The Tragedy of Yoruba-English - Simply SAMAD

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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The Tragedy of Yoruba-English

I have never been a fan of men and women who find themselves drawing daggers and pointing loaded weapons at the beauty that the English language has always represented for me.
Over the year, I have come to appreciate the power, depth and beauty of the language via its numerous portals of expression. Nigeria is an English-speaking nation so it's only important to speak a language that is spoken by millions of people you are bound to interact with.

I was born into a Yoruba home in Lagos State, Nigeria and I remember that back then, my dad (late now) and mum always made it a point of duty to communicate with me in Yoruba language right from the time when I could barely stand on my own to the time when I began to learn how to look at the clock to tell the time.

They, however, ensured that I was enrolled in a school where I had Chinese, Americans, Indians, Lebanese, Asians, Ghanaians, Senegalese, French and of course Nigerians and many other kids from all over the world as classmates and teachers.

Chapter 1: The Yoruba-English Formula

Here was how it worked - The moment I stepped into the only place I had come to know as home, I only spoke Yoruba. It wasn’t as if they would pull a cane on me and flog me if I spoke another language but I was mentally raised to operate that way.

On the contrary, the moment, I stepped out of the house, not a single word of Yoruba would ever escape my lips and this was the way it was for me since I was a kid and this culture stuck with me all through my days in school. In fact, it got so bad that a lot of my friends and classmates in secondary school never believed I was capable of speaking the Yoruba language since they never heard me say a word of it.

Many would even openly accuse me of being vain and pretentious but how could they blame me. I spent the very first years of my life in the midst of kids who were not even Nigerians and as such had little or no understanding of the Yoruba language and for us (back then), English was the language we were subliminally raised to understand and accept as the official key of communication.

Chapter 2: The Bullies

I remember how my elder brother’s friends (in secondary school) once grabbed me; about three of them and bundled me into their hostel, made a threatening circle around me with my brother just sitting there and watching them as their voices boomed at me: “We have been told you can actually speak Yoruba. Oya, say something in Yoruba else we’re going to beat you up...” They didn’t look like they were joking and so when I opened my mouth and spoke Yoruba, their eyes widened in shock and they turned Oliver Twist on me and kept asking for more...

So, given this kind of childhood experiences, I have come to develop a strong bond with the English language without necessarily choking the life out of my ability to communicate in the Yoruba language.

I had to go through the pain of telling this story because like I said, I hold the English language very close to my heart; it’s a boundless form of expression and I often giggle, marvel and laugh out loud whenever I hear or read phrases or remarks (in English) that strike my fancy.

I could go on and on about this but I’ll just cut to the chase at this point – the dangers of lingual interpretation of the English language and those found guilty.

Chapter 3: F9 in the English Language

At one point or the other, we have all encountered individuals whose grasp and use of English language ranks in the realm of F9 and other zones close to red marker and quarters of grammatical calamity.

We can’t blame this category of people because most of them did not enjoy the same luxury of being raised and schooled by reputable teachers and tutors pooled from different continents across the globe. Some suffered the misfortune of being taught English by teachers who struggle with the language themselves. Sad but true.

For these individuals, a majority of them erroneously carry their flair for the Yoruba language into their use of English language and this could become very ugly especially if you have had my kind of experience. As a result of their deficiency in the English language, they wrongly fire grammatical cannons and shocking sentences during conversations. This happens because when they try to say something in English, they interpret it directly from the Yoruba language thus, interpreting the Yoruba words into English. The result of this could be grammatically disastrous.

Chapter 4: My Encounters

This piece was triggered by any some of my recent encounters. I went swimming with my cousins and friends the other day and I had just swum across the breadth of the pool when a guy in the pool (who appeared animated and overtly excited by the water) harmlessly splashed water at me. When I turned towards him, he screamed (trying to raise his voice over the volume of the Disc Jockey’s speaker) “Bros! Come and learn me.” Initially, I assumed I had heard wrongly but then he repeated the same thing again but louder this time: “Come and learn me now,” his voice thundered again.

I could tell he was Yoruba and that he was merely trying to ask me to teach him and should have said, “Bros! Come and teach me.”

Well, English is not my father’s language but the horrors of what happens when people wrongly lift the grammatical barrier separating Yoruba language from the English language haunts me as I write this piece.

I’m certain we all have had our fair share of these encounters but another Yoruba English mishap I recently heard was when an elderly man asked a young chap: “Where is your second?” In the Yoruba language, this man would have rightly asked: “Ikeji e da?” However, by translating that Yoruba directly into English and uttering it, it was totally incorrect. He would have rightly asked: “Where is your friend (or partner)?” but the Yoruba-English syndrome killed it.

Chapter 5: Correcting the Mistake

First, we need t understand that the Yoruba language is different from the English language. Second, we need to stop interpreting from one language to another directly. Not cool. Language Interpretation is decoding- coding of intended meaning.
Remember that the answer is usually in the question. Examples of these are:
  • Does he...?     Yes, he does
  • Can she...?     Yes, she can
  • Is it...?       Yes, it is
Also, pay attention to conversations that go on in movies from English-speaking countries especially movies that are rich in dialogue. Try listening not just to what the words mean, but to how the person says them. Notice which words the person links together in a sentence. Finally, when you're not sure, ask someone who knows for guidance.

I’ll bring this piece to an end right here to avoid stretching the pages and I hope we all learn to draw a line between correct English and Yoruba English and of course, we must endeavour to learn to correct those who fall into this error whenever we can.
Let us collectively keep the walls of English language erect.

Author: Samod Biobaku | Simply SAMAD

This piece is dedicated to my teacher, Mrs Modebe whom I barely remember what she looked like because I was extremely young when she taught me the basics

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  1. As one who is occasionally challenged to speak his own father tongue (I know, I know), I can understand why the "ebons" shall never die. In primary school it took me a while to understand why certain classmates always insisting "hearing de smell".

    By the way, this phenomenon of directly translating from one's native tongue to English is by no means restricted to Yourabs or Nigerians. Case in point, I have an Uzbek friend. (Ahem...) who told me she liked the smile of my eyes! Initially I wanted to do an Oyedepo and accuse her of witchcraft but then I realized that she had made a direct translation from Russian.
    In short, take it easy on them, no be their papa language :)

  2. Thanks for the comment Abdul. Well, I guess this shows it's even a larger phenomenon that I assumed. Thanks also for the references, the case in point as well as your insight into the subject matter. May your IQ and voice of reason never depart you. Stay safe Abdul.

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  4. English can be tough sha. Thanks for sharing your experience.


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