Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007    
  Is There Indeed A “Nigerian English”?    

Timothy T. Ajani, Fayetteville State University, tajani@uncfsu.edu



The global spread of the English language as one of the most far-reaching linguistic phenomena of our time is already an established fact. Evidence of this worldwide phenomenon of language contact, variation and change can be seen through such designations as world Englishes, new Englishes, modern Englishes, West African Englishes, South African English, Australian English, Indian English, to mention just a few. The phrase “Nigerian English” has also appeared in the last four decades or so. The purpose of this paper is to re-apprise the arguments involving the existence or non-existence of a distinct variety of English known as “Nigerian English.” Some of the issues explored include the following: Is there really such a thing as Nigerian English? What has been said thus far, and by whom? What are the main arguments for and against? What conclusions can be drawn from them? If there is indeed such a variety of English, what are its main identifying characteristics?


New Englishes, modern Englishes, international Englishes, world Englishes, South African English, Australian English, Indian English are some of the designations used to describe the new varieties of English bourgeoning all over the world. These new Englishes are the result of the global spread of English (henceforth EL) that began with British colonialism during the nineteenth century (Crystal 1997; McArthur 1998; Trudgill et al. 2002; Jenkins 2003, etc.).

According to J. N. Ogu (1992), N. G. Walsh (1967) was among the first to draw attention to the existence of a variety of EL known as “Nigerian English” (NE). Ogu quoted Walsh as saying that

The varieties of English spoken by educated Nigerians, no matter what their language, have enough features in common to mark off a general type, which may be called Nigerian English (1992: 88).

Bokamba (1982, 1991) recognized the existence of a NE and referred to it as a variety of what he called “West African Vernacular English” (WAVE). Similarly, Jibril (1982) saw NE as part of the continuum of “West African English.” Akere (1982) likewise spoke of the emergence of a “Standard Nigerian English.” Odumuh (1987, 1993) recognized NE as one of the new Englishes and had this to say: “Our position is that there exists at the moment a single super ordinate variety of Standard English in Nigeria which can be regarded as ‘Nigerian English.’”

Several other linguists (e.g., Salami 1968; Adekunle 1974,  1985; Adetugbo 1979; Balogun 1980; Kujore 1985; Adegbija 1989; Kachru 1986, 1992a, 1992b, etc; Jowitt 1991; Atoye 1991; Bamiro 1991, 1994; Goke-Pariola 1993; to mention just a few) have either written about, or made passing references to this variety of EL. Finally (and definitely not the least), Ayo Bamgbose, one of the foremost African linguists of our time, highly respected internationally and with a great reputation on matters dealing with language and society in Africa, not only recognizes the existence of a NE, but also has written extensively on this variety of EL. His article, “Standard Nigerian English: Issues of Identification” (1982) not only identifies NE, but also analyzes some of its identifying features. 

However, not everyone believes in the existence of a NE. Theo Vincent (1974), for instance, sees it as “bad English.” Likewise, Salami (1968) contends that what has been identified as NE is in reality “errors of usage.” Vincent and Salami are to a large extent voicing the concern of a host of EL teachers in Nigerian institutions of learning who find it quite derogatory and rather insulting to refer to such a variety of EL. These would rather see any departure from the British variety (which was imported into Nigeria) as either deviant or incorrect. This same kind of situation prevails in the US with regards to Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), albeit that is not one of the main foci of this paper.

According to Wolfson (1989), although EL has gained worldwide prominence, it is not used exactly the same way everywhere. In the same vein, Ashcroft el al. (1989) point out that, although British imperialism resulted in the global spread of EL, the English of Jamaicans isn’t the same as that of Canadians or Kenyans, and that a continuum exists between the various practices constituting EL usage throughout the world.

A cursory look at history reveals that this phenomenon is not new. Similar occurrences have taken place in the past, and their results are still with us today. Latin, for example, gave birth to the present day Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.) during the Renaissance period. Arabic gave rise to the various regional dialects in North Africa and the Middle East – Egyptian Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, etc. What is happening today with EL is not an anomaly, as some may think, but rather a normal and natural linguistic process that takes place in an atmosphere of mobility and language and culture contact.

It is a well-known sociolinguistic fact that when two or more languages and cultures come into contact, different types of sociolinguistic chemistry take place. Sometimes a diglossic situation may result, or language shift, attrition or even language death. In some other instances it can lead to the formation of a pidgin, a creole, or even the birth of a new language altogether (Sebba 1997). Instances of these various possibilities can be found in different contact situations around the globe.

