I speak 3 different kinds of English.

That’s in addition to Yoruba, which is the language of my ancestors. But it’s English I learned first and think in, so it’s always a little weird to me when people assume I speak it as a second language. 

English is my first language. An empire helped see to that.

I share this quirk with many Nigerians—and with millions more the world over—but in my experience few spend their time writing, or even thinking, about it. This struck me anew when I recently saw responses to a question on Twitter about why Nigerians often say, “Well done” to people who have apparently not done any actual work.

There were the usual funny replies you can count on from social media, my favourite being the person who said life in Nigeria can be so exhausting that we who survive it deserve commendation!

But it was obvious from several other responses that few had ever seriously thought about this. 

As they shouldn’t. That’s the beauty of language: it’s something we just do. Babies don’t learn grammar as a prerequisite to mastering language, they just take it in wholesale. Only after the fact does an understanding of grammar become useful—its value isn’t in telling us what to do but in helping us understand what we’re already doing and how to fix it when it goes wrong. It’s rather like how you don’t need to understand the details of a car’s functioning to drive it. You just need the basics. All the details about alternators and air filters that might excite a mechanic or car hobbyist are dead to you.

Languages are like that. Like any other living thing, they evolve, but only as long as living people speak them. In that sense, languages are a bit like the moss that grows on trees. Once the tree dies, the moss is not long to follow. Languages like Latin are like dead moss because they no longer evolve: there are no regular people using them regularly

English on the other hand is very much alive and kicking. Not just because billions of people use it the world over, but also because all those people have made it their own in all kinds of ways.

Which is how I came to be a speaker of 3 different forms of English. 

The name for all the ways people use English and make it their own is “World Englishes”. It was coined by Braj Bihari Kachru, an Indian linguist and professor at the University of Illinois. He also developed a model for thinking about how the language spreads: the three circles of English.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Inner circle. Kachru described these as norm-providing English speakers. They’re people who from what would be considered “settlement colonies” and who English as a first language because the speakers took it with them as they moved in large numbers.

Outer circle. These countries were historically “exploitation colonies” to which English was introduced for administrative purposes. It filtered into the population initially via indigenes being employed in colonial governments and later through widespread education in English. Mind you, these were countries originally comprised people groups in the hundreds—we have 250 in Nigeria speaking over 500 languages! So when the empire bunched them all into nations for its administrative benefit, the already spreading English became a ready lingua franca. That’s why simply being an educated Nigerian or Indian (or any of these other countries) makes us automatically bilingual. This bilingualism is what makes us what Kachru would call norm-developing: unlike the norm-providing who shape the language, we evolve it in new directions. (I’d argue that the original slaves to the Americas and their descendants until recently would also be in this group.)

Expanding circle. This is everyone else who speaks English, not from any history of colonisation, but because of how widespread it is. Most European countries would come in this circle in addition to China, Brazil and Russia from the image. These expanding circle nations differ from outer circle ones like Nigeria in that they almost never use English within the country, but will more likely reserve it for communicating with internationals: tourism, diplomacy, increasing international opportunities. Kachru viewed them as norm-dependent: they’re simply not invested enough in English to develop it.

My 3 Englishes

My English-speaking is rooted in a Nigerian experience and not in a British or American or Australian one. I have taken ownership of English.

— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

And now we come to the three forms of English I share with millions of Nigerians:

International English

There’s not much to say about this. It’s the English you learned in school, the English we all know and use, the English I had to prove myself capable in when I moved to the UK, the English I’m using right now. 

It’s boring English.

And that is precisely why it’s valuable. When we interact across cultures and borders and all our other differences, there’s enough potential friction and fireworks without language introducing extra befuddlement. No, in such cases, you need something with no extra surprises, something those communicating can depend on. You need good old boring English.

Nigerian English

Anyone who gets to know us Nigerians doesn’t take long to come up against our liberal use of “Sorry.” We say sorry when we hurt you, but we also say it when you hurt yourself, and we will say it again when you’re just feeling bad. (Sorry.) I still remember, shortly after I moved to the UK, someone responded to me saying sorry with, “Oh, it’s not your fault.” It was all I could do not to chuckle.

Of course, it wasn’t my fault. I was in zero doubt about that. But I saw what was going on. They thought I was apologising when I was really acknowledging. And the problem lay in the different way many Nigerians use “sorry.” For us, it means something more like, “I see you.” I see your pain, your effort, your patience. When we say “sorry”, we’re saying you do not go unnoticed.

We use sorry this way to capture a concept that English doesn’t have clear words for. In Yoruba the word, pẹ̀lẹ́, is a word that acknowledges the other. Another similar Yoruba phrase is ẹ kú and there are similar words in other Nigerian languages: sa’anu in Hausa, or ndo’o in Igbo. They all serve a similar purpose of acknowledging.

So when we say say “Well done,” we’re not complimenting work, we’re saying what in Yoruba would be said as ẹ kú ìṣe. It’s less a compliment on your results than an acknowledgement of your effort. The effort could be as simple as waiting for someone or, yes, of simply surviving. Or it could be sarcastic.

That’s just one example of what it means to have English as a Nigerian language: it takes on a uniquely Nigerian shape. English as an international language becomes not one form of English across several countries, but several Englishes—each country each evolving its own form. 

Nigerian Pidgin English

This used to be unfortunately called “broken English” when we were growing up, and like many kids who grew up in middle class settings, I was discouraged from speaking it. Our parents feared our “pure” English would be corrupted if we immersed ourselves in Pidgin English. Which of course was all the reason we needed to learn it!

Pidgins are languages that arise from a mixture of various other languages to become their own thing. So Nigerian Pidgin English is a form of English with a dash of Portuguese (sabi, pikin) and a generous sprinkling from the major Nigerian languages: wahala and ba from Hausa, biko and una from Igbo, abi and shei from Yoruba. Pidgins are not a broken form of language. They begin as a simplified form of one language and take on their own character.

Nigerian Pidgin English, like other pidgins, is its own language because it has its own grammatical rules different from those of regular English. It’s recognisably English but also different enough from it to be hard to follow for non-speakers.

An example is that verbs in Nigerian Pidgin aren’t conjugated as you would expect in regular English. They retain what in regular English would be their present tense form and tenses are indicated via preceding verbs like “dey” or “don.” So…

  • “I went” becomes “I don go”
  • “I am going” becomes “I dey go”
  • “I will go” becomes “I go go”

Languages aren’t laws of nature. 

In the end this is what it comes down to. Languages aren’t laws, they’re conventions: a way of doing things enough people agree on that anyone can work with.

What people agree on about language, as with all conventions, changes across the world and over time, which is why the same language will vary across time and space. And when enough people agree, new conventions are born. It’s that simple.

But what of the dictionary?

Well, what of it? Some people like to appeal to the dictionary like it’s some kind of final authority, but it’s not. It’s only an authority on common usage at the time of print. But common usage is not static, and that’s why dictionaries are constantly updated. The error is in thinking dictionaries dictate language, when what they do is record its present (common meanings, slang meanings), past (rare meanings, previous meanings), and future (new uses of old words, entirely new words), all based on watching how we use words and updating accordingly.

Dictionaries aren’t prescriptive, they’re descriptive. In fact, you could say, quite literally, that it’s we who dictate dictionaries.

Let’s not confuse love of rules with a love of language. True lovers of language will take delight in watching it grow and evolve and change, not try to force it to be what they think it should be.

And in the meantime, I’ll continue to speak the three variants of English I have command of, and my far less competent Yoruba.

You’re welcome to tell me “Well done.”

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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