• Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Semantic extension in Nigerian English

Semantic extension

Semantic extension is used to broaden, narrow or completely shift the meaning of a given word. It is also called semantic shift, semantic progression, semantic development, or semantic drift. English interacts with over 600 indigenous languages and cultures in Nigeria. For this reason, the English language has been affected by features of some of these languages and has come to be nativised at the levels of sounds, words, structures and even idioms.

In this treatise, I am going to present some English words that have taken up new meanings in the Nigerian context. While these meanings can be said to be acceptable in Nigerian English, this piece will afford the readership an insight into what such words mean in Standard English for the purpose of global intelligibility.

For starters, most, if not all, Nigerians will understand the word “gist” as an informal conversation about matters that are not important:

I had a gist with my classmates at the party yesterday.

By contrast, the gist of a speech, conversation, or piece of writing is its general meaning; the most important pieces of information about something, or general information without details:

Fortunately, I got the gist of his lecture.

Meanwhile, what Nigerians refer to as “gist” is designated as “chat” or “chit-chat” in Standard English:

I had a chat with my classmates at the party yesterday (standard).

I had chit-chat with my classmates at the party yesterday (standard).

Note, by the way, that “chat” is used with the indefinite article “a” while “chit-chat” is an uncountable noun that should not attract the indefinite article.

Moving on, what comes to mind when you hear the word “teller”? A small form that you fill in with the date and amount of money when you pay money into your bank account, right? No, that is not a teller. That is called a paying-in slip in British English or a deposit slip in American English. A teller, for appropriateness’ sake, is someone who works in a bank and who customers pay money to or get money from. Therefore, you get your paying-in slip or deposit slip from a teller when you visit a bank.

Then, what comes to mind when a fellow Nigerian says “go-slow”? Gridlock, I guess. However, the meaning is nothing related to traffic. A go-slow is an occasion when employees work more slowly and with less effort than usual in order to try to persuade an employer to agree to a higher pay or better working conditions. This is called a slow-down in American English:

I sense a go-slow among the workers (British English).

I sense a slow-down among the workers (American English).

A car broke down at rush hour and caused gridlock for hours (standard).

Gridlock can also be called a traffic jam. A traffic jam is a long line of vehicles that cannot move forward because there is too much traffic or because the road is blocked by something.

Again, what do you think Nigerian parents mean when they say their daughters must get married to the working classes? Well, be in the know that the working class or the working classes are the groups of people in a society who do not own much property, who have low social status, and who do jobs which require using physical skills rather than intellectual skills. So when you mean to refer to the doctors, engineers, lawyers, bankers and whatnot, you are referring to the white-collar workers, as opposed to the working class or blue-collar workers. Blue-collar workers do work needing strength or physical skills rather than office work.

What is more, it may also interest you to know that a sadist is not necessarily a sad person. A sadist is a person who gets pleasure by being cruel to, or by hurting, another person. Finally, a talkative person is not a lousy individual. If you describe someone as lousy, you mean that they are very bad at something they do:

She is such a lousy (incompetent) secretary.

Language purists like Bidemi Gbadamosi (the author of The Mechanics of Standard English) could refer to these Nigerian usages as catachresis. However, proponents of Nigerian English have made a case for these meaning extensions as reflecting the peculiarity of the Nigerian variety of English. I will conclude this piece by urging all those who are concerned with the business of Nigerian English to intensify efforts towards the codification of this variety through the production of materials such as textbooks so that these usages can become recognised as uniquely Nigerian.

(c) 2023 Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University.