Theoretical and Methodological Considerations

The theoretical pivot of the phenomenon that produced the new Englishes is that of language variation and change. Uriel Weinreich (who could be rightly regarded as the “father” of modern day contact linguistics) presented a systematic framework for the categorization of the mutual influence and “mixing” that take place when languages come in contact (1953, 1968). Since then several linguists, sociolinguists and anthropological linguists have observed and analyzed this phenomenon in different parts of the world.

Each of the new Englishes has distinct characteristics, as well as distinct linguistic and cultural identities, largely due to the different historical, geographical, political and socio-cultural factors that gave birth to them. Thus, Nigerian English will differ from either Ghanaian or Indian English. Each variety, however, will also have various sub-varieties or dialects, reflecting its multilingual environment. The depth of impact at various linguistic levels in each variety will be determined by the degree of localization of English.

The unique nature of new Englishes poses several problems, among which are those of definition, identification, classification, norm and intelligibility. The designation “Nigerian English” for instance, is somehow deceptive: does a Hausa speaker of NE use English exactly the same way as a Yoruba, or Igbo speaker? If the answer is in the negative – which happens to be the case in this instance – then the next question is: what then constitutes NE? The arguments advanced by both language specialists and teachers of language indicate that there is really no consensus opinion yet as to what constitutes NE. The opinions range from an outright rejection of its existence, to those who take its existence for granted and use the term without defining or questioning it. In between these two extremes is a continuum of various definitions, descriptions and analyses.

Odumuh (1987) for example, having identified NE simply as one of the new varieties of EL developing all over the world, proceeds to provide a theoretical basis to justify its existence – the development of variation studies. He then goes on to argue that the existence of a single super-ordinate variety of EL presupposes that of other forms of EL usage in the Nigerian speech community. This assertion answers, to a certain degree, one of the questions posed above as to whether NE is a homogenous entity. Odumuh goes further to give some features that distinguish NE from other forms of EL in other parts of the world. These he categorizes into lexical, semantic, syntactic and phonological usages, at both the spoken and written levels. Using the theory of linguistic variation, he argues that in contact situations – as in the case of Nigeria – a variety or varieties are bound to emerge that differ from that of Britain (the EL model for Nigeria). He also raises the issue of standardization and two other related issues: those of local acceptability and international intelligibility. NE, he believes, does satisfy these criteria to a great degree.

Furthermore, Odumuh subdivides NE into three dialects arising from the influences of the three major (regional) languages of Nigeria, also referred to as “national languages.” These he categorizes as Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo Englishes. It is these dialect types, he contends, that contribute to feed and enrich the super-ordinate NE. He also recognizes the immense contribution of written creative literature to the standardization of NE. He then suggests two ways to approach variety differentiation in NE: mode (written or spoken) and educational attainment (educated standard, semi-standard and non-standard). He nevertheless agrees that these are not clear-cut demarcations, but rather constitute a continuum of usages.

Likewise, Adekunle (1985), using the theory of language change and linguistic variation, puts forth cultural needs, geographical and linguistic factors as responsible for changes in EL usage in Nigeria. These changes, according to him, are rapid and most far-reaching in the semantic component of the language and are the result of inexorable pressure in the social environment of the language. According to Akere (1982), NE is an aggregate of heterogeneous grammatical structures common to Nigerian usage, having varying pronunciation peculiarities as well as socially constrained usage of some lexical items.

Jibril (1982) too is quick to warn that there is no unanimity in the assessment of Nigerian linguists as to what he calls the “citizen status” of NE. He nevertheless proceeds to argue that NE does not have to possess a common linguistic feature to qualify it as Nigerian, since even British English (BE) itself has local variations and dialectal features. This further buttresses Odumuh’s argument that EL does not have to be homogeneous to qualify as being indigenous to Nigeria.

As far as Bamgbose is concerned, the question of whether there is an NE should not arise, since it is a known fact that in language contact situations a second language (L2) is bound to be influenced by its linguistic environment. He buttresses his argument with the fact that the existence of different Englishes has a wide acceptance among linguists internationally. He identifies three different approaches to usages in NE as the interference, the deviation and creativity approaches. The first approach traces NE usages to influences from local languages (i.e. from “interferences” from the mother tongue – L1). The main problem with this approach, Bamgbose contends, is that it fails to recognize the fact that not all forms of interference can validly be considered as coming from the L1, since some of them might be coming from Nigerian Pidgin English (NPE), which he does not consider to be an L1 (although Faraclas (1986) provides evidence that there is a new generation of young Nigerians for whom NPE is rapidly becoming a mother tongue). Secondly, it ignores the normal processes of language development such as semantic extension and the creation of new idioms, which cut across all L1 backgrounds.

