“What I like about English,” a student pastor told me at the end of one class, “is that you have so many special words for things, so that means you can think and talk about so much more than we can in our own languages.”
This sounds fairly convincing. English has a word ‘justification’ and so it’s easy to talk about it — easier than trying to talk about the same thing in a Nigerian language, at least. It’s not just religious terms but science too: how would you teach people about hydration or polymers or anatomy. This is commonly a justification for rushing kids to English in school and abandoning the foundational languages they come with. There are no words for these ideas in the home languages and we have no textbooks (and don’t intend to write any) in local languages for children to memorise. So far, so convincing, but of course that’s only part of the picture. Leaving aside the slightly questionable Sapir-Whorf exaggerations, the argument relies for its adequacy on two questionable assumptions which no-one really questions.
Education is chiefly about learning big words and regurgitating their definitions to pass tests, get a qualification and thus get a salaried position.
If we all use the same terms, then we’ll all understand the same thing. Shi ke nan! (Kinda Hausa for Slam Dunk!)
I’ll leave aside the educational philosophy issue for now and tackle the second.
Every week I drive past Peculiar International College and a shop titled Peculiar Cuts/Drycleaning. There’s a school bus (above) emblazoned with Peculiar Child. Why do I find this odd?
In Nigeria Peculiar means something/someone special, or precious to someone else. That’s what it used to mean in British English too, as you can see in the King James Version of the Bible where Christians are described as being a peculiar people. But languages don’t stand still, and so today peculiar has changed its meaning, from being a delightful epithet of worth to marking something strange or unusual.
Thus my friend Princeton had been perplexed to read in a novel about a ‘peculiar sight: a cat reading a notice board’. That just doesn’t make sense with the Nigerian (old) English meaning of the word, but does with the modern British use.
Nigeria: special and particularly precious, always in a good way
Most people around the world speak more than one language.
That shouldn’t be news, but in the English-speaking monolingual world, we may need to remind ourselves of this fact.
One language may be used at home and informally, but in a multilingual world, it’s useful to be able to communicate with people who speak different languages. People with different home languages might share a common language or a ‘trade language’ (especially for the marketplace). These are known as ‘languages of wider communication’. English is obviously one, and so is Hausa (used in northern Nigeria), Mandarin Chinese (for China), Spanish etc. Unfortunately while I can greet people and buy my onions, tomatoes and dankali using Hausa, when I try to go much deeper in the language I come up against a problem:
A Language of Wider Communication frequently ends up being a Language of Wilder Confusion.
This presents itself to me whenever I try using Hausa examples in my teaching of linguistics and translation. (Actually it also happens when I use English examples too.) Is itace (dead) firewood or a tree? What about ice? What different words are there for kinds of cloth in Hausa? If you ask around you’ll find different answers. You could explain this as dialectal variation, and possibly this is the case, but that doesn’t necessarily help with the problem of trying to communicate meaningfully using languages of wider communication. What is fairly evident is that considerable variation arises because people learning a second language in later childhood or adulthood usually use the divisions of meaning from their first language.
Here’s an example. Ishɛ language has a word ushi and when an Ashɛ person learns English, they may be told that ushi is ‘bush’ in English… or ‘farm’… or ‘field’. Thereafter, when an Ashɛ person reads of ‘Moses and the burning bush’ in an English Bible they know exactly what it is, because they’ve seen how the stubble on farms or countryside (ushi) is burned after harvest. But that wasn’t what was happening.
This is a major problem when you’re trying to communicate with any certainty and precision. To use a language of wider communication well you really need very careful feedback to make sure you are actually understanding each other and not talking at cross-purposes. Otherwise you end up with languages of wilder confusion.
One feedback mechanism is to record all the mismatches we discover and learn from each other. So I thought I’d start a little series of blog posts on Languages of Wilder Confusion from what I’m learning in Nigeria, and particularly with Nigerian English vs British English. (Hey, maybe I’ll branch into American English problems too some time, but that is much better documented.)
Particularly dangerous are the words which just carry very different implications though they overlap in meaning. These ‘danger words’ are dangerous because nothing seems odd; they are perfectly understandable but just mean different things to speaker and listener.
One of the Koro Ashɛ translators sadly just heard he lost his step-mother. I offered my condolences and (I really should know better by now than to do this, but) I asked somewhat crassly when she had become his step-mother.
At that point he looked confused.
But of course, I’d asked a silly question. I was thinking that perhaps his mother had died and his father remarried, but no, I was quite off-beam. This was his father’s immediate brother’s wife. All the wives of his uncles are called in Ashɛ-style English ‘step-mothers’, as are co-wives in polygamous households. I guess I would say ‘aunt’ but I get the impression that the relationships just work differently and a paternal aunt by marriage is quite a different thing from a maternal aunt or even a father’s sister.