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!