The second approach is that involving a comparison with “native English” thus labeling all differences from this model as “deviant.” Bamgbose’s contention with this approach is that it ignores the fact that certain typical NE usages are the result of creativity. The third is the creativity approach, which focuses on the resources of local languages as well as EL to create new expressions and idioms. This approach, in his judgment, has the added advantage of recognizing the autonomous status of NE. He warns, though, that not all NE usages can be said to have arisen out of linguistic creativity.

Bamgbose’s conclusion is that whereas each of the above approaches sheds some light on the nature of NE, none of them is solely adequate criterion to characterize the entire spectrum of NE. He therefore proposes a combination of all three approaches. He also raises the often recurrent issue of how and where to draw the line between usages that are genuinely Nigerian in nature and those that are outright errors of usage. Finally, he poses yet another difficult methodological and sociolinguistic question: whose usage is to be used as the model or standard? His answer is that the model should not be that of the purist who sees all usages not in conformity with the British model as a deviation and a corruption, and rather opts for what he calls the “natural and spontaneous usage of the local educated Nigerian user of English” (1982:105). My main problem with this proposition, though, is that Bamgbose does not really qualify what he means by “educated Nigerian user of English”; especially since he himself recognizes that there are different levels of education. The issues raised by Bamgbose, however, are to a large extent representative of what many other language analysts have discussed at varying degrees and levels.

The features that have been proposed as identifying characteristics of NE are mostly similar in nature at the levels of phonetics and phonology, syntax, lexis and semantics; discourse, speech acts and stylistics. These features share a lot of common ground with those of the new Englishes advanced by Kachru (1982, 1992b, etc.) and several others. According to most of the contributors and analysts of the Nigerian situation, Nigerian writers have been some of the major contributors to the standardization of NE.

The issue of intelligibility has also been variously dealt with. The most representative opinion on this, however, is that NE is indigenous to Nigeria and its most basic usage is intra-national, which it does well. On the question of international intelligibility, the opinion is that standard NE is to a large extent intelligible and that whatever difficulties encountered along those lines are not peculiar to NE alone, but also to the users of all the other varieties of EL worldwide. The difficulties encountered by the NE speaker communicating with an American English speaker will be similar in many respects to that encountered by an Australian English speaker communicating with a New Zealander.

Another issue touched upon is that of language attitudes. The opinion of most analysts seems to be that NE does not yet have full acceptance among Nigerians, although the reasons advanced have been mostly non-linguistic in nature. This unfavorable attitude might be attributed to the activities of purists who feel the recognition of an NE will spell doom for EL in Nigeria. Numerous linguistic data abound, with sound theoretical arguments, to prove the existence of a localized and aculturized form of EL that can be safely referred to as Nigerian English. Not minding the arguments of purists, however, more and more people are beginning to recognize and to have a positive attitude towards NE, although it may still take a while before it receives wide acceptance among the general populace. The following quote from Adekunle (1985: 36, 38) is quite revealing and appropriate at this point.

“The English language has, as a result of many years of active use in the Nigerian speech community … become part of Nigeria’s contemporary environment and behavior. […] It is an artifact whose foreign derived components have in the process of its evolution combined with native Nigerian elements to make it local.”

Evidence for Nigerian English

Kachru (1992b) has described EL in terms of three concentric circles: the Inner Circle, the Outer Circle and the Expanding Circle. According to this classification, NE belongs to the Outer Circle, defined by Kachru as regions of the world that were formerly colonized by Britain and the US, where EL was the language of empire building. In this circle, societal penetration has resulted in the development of different sub-varieties, depending on the geographical, cultural and linguistic contexts. The identifying features of these varieties given by Kachru include elements from phonology, grammar, lexis, collocations, idioms, discourse and style, code-mixing and code-switching, and a lack of homogeneity. The characteristic features of these so-called “non-native institutionalized varieties” of EL (NNIVE) as identified by Kachru are the following:

a) An extended range of uses in the sociolinguistic context;

b) There is an ongoing process of nativization of the registers and styles;

c) There is a body of nativized EL literature with formal and contextual

characteristics marking it as localized.

Platt et al. (1984) also believe that for any variety of EL to qualify as a “New English” it must fulfill the following criteria:

1) It must have been taught as a subject as well as used as a medium of instruction

in places where languages other than EL were the main languages;

2) It has developed in an area where a native variety of EL was not the language spoken by most of the population;

3) It is used for a range of functions among those who speak or write it in the region where it is used;

4) It has become “localized” or “nativized” by adopting some language features of its own, such as sounds, intonation patterns, sentence structures, words and expressions. Usually it has also developed some different rules for using language in communication.

