You Do Well: Nigerian Pidgin and the English Language

Last month, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced a list of words it was adding to its ranks—including many from Nigerian Standard English for the first time. English is the official language of Nigeria but is only one of 500 spoken in the country. In this post, we’re going to take a look at an unofficial but widely-spoken language in Nigeria—Nigerian Pidgin—and see how it has influenced English spoken there.

Out of all of the additions to the OED this January, Nigeria has contributed 29 of them, all words that are influenced in different ways by the multitude of languages spoken across the country. Most of the terms are borrowed from different languages—such as the word buka, which refers to a roadside restaurant or street stall and has been borrowed from Hausa and Yoruba—or are unique Nigerian words that, for the most part, only started being used regularly in English from the 1970s and 1980s. An example of this would be a danfo, which is a yellow minibus that carries paying passengers as part of an informal transport system in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.

As we have found after adding seven varieties of English to our app, each one adds its own richness and complexity to the language; think, for example, of the Scottish ‘haud yer wheesht’, which means ‘to be quiet,’ or the Australian ‘have a Captain Cook’ (have a look). It makes sense, then, to add those terms that have come into popular use in Nigerian English, so they can be shared with other English speakers and understood as important in their own right.

It also makes sense that some of these added words would be derived from Nigerian Pidgin, a language spoken by approximately 30 million people across West Africa. Nigerian Pidgin is a lingua franca in Nigeria, which means it helps unite a population who speak so many different languages. But that raises an important question: what exactly is a pidgin language, and what is Nigerian Pidgin, specifically?

What is a pidgin language?

Historically, pidgin languages have come into being when there are two or more communities forced to interact who don’t have a language in common. This has typically involved trade; the term ‘pidgin’ was in fact coined when the British began to trade with China—it is derived from a Chinese pronunciation of the English word ‘business.’ 

Pidgin languages are usually a blend of vocabulary from one major language with the grammar of at least one other (but sometimes more). The major languages are often English, French, or Portuguese as these were countries that were colonial powers but there are also a number of pidgins based on Spanish and Dutch. 

Although Nigerian Pidgin has the word ‘pidgin’ in its name, it is likely that it is now closer to a creole than a true pidgin language. A pidgin can become a creole once it is used as a stable lingua franca for some time, or if the next generation of speakers begin using it as their native language.

What is Nigerian Pidgin?

Nigerian Pidgin is an English-based pidgin and creole language which is spoken as a lingua franca across Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. Depending on the context, it can be used as a pidgin or lingua franca, or as a creole, as there are many people now who have grown up speaking the language, especially in the Niger Delta. The context of a conversation can also determine how speakers are using Nigerian Pidgin; it is considered a more legitimate language in the present day, but has historically been seen as ‘the language of the uneducated’. 

If you go to Nigeria and ask about the language, there are many ways it might be referred to: Pijin, Naija, and Brokun (from the English ‘broken’) are just a few of its names. There are also variations within Nigerian Pidgin itself depending on the other languages of the people speaking it—Igbos might say ‘biko’ for ‘please’ and Hausas might add the word ‘ba’ at the end of a sentence or question to mean ‘right?’, for example. 

If you are looking to visit the Caribbean, too, knowing Nigerian Pidgin might give you an advantage when it comes to understanding the creoles spoken there. It shares a lot of similarities to English-based creoles spoken in the Caribbean—especially noticeable when it comes to Jamaican Patois—because most slaves who were taken to the New World were of West African descent, so shared the same language. Pronunciation and accents might differ, but if Jamaican Patois, for example, is written down or spoken slowly, it is likely that a speaker of Nigerian Pidgin will understand what is being said. 

Which words were added to the OED?

While not all 29 terms added to the OED were specifically from Nigerian Pidgin (you can see the full list here), all are distinctly Nigerian, highlighting cultural norms or achievements (e.g. Kannywood – the Nigerian Hausa-language film industry, based in Kano). We have picked out the two that have been plucked from Nigerian Pidgin:

sef – an adverb in Nigerian Pidgin, it is used as an emphatic marker added to the end of statements or rhetorical questions, often to express irritation or impatience.

chop – a verb and common colloquial word in Ghana and Nigeria that means ‘to eat’. From the 1970s, it also developed another meaning—that of getting money quickly and easily and often, dishonestly. 

How do I learn Nigerian Pidgin?

Are you ready to give it a try? Well, if you are, there are lots of ways to learn Nigerian Pidgin—you could go to Nigeria or watch some Nollywood films or even use our fun, handy app!

Nigerian Pidgin is one of the 144 languages we currently offer and we thought we’d give you a little sneak peek of what you could expect if you gave it a go:

Hello – How una dey

Please – Abeg

Thank you – You do well

I don’t understand – I no get you

And we’ve got a cute (and super easy!) one, just in time for Valentine’s Day…

How do you say ‘I love you’ in Nigerian Pidgin?

I love you!

That’s it! If you’d like to learn more Nigerian Pidgin with uTalk, then let us share the love and give you an exclusive 40% off all our language subscriptions. That subscription will give you full access to the 64 topics and around 2,500 words and phrases that make up our Nigerian Pidgin offering—so why not give it a try?

Bye-bye (that’s Nigerian Pidgin for goodbye!) from us and good luck with your language learning journey!

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