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pun the river

When I first got to America, I was struck most dramatically by two things. One was how new the cars were. The general class of those cars was nothing remarkable, but hardly any vehicle on the roads seemed older than five years, unlike on the streets of Lagos, where the shells of old chariots still go to die. The second was the talk shows on television, which seemed shameless to an unguessed at degree. The shows hosted by Sally Jessy Raphael and Phil Donahue shocked me by their crudeness, by the willingness of perfectly normal people to go on air and volunteer every piece of dirty laundry their families possessed.

These were the mild surprises of my first days in the US. Only later did I begin to understand more fundamental differences. Linguistically, Nigerian English is not that distant from its American cousin, and with some effort I could make myself understood, and I could understand, in turn, what Americans were saying. Misunderstandings of vocabulary, like the American habit of saying “silverware” when they mean “cutlery,” were easily cleared up. More difficult, and more lasting, were the basic attitudes about language use.

For a long time now, a certain American hostility to word play has puzzled me. My understanding of word play was that it was a welcome part of communication. To indulge in the slipperiness between sounds and meanings was to honour language. Brevity might be the soul of wit, but wit is the soul of communication. I had practically packed Achebe’s “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” in my luggage when I came to Yankee.

Americans view it differently (they have little use for palm-oil). Puns, in particular, are met with an audible groan. For years, I misinterpreted this groan as a sort of disguised pleasure on their part, a coy plea for more punnery. I was wrong: Americans genuinely dislike puns. They consider it the lowest form of wit. Why should this be so? After all, the British delight in them. William Shakespeare was an inveterate punster: Hamlet, when asked where (the recently murdered) Polonius is, he says, “at supper,” then clarifies, “not where he eats but where he is eaten.”And then he puns further over poor Polonius’ corpse: “Indeed this counsellor is now most still, most secret and most grave, who was in life a foolish prating knave.” He is “grave” (serious) when he once was foolish, but he is “grave,” too, for being dead and headed for the cemetery.

Nigerian speech, whether in English or in more indigenous languages, is also quick-witted, elusive, steeped in double-meaning. Wole Soyinka (who’s learnt more than a few things from the author of Hamlet) never met a clever turn of phrase he didn’t like.

He abounds in puns, alliteration, and double-entendres. In his hands, language is a fissile material, ever ready to explode into unexpected shards of meaning. “King Baabu” in the eponymous play is Hausa for “nothing” or “finished.” Quite apart from straight puns, what Soyinka does is place meaning on a slippery slope from which it careens into unanticipated chasms.

The Aafa character in his 1970 play “Madmen and Specialists” declares, in the middle of pun-addled speech that “the loyalty of homo-sapiens is regressed into himself, himself, his little tick-tock self, self-ticking, self-tickling, self-tackling problems…” Another character decides that “the end shall justify the meanness.” This is a finely-wrought madness, well-said as well as prophetic.

In his book Myth, Literature and the African World, Soyinka addresses the Marxist and other ideologues who tried to lay claims on him by quoting a Yoruba proverb, “A o le bara ni tan, ka f’ara wa n’itan ya.” In other words, the mere fact that we are related doesn’t mean that we can tear each others’ thighs apart. The phrase turns on the homonymity of “tan” (related) and “itan” (thigh). The most sophisticated puns I know are the Yoruba ones. Perhaps every speaker of the language knows the simplest examples such as “Nkan t’a wa lo si Sokoto wa l’apo sokoto”: What we seek in the city of Sokoto is actually in our trousers (the [Yoruba] word for trousers is “sokoto”). But in the hands of such orators as Samuel Ladoke Akintola (premier of the Western Region until his death in the 1966 coup), meaning migrates farther and sharper, casting a shimmering light on the mind.

Once, the story goes, Akintola met someone named Akpata (an Edo cognate of Yoruba, “Apata,” which means rock). He asked the fellow to spell his name, and he began, “A, K…” Akintola stopped him with an impatiently upraised hand: “Ki ni’ke nwa ninu apata?” (What is K doing in Apata?).

The triple-entendre here is that the Yoruba hearers would have known that only Bendelites spell Apata with a K, that “ike” (hump) sounds like the letter K, and that no solid rock worth the name should have a hump. Embedded in all this was perhaps a tribalistic dig as well, as Akintola was something of a Yoruba chauvinist. I would suggest that the labour involved in explaining a pun is inversely proportional to its brilliance. A truly great one has, within its brief compass, several layers; the power comes from grasping it all at once.

But I cannot resist another anecdote, more recent, which recounts how Alhaji Lamidu Adedibu, the late strongman of Ibadan politics, accused of thuggery, was reputed to have made the retort: “Ti ‘to’ ba tun jabo l’enu re, ‘giri’ to ku, aya re l’oma bosi.” Literally, this means “If ‘to’ should drop from your mouth again, the remaining ‘giri’ will land in your chest.” The joke is on Adedibu’s pronunciation of “thuggery” as “togiri,” and on the facts that “to” or “ito” is [Yoruba for] saliva, and “giri” evokes the sound of a shotgun. In other words, if you so much as say another word accusing me of thuggery, I will unload a cartridge of bullets into you. This goes beyond punnery: improvised on the spot, it traverses languages, employs onomatopoeia, and engages in deep irony. Word play on this level is the river of language delighting in its own rapid flow.

And yet Americans hate puns. This aversion of theirs has become one of the abiding mysteries in my linguistic life, itching like a phantom limb. Is it an American fear of cleverness, in this most “democratic” of countries? Is it a Freudian embarrassment at the inexpensive pleasure of luxuriating in words? I haven’t solved it yet. But I continue to pun deliriously, in defiance of their theatrical groans.

For me, punning is an act of self-recognition, a self-tickling and self-tackling hewed out of the substance of my Yoruba and Nigerian English heritage. The pun is simply an unvarnished name for ambiguity, and the ambiguous is the font of all true creativity. When I write or speak, I could no sooner stick to a single rigid meaning than walk on a solitary peg.

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