A combination of the two criteria above gives us a more fine-tuned picture of the defining features of New Englishes. A close examination of these characteristic features shows that NE easily fits into this category of EL. A quick glance at Nigerian creative writing, especially the works of such well-known authors as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka (winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature) serves to buttress this assertion.

Having laid some foundation and a framework for NE, I will now proceed to show, using data drawn from free speech as well as from Wole Soyinka’s Collected Plays 2 (1974) mainly, some of the features that set NE apart from British English (the model for EL in Nigeria), American English (AE), as well as the many other varieties of EL, and at the same time identifying it with other varieties of non-native Englishes around the globe.

The Lexicon

At the lexical level, we observe transfers from the local languages (especially the three major, regional languages – Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa) and mostly from the following areas: music, clothing, indigenous foods, traditional religious beliefs, local institutions, flora and fauna, etc. as well as different creative strategies, such as the lexification of acronyms, neologisms and semantic extension. Generally, most of the items from music, clothing and foods are left intact in their substrate forms, for want of better terminology. Take the following excerpts from free speech (FP) and Soyinka’s Collected Plays 2 (CP2) for instance:

(1) Towards the end of this speech the sound of ‘gangan’ drums is heard, coming from the side opposite the hut. A boy enters carrying a drum on each shoulder (CP2: 152).

(2) A man in an elaborate ‘agbada’ outfit, with long train and a cap is standing right, downstage, with a sheaf of notes in his hand (CP2: 167).

(3) Silva: Now, now, let’s stop all this silliness. Here, let’s have another go. It’s all a matter of tempo, Chummy, not like high life or juju music. Now shall we try again? This time, follow the score (CP2: 189).

Bola: What do you have on the menu today?

Waiter: We have dodo, akara, amala, eba and tuwo.

Bola: What about soup, what kind of soup do you have for today?

Waiter: We have egusi soup, ewedu and ogbono. Which one would you prefer? We also have bush meat, obokun, oku-Eko and ponmo.

Bola: Okay, give me a plate of amala, egusi soup and bush meat…

How much will that be?

Waiter: Twenty naira and fifty kobo (FP).

(5) Sidi: Is that the truth? Swear! Ask Ogun to

strike you dead.

Girl: Ogun strike me dead if I lie (CP2: 12).

(6) Jero: I am a Prophet. A prophet by birth and by inclination […]

I was born a Prophet. My parents found that I was born

with rather thick and long hair. It was said to come right

down my eyes and down to my neck. For them, this was

a certain sign that I was born a natural prophet (CP2: 145).

(7) Dupe: Bose, have you had your JAMB result yet?

Bose: Well, you don’t want to hear it – although I made the cut-off

mark for medicine, I was admitted to do microbiology at UI

Dupe: Oh well, that’s life, especially when you have no long leg.

I learnt that Tola was admitted to study pharmacy, although

she barely made the cut-off mark for pharmacy at Ife,

and A.B.U was her first choice.

Bose: I am not in the least surprised about that. Have you forgotten

that her uncle works in the state governor’s office (FP)?

(8) A clearing on the edge of the market, dominated by an immense

odan tree. It is the village centre (CP2: 3).

In examples (1) and (2) above, we see instances of direct transfer from Yoruba (YL). The strategy Soyinka uses here is to leave the Yoruba words in quotes to signal to the reader that these are direct loans. Gangan is a type of drum, also referred to sometimes as the “talking drum,” the latter being itself a coinage. This type of drum is common among the Yoruba and is used to sing the praises of people, following the tonal patterns of YL. Agbada is to the Yoruba what the suit is to the British and Americans. In fact, in Nigeria it has been officially designated the national dress and could be worn on formal occasions, including official government functions, in place of the British-introduced suit. It is also referred to as the flowing gown (also a coinage). Juju in (3) is a type of music that has its origin in Yorubaland, although it has now been exported far and wide, even beyond the frontiers of Africa. In example (4) we witness a lot of names of indigenous foods – akara, eba, egusi, tuwo, amala, ogbono, ewedu, etc. – with vocabulary taken directly from the three majority languages of Nigeria.

Special mention, though, needs to be made of the lexical item “soup” in example (4) above. In NE soup has a far broader semantic range than its BE counterpart. While it is mainly eaten as an appetizer, at the beginning of a meal, or even taken just by itself, in both BE and SAE, in NE soup is generally used, as a side dish, to eat the main meal, especially the traditional foods from roots such as yam, cassava, cocoyam, etc. It is prepared from leafy vegetables mainly, and could be cooked with meat, fish or other sea foods. It is generally not eaten alone. This lexical item is a good example of semantic extension that is a common feature of both NE and other new Englishes vocabulary.

