NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 36 - SWEET PASS KEROSENE

If there is anything that makes Nigerians stand out for me it is their use of the spoken language. It may not be the Queen’s or King’s English, although there are those among them who speak that language better than many of the native English speakers. But the average Nigerian brings to the language a colour and expressiveness that enriches it and at the same time differentiates it. It was striking on first arriving in Lagos how some words and expressions in English seemed to have a certain resonance. Lorries doubling for buses would carry slogans painted on the sides or at the top front of the cab. The hard lot of the male of the species was reflected in the phrase ‘Strive on o man pikin’ (pikin is another of these words that derive from the Portuguese and comes from ‘pequeno’ meaning little or child) and awareness of the eternal verities in ‘Water finds its own level’. The only exception seemed to be the Albion lorries of the Public Works Department, some of them thirty years old - they never seemed to wear out and were the easiest of all vehicles to maintain (and built in Glasgow). The slogans would have brought a welcome brightness to the drab image of the Public Works Department but for regulations that forbade the defacing of government property and these included the painting of such slogans.

When labourers were riddling cocoa on the beaches to eliminate small pieces of trash prior to inspection or at the time of bagging it, they did it with what they called a ‘shiftah’. In the process of ‘shifting’ the workers would riddle the contents to a rhythm they created themselves as they shuffled the cocoa about to remove everything but the beans - daa-di-di-daa-di-di di-di-daa-di-di-daa di-di accompanied by their own words which on one occasion, the firm’s representative told me, meant ‘The produce examiner grades the beans and we do the work, today, tomorrow and next tomorrow’. Now, a phrase in general use like next tomorrow, meaning ‘the day after tomorrow’, somehow conveys a sense of the closeness and importance of that day. Another commonly used phrase, one time, meaning ‘immediately’, has a no option ring to it. The word dash, referred to earlier, conjures up a vision of something special soon. When my steward Richard was feeling sorry for himself, he would associate my discomfort with his in a particularly mosquito ridden area by ‘We too suffer for dis place’- the breadth of the concept of suffering being expanded to take in feelings of a less painful kind. Or perhaps the truth of the matter was that he did not have a classification for degrees of pain. Reports of civil servants complaining about their ‘suffering’ when ascending Mount Cameroon on an Outward Bound type training course had to be interpreted in that context.

A report in the local Lagos paper of a cricket match, Elder Dempster v Dyaks, in which I played, recorded that our captain had had to retire due to a ‘wrap (sic) on the balls’ reflecting complete indifference to a separate style for the written word. When an assistant produce officer reported a misdemeanour on the part of one of his staff, he started off his report with ‘As I was standing behind the office trying to ease myself....’. Euphemism has no place in spoken or written language and accuracy in spelling is not highly rated. It is what is said that is important and if it is necessary to reduce it to writing, the same words suffice.

One of the nicer things about the Nigerian press was the custom of announcements of local marriages with text written by someone in the bride’s family. The page or part of a page usually featuring this was edged by a thin line to indicate it was a paid-for notice and presumably a disclaimer by the paper of responsibility for anything that might appear. Language is tied to the spoken word, warts and all, even if it appears in print. If the spoken word is not always used accurately, that is how it comes across in the written version; it is the overall image it creates that is important. One notice that comes to mind is one with lines round it reporting the marriage of Miss Odusanya to Mr Arogundade (names made up for I forget what they were) at St Saviour’s Church, Lagos where the ceremony ‘was conducted by the Reverend G. D. Princewill and consummated on the lawn in the presence of 300 guests’. Some consecration, one might think. In the sporting world, boxers were called by names like ‘Speedy Twitch’, ‘Ninety-nine Horse Power’ and ‘Superhuman Paul’. This lent an exaggerated and picturesque dimension to the images of the personalities concerned and somehow gave an added emphasis from elusiveness and boxing skill to raw power. It would seem that the meanings of words are of much less consequence than their sounds; that their total effect, both physical and mental, is of infinitely greater importance than their purpose as a means of rational communication..

