10 Ways Lagos Corrupts the English of Nigerians


10 Ways Lagos Corrupts the English of Nigerians

By Azuka Onwuka

Lagos is not called the centre of excellence for nothing. It is a mini Nigeria, full of action and interesting things. Anybody who has visited Nigeria without visiting Lagos has not visited Nigeria. One interesting thing about Lagos is the type of English spoken in it.

It is from Lagos that many Nigerians learn to add “shebi” or “sha” or “shey” to their English statements. So you hear: “Shebi you know he has been promoted?” “He sha told me to forget about it.” “Shey you know their new address?” It has become an intrinsic part of the English of many people that it will be an uphill task to get them off the mouth of many.

What about statements that are meant to be questions? Lagos has it in abundance. So when someone tells you: “I should come?” or “I should bring the document?” don’t assume the person is making a statement. No, those are questions. It is rare in Lagos to hear someone ask you: “Should I come” or “Should I bring the document?”

What about the unnecessary comma that appears after a house number in Lagos? Except in Lagos, it is doubtful if there is any other place in the world where this strange comma is seen in addresses. One of the first things I learnt in Lagos was that it was criminal to write the address of your street without a comma after the number. For example, if I wrote my address as “16 Adebare Street,” the first thing a roadside typist did was to correct it to “16, Adebare Street.” If I asked the person why the insertion of the comma after the house number, I would not get any reasonable answer. The only answer is: “That is how it is done.” Up until today, nobody has told me why the number of a location should be marked off with a comma when it is not a unit that makes sense, or when there is no pause after the number is mentioned. Why is “P.O. Box 20, Ikeja” also not written as “P.O. Box, 20, Ikeja”?

If you check the addresses of all companies in Lagos on their signboards or letterheads or call cards, you would see that useless comma. Even the media houses that should be teaching Nigerians the correct way also jump on board this queer comma bandwagon. But what do you find in the United Kingdom or the United States of America or other countries? The funny comma is never used in addresses. Look for the office addresses of newspapers and magazines on the hard copy or their website. The Guardian’s address is 90 York Way, London; Daily Mail’s address is Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, London; BBC Worldwide Limited’s address is Media Centre, 201 Wood Lane, London; Time’s address is 271 Avenue of the Americas, New York; New York Times’ address is 242 West 41st Street, New York. The office of the Prime Minister of the UK is 10 Downing Street, London. So where did Lagos get this ridiculous comma from? Only God knows.

Before I came to reside in Lagos in 1994, this queer comma was only found in Lagos. But after the 1990 Orkar coup that made General Ibrahim Babangida to hurriedly relocate the seat of government from Lagos to Abuja, the federal civil servants moved to Abuja with that strange comma.  And like cancer, it began to spread through Nigeria. Today, in many parts of Nigeria, once the address of a place is written, that comma is inserted after the number. Even some school teachers and authors of English textbooks now insist on this strange comma that they cannot explain its usefulness. This virus has even spread from Lagos to some parts of Ghana because businessmen from Lagos went to Ghana to set up businesses in the last 15 years. That is how powerful Lagos is in influencing what happens in Nigeria and beyond.

What about calling “president” “precedent”? Lagos has also corrupted most Nigerians in that regard. How did it originate? Here is the genesis. There is no “z” in the Yoruba alphabet. People like us who have “z” in our name have got used to having our name sometimes spelt or pronounced as “Asuka.” We understand why. That same lack of “z” affects some broadcasters from Lagos stations. “President,” whose “s” should compulsorily be pronounced as “z,” is most times pronounced as “s.” So many broadcasters say “precedent” when they mean “president.” Being that “president” is a word that is mentioned many times each day on radio and television, the wrong pronunciation sticks in the minds of many listeners and viewers. And because broadcasters are believed to be experts who know the right pronunciation of all words, many members of the public, including well educated and highly placed individuals, have begun to copy the broadcasters who make that mistake. The same problem occurs in the pronunciation of words like “present, reside, resignation, designation,” etc, with the “s” wrongly pronounced as /s/ rather than /z/.

Another word that has been corrupted by Lagos is the word “lap.” In Lagos, three people can ride in a commercial bus with only one person paying the fare. How is that achieved? Through “lapping.” “Lapping” is a Lagos term for having someone sit on another person’s lap. So in a commercial bus, a woman can have her teenage child on her lap and another child sitting on the lap of the teenager. As long as they are occupying only one “seat space,” the woman would pay for only one passenger.

Therefore, in Lagos, it is easy to hear a statement like: “Let me lap you.” Only Lagosians understand that statement, because it is not an English expression. “To lap” does not mean to have someone sit on another’s lap. But that is what it means in Lagos, and other parts of Nigeria are copying it.

That is the same case with the expression: “Let me back you.” To an English person, “backing” someone means supporting the person. But in Lagos “to back someone” means to piggyback the person or to carry the person on one’s back.

Another Lagos coinage is that of calling a dustpan “packer.” Once the word “packer” is mentioned, every Lagosian knows what it is. That is the wrong name given to dustpan. Why? In Lagos you “pack” your dirt; therefore the tool used in “packing” dirt should naturally be called a “packer”. Interesting!

Also, have you noticed the number of times people use “now” when telling a story? In Lagos, “now” stands for any time from today to one million years ago. So when a Lagosian is talking about how Julius Caesar was killed on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 BC, he could tell you: “Caesar’s trusted friend, Brutus, now struck him, and Caesar now shouted: ‘Et tu Brute!’” You ask yourself, what is “now” doing in what happened over 2000 years ago? What is hard in using “then” instead of “now” when talking about things that happened in the past? And interestingly, even the well-read unconsciously use this “now” when describing things that happened in the past.

What about always lumping “me” and “I” when talking about oneself? Here is an example: “Me, I don’t understand what he is saying.” Why not also say: ”Her, she does not understand what he is saying”? What is “me” doing in that statement? But that is Lagos English for you.

Then what about this? When a visitor wants to leave, he or she may say something like: “Let me come and be going.” Excuse me! You are in my house, but you want to come and be going? What a linguistic construction!

Lagos is an interesting place to live in. It is the only Nigerian state where all the parts are linked up to form a city. It contains the good, the bad and the ugly. It is a state where English and Pidgin English are spoken more than the local Yoruba language. Unlike in other states, people can live for half of a century in Lagos without learning the local Yoruba language, and yet they can survive and succeed. Therefore in trying to speak that English that is central to everybody, Yoruba and Pidgin English words and expressions are often transported word-for-word into English. And because of the deep influence Lagos has on other states in Nigeria, these funny expressions gradually go into the lexicon of Nigerians and are accepted as the norm.

This is Lagos!


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