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Kingsley Ugwuanyi.

Recently, the Oxford English Dictionary recognized West African English, bringing its number of World Englishes to 15. It further added 29 new Nigerian words in its latest update. One of the Dictionary’s consultants on Nigerian English is the academic Kingsley Ugwuanyi, who also provided some information on the pronunciation of West African English.

Ugwuanyi’s current research interests lie in the broad areas of world Englishes, sociolinguistics, and applied linguistics, and more specifically Nigerian English. He teaches English linguistics in the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria, where he studied for an MA in Applied Linguistics and a BA. He is currently a Doctoral Fellow in Sociolinguistics at the University of Northumbria. He attended the 2016 Summer School of the Association of Commonwealth Universities in Kigali. Also a copyeditor, he started working with the Oxford English Dictionaries as an English-Igbo translator in 2017 before moving on to serve as the consultant to the Nigerian English project.

Ugwuanyi talks to Benson David, former editor at 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry.

Benson David

How did you become involved in the process? Could you take us through the stages of having a word or usage go from being “wrong” to getting formally recognized and accepted?

Kingsley Ugwuanyi

My journey with the OED started in 2017 when I served as an Igbo language translator for their English-Igbo Bilingual Dictionary, which is part of their Oxford Global Languages project. While on the translation project, I encountered one of the editors at Oxford who took an interest in my doctoral research, which focuses on Nigerian English. Following our interactions, she linked me up with the World English team of editors at Oxford. I was then contacted in early 2018 to serve as the consultant to the Nigerian English project.

Regarding the process, there are very principled criteria that dictionaries follow to track words. By the way, your question seems to suggest that only “formal words” are included in the dictionary. The OED is a historical record of the evolution of English vocabulary in all its forms—standard forms but also regional, colloquial, informal, scientific, even rare and obsolete. Having said that, it might be worth remarking that the history of English is littered with many words initially perceived as “wrong” making it into dictionaries. I give you two instances. In 1985, Laurence Lafore, in Harper’s Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, insisted that “To use words like ‘finalize’ is merely to be inelegant and to uglify the language.” As recent as 2001, Marcia Pounds, writing in South Florida Sun-Sentinel, asserted thus: “I don’t know how many times executives incorrectly use the word ‘impact.’ Impact is not a verb.” Does anybody still frown at these words today? I guess not. This is the very nature of words: they get kicked over today and hugged tomorrow. Some people are too conservative that they expect a language to move at their own pace by regarding anything that doesn’t agree with their language sensibilities as wrong. Language, especially English, won’t wait for you. You either move along or get kicked off.

So what’s important is that the OED recognises that English is now a global language, and given this, there will be words that will emerge that are widely used only in certain English-speaking communities. That doesn’t mean though that these words are less significant or have less of a right to be included in the OED.

Benson David

What do you think about the inclination, mostly in Nigerian academia, to look down on certain usages—“gist” as a verb, for example—until accepted into the dictionary?

Kingsley Ugwuanyi

What I see is that Nigerians tend to seek validation from outside. We don’t seem to regard and promote what is ours until it’s validated by an external authority. For instance, Nigerian scholars have been studying and promoting Nigerian English for long. There are about four dictionaries of Nigerian English published in Nigeria known to me. Except for Nigerian English researchers, most Nigerians don’t get to talk about these dictionaries and many other efforts geared towards promoting Nigerian English. But the inclusion of only 29 words has gained more traction than four dictionaries put together. Why? It’s Oxford and it’s published in England. Don’t get me wrong! I do not mean to downplay the prestige of the OED. In my view, it remains one of the—if not the very—best dictionary of English.

Even this inclusion of NE words in the OED will not mean an automatic change of attitude, but I believe it will go a long way in making Nigerian English more acceptable both locally and internationally. But remember that until the current English language curriculum in Nigeria changes, I’m sure some hidebound academics will still be reluctant to accept Nigerian English. Like I said, I believe things will continue to change for the better.

Benson David

There has long been a conversation on the representation of local words among Nigerian writers. How much of the need to explain our words to Western readers is misguided?

Kingsley Ugwuanyi

Primarily, any language is a reflection of the identity of the language community, which is shaped by their culture and history. So Nigerian English is fundamentally a reflection of the sociolinguistic milieus of Nigeria. And as you know, writers are products of their society. In my view, one of the factors that define Nigerian literature is that the language, if English, should be necessarily Nigerian English. This is what Achebe did in all his works. As he argued, English should “carry the weight of my African experience.” This is the creative tradition Chimamanda Adichie has carried on. She said that “My English-speaking is rooted in a Nigerian experience.” Because I think Nigerian literature should first and foremost “speak” to Nigerians, “local words” should be represented. With the OED publication, you can see that some of these words are no longer local. So writers needn’t do a lot of explaining about them—and the list will continue to increase. But writers who want their works to reach a wider audience might need to do some explaining like what Adichie does sometimes by embedding the explanation in the story.

Benson David

In its creation of a “West African English” pronunciation, did the Oxford English Dictionary take into consideration the fact that speakers in each Anglophone West African country use the English language in nationally different ways?

Kingsley Ugwuanyi

Of course, the OED fully recognises that English is used in uniquely different ways in West African countries. Even within Nigeria, it’s possible to talk about Igbo English, Hausa English, and Yoruba English; the same way we have Tyneside English, Southern English, or Northern English in England. These differences even within countries do not mean the absence of commonalities, hence we can conveniently talk about Nigerian English or British English as a distinct variety. Similarly, the OED recognises that there are commonalities among the West African varieties of English. For instance, you will notice that “egusi” is defined “West African soup” because there are instances of its usage in other West African countries, especially Ghana. Because of the socioeconomic ties between Nigeria and Ghana, there is a lot of interaction between people from these countries.

In their release note, the OED recognises that Nigerian English and Ghanaian English dominate what it calls West African English(es) because of the large numbers of speakers. In sum, while taking the varietal differences into consideration, the OED developed a pronunciation model in recognition of the enormity of commonalities among them.

Benson David

Are there other projects you are currently working on or involved in? Could you tell us about them?

Kingsley Ugwuanyi

Well, the inclusion of Nigerian words in the OED is an ongoing project. This is just the first batch of words. There will be other batches and I’m still the consultant for now. So more will be added in the future.

At a personal level, I’m completing my doctoral research which investigates the English language ownership perceptions of speakers of Nigerian English. One of my curious findings is that the majority of my sample demonstrated attitudes that indicate a strong sense of English language ownership.

I also have a lot of other projects on Nigerian English in mind.




Benson David is a poet and literary critic. He studied English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he was Custodian of The Writers’ Community (TWC). He was an editor at 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry.

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