LAGOS (Reuters Life!) - It may share many of its words and basic grammar with English, but a perplexed look descends across the face of most newcomers to Nigeria the first time they are addressed in Pidgin.
“How you dey?” comes the question, or “How body?” (both meaning “how are you?”)
“I dey fine” is the correct response, or, if you’re in a less upbeat mood, “body dey inside cloth”, meaning “I‘m coping/making do with the situation,” or literally “I‘m still wearing clothes.”
Once considered the language of the uneducated, Pidgin is one of the world’s fastest evolving languages and Nigerians of every age and social class can now be found greeting each other in its clipped, concise tones.
Spoken by an estimated 50 million people, variants are also used in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Now, for the first time, a group of academics is working to elevate the status of Nigerian Pidgin to more than just a practical means of communication in a country with several hundred indigenous languages and a huge educational divide.
Created a year ago, the Naija Languej Akademi is the first to try to harness the unbridled growth of Pidgin by putting together a reference guide which would include an alphabet, the first comprehensive dictionary, a standard guide for orthography, and an authoritative history of the language.
“It’s not a contact language any more, it’s an independent, fully fledged language,” said Christine Ofulue, head of linguistics at the National Open University of Nigeria.
According to the Akademi’s research, Nigerian Pidgin English evolved from a contact language developed in the 1400s to trade with the Portuguese then the British in the southern Niger Delta, a shipping route for the slave trade, then for palm oil, and now the hub of Africa’s biggest crude oil industry.
It draws from indigenous languages such as Edo, Itsekiri and Yoruba, meaning many of the hundreds of ethnic groups in southern Nigeria can claim it as their own.
The Naija Akademi is funded by IFRA-Nigeria. IFRA-Nigeria is an institute set up with French Government funding to promote research in the social sciences and the humanities, and enhance collaborative work between scholars in France and West Africa.
Pidgin has become the language of choice for entertainment media wanting to appear all-inclusively Nigerian, in a country where national identity is tested by competing ethnic loyalties.
“Pidgin is the only language that cuts across Nigeria,” said Mallam Okechime Abdul, a music producer and promoter.
“To speak the Queen’s English, you have to go to school, but everybody understands Pidgin. Yoruba, Hausa, and Ibo people, they can all understand Pidgin.”
Brimming with life, playful and illustrative, Nigerian Pidgin English lends itself well to creativity, evolving quickly and readily borrowing from current events.
A World Cup blunder by Nigerian player Sani Kaita briefly spawned the word “Kaitalistic” to mean catastrophic and the frequent acts of kidnapping in Nigeria has popularized the term “Colombia people” to describe the perpetrators on Nigeria’s first pidgin station Wazobia 95.1 FM.
“American Presido say time don reach to comot im troop for Iraq,” announced the newscaster on a recent lunchtime bulletin, after U.S. President Barack Obama announced a formal end to the U.S. military’s combat mission in Iraq last month.
Nigerian Afrobeat music pioneer Fela Kuti was a major proponent of Pidgin, further popularizing its use with albums like “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” and “I Go Shout Plenty”.
“Good English (could) not convey the message of African music,” he was quoted as saying in one of his biographies.
Despite the popularity of Pidgin, the Akademi faces an uphill struggle convincing all Nigerians, many of whom see it as a by-product of the country’s falling education standards.
“Pidgin looks like a bastardization of the English language,” said Reuben Abati, chairman of the editorial board for Nigeria’s Guardian newspapers and a respected columnist.
“The West African elite, who see it as the language of commoners, like to dissociate themselves from Pidgin. They want their children to sound like Upper Class Britons. That attitude is wrong because it has to do with identity. As second users of the language, we must promote varieties of English.”
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Editing by Nick Tattersall and Paul Casciato