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The Naija art of code-switching


Occasionally I like entertaining my circle with interesting but practical phrases unique to the Turkish language.

You see, if you are stuck in between two cultures, blessed and burdened in equal measure with a mother tongue that is often of no use to you in your new tongue, there are moments when you pine for the familiar glow of practical phrases.

“Kolay gelsin” we say (“May it be easy”) if we see someone grafting away, whether it is your uncle fixing the door that your aunty has been nagging him about, or the colleague working on a presentation for the board or the random handyman painting the office walls.

“Gecmis olsun” we say (“May it pass”) whether it is whiplash from a car accident or a little scrape from a fall.
“Iyi gunlerde giy”, potentially one of my all-time favourites (“May you wear them on good days” – only is the implication here.)


“Eline saglik” – “health to your hand” – to the person who’s made your food or “ellerin dert gormesin” – “may your hands see no trouble” –  to someone who has given you a service.
The social currencies splashed lavishly to build rapport, show empathy, nurture relationships. Little things that we utter without thinking as they are second nature.

While the English language has got its quirks and little common courtesies such as ‘bon appetite’ (ironically borrowed from the French) or ‘bless you’, it lacks some of these phrases I long for when I see someone grafting away at their job or thank someone for a job well done.

The closest anyone has come to use language in an empathetic way has to be the Nigerian use of ‘sorry’ which most non-Nigerians find hilarious. “Sorry,” they say if you’ve taken a tumble, or had your car written off or lost your job. The response often is, “Why are you saying sorry when it wasn’t your fault?” not realising that ‘sorry’ is merely a shorthand for, “I feel your pain”, “I am sorry for what you are going through” or “I wish you weren’t in this position.”

This of course is not the only thing I admire about the way Nigerians use language. Perhaps more so than the use of “sorry” in situations that don’t call for an apology is the use of pidgin English. It never ceases to amaze me when someone with the Queen’s English spoken with a cut-glass accent suddenly switches to pidgin English.

The most recent example of this was when I accidentally stumbled on to Fela Durotoye’s Instagram account. The 2019 presidential candidate had several videos – announcements to his followers on his upcoming visits, live footage from his rallies and recordings of TV appearances. There were as many Fela Durotoyes as his appearances.

In his recorded messages, there was the Fela Durotoye with a self-assured international accent sprinkled with British and American English intonations, evidence of an international education. On campaign rallies, there was the Fela Durotoye, the fervent orator, with a homegrown accent heavy with familiar Nigerian cadences. And on TV, variations of the same man who further localised his speech weaving in and out of pidgin English with dexterity.

I am not sure this chameleon blueprint can be recreated in any other culture. You may cite examples of Kate Middleton or Meghan Markle polishing their accents, and Markle even reportedly sounding more British according to some news outlets following her wedding. You may even cite Barack Obama’s jazzing up his middle class, educated American English with the occasional African American vernacular thrown in when speaking to a predominantly African American audience.

Already hailed as 2018’s answer to ‘Get Out’, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ addresses the power as well as the perils of code-switching deployed by black Americans as a tool for social mobility in a system set by the white man to keep them down.
Thanks to the breakout film, code-switching has re-emerged in America’s racial discourse. Introduced in 1954 by Einar Haugen, the term used to describe the fluid nature with which multilingual people moved between languages before it expanded to capture how individuals adjust all forms of communication and expression based on their audience.

To a certain extent, we all dabble in code-switching, but I don’t think any of us remotely come close to the Nigerian wizardry of easily switching from perfectly polished, prepped, primed internationally accented English to a broken, crinkled, shattered up form of it in under 60 seconds. And the beauty of Nigerian code-switching is that it goes both ways – one can sit with the kids and speak in their cut-glass royal British English or slum it with commons in their rugged, broken English, and occasionally just opt to sound ‘middle of the road’ with an accent doubtless acquired in an international school with the occasional Naija inflection. What is more, whatever the code or the dialect, it is rendered in utmost confidence.

To that I can only say, “dilinize saglik” (“health to your tongue”).

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