the whole idea of the post was more Nigerian-flavoured English in Nigeria would be a positive thing? It was in fact only a dispassionate description? Standard US English would be equally fine?

  75. Nijma: It’s impossible to draw bright lines between error, individual variation, and dialect distinction. That doesn’t mean that these various kinds don’t exist or aren’t distinct.

  76. michael farris says:

    Okay, too many different things are being mixed together here.
    First a quick taxonomy of speakers of English:
    24 hour users: hopefully self-explanatory
    9-5 users: use English in most of public life but use other languages in private.
    parttime users: use a non-trivial amount of English but English isn’t the main language of any part of their lives
    theoretical users: have taken ESL classes but have little to no need/opportunity to use English on a daily basis (this is the bread and butter of the ESL industry IME)
    It’s completely misleading to consider the problems/innovations of one category against those of another.
    Most Arabs are theoretical or at most parttime English users. Nigerians are mostly 9-5 users while Americans are mostly 24 hour users.
    The problem with “I like it too much” is that it’s coming from low frequency users and the expression already has a different meaning for high frequency users. That’s a non-native mistake. If it’s used often and consistently enough then it could make its way into recognized usage (but will need help from 9-5 and 24 hour users that it’s not likely to get).
    Northerners misunderstanding and misusing ‘y’all’ is a question of native usage, insider/outsider knowledge and the distinction between more and less local forms of language.
    Questions of Nigerian usage cannot be compared to either. As most Nigerians are 9-5 users, fluency might be high but certain kinds of fluency might be missing and there’s not much affect toward English. It’s probably a language of money and prestige, respected but not loved by most Nigerians.

  77. ToussianMuso says:

    OK, since I can’t post a comment under Marigot anymore, I will post one here. I am feeling emboldened by the carte blanche I’ve apparently earned (I’ll try not to abuse it) by living in a village with a marigot, and no, I have never heard the final t pronounced in this case.
    I quite agree that standard usage is much more interesting than prescriptivist notions of “correctness”. With that said, please permit me another digression on a peculiarity of African French: nobody uses possessive pronouns (i.e. ‘le mien’ for ‘mine’), or even the preposition ‘a’ + pronoun as in ‘a moi’. The formula here is ‘pour’ (for) + prounoun, always. I was momentarily confused when someone offering to lend me his sunglasses said, “Tu peux prendre pour moi,” a sentence that literally translates as “You can take for me.” What he meant, of course, was “You can take mine.” If he had said, “Tu peux prendre les miennes,” I would have understood more quickly, but thinking of it now, it seems a rather endearing dialectical quirk.

  78. A.J.P. Crown says:

    since I can’t post a comment under Marigot anymore
    Sure you can. Language loves it when people keep commenting on old posts. Not that it matters, African French and English dialects are very interesting wherever you put the comment.

  79. Actually, he couldn’t, since I had apparently closed comments on it (presumably due to insensate rage at a spam infestation), but I’ve reopened them for now in case anyone has any further marigot thoughts, because I do indeed love it when people keep commenting on old posts (and hate spammers all the more for forcing me to close them). But yes, the comment fits in fine here.

Speak Your Mind

*