Last week, following the latest legal victory of Isiaka Adeleke, the ebullient helmsman of Osun State, BBC Pidgin posted an arresting photo of the “dancing governor” on its Twitter handle. Adeleke was holding a microphone, in a face cap, right hand raised and a determined, triumphant expression, rather than the usual saccharine smile on his face. The photo had a visual punch. It captured a moment that synchronized nicely with the announcement of Adeleke’s triumph at the Appeal Court.
But even more arresting than the photo was the caption that accompanied it. “Appeal Court uphold election of Ademola Adeleke as govnor of Osun State”, it said. Before I saw the BBC Pidgin logo, I thought that the caption was a poorly-edited job from the BBC’s more famous “Queen’s English” and “Received Pronunciation” headquarters in Bush House, London. But it wasn’t.
The concoction of “big grammar” and deliberate bad spelling is just one more example of BBC Pidgin’s rather odd conception of pidgin English, Nigeria’s true lingua franca and the linguistic thread that holds the nation together.
As I said in a subsequent Twitter engagement, the BBC Pidgin headline is actually a parody of pidgin, not the real thing. And that’s a real shame.
Pidgin, a hybrid of English and our local languages whose roots can be traced to the Atlantic slave trade but which fully came into its own after the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914, despite its popular association with humour and skits, is no joke. It has earned the right to be treated with respect, no less than “Queen’s English”. Pidgin English, along with Highlife music, is perhaps one of the most powerful expressions of Nigerianness and the feisty Nigerian spirit that have attracted global popularity and notoriety. Both were produced in the hot house of British colonialism when millions, in communities within the boundaries now known as Nigeria, were forced out of their ancient lands into urban centers in pursuit of the interests of the British Empire.
Pidgin English started out as a practical solution to a practical problem: how to communicate and engage despite linguistic differences in the colonial Babel. It eventually morphed into a rich, soulful vehicle which captured not only everyday meaning, but also the energy and creativity of the peoples of the new nation. It served as a tool for mobilization and expression of political defiance against the colonial overlords, a medium for socializing across ethnic boundaries and the eternal dance of the sexes, and a repertoire of old wisdoms and new ideas forged out of common experiences.
It is no surprise that pidgin English, garnished by colourful cousins from other parts of Africa and the Caribbean became the language of the Nigerian street and of Highlife music and its many variants. It was subsequently adopted by Afrobeat, the genre that captured, in less sentimental fashion, the gritty social and political realities of the lives of ordinary people, whose interest was the life-long passion of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a child of privilege who became a musical champion of the downtrodden.
Though still primarily a child of the Nigerian street, pidgin English now wears hoodies and sneakers, and prances the stage with American rappers which is fitting because rap is also a child of the American street, the ghettoes in which poverty and popular culture exist side by side. Nigeria’s young musicians have taken the world by storm and their fans across the globe dance to pidgin lyrics by Burna Boy, Wizkid, Rema, P-Square, Davido, Kaycee and Flavour.
Pidgin, once viewed with contempt by previous generations of educated Nigerians, has acquired a certain glamour and is now the hip vehicle of Nigeria’s music and identity. The 100m or so Nigerians who speak it remain its bastion but it is making progress across the world, breaching the barricades of the world’s entertainment hotspots.
But its heart remains local and very Nigerian. It is important to clarify that pidgin English is NOT an exotic device for entertaining educated persons who are bored with regular news. It is much more than that. To capture the spirit and meaning of something in pidgin English, one must go deeper than mangling a few words. In fact, a good rule of thumb for pidgin English speakers and writers is to avoid words that uneducated or poorly educated people, statistically its original and current owners, would find difficult. Always best to keep it simple.
And that is why the BBC Pidgin approach, captured in the recent headline, needs to change. It is a less than rigorous style that treats pidgin as decoration, a mere ornament. And by the way, it is not a one-off example. Here is a short list of some recent headlines:
“Meet Alex Otti wey dislodge 24 year reign of PDP for Abia state”
“Video show last moments of man wey die for US Police custody”
“At least 23 pipo die as tornado rip through Mississippi”
“State by state breakdown of 2023 governorship election results”
“Kane and Saka lead England to comfortable victory over Ukraine”
Like the Adeleke headline, these and other examples are obviously written by people who either don’t really understand Pidgin English or don’t have the interest or time to do a better job. The words “dislodge”, “last moments… police custody”, “rip through”, “state by state breakdown of governorship election results” and “comfortable victory over Ukraine” are plainly regular news words adjusted slightly to produce something that bears a tenuous resemblance to real pidgin English. A little more knowledge and effort will have produced better results.
For instance, the Adeleke headline could have done without the “heavy grammar” word “uphold” to produce something less jarring. Two possible alternatives: “Adeleke don win Oyetola for Appeal Court” and “Appeal Court say na Adeleke win govanor for Osun”. “Confam”, a pidgin derivative that has become more popular in recent years could also have replaced “uphold”.
Let’s end this with the words of that unforgettable pidgin English icon, the great Boma Erekosima of Radio Rivers fame: “My people, advice no be curse o”.
Nwabuikwu is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board