words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

an english of our own

My people, how far? The four words in the preceding sentence are recognisable to any speaker of English. 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. But it is unlikely that this is the meaning that would have come to mind for any reader of NEXT. My people, how far? It is purely English, but it is English as spoken in Nigeria.

Whether we learned English in a Nigerian schoolroom in the pre-1960 colonial days, or sometime in the decades that followed, the experience for all of us will have involved difficulties and laughter. Each day of my own time in school was a risk: pity the poor student who said something unidiomatic or grammatically incorrect. Such “shelling” would be followed by the “scattering” of classmates. The incident—an answer flubbed in the classroom, a sentence gone renegade on your tongue—would haunt you for years afterwards.

These are the games pupils play. But the vigilance that we took to avoid “shelling” perhaps hinted at wider societal anxieties. English is not ours, in the sense that it did not originally evolve in this land. In the years since it was first imposed on us, it has been more than a mere means of communication: it has served, in part, as a demarcation between the elite and the unlettered. Within this linguistic economy, to be “correct” is the highest virtue.

It is curious that, in our passion to master the language—this Norman French craft built on a Germanic chassis—we haven’t often enough asked where our view of “correct” English comes from. Language, after all, is a flexible thing, swimming swiftly in the current of time.

The English of 1966 has only the faintest resemblance to the English of 1066. Shakespeare speaks at an angle to Milton, and Milton at a few removes from Dickens. By the nineteenth century, an American variant of the language was recognised, not as a “wrong” version of English, but as a valid regional take, its own legitimate thing hammered out of the forge of Whitman, Dickinson and Twain (more accurately, it is many things, born of many forges).

By the time the twenty-first century began, Indians had their English too, a highly excitable mélange, that owed more than a little to Victorian speech, but was also full of Hindi loanwords and direct translations from the country’s numerous native languages. News of Indian English was ferried to the world via the medium of literature in the 1980s and 90s, particularly through the works of Salman Rushdie, and the many writers working in the territory he opened up: Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth and others. In return, Booker Prizes flowed from the UK towards South Asia. It was a case of “the Empire strikes back,” as Rushdie once remarked.

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. In more comic and desperate vein, we should perhaps also include in this survey some less elevated writings such as the countless 419 letters that go out from this country into the unsuspecting world daily.

Nigerian English is distinct from pidgin, though it has some syntax and vocabulary in common with it. It shares ninety-eight percent of its DNA with its British, American, Indian and Ghanaian cousins, but the two percent that it doesn’t share is potent.

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.

This all makes me wonder why the American and British variants of English continue to be held up as incontestable ideals, as received religions for which the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s are sacred texts, while Nigerian English is not even recognised as such by its own speakers. My people, how far?

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