The quote in example (8) is the beginning sentences in Wole Soyinka’s Collected Plays 2. The odan tree is very common in Yorubaland and most of tropical Africa. It can grow to be very immense and provides shade from the scorching sun on a hot afternoon. This is just one of several lexical items loaned from the local flora. Many more of such loan words are commonly used in NE.

Dodo, akara, amala, eba, egusi, ewedu, obokun, oku-Eko and ponmo are all direct loans from YL; tuwo is a popular food among the Hausa, while ogbono is a sauce (“soup” in NE) common among the Igbo. Dodo is the YL name for fried plantain; akara is a snack made from black-eyed peas; amala is a meal from yam flour while eba is made from cassava grit popularly known as gari - a popular cereal-type snack among students in Nigeria and most of West Africa; egusi is melon-seed sauce, whereas ewedu is a leafy vegetable sauce. Obokun is an expensive type of fish while oku-Eko is a popular and relatively cheap frozen fish and ponmo is cow-hide. Obokun is also the name given – by extension – to the Mercedes car, a favorite of the well-to-do in Nigeria. High life (3), Naira and Kobo (4) are all local coinages. High life is a form of traditional music, popular throughout West Africa, while Naira and Kobo are the monetary units of Nigeria (similar to the dollar and the cent in the United States). Long leg (7) is another NE coinage for influence peddling – a very common phenomenon in Nigeria, where it isn’t always how much you know that counts but rather who you know.

Still in (7), we see other forms of lexical creativity. The acronym J.A.M.B. which stands for Joint Admission and Matriculation Board – a national Board that standardizes and administers admission examinations to all Nigerian public universities – has now been frozen into a single lexical item: Jamb. But this coinage has even a broader semantic scope. It is used to refer to both the Board that administers the examination as well as the examination administered by the Board: the Joint Admission and Matriculation Examination (J.A.M.E.). Similarly, ABU is a lexical item coined from the acronym for the Ahmadu Bello University -- the foremost tertiary institution in northern Nigeria. UI, like ABU, is also another frozen acronym for the University of Ibadan – Nigeria’s premier university. Ife is the name of the traditional cradle of the Yoruba as well as the name, by extension, of the University located in that city (University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University -- O.A.U.).

Examples (5) and (6) are religious vocabulary items. Ogun is the god of iron and of war in Yoruba traditional religion. He is also the patron god of hunters. Thus to swear falsely by Ogun is to incur his wrath. Prophet is an example of semantic extension. The semantic scope is broader than the usual meaning in British or American English. Among the Yoruba Aladura religious group, it is believed that a child born with long and thick hair is divinely consecrated to be a prophet. This belief probably must have originated from the biblical Samson story. Jeroboam defines and explains why he is a prophet in (6).

Other examples of semantic extension abound in NE, especially in the domain of relationship vocabulary. Thus the words father, mother, brother, sister, and uncle, aunt and cousin, all take on additional meanings in the Nigerian context. (cf. Wigwe 1990). For instance, in NE an auntie and an uncle could be just a term of respect for any older female or male person who may have no connection at all with one’s immediate or extended family. It is used just as an honorific term in those contexts. Auntie could also refer to one’s older sister or even a female friend of hers. The terms father and mother could be used both for one’s biological father and mother as well as for an uncle or an aunt (in the British or American sense of the words).

Another very common case is the use of the terms of address “Sir” and “Ma.” Although this is a classic case of semantic extension, it is driven by socio-pragmatic considerations based on local sociocultural norms. In BE the two terms are used very restrictively, generally in formal situations, especially in greetings. Originally, “Sir” was a form of address reserved for highly respected persons in BE. Gradually, it became extended in usage as people began to use it in formal and official greetings. These two forms of address were initially loaned into YL and later into NE. Since the Yoruba like to use respect forms for older persons, Sir and Ma became expressions of respect and politeness, hence the repetitive use of these terms while talking to an older person is very common in NE usage. The semantic scope has been broadened far beyond its original usage in BE and SAE.


