teaching. lanugage. travel
I got this mail from Nick about another personal peculiarity in English pronunciation in response to my recent post. Enjoy.
I enjoyed your post about spotting Nigerian accents by the pronunciation of “man/men”
This doesn’t have anything to do with Nigerian English, but I know you like American English accents, so I thought I’d write. I ran into something similar to the “man/men” issue when I moved from my home town of Portland, Oregon to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (you should visit both cities if you get a chance). Having lived in Pittsburgh for ten
years I still find myself having to consciously use more of a “aa” sound, particularly with the word “bag”, which my wife tells me I pronounce too much like “beg”. I do it pretty automatically now, but I actually find myself exaggerating it to prevent comments. I think I sound like a sheep, going “baaaaaa-g”. The vowel sounds more open and I hold my tongue farther back in my throat than I would naturally.
This might not be exactly the same as the “men/man” thing, but it seems similar.
This is just my experience and not evidence of a regional accent issue, but at least one of my friends reported something similar after moving from Portland to the east coast. Other significant factors are that I may have picked up a bit of my mom’s New England accent, and also that Pittsburgh is home to a slight local accent and some cool local vocabulary like “yinz” instead of “y’all”.
Thanks for your always-interesting blog,
This mail reminds me of one other distinct pronunciation difference in Nigerian and Ghanaian English. Growing up in the early to late eighties, I remember a common assumption that Ghanaian English sounded closer to the British standard than Nigerian English, and Nigerian parents paid more to send their children to private schools that had Ghanaian teachers rather than ones that didn’t. And though they paid so much for the “privilege” for us, we never understood much of the obsession beyond the fact that our teachers insisted on pronouncing “Church” as “cherch” (as it rhymes with “perch”), the as “the” (as rhyming with the “e” in “wet”, hamburger as “hamberger”, luck as “lack”, and but as “bat” rather than the Nigerian “bot” among very many others that I can list if I get the time. We students also didn’t gain much from the hubris that the teacher brought with them either. It however provided plenty moments of comic relief in classroom sessions when it didn’t come along with punishments for deviation. We had some good laughs as I am sure did Ghanaians who had listen to us speak English as well. I have been to East African and I think that the English there – along with its own amusing peculiarities that knocked Nigerian and Ghanaian versions to a corner – comes the closest to British English pronunciation standard in all of the Englishes I’ve heard on the continent. But then, I’ve never been everywhere.
Thank you Nick.
Watching a cover of Rihanna’s “Man Down” yesterday, I noticed something curious: one of the girls in the video pronounced the word “man” with a familiar consistency. I became intrigued and went to see other videos by the young ladies. Eventually I found one in which they answered questions from their fans, and I got what I was looking for. They were born to Nigerian parents, raised partly in Nigeria and in the United States. It’s unmistakable. That pronunciation of “man” in the video is of someone who has lived in Nigeria at one point or the other in their life. Watch the song cover here.
The last time something like this happened to me was four weeks ago on the streets of Chicago. “Are you from Nigeria?” I asked the taxi driver who had spoken just a few words to me through the window as I complained that his fares were too exorbitant. “Yes, in fact,” he responded, to the astonishment of my company. “There was something in his pronunciation,” I told her later. It turned out that the man had grown up in Nigeria but had lived in Chicago since 1979. Like her, he was also astonished to hear that I had guessed his nationality from just a few words in a big city.
There are some very distinct peculiarities in Nigerian English pronunciations observable usually only to compatriots, residents or regular visitors. This must be why all comedic imitations of African speech by American actors seem to be funnier (or sillier, depending on how you look at it) for being too inaccurately generic. (Chris Tucker does another one of those impressions at the end of this video, and Steve Havey in this one.)
PS: Here is a related video in which we played around with the perceptible difference in “man” on a Nigerian or an American tongue.
The Urban Dictionary defines “Just sayin’” as “a term coined to be used at the end of something insulting or offensive to take the heat off you when you say it.” Here is the example that comes with the definition:
Jordan: Anna you have really let yourself go.
Anna: What the hell! What is your freaking problem?!
Jordan: Just sayin’
Anna: Oh well in that case, I suppose its okay.
Anna: Fer Sure.
There is a phrase in Yoruba that translates to just that. It’s often just used as “I’m just saying my own”, or in plain English, “I’m just giving my own opinion. Don’t crucify me for it.” Now we have the Urban Dictionary for telling us what we already know. In other news, the expression “What is doing this one?” will be a perfectly correct Nigerian English expression of exasperation at someone/something that you don’t understand. What’s wrong with him/her?
Those of you not on twitter would have missed the trending topic of a few days back, titled “English Made in Nigeria.” Check out more of them here before they disappear from off the internet. If you can sort through the pidgin rubble, you’ll come away with some golden gems, like: “She’s my senior sister” meaning “older sister.”
Prompted by my sister’s observation on reading Larry King’s My Remarkable Journey. “The language is remarkably simple,” she said. The fact is that we have been so used to the literary culture that passes off grandiose English as the only true means of good literary communication that when we see one that pulls off a feat of enchanting us without pretending to be grand, we are pleasantly surprised and are forced to look at ourselves again.
How the literary culture in Nigeria (as borrowed from Britain) successfully evolved into the idea that it is better and more acceptable to write (and speak) as difficult possible when given the opportunity is really beyond me. And for all who bother about it, this is the singular most (de)pressing issue in Nigerian literature today. Not just the language of our writing – which will remain English for a long while – but the way we use it. The argument is long and tedious, and will – if not properly articulated – spill over into very many distracting directions, but what is clear is that we still haven’t mastered the ability to simply write, simply.
My favourite essay of all time is by George Orwell, titled Politics and the English Language(1946), and I’ve always recommended it for anyone wishing to be called a writer. In it, he highlights the very many wrong ways in which we use the English language a famous one being the rendering of a verse in Ecclesiastes in “modern” English. According to him, and I agree, this verse…
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
would most likely be written by today’s writers as follows:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
He admits in the end, as I do now, that he too may have occasionally fallen into the temptation to use more words than necessary in order to sound grand, or just for the drought of ideas. Yet, it is inexcusable. There is a reason why I was able to complete Larry King’s book in two days and I’m yet to complete one by a Nigerian writer since more than a year ago, and it doesn’t have to do with their personalties, a glossy cover or their countries of origin. And it is the same reason why V.S. Naipaul is now one of my favourite Nobel Prize winners. There is just something enchanting about a simply but brilliantly-written work.