Sunday Trust online

Grammar of titles and naming in English (III)

In the West, how people are addressed—i.e., whether or not titles are prefixed to their names—is often indicative of levels of familiarity or social and power distance. Calling people by their first names without titles usually indicates that you are on very familiar, friendly terms with them and that the power distance between you and them is very short or non-existent. Calling them by their titles and full names or their titles and last names indicates that there is a wide social and power distance between you and them, the kind of social and power distance that exists, say, between teachers and students or between total strangers on opposite ends of the social scale.

On other occasions, addressing people with their title and last name (such as Mr. Smith) when you are their social equal or their social superior can indicate cold detachment, even hostility. And calling people by their first names when they are older than you, are your social superiors, are not sufficiently known to you, or have not explicitly permitted you to do so, is considered rude.

But this is not the case in Nigeria. Very close friends write letters to each other and sign off as “Mr. Somebody” or “Dr. Somebody Someone,” or “Professor Big man.” In the West, signing off a letter with your title and last name to a friend would indicate hostility, arrogance, or social awkwardness. That’s the basis of the Western expression “we are on first-name terms,” which basically means “we are so familiar with each other that we call each by our first names, not last names and pompous titles.”

There are exceptions to this convention in America, though. In the American south, for instance, it is customary for children to prefix “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Miss” or “Ms.” to people’s first names to indicate both familiarity and courtesy: the mention of the first name indicates familiarity and warmth, while the affixation of the title indicates courtesy. This is now becoming a national tradition that even adults use jocularly. This practice has been around in Nigeria, for a different reason, for as long as I’ve been alive.

Finally, in the West, it is considered bad form to introduce yourself to people with your titles. For instance, it is socially awkward or pompous to introduce yourself to a new person by saying, “I’m Professor John Danfulani.” But this is common practice in Nigeria. For me, this attitude is justified only on occasions when women have a need to tell a male stranger that they are married. So “I am Mrs. Fatima Isa” tells the male stranger what boundaries not to cross.

What of False Titles?

A related phenomenon is “false titles,” that is, creating titles out of professional callings. Nigerian lawyers prefix the title “Barrister” to their names. Architects prefix “Arc.” to their names. Pharmacists prefix “Pharm.” to theirs. Engineers prefix “Engr” to their names. Which profession have I left out? Many, I know. Nigerian journalists seem to be the only people left out in this craze for false titles. But “Journ” would be a nice title for journalists!

But, seriously, in the West, only medical doctors, Ph.Ds, and (serving) ambassadors prefix professional titles to their names. Every other person contends with Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. In Britain, the range of titles is, of course, wider because the Queen knights people for personal merit.

In Europe, except Britain, it is usual for university teachers who have a Ph.D. and attained the rank of “Professor” to refer to themselves as “Professor Dr. John Smith” This sounds utterly clumsy and superfluous to Britons and Americans—and to Nigerians. But it is intended to showcase both academic and professional achievement. “Professor” indicates professional achievement and “Dr.” indicates academic achievement. Since it is possible to become a professor without a Ph.D. and have a Ph.D. without attaining the rank of professor, Western Europeans (except Britons) think it is fitting to honor people who both have a PhD and attained the rank of professor, thus the vain, clumsy “Professor Dr.” title.

It is noteworthy that what grammarians call “false titles” didn’t start with Nigerians. It was actually started by Time magazine and is now the stuff of journalese (i.e., English distinctive to journalistic writing). In native English societies, false titles are defined as prefixing the name of a professional activity to the name of a person, e.g. “footballer NwankwoKanu has retired from the national team.” In the preceding sentence, “footballer” is a false title.

False titles are useful for journalists because they save space. But all journalistic writing conventions in Britain and America insist that the first letters of false titles should not be capitalized (e.g. it is wrong to write“Footballer NkwankwoKanu”) since they’re not “real” titles. They should also not be separated by a comma (e.g., it’s wrong to write, “Famous footballer, NwankoKanu, has landed a big gig in Spain”) from the name they precede. But this is precisely what Nigerians have perfected: the first letters of false titles are not only routinely capitalized; they have also been mainstreamed as “real” titles.

The titles “Barrister,” “Engr,” “Arc.,” “Surveyor,” “Pharm,” etc. are classic examples of false titles that have been elevated to the status of real titles in Nigeria.

All this wouldn’t matter if we only related to each other in Nigeria. But the reality of globalization has forced us to relate with people in other parts of the world more frequently than was the case in the past. I know that many Westerners are often confused by our naming conventions, especially because such conventions are often poor imitations of their ways. So it helps to know that there is grammatical logic to naming and titles.


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