Although data at the syntactic level are not as numerous as those at the vocabulary domain, it appears to be the most interesting of all (albeit very subtle and not as easily detected) and it is at this level that Nigerian creative writers have blossomed and excelled, as they use different innovative strategies and structures from the local languages: what Sridhar refers to as “culture-bound speech patterns” (Sridhar 1982: 297, 299). We witness here a lot of expressions that are English at the surface but have L1 underlying structures (i.e. the vocabulary is English but the syntax is from a substrate language). Reduplication, translation of L1 proverbs and sayings are just but a few of these strategies. Most African languages, especially those of the Kwa group, are well known for their use of reduplication for grammatical purposes, such as intensification and change of grammatical category. These strategies have been the hallmark of Soyinka and Achebe, as well as many other Nigerian creative writers. This type of transfer is not limited to writers and literary texts alone. It is also common in day to day conversations among Nigerians with varying levels of Western education. Other differences characteristic of NE include the transfer of categories, generalization of forms, omission of certain obligatory grammatical elements (in BE). Consider the following data from Soyinka’s Collected Plays 2 (1974) and samples of oral data taken from free speech.

(9) Amope: Ho! You’re mad.

Chume: Get on the bike.

Amope: Kill me! Kill me!

Chume Don’t tempt me, woman!

Amope: I won’t get on that thing unless you kill me first (CP2: 165).

(10) Chume: This woman will kill me

Jero: Forgive him, Father, forgive him.

Chume: All she gave me was abuse, abuse, abuse ... (CP2: 156).

(11) Tolu (to her mother): Mommy, they are calling you.

Mom: Who is it?

Tolu: I think it is our next door neighbor.

Mom: Okay, I’ll be right there (FP).

(12) Bayo: It is you who broke my pencil, isn’t it?

Dupe: Stop lying, Bayo, I didn’t even see your pencil (FP).

(13) Doctor: So what’s the problem with you?

Patient: I have headache and fever (FP).

(14) Tola: Where is daddy?

KUDI: They went to the market.

Tola: What about mommy?

Kudi: They are not at home (FP).

(15) Mom: Fausat, what’s wrong with you? Why are you crying?

Fausat: I fell down from the tree.

Mom: Serves you right! When they tell you not to do something next time you will listen, isn’t it (FP)?

(16 Tola: Tolu, please, off the light.

Tolu: Not yet, it is still too dark. I will off it when it is bright enough (FP).

(17) Jeroboam: [In fact, there are eggs and there are eggs. Same thing with prophets (CP2: 145).

(18) Sidi: No, but – [but boldness wins.] If the tortoise cannot tumble

It does not mean that he can stand.

Baroka: Who knows? Until the finger nails

Have scraped the dust, no one can tell

Which insect released his bowels (CP2: 39).

In examples (9) and (10) above, we witness instances of reduplication (repetition) for intensification or sometimes, for differentiation, a very common grammatical device in Yoruba (YL) and other West African languages. In example (17) the reduplicated clause is not for intensification but rather is a Yorubaism for differentiation. What Jeroboam is saying here is that “There are different kinds of prophets -- the good as well as the bad.” Examples (11) and (14) are other transfers from YL. In (11) and (15) it is a case of “they” being used as a passive. The passive voice does not operate in YL as we have it in EL. However, the language has a different way of handling similar expressions: the use of the third person plural pronoun. Thus Tolu’s “they are calling you” is similar to the BE “You are called” (i.e. someone is calling you). In (14) however, the function of “they” is different. It is a transfer of the honorific plural pronoun (won) commonly used in Yoruba as a mark of respect for an older person (i.e. it serves a deferential function).

Examples (12) and (15) reflect a common tendency in NE where the tag question “isn’t it?” has become a universal question tag almost invariably. This is a direct translation of the Yoruba “Abi bee ko?” or even the Hausa “Ko ba haka ba?” Examples (13) and (17) are also a common feature of NE in which articles and other determiners are not used in what, otherwise, should be obligatory syntactic positions in BE. Thus Jeroboam in (17) says “Same with prophets” instead of “It is the same with prophets.” This is due to the fact that most of the local languages in the region, unlike EL, do not make use of articles, or do not require a determiner in those positions in syntax where BE requires such. Example (16) is an instance of transfer of category: an adverb, and sometimes even a preposition is used as a verb.

The dialogue between Sidi and Baroka in (18) is a good example of YL saying literally translated into English. Knowledge of YL is generally required to correctly interpret some of these sayings that are a common occurrence in day to day speech among the Yoruba. Chinua Achebe is well reputed for his translation of Igbo idioms and proverbs into EL in his writings, especially in his world-famous Things Fall Apart (1958) and its sequel, No Longer at Ease (1960). Achebe’s celebrated “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” easily comes to mind here.

Another interesting example of transliteration is evident in the scenario represented by this story. Once I was in my home church during a visit to Nigeria and it was the time of year when most churches celebrate mid-year thanksgiving (specifically, during the month of June). When it was time to take the thanksgiving offering, the Pastor blurted loudly to the jubilant congregation, saying

(19) “I encourage everyone to come forward to the altar with dancing on their feet.” (FP).