I have a theory that the expressiveness of the language as used more than makes up for an apparent lack of appreciation of metaphor. This lack stems, I believe, from the propensity of ordinary Nigerians to think in concrete terms rather than in conceptual ones. Educated men and women have a greater facility for it. I have a record of E T Mensah, a Ghanaian musician whose band played regularly on the high-life scene in Western Nigeria, giving backing to a song about a parcel found on a bus at Ebute Metta, a mainland suburb of Lagos, which when opened contained a dead child. Rather than convey musically an immediate sense of grievous loss and tragedy, the lyric tells the sad tale as a series of actions. Nigerians perceive things intuitively and rely on sense data; they are non-logical, emphasising the particular rather than the general. Metaphorical expressions like ‘Put a tiger in your tank’ (give a boost to your engine) or ‘Nail your scrotum to the chair’ (don’t move from the spot) are likely to be taken literally and be seen as an irrelevance at best and as offensive at worst. If an English word is not immediately known, a kind of metaphor may be used but even that will draw on familiar actions associated with the object; so a balloon became known as a blò-bló. It is used as an emergency measure where the name of an object is not known or can`t be recalled, to articulate a description for it rather than give colour and emphasis to what is being said and perhaps convey a different and more cogent meaning. Blò-bló, because it has this particular resonance about it that is more expressive of the action needed to inflate it than the word ‘balloon’, became the accepted expression for it. It is this idea of stress on the concrete that makes metaphor, supposedly a universal enricher of communication, a non-event in Nigeria. The buzz generated by the general expressiveness of the people more than makes up for it.

The cause of this emphasis on the concrete appears to lie in the nature of the languages themselves which make it impossible for people to think or speak in abstract terms. It is reinforced by their close relationship with the power of nature, with animals and things. The human psyche is affected by this oneness with nature which is personified in representational forms which do not distinguish between people, animals and things that occur naturally. Because these are essential qualities, models and images, and because their existence is implicit rather than explicit in the material world, they are ‘of another world ‘. Yet their existence is real. Events, ideas, physical objects and places can be understood in terms of these basic aspects of nature. There is therefore no absolute dividing line between mythology and history. It is not their scholastic background that enables educated Nigerians to embrace concepts and abstractions. It is the English language that frees them to do so, as it does not predispose the choices of interpretation imposed on them by their own tongues. Presumably it is similar in former French territories where the French language elevates the educated from the constraining influence, in European terms, of concrete language usage.

The idea of the comparative is conveyed by the use of a descriptive adjective and the word pass what is being compared as in ‘palm wine is good pass beer’. There is a story, probably apocryphal, of one man who sampled a particular drink for the first time and enthusiastically declared it ‘sweet pass kerosene’. The phrase captures for me the uniqueness and expressiveness of ‘English as she is spoke’. The superlative is conveyed by use of a phrase like ‘good pass all’. Richard sought to establish my hierarchy of culinary preferences by determining how different meals were good pass others until he knew what I liked better than I knew myself.

The same words are used as for describing the present as are used to describe the past. ‘He go dis way, he go dat way, he pass de ball and de centre forward score de goal’. It could be a spectator at a football match describing to a blind companion an incident in a game or it could be the description of a spectator relating what had happened to friends who had not been there. That it happened in the past is indicated by the situation which the speakers share. If it were to be spoken out of context, no one would know if it was the present or the past that was being described. The future is described by prefixing the verb with the word ‘go’ as in I go take am (‘I’ll take it’). Another example is I go follow de lorry come (‘I shall come by bus’). In this case the verb ‘follow’ is used to express movement and is used in conjunction with the word ‘come’ to indicate direction of travel. The opposite direction would be captured by I go follow de lorry go.

Depending on the way in which some words are spoken will depend the meaning intended by the speaker and felt by the hearer. Certain words sharing the same spelling are distinguished by where the emphasis is put on them as in babá meaning ‘old man’ or ‘grandfather’ and bába meaning ‘barber’. It is also seen in fáda meaning ‘father’ and fadá meaning a Roman Catholic priestda. Pitch also has a part to play in understanding. He go gó meaning ‘he will go’ is distinguished from the question He go gó? meaning ‘will he go?’ by a rising pitch on the latter. Apart from the features of stress or pitch, Nigerian pidgin also has similar characteristics to English in that it varies the use of rhythm and rate of speech to mediate meaning. These elements are used to bring closer together utterance of the spoken word and its felt meaning by the hearer.

