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Nigerian English has indeed come of age: A review of David Jowitt’s Nigerian English

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Book: Nigerian English
Author: David Jowitt
Publisher: DeGruyter Mouton
Year published: 2019
Reviewer: Kingsley Ugwuanyi

Many Nigerians, especially those who have had some exposure to other English-speaking countries, would readily agree that the way English is spoken in Nigeria departs markedly from the way it is used in other contexts. Ironically, many people would raise eyebrows once the term ‘Nigerian English’ is mentioned. As a researcher with interest in the sociolinguistics of Nigerian English, I’ve had to endure the barrage of questions from people (many of whom are—surprisingly—academics) about what exactly Nigerian English means. Many think Nigerian English is synonymous with Pidgin English.

“Guy, na broken you dey study?” some ask me in a rather ridiculous tone. Some others say Nigerian English is simply bad English. Preliminary findings from my ongoing research on Nigerian English corroborate this crisis of views regarding what Nigerian English entails. The fact, however, remains that the kind of English Nigerians speak and write is peculiar in many ways, and there’s absolutely nothing untoward to call it, according to the title of a novel by Isidore Okpewho, by its rightful name, Nigerian English—the preoccupation and title of an intellectual masterpiece recently published by Professor David Jowitt of the University of Jos. I invite you to plough through this book and see for yourself how far Nigerian English has come.

Incidentally, my first encounter with the term ‘Nigerian English’ was in an earlier book by the same author, Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction, published in 1991 by Longman Nigeria. Before and since publishing the book in 1991, David Jowitt has been a leading voice among Nigerian English research community of practice. His most recent publication which we are considering here is, in my view, something of an opus magnum. It is thoroughly-researched and wide-ranging in scope—I’ve described it elsewhere as the ‘go-to’ reference book on Nigerian English. What is more, it is the first comprehensive book-length study of Nigerian English to be published outside Africa, a fact that underscores the value of the book as well as its pride of place among publications on Nigerian English. Coming at a time when Nigerian English is perceived as under-studied, the book is not only timely but helps to fill an important niche. Nigerian English has been described as the fastest-growing non-native variety of English, and indeed the non-native variety of English with the second-highest number of speakers of English (nearly 80 million) in the world after India. Again this underscores the place of this new volume in the study of varieties of English around the world.

Nigerian English is a seven-chapter volume, covering a broad spectrum of the development of the English language in Nigeria. Chapter 1 opens with the linguistic geography and the history of Nigeria (also of English in Nigeria), giving a detailed background about Nigeria. Any reader wishing to understand Nigeria and its intriguing diversity will find this part particularly helpful. The chapter further discusses the extent of use of English in different domains including education, media, official transactions, religious observances, law, creative writing and interpersonal relations. With a detailed account of how “the English language has permeated the psyche of Nigerians” (20), Jowitt concludes that “English is no longer a foreign language in Nigeria, but has become a Nigerian language” (26) since it is spoken by more than half of its population. The idea of English being a “Nigerian language” is something that many people might frown at. But there is sufficient evidence in the book (and other places) to show that Nigerians use English in a way that says, “This is now our language.” My ongoing research indicates that Nigerians demonstrate a strong sense of ownership of English. It was Chinua Achebe who said, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” I think it is no longer an “intention” as Achebe envisaged. It has become a reality that Nigerians use English in a distinctively Nigerian fashion. The author uses this chapter to undertake an extensive and critical evaluation of the long-running debates about the scope, perceptions and varieties of Nigerian English. Even though the author, in his characteristic modesty, admits that “[T]o compose a sociolinguistic profile of Nigeria is clearly a complex matter” (14), this is precisely what he achieved in this first chapter in a way that seemed effortless.

Chapter 2 discusses the sounds of Nigerian English. It opens with a comparison of the phonologies of Nigerian languages and English, highlighting the nature of their influence on spoken Nigerian English. If you wish to know how linguistically diverse Nigeria is, this chapter shows you that. It might interest you to know that Nigeria ranks third among countries with the highest number of languages—Nigeria has over 500 languages. After an elaborate overview of the nature of the sounds of Nigerian languages, this chapter details the features of what the author calls ‘Nigerian English Accent’, and proposes a working model for its characterisation. For instance, he proposes that in Nigerian English Accent, /o/ (appearing in words such as ‘note’ and ‘whole’) and /e/ (appearing in words such as ‘wait’ and ‘data’) should be officially recognized in place of British Received Pronunciation /əʊ/ and /eɪ/ respectively. This ‘official recognition’ or institutionalisation of Nigerian English is one factor that limits its growth (for how long can it continue to limit it?). As most of us are probably aware, the de jure model of English used for education in Nigeria remains British English; however, the de facto model, for the most part, is unarguably Nigerian English both in sound and in structure. Almost all English teachers in Nigerian schools are Nigerians who are significantly influenced by the sociolinguistic milieu of Nigeria. It is a grand irony that WAEC, NECO and JAMB still test students on aspects of ‘Oral English’, which are completely out of touch with the students’ daily linguistic realities. Can this be related to why there is a perpetual high failure rate in English? It might hold a great advantage for education policymakers to consider the proposals Jowitt puts forward in this book regarding recognising Nigerian English as the model for the teaching and learning of English in Nigeria. The chapter concludes with a descriptive review of the full range of English sounds (technically called phonemes or segmentals) realised in Nigerian English alongside a thorough description of the stress, rhythm and intonation (technically known as suprasegmentals).