This, obviously, was a direct translation of the YL phrase “pelu ijo lesee won,” a word-for-word translation meaning “with dancing on their feet.”

One final example of semantic extension is that of loanshift, a situation where a BE word is endowed with a new meaning in NE. This is from a free speech recording of a conversation which took place between two sisters, Tola and Kudi.

(20) Tola (to Kudi): Are we going to branch Dele’s house on our way to the market?

Kudi: No! We are too late already and mommy’ll be getting worried about us.

The word “branch” as used in the above dialogue is a loanshift, borrowing additional meaning from the YL word “ya” whose meaning include to turn, go in a different direction, change direction. Thus, by extension, the BE word “branch” has come to mean “to call at” or “to pay visit” to someone.

Discourse/Communicative Strategies

At the discourse level, there are a lot of features transferred into EL from the L1, especially since rules of appropriateness differ from society to society and from culture to

culture. It therefore goes without saying that communicative strategies in NE will be different from those in BE. Most of these are used either to avoid direct confrontation or even to give respect to an older person during a conversation (cf. face works, Goffman 1955; cooperative principle, Grice 1975; ethnography of communication, Hymes 1974). Among the Yoruba, especially, and in most of Africa, it is not socially and culturally appropriate to confront people directly and the “age factor” (i.e. respect for age) always requires certain discourse strategies to avoid face threatening acts as well as to save face. Below are some examples from Soyinka’s Collected Plays 2 from which most of the above examples are drawn.

(21) Baroka: Is that a wish, my daughter?

Sidi: No, but – [Hesitates, but boldness wins]

If the tortoise cannot tumble

It does not mean that he can stand.

[Baroka looks at her, seemingly puzzled. Sidi turns away,


Baroka: When the child is full of riddles, the mother

has one water-pot the less.


Sidi: Oh! Does it hurt?

Baroka: Not yet … but as I was saying

I change my wrestlers when I have learnt

To throw them. I also change my wives

When I have learnt to tire them.

Sidi: And is this another ... changing time For the Bale?

Baroka: Who knows? Until the finger nails

Have scraped the dust, no one can tell

Which insect released his bowels.


Sidi: A woman spoke to me this afternoon.

Baroka: Indeed. And does Sidi find this unusual –

That a woman speak with her in the afternoon (CP2: 39)?

In the above dialog we see different examples of indirectness strategy (typical of NE and reminiscent of YL speech and discourse pattern) used by both Baroka and Sidi. At the very beginning of the dialog, in order not to sound disrespectful to an older person – her village chief for that matter! – Sidi resorts to the use of proverb. Baroka responds with a proverb too. Likewise, Sidi’s response to Baroka’s statement that he changes his wives when he has learnt to tire them was another indirectness strategy: “And is this another... changing time for the Bale?” Here she addresses Baroka as “the Bale,” using his title, as she cannot call him by his name, and calling him “Mr.” will not be very appropriate either, since Baroka is a very traditional man and might consider it rather insulting to be addressed by a casual “Mr.,” a form of address used for Western-educated young people. Baroka responds with yet another Yoruba proverb. The dialog ends with another form of indirectness strategy used especially by the older in a conversation when she or he does not want to sound confrontational or condescending to a younger person. Thus, Baroka uses Sidi’s name instead of addressing her directly with the second person pronoun “you.” Then in the next sentence he addresses her in the third person – a distancing device to avoid familiarity and keep the conversation a bit formal. Also, at the beginning of the conversation, Baroka uses another distancing device, when he refers to Sidi as “my daughter”; although this same device could also be used to create familiarity, depending on the context of usage and the relationship between speaker and addressee.

We see some of the above discourse strategies being used in the following dialog between Lakunle, the village school teacher and Sidi, the village belle.

(22) Lakunle: Let me take it.

Sidi: No.

Lakunle: Let me. [seizes the pail. Some water spills on him]

Sidi: [Delighted]:

There. Wet for your pains.

Have you no shame?

Lakunle: That is what the stewpot said to the fire.

Have you no shame – at your age

Licking my bottom? But she was tickled

Just the same?

Sidi: The school teacher is full of stories

This morning. And now, if the lesson

Is over, may I have the pail (CP2: 3)?

Here again, when Sidi asks if Lakunle had no shame, Lakunle responds with a Yoruba saying: “That is what the stewpot said to the fire...” The Yoruba are fond of playing on words and expressions, and in an argument or a heated conversation, it is the best orator who wins the day. This is exactly what happens in the above dialog when Sidi asks rhetorically “Have you no shame?” Lakunle takes off exactly from where Sidi stops and uses her own statement as a punch line against her, as he draws from the pool of Yoruba sayings: “That (i.e. referring to her rhetorical question: ‘Have you no shame?’) is what the stewpot said to the fire...” Through the use of this discourse strategy, Lakunle makes a clear point to Sidi: you are just pretending, the truth of the matter is that you are deriving pleasure from what I am doing; you like it anyway.

