Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Pidgin English and I

I was not always a fan of pidgin (now written in Nigerian academic circles as Nigerian Pidgin or NP). Actually the first time the language was spoken to me by one of the "worldly" sophisticated senior boy in my primary school, I was confused because I wasn't sure whether he was mocking me or really asking a question. I told him I saw him playing football somewhere close to my house the evening before, and he responded with "Which kain football?" That was the end of the conversation.

That was the first I could remember, and I have gradually come into knowledge that it is a language to be reckoned with, and not just a slang used by touts and marijuana smokers, even though the most prominent icons of the language were mostly people of rebellious gait. That last part, as true as it might sound, have now also been discovered to be false. While in the university, I found that there actually exist a body of people whose first language (or L1 as we call it) is the Nigerian Pidgin. They do not speak English, and they barely speak their own local languages. To them, Pidgin is the mother tongue.

For years however, the only places where we heard Pidgin spoken was on television - by dubious elements, uneducated old men, gate men, prostitutes, pickpockets and, well, musicians. It relegated the status of the language to the pedestrian, and informal. But that was then. Today, the language is becoming mainstream although not yet elevated officially to the full status of a language. The official books must be the only places where the language is not yet so recognized. As far as the streets are concerned, it is a language on its own, as unique as Hausa or Yoruba, perhaps even with a larger number of speakers than the two combined.

Arguments in Nigerian fiction have asked whether any official orthography exists or could be made for the "language" if it must be so called. As at now, there is none. There is not even a dictionary yet even though I'm privy to information about one in the making. Just yesterday, I stumbled on PidginGuide, a sort of Wiki for Pidgin where the users determine the content and size. Along with being free and globally acceptable, the idea has brought into light more possibilities for the codification of Pidgin in the nearest future. One argument against its reliability says that the number of people contributing doesn't guarantee the quality of the work. This would have been true but the fact that the openness of this project everyone makes it less likely to be unreliable as a means of keeping up with the language's growth and evolution within the urban population. Where it *might* lack is in keeping up with the rural, uneducated population. For that, we may still have to depend on the bits we get from Naija hip-hop stars

Check related articles at Wikipedia, and here and here for a conference announcement for a Nigerian Pidgin English conference in Ibadan next week.

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