9 February 2014

Nigeria: Neologisms and Ebonics in American English

In the spirit of America's Black History Month, I have decided to republish a column I wrote some years back on American neologisms and Black American English (called "Ebonics"). Next week, I write on my favorite Black American English expressions. I will follow it with my favorite Malcolm X expressions and witticisms. Enjoy:

Americans have a robust imagination for coinages, what grammarians call neologisms. As you can imagine, their repertoire of coinages is inexhaustible, and I can never do justice to them in a column.

Most of the new coinages in American English result from Americans' obsession with the short forms of words. Over time, these short forms take a life of their own and get weaned from the longer versions of the words from which they were originally derived.

The most prominent example of this is "gas," the American word for "petrol." At first, I thought it was singularly illogical to use gas as an alternative name for petrol because while gas is air, petrol is liquid. But I soon found out that gas is actually the shortened form of gasoline, which is a scarcely used alternative word for petrol in British English.

Now, Americans go to "gas stations" instead of petrol stations to fill their tanks, which we sell to them as "petrol" from Nigeria!

Another common culinary neologism, especially in the American South, is "combo," which simply means the full complement of a meal. Koko, doya da dankali, (i.e. pap, fried yam, and fried sweet potato) for instance, will qualify as a combo. I was surprised to find out that the word is actually only a shortened form of "combination." When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University Kano, we used to jocularly call that kind of food "combined honors."

Other popular shortened forms of words that have grown into full words are "peds" for pedestrians, "condo" for condominium (a huge building that consists of several self-contained apartments that are individually owned), "legit" for legitimate or walk (the latter sense derived from "leg it), "max" for maximum, and so on. In fact, "max" is now often used in a verb form. It is not unusual to hear Americans say, "I've maxed out the gas in my car," meaning I have used up all the petrol in my car, or "I have maxed out my savings account," meaning I have withdrawn all the money in my savings account.

Because Americans are such incredibly busy people, they have contempt for elaborate and long forms in their conversational language. Many years ago, one of my American professors called me and said, "Hey, Farooq, your recs are on my table. Go pick them up." Well, I found out after a day that he was telling me to pick up the "recommendation" letters he wrote for me.

There are, of course, regional variations in American English. Louisiana English, for instance, has heavy tinctures of French and African influences. The word "lagniappe," for instance, is an exclusively Louisiana invention, even though it is now usual to hear many people in the South use it. (It is pronounced LANYAP).

It means a small gift, especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase. But this definition does not adequately capture the cultural meaning of the word. Its exact socio-linguistic equivalent is "jaara" in Hausa (now incorporated into Nigerian Pidgin English).

It is also used to indicate any kind of addition or extras. While the word sounds and looks French, its semantic content is decidedly African. I once wrote about the intriguing convergence of French, Spanish, and African influences in Louisiana's racial, cultural, and gastronomic landscape. This convergence also manifests in the socio-linguistic experience of the people in many ways. It is conceivable that the "jaara" culture was brought to Louisiana by former African slaves.

Ebonics is another kettle of fish altogether. I also once wrote that I am usually incapable of getting even the faintest tenor of a conversation with Black Americans when they speak in Ebonics. Originally called Negro Nonstandard English (NNE), Ebonics emerged as a result of the deliberate policy of white slave owners to deny Blacks access to education. So an impoverished form of English sprouted in the absence of access to the socially prestigious form. Professional linguists call Ebonics African American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE sounds to me like a hotchpotch of mutilated English syntax, garbled and ungainly English structure, African-inflected pronunciational forms, and an unnaturally fast speech pattern.

However, many people have said that Ebonics is a legitimate, semantically self-sufficient language that does not need the approval of Standard English to exist. And I agree. But what I detest about Ebonics, especially of the ghetto variety, is its proneness to profanity and vulgarity. It is usually riddled with many swearwords and sexually explicit expressions. The men call themselves "nigga" (not a spelling error), a differently spelled version of the racially denigrating epithet that white racists reserve for blacks. Black women are called or call themselves "bitches." Of course, these are broad strokes that ignore many subtleties.

Well, because Black Americans now dominate the American cultural scene and are therefore the cultural icons for many young people, including young white people, many expressions that were exclusive to Ebonics have now crept into demotic American speech.

For instance, when Americans say something is "bad" with a stress that makes the word sound like baaad, it means it's really very good! It's Ebonics' contribution to American English. Inflections like badder and baddest, instead of the standard worse and worst, are also common in colloquial American English--another influence of Ebonics. And the American English expression "my bad!" to mean "I'm sorry; it was my fault" owes its roots to Ebonics.

Lastly, many of the expressions that starry-eyed linguistic idealists in Nigeria label as "Nigerian English" are actually American English expressions by way of Ebonics. Expressions like "senior brother" instead of the standard "elder brother," "junior brother" instead of "younger brother" (it is often said that the adjectives "senior" and "junior" indicate social relationships while "elder" and "younger" indicate biological relationships), and many others too numerous to mention here, are as common in informal American English as they are in Nigerian English. So are expressions like "often times," "of recent" (instead of "of late"), and so on, which British and Nigerian grammarians dismiss as solecisms.

I will write a full article on the lexis and structure of Ebonics sometime later.

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