This mode of speaking arises from the variety of languages spoken in Nigeria and serves as a kind of go-between language to facilitate communication. Nigerian pidgin is a special form of pidgin English and a legitimate medium for allowing social interaction between people who would otherwise be unable to convey meaning by the spoken word without which non-verbal accompanying behaviour is meaningless unless made by a mime artist - and there are few enough of these. Negro slaves from West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries were taken to Portugal where they adapted Portuguese to create a pidgin or ‘fala dos negros’. Since they came from different tribes and spoke different languages, there was a need for them to communicate with each other and this need was met by the development of pidgin Portuguese. The English themselves spoke pidgin French in the wake of the Norman Conquest until the overwhelming numbers of the native English speakers eventually swamped the Norman-French language as imported with William the Conqueror. During the Scottish wars of independence, more than two hundred years after the arrival of the Normans in the British isles, Edward the First of England, ‘Longshanks’ to his Anglo-Saxon followers, the so-called ‘Hammer of the Scots’, was in fact a ruler who was more at home in Norman French, the language of the ruling nobility in England.

Nigerian pidgin arose in the first instance from the need of British traders and local sellers and buyers to communicate with each other. It is strongest in Calabar, Port Harcourt and Warri (situated on the original ‘slave rivers’ later to be known as the ‘oil rivers’). It was a relatively recent development in metropolitan Lagos where the palm oil trade was never great and was part of a trade developed much earlier in the oil rivers and Calabar. Pidgin has, historically, a close connection with commercial affairs and the name itself is said to be a corruption of the Chinese rendering of the English word ‘business’. As the different tribes of the Delta developed their own form of English bringing to it structural aspects of their own languages, it eventually spread to others who did not interact to any extent with Europeans, as a means of imparting meaning across different languages. It is a creative form of communication, not a limited form of English and is as much a product of the economic history of the country as the commercial customs and institutions that have evolved.

Like any living language pidgin is dynamic and subject to change. It can have regional variations. At the same time it has retained basic expressions from the early explorer merchants to the Guinea coast, particularly the Portuguese who were active there in the 16th and 17th centuries and indeed dominated trade in these parts for two hundred years which included trade in slaves. ‘Salute your master for me’ means ‘I send your employer my greetings’ and can be traced back to pidgin Portuguese. I have heard Europeans use the word ‘salute’ to send regards to another European, many years after the meaning originally shared with the Romance languages had fallen out of use, showing how easy it is for even a pidgin to influence a major language and in this case to reintroduce an older meaning. In places like Warri where the majority of the population, the Itsekiri, shared their town with substantial minorities of neighbouring peoples like the Urhobos, the Ijaws, the Okrikas and the ubiquitous Ibos as well as Europeans of different nationalities, pidgin was the language of communication.

Before purists talk about a dominant culture undermining a less dominant one through its language, consider that Mother English for her part has been enriched, extended, and corrupted by the American version. Those people who use American words or pronunciations without being aware of doing so are understandably those without a strong local identity, often the less educated or the more easily influenced or simply people who have sub-consciously absorbed an expression like ‘hospitalise’ for which there was no equivalent single-word verb in the English spoken in England. But the educated are not exempt from the use of such expressions. If you talk about vacuum tubes (rather than thermionic valves), deck and wild card (rather than pack and joker), morgue (rather than mortuary), specialty (rather than speciality), envision (rather than envisage), résearch (reséarch), temporárily (témporarily), kilómetres (kílometres), rómance (románce) dumb down, spat, feisty, guy (the living male variety), cop, oculist or hooker (not the middle of the front row kind), you are wearing the intellectual equivalent of a baseball cap. If you use a majority of these expressions, and there are all sorts of mitigating circumstances if you do, connected in the main with the global dominance of the US news and entertainment media industries, then you are wearing that cap back to front. If the English have an identity problem, is it to be wondered at? Being a basic lingua franca and culturally neutral, Nigerian pidgin does not have such complexity to contend with.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 37