It is no longer news that some 29 words essentially of Nigerian origin in usage have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, (OED), a powerful learning tool. But what might that mean? is that a colonial blowback in which those the English language was imposed centuries ago have come round to take over the language as argued in the UK’s The Guardian piece or consolidation of colonialism as some African intellectuals are saying? Which is which?
Afua Hirsch published a piece in The Guardian in which the first position was articulated, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/29/africa-coloniasation-english-language-oxford-dictionary-nigerian The piece is reproduced below. But that position is not what some keen observers of language and power think of the issue. Intervention brings together a sampler.
Reacting specifically to Hirsch’s piece which he had read very well, Dr Yusuf Bangura, political economist and a keen observer of global dynamics argues to the contrary. While rating the piece as a ‘Nice take on the English language and the colonial project, he is however, thinking that it is a misconception to take the recent addition of African/Nigerian-generated words into the Oxford dictionary represents an African colonisation of the English language. He speaks:
The gatekeepers of the English language are still in the metropole: England (Oxford English Dictionary) and the US (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary). As the recent inclusion of 29 Nigerian English words to the OED shows, the editors of these dictionaries still determine what is standard or accepted English for global use. Africa lacks an English dictionary that legitimizes and projects its numerous new contributions to the language.
In other words, Africans can’t be colonizing the English language when we depend on the old colonial powers for approving the new African words or expressions in the language.
Instead, one should see the English language as a global language, which incorporates words and expressions from various parts of the world, especially the former British colonies. But the custodians of this global language are still located at the imperial centre countries.
As if in anticipation of this very scenario, Prof Gabriel Egbe of Veritas University, Abuja took the position last November that Nigerians need not be embarrassed by what has become known as Nigerian English, Contesting Global English in Prof Gabriel Egbe’s Provocative Inaugural Lecture In the university’s first Inaugural Lecture, Prof Egbe maintained that English has become the language of those who speak it rather than the language of any owners. That puts him in the same bracket with Afua Hirsch’s Guardian article published in that newspaper yesterday and reproduced below.
No one can be conclusive on this debate yet or even in future outside of how the matter is articulated. Each side poses a valid point. Very appealing is the position which Bangura is articulating as to whether we can talk of a blowback or counter-colonialism when the owners of the language still decide what and when to admit certain words into its list? No less appealing is the contrary argument posed by scholars such as Prof Egbe that the language itself has suffered fragmentation as for it to have owners anymore.
The real tragedy is that Nigeria which seems to be at the centre of the power of cultural resources such as language is so much at war with itself to have in place the capacity to synthesise these sort of debates in the interest of global power projection vis-à-vis the remaking of Africa.
Recently, a major global discursive site, Newsweek branded Nigeria as the Black China. The constitutive implication of that has not been a subject of much serious reflection in Nigeria’s public space. That space is dominated by internal wrangling along ethno-regional lines arising from the generalised insecurity that has enveloped the country for quite sometime now.
Below is Hirsch’s piece:
Africa’s Colonisation of the English Language Continues Apace
The British empire forced its colonies to abandon their own languages. Now they are making English their own
There is one expression I have grown up hearing from relatives of a certain age, but never been able to accept. It’s the description of Twi – the Akan language spoken by my family – as “the vernacular”, a term which implicitly compares it with the colonial language, English, and somehow finds it wanting. The word itself is a revealing symptom of the colonial project. Just as nations like the Yoruba, with a population of more than 40 million, were patronisingly described as “tribes”, when in fact they were substantial nations, African languages were downgraded to “the vernacular”. It’s a term more befitting of a regional dialect than a nation’s language, with its own history, politics and literature.
The attempt to discourage Africans from speaking our own languages not only failed, but has had the glorious result of backfiring, to the extent that now Britain’s own inhabitants are officially adopting African vocab. This month the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added Nigeria’s first entries to already recognised gems like “howzit” from South Africa. Other Africans will recognise lots of the latest lingo to get the OED stamp – “chop”, to eat or to misappropriate funds; “next tomorrow”, the day after tomorrow; “sef”, a great Pidgin flourish for emphasis.
Nigerian pre-eminence in the English language is nothing new. One of the first global literary successes by a black author was The Interesting Narrative, by the Igbo writer Olaudah Equiano, the beautifully written 1789 account of his enslavement and subsequent freedom.
As a Booker prize judge last year, I was struck – although not surprised – by just how many entries there were from Nigerians, with two on the longlist, and the joint winner, Bernadine Evaristo, of Nigerian heritage. The sheer number of legendary authors from the nation makes it often overrepresented in the English canon. But Nigeria’s relationship to the English language, like that of all English-speaking African nations, is a complicated one. Chinua Achebe – one of the legends – wrote of the English language, “we may go on resenting it, because it came as part of a package deal that included many other items of doubtful value, especially the atrocities of racial arrogance and prejudice which may yet set the world on fire … If [English] failed to give them a song it at least gave them a tongue for sighing.”
English was imposed on Africans by force. “In Kenya, English became more than a language: it was the language, and all the others had to bow before it in deference,” wrote the great Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. In his seminal book Decolonising the Mind, he described children at his English-speaking school in Nairobi being beaten if they were caught speaking Gĩkũyũ.
One of my favourite grievances with that colonial legacy, and the ongoing failure to give the descendants of empire equal status, came via the unlikely topic of weather systems. “Yo why storm Brendan?” wrote the doctor and TV presenter Dr Ronx earlier this month, “I’m out here waiting to be blown away by storm Oluwatunde! We need to decolonise storm names!” Why storms always have European names can be added to a growing list of questions: why don’t British schools teach the history of empire; why does it have no national museum; why do we glorify colonial violence as personified by figures like Cecil Rhodes; why do we know the name of William Wilberforce but not Equiano, a key abolitionist as well as celebrated author?
The great thing about language though, is that it waits for no one. While calls to decolonise curricula – and weather – seem likely to continue falling on deaf ears, culture moves on. Several years ago I wrote about how the situation of “the Queen’s English” in Ghana – once associated with superior education and intelligence – has become more perilous, with the potential to attract derision under the acronym LAFA – locally acquired foreign accent.
Not just English but other European languages are finding their centre of gravity shifting to Africa. Portuguese currently has its greatest number of speakers in Brazil – where Yoruba and indigenous languages have moulded vowels and expressions utterly different from the language of Portugal – but some believe that by the end of the century, the growth of Angola and Mozambique will make Africans the most numerous speakers of Portuguese. The history of colonialism by France and Belgium means that since 2010, 68% of the world’s new French speakers now live in West and Central Africa. The African capacity to survive the brutality of colonialism means French is now the fifth most widely spoken language in the world.
The paradox of empire is perhaps most visible in its legacy of language. The psychology of colonisation could not have worked without suppressing expressions of existing culture, and “educating” its subjects to believe in their own inferiority. But the independence of the African continent in the 20th century could not have come about when it did without the unity that was forged out of common languages brought by colonisers – English, French and Portuguese. The resulting ambivalence towards English is shared not just on the African continent but in the diaspora as well. As the great African-American writer James Baldwin once wrote, “my quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience”. But, Baldwin conceded, “it might be made to bear the burden of my experience, if I could find the stamina to challenge it.”
His words reflect a fatigue with the colonial story, which I often share. But at the same time, we always did find the stamina to challenge it, whether or not that was recognised by dictionaries.
- Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist