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The English Nigerian children speak (III)

“Born a child.” Nigerian children almost never conjugate the verb “bear” to reflect tense when they refer to the act of having babies. So expressions like “my mum born a child yesterday,” “my auntie will born twins next month,” etc. are very typical. But “born” (or borne) is the past participle of “bear,” and the past tense of “bear” is “bore.” That means the first sentence should have read “my mum bore a child yesterday” or, better still, “my mum gave birth to a child/had a baby yesterday.”

The unconjugated “born” is clearly derived from Nigerian Pidgin English where the word is always uninflected for tense. Examples: “My mama born pikin yesterday” [my mom had a baby yesterday], “My sister go born pikin tomorrow” [my sister will have a baby tomorrow], “The woman dey born pikin now” [the woman is having a baby now], “The woman no fit born pikin” [the woman can’t bear a child]. In the above examples, “born” remains unchanged even whether reference is made to the past, the present, or the future.


“Very well.” Nigerian children use “very well” to heighten the intensity of what they are saying. For instance, if they want to say their teacher beat them up at school really hard, they would say something like: “my teacher beat me very well.” This will confound many native English speakers.

In native-speaker English varieties, the expression “very well” often conveys at least three senses. In the first sense, it’s used to mean “quite well” as in: “he did his job very well.” Unlike the way Nigerian children sometimes use the expression, it always has a tone of approval; it’s never used to intensify negative things. “Very well” is also used to weaken the effect of modal auxiliaries like “may,” “might,” “can,” and “could.” Example: “he may very well come.” The “very well” in the sentence increases the probability that he will come. It is more assuring than merely saying “he may come.” Finally, “very well” is a fixed phrase that usually occurs at the beginning of a sentence when a speaker in a dialogue wants to indicate grudging agreement with something the other speaker says. Example:

Speaker A: I don’t want to go home now.

Speaker B: Very well then, let’s go home when you’re ready.


“Vacate.” This is a popular word used in educational institutions in Nigeria to mean “take an official break from school.” It is a back-formation from “vacation,” the American English word for what British speakers call holiday. (In British English, vacation is only used to indicate the formal, temporary closure of universities and courts of law, not primary or secondary schools).

Many native speakers of the English language will find the Nigerian semantic extension of “vacate” strange, even incomprehensible. In standard British and American English, vacate usually means one of at least three things: to resign (as in: he vacated the job when he got a better-paying offer elsewhere); to leave or move out of a building (as in: “You must vacate this house by tomorrow”); to officially reverse a decision (as in: “the president vacated the death sentence on the political prisoner”).


“My body is scratching me.” Nigerian children can’t differentiate between “itching” and “scratching,” so they use the words interchangeably. Itching is the uncomfortable sensation that we feel on our skin, which causes us to scrape it with our fingers; “scratching” is the act of relieving an itchy sensation by using our fingers. So it is more proper to say your “body is itching” you than to say your “body is scratching” you.


“On” and “off” used as verbs. In a previous article, I wrote: “Nigerian English treats the prepositions ‘on’ and ‘off’ as verbs. No other variety of English I know of does that. Where other varieties of English would say ‘put/switch on the generator’ we would say ‘on the generator.’  When ‘off’ is used as a verb in informal American English, it means to kill someone intentionally, as in: he said he would off her if she turned down his proposal to marry her.”


“You hear?” This is the lexical equivalent of “OK?” in American and British English. Where native English speakers would say, “Your Mom will be home soon, OK?” Nigerians say “Your Mom will be home soon, you hear?” This is evidently a direct translation from Nigerian languages. Examples are“ka/kijiko?” in Hausa and “se tigbo?” in Yoruba.


“Used to.” Nigerian children use the expression “used to” (sometimes “use to”) to convey the sense that they take part in a(current) habitual action, such as “I use(d) to go to school every day” instead of “I go to school every day.” In proper English, “used to” is deployed only to indicate a habitual action in the past, such as: “I used to go to school every day when I was a kid.”


“Brush my mouth.” Although it is possible to brush one’s mouth, the usual phrase in native-speaker environments is “brush your teeth.” It beats me why many Nigerian children say they brush their mouths instead of their teeth. Do they no longer sing the nursery rhyme that goes something like, “This is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth, brush our teeth, this the way we brush our teeth, early in the morning”?


“Face your studies.” This is the Nigerian English expression for “study hard” or “take your school work seriously.” No other variety of English uses this expression. It isn’t only Nigerian children that use it; their parents and teachers use it, too. It seems to be a direct translation of some Nigerian languages.


Interrogative sentences cast as declarative sentences. Our kids ask questions as if the questions are declarations. Example: “I should call my brother?” instead of “Should I call my brother?”

“Aunty” as a synonym for “female teacher.” For Nigerian school children, auntie is not just the sister of your father or mother, or the wife of your uncle; it also refers to your teacher who is female. In all the Nigerian elementary schools I visited, I found school children calling their female teachers “aunties.” However, I didn’t get the sense that they called their male teachers “uncles.” What’s up with that?


Pampers as a generic term for diapers. Pampers is, without a doubt, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of diapers, but Nigerian children—and parents—don’t seem to realize that the generic name for the folded, absorbent cloth drawn up between the legs of babies and fastened at their waists to prevent excrement from spilling over their bodies is called a diaper (or a“nappy” in British English). Pampers is a trademark.


“Next tomorrow”/ “on tomorrow.” It should be “the day after tomorrow.” In native-speaker English varieties, “next” is never used before “tomorrow.” Similarly, “on” never precedes “tomorrow,” although little children even in America and Britain occasionally say “on tomorrow” out of innocent ignorance.

“Pepperish.” The correct word is“peppery.” Pepperish does not exist in any known English dictionary.

“Is true” instead of “it’s true.”


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