Linguist Kola Tubosun breaks down how language grows and why it's also important for Nigerian policymakers to empower local languages.
Last month, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced a new development: it would be adding 29 new "loanwords" from Nigerian vernacular to the English dictionary. The news caused excitement amongst Nigerians on Twitter after it was shared by Nigerian linguist and founder of Yorubaname.com, Kola Tubosun. According to Tubosun, new words get added to the dictionary when they "gain new currency," which reflects how these words are being used in everyday language and not how they should be used (contrary to how many believe dictionaries function).
In the release notes, announcing the update, OED highlighted the ways in which Nigerians have put their own touch on the English language, writing:
By taking ownership of English and using it as their own medium of expression, Nigerians have made, and are continuing to make, a unique and distinctive contribution to English as a global language. We highlight their contributions in this month's update of the Oxford English Dictionary, as a number of Nigerian English words make it into the dictionary for the first time.
According to the notes, most of the added phrases have been in use since the 1970s an '80s. The list includes several words that reference transportation, such as "danfo," the name given to Lagos' ubiquitous yellow busses, as well as "okada" which is the term used for motorcycle taxis. Other words include "buka" (a roadside restaurant)—which Tubosun has mentioned as one of his personal faves—"mama put" which refers to the way customers select food while ordering at a "buka,' as well as the term "next tomorrow" which is a Nigerian synonym for "the day after tomorrow," and one of the oldest terms in the bunch.
The news has sparked conversations around the ever-changing dynamics of language and what shapes it, ultimately shedding light on how Nigerians themselves perceive their own use of it. All in all, while many view this as cause for celebration, Tubosun believes that the championing of Nigerian languages by Nigerians first, is what's most important.
We caught up with Tubosun to gain more insight on what this development means. Read our conversation below and see the full list of Nigerian words added to the dictionary here.
What does having these phrases added to the dictionary tell us about how Nigerian culture is being perceived globally?
It doesn't tell us anything new about Nigeria, I'd contend. It tells us more about how the English language is growing. The OED is an English language authority, and not a Nigerian language authority. They're looking out for English, and documenting its growth.
Some might see their inclusion as a "legitimizing" of words that might have normally been written off as "broken English" or slang in a Nigerian context. What do you think of this and what does this tell us about the power dynamics of language?
Language is dynamic. It evolves, it grows. A dictionary is not the prescriptive authority on language. Rather, it is a descriptive record of how language is used. Every word you used today used to look or mean something different two hundred or five hundred years ago. Even fifteen years ago, some words (like 'woke' or 'tweet' or 'poke') have acquired a different meaning. That is how language grows. So the dictionary isn't 'legitimizing' anything. Rather, it's acknowledging a reality that the language has acquired new forms.
Last year the film "Lionheart" was disqualified from oscars consideration for having "too much English dialogue," and thus not "foreign" enough, despite a lot of English specific to Nigeria being used in the film. How does this development play into that debate, if at all? (Does the adding of Nigerian words play a role in normalizing Nigerian English outside of Nigeria, or does it further highlight that they are still in a sense "foreign?")
I don't know if you read my essay on this subject, where I argued that Nigerian English is already a thing, and that the only thing missing is us recognizing it, codifying it for future generations, and changing our educational syllabus to better accommodate its use. I'm still strongly of that opinion. So, while OED's actions sort of brings exposure to these new words, I am of the strong belief that this is not what we should celebrate. We seem to always wait for foreign validation before doing the right thing. OED is looking out for English—not Nigerian English. We who have the power to make policy are those that should look out for Nigerian English. And we do this by supporting Nigerian English dictionaries and grammar, publishing literature in the language, and — most importantly—adapting our oral and written English syllabus in schools to better validate the way we speak and write. OED has added over fifty words of Nigerian English to its dictionary since the 19th century. Iroko was added in 1933. Dashiki and Oba were added in 1972 and 1982 respectively. The Oxford dictionary will keep doing its own thing. When will a Nigerian institution invest in something like what OED is doing, for our own people who use the language? That is where my interest lies.
What implications does this development have for indigenous languages?
The biggest implication is that this has empowered more Nigerians to speak Global English with more validation. This doesn't seem to have any direct positive benefit for Nigerian languages in any significant way.
But Nigerian English — as opposed to Global English—is a Nigerian language that also needs institutional and social support, just like other Nigerian languages like Yorùbá, Ijaw, Igbo, Igbanke, Esan, etc. So, one major implication is that the Global English has once again taken the lead here. We should acknowledge it, but that's not what we should celebrate.
What we need is for local languages to get these kinds of empowerment, and that will depend on the work we do to support them in education, governance, literature, technology, law, entertainment, etc. That's the whole point of my work and advocacy. Nigeria is a multilingual space, but that reality is often threatened — as it is in many other parts of the world — by the dominance of global English. We can only take back some of that autonomy by empowering our own languages — including Nigerian English — to deal with modern and global challenges.