Another important aspect of NE discourse pattern is that of code-switching (or even code-mixing – a phenomenon Agheyisi (1977) referrs to as “interlarded speech”), also referred to as “speech stratification” by Sridhar (1982). Wole Soyinka uses this a lot in his writings as a means of signalling changes in the linguistic environment of his characters, such as the switch to and from different varieties of NE, Pidgin or an L1, depending on change in addressee or even the status or age of different addressees. In day to day speech among NE speakers, a lot of code-switching takes place, and serves as discourse markers or indicators. Take the following conversation between Kola (an undergraduate) and his professor, and between Kola and a classmate, Titi shortly after talking to his professor.

(23) Kola: Excuse me, sir, what did I make on my mid-term exam,

Professor: Well, you didn’t do too well. You made a “C.”

Titi [to Kola as he walks out of the professor’s office, frowning]:

No mind am, jare. Na “C” im gi mi after all (i.e. Please, don’t mind him;

he gave me a “C” after all) (FP).

In these dialogs, we see Kola speaking to his professor in standard NE but turning around to speak to his classmate in NPE mixed with Yoruba (jare, being a YL word for please in this context). This is a very common occurrence in NE, due largely to the wide linguistic repertoire of the average NE speaker. For instance, the same NE speaker could switch from standard NE to a less standard NE and move from there to Yoruba or Igbo and then to Pidgin, or even Yoruba, depending on the changes in the sociolinguistic environment. These switches will also be accompanied by appropriate changes in discourse strategies, depending on the age or status of the interlocutors involved.

Another discourse feature of NE that we observe in the above conversations is the repetitive use of the term of address “Sir” by Kola to show respect for his professor. This discourse pattern is a transfer from YL where respect is sometimes marked by the repetitive use of terms of address or titles. Sir and Ma, although loans from EL, have come to acquire a far wider range of usage and connotations in YL, and this in turn is transferred into NE by the YL speaker.

There are many other discourse or communicative strategies in NE than the scope of this paper will allow. The phonological and prosodic features (e.g. accent, stress and intonation patterns) of NE, will be the subject of another separate paper. It is, however, sufficient to say that the supra-segmental phonology of NE is one of the main, and probably the most obvious feature that distinguishes NE from BE, AE and other new Englishes, especially within the West African sub-region (e.g. Ghanaian or Cameroonian English). It is also one of the main distinguishing features – apart from certain very localized lexical items – between the various regional forms of NE such as HausaNE or IgboNE, also referred to as Enghausa and Engligbo respectively by Odumuh (1987, cf. 1993; Jowitt 1991). Some of these features are under- and over-differentiation of phonemes and phoneme substitution (e.g. substituting a BE vowel with one that is closest to it in the various L1’s); the transference of the tonal features of local languages on the stress and intonation patterns of EL, or better put, the replacement of BE stress and intonation patterns with L1 tonal patterns.


The purpose of this paper has been to provide some concrete evidence for a Nigerian variety of English. To achieve this objective I have had to look into the literature to see what has been said on the issue thus far, as well as provide data from both oral (taped free speech) and written language. My conclusion unequivocally points to one thing – that there is a preponderance of evidence for the existence of a Nigerian variety of English. I have deliberately drawn the bulk of my data from Wole Soyinka’s works for one main reason: Soyinka is an accomplished writer (winner of the 1986 Nobel prize in literature) whose primary medium of writing is English, but as the above data demonstrate, his English is not exactly the “Queen’s English” that was presumably introduced into Nigeria by the ex-colonial masters (Ajani 1994, 1995). Soyinka’s English, like that of many other Nigerian creative writers, as well as other general users of the English language in Nigeria, has been influenced by the local languages, customs, belief systems and cultures, enough to give it a flavor and characteristics that could be distinctly identified as Nigerian.

It is obvious from the above that when two or more languages come into contact, there is, of necessity, going to be mutual influences. Most of the work done thus far on these influences on the African scene has been from the perspective of English. This paper contributes to the debate from the perspective of the local languages, for, not only has English influenced the languages with which it has come into contact around the world, but English itself has been – and continues to be –  influenced by other languages, and this influence is responsible for the new forms of English mushrooming all over the globe. The implication of this is quite significant, not only for contact linguistics, but also for the teaching and the learning of English to, and by the speakers of other languages.


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