The author turns his attention to the nature of word and sentence formation in Nigerian English (the morphosyntax or grammar of Nigerian English, if you prefer) in Chapter 3. Interestingly, this chapter undertakes a fascinating discussion of the influence of American English on Nigerian English. Even though a great deal of Nigerian English usage draws its origin from British English, Jowitt shows here that American English, essentially due to its economic and political hegemony, has shaped Nigerian English usage in very remarkable ways. What is more, Jowitt ends the chapter a very insightful consideration of Nigerian Pidgin English (or simply Nigerian Pidgin). If you want to ‘see’ a clear distinction between Nigerian English and Nigerian Pidgin English, this is where to start. The following chapter considers the range of vocabulary of Nigerian English, the processes through which the words are formed, and aspects of discourse such as kinship terms, modes of address/greetings and style, which are unique to Nigerian English usage.

The part of the book I enjoyed most, perhaps partly because of my fascination with history, is chapter 5. But beyond this, the author engagingly chronicles the historical events relevant to the arrival, spread and development of English in Nigeria. He traces the evolution of Nigerian English back to the period of the slave trade of the 16th century through the coming of Christian missionaries, examining the socio-political, educational and policy developments that have impacted on Nigerian English in the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial eras. Chapter 6 is a wide-ranging review of the major works on Nigerian English from N. G. Walsh in 1967, often cited as the first work to mention the term ‘Nigerian English’, to the present. The last chapter, Chapter 7, is a corpus (i.e., real-life language usage) collected by the author from a variety of sources and domains including memoirs, letters, journalism, academic writing, public addresses, religious writing, formal resolutions and creative works of literature. This corpus provides the entire book with the data to validate the norms of Nigerian English analysed in previous chapters, which I consider a unique feature of the book. Interestingly, the first corpus sample in this chapter, which might be considered an example of the earliest use of English in Nigeria, dates back to 1786.

One thing I find particularly fascinating is how the author, throughout the book, draws evidence from a wide range of corpora and data-based studies on Nigerian English to substantiate his arguments. As the author rightly points out, this book “represents the current understanding that emerges from the data found in the work[s] of the various scholars [of Nigerian English]” (43). There is hardly any aspect of the usage and study of the English language in Nigeria that escapes the book’s wide-ranging coverage. It deserves to be mentioned that in different parts of the book, the author chronicles the major efforts being made towards the growth of Nigerian English. For instance, we learn on page 106 of the book that there already exist about four (4) dictionaries of Nigerian English viz Oko Okoro’s guide published in 2011, Igboanusi’s dictionary published in 2002, Roger Blench’s draft dictionary published in 2005, and most recently the dictionary edited by Wale Adegbite, Inyang Udofot and Kehinde Ayoola published in 2014, which was commissioned by English Scholars’ Association of Nigeria (formerly Nigerian English Studies Association), an umbrella professional body for scholars interested in the teaching, learning and study of the English language in Nigeria.

As far as I am concerned, the publication of such a comprehensive volume by an established scholar in the field and by a prestigious publisher is a pointer to how far Nigerian English has come. Not only is there an exponential growth of interest in the study of Nigerian English in universities across the world, there are also a number of (ongoing) projects geared towards institutionalising Nigerian English. For example, this year (2019) Google launched its Nigerian English voice on its widely used map application, Google Maps. Google users all over the world have the option of choosing Nigerian English as their preferred language when they use Google applications. Second, I am part of an ongoing project by Oxford Dictionaries to include a range of Nigerian English words in their dictionary—likely to be launched online before the end of the year. Many other similar developments will certainly help to promote Nigerian English and possibly facilitate its institutionalisation.

Professor Jowitt’s book is indeed one of those developments. Without doubt, the book makes fresh scholarly contributions to Nigerian English. It is in light of these many interesting developments regarding Nigeria English that I posit that Nigerian English has indeed come of age. I, therefore, invite all Nigerians (especially the doubting Thomases) to take a journey with this treasure trove, an intellectually yet practically insightful masterpiece.


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