The Queen's English and the African gene

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NOTHING PREPARED me for the uniqueness of American English and colloquial American speech. Six months after arriving in this country, I am still in a state of linguistic shock.

To come here from Nigeria, I had been required to take a test of English as a foreign language by the American Embassy in my country. If I had failed, I wouldn't be here. Which is why I am surprised to discover that there are Americans who cannot speak standard English. To survive in America, I have to understand a broad range of American colloquialisms, and a strange tongue called "Ebonics."

Americans speak of the "elevator" instead of "lift;" instead of "boot," they say "trunk;" for "railway station," they substitute "metro or train;" the college "bus" is called "shuttle;" instead of "petrol;" Americans say "gas."

I have often referred to the small space I share with two colleagues as a "flat," but I am told it is an "apartment." When I refer to my colleagues as "flatmates," I am told they are "roommates" although we do not live in the same room. I've also discovered that Americans rarely pronounce the consonant "t."

Every university teacher is a "professor." Every "press boy" is a "journalist." Every "girl" is a "lady." Everybody calls everyone else by their first names. A bartender once asked me if I wanted my "tab," and I told him I didn't need any tablets because I was not ill. It turned out he wanted me to settle my bill.

My roommate and I met a lady in the elevator and she asked us "Hi, guys, what's cooking?" We told her we don't know how to cook. Yet another lady had responded, after I'd greeted her "good morning: " "What's going on? What's the matter?" I thought I had offended her until I was told she merely wanted to start a conversation. Well, I missed the opportunity.

Several times, I have heard an American sprinkle a conversation with "Oh my God" and I always responded "sorry," thinking that he or she is in some form of pain. I have since discovered that Americans call on God as a matter of habit, to express surprise, joy, regret, all at once.

But I am not stubborn. I am learning and adjusting. I have since realized that the success of my 10-month stay in this country depends on my being able to understand the people. There is perhaps no point complaining.

When I tell Americans that they confuse me with their pronunciation, they tell me I have a funny accent. Or that they have problems understanding the English I speak. Yet I speak simple, standard English as handed down by Her Majesty, the Queen of England's government to the former colonies. The problem is probably with the English language. Every society that inherited it from the English has had to infuse it with local color and experience.

But "Ebonics" stretches my patience and frustrates me. Often, I meet African Americans and because they look so familiar, I experience an instant racial bonding. I feel like talking with them to let them know that meeting and seeing them makes me feel at home, as if I am in the midst of my own family.

It's not English

But this natural identification collapses immediately when the African American begins to speak "Ebonics." On several occasions, I have heard my brothers and sisters in diaspora tell me "Yo!" "She say, he say." "We was." "I is." "I be." This is supposed to be English but it is not English.

At such moments, the genetic coding fails and I am forced to note the difference between nature and nurture. To me, "Ebonics" is totally unrecognizable and those who argue that it has a West African origin are merely contriving a thesis to justify nonsense. True, West Africans speak a kind of English called "pidgin English" but it is the language of the illiterate, a tribute to incompetence, and it bears no resemblance even to "Ebonics." Those who speak pidgin English in West Africa and other parts of Africa would rather speak standard English.

James Baldwin may have made a case for "Ebonics;" it may well work as literature and music; African Americans are also probably entitled to a linguistic "inside baseball." But they should not be encouraged to cling to a dialect that is bound to increase their alienation: from their brothers and sisters in Africa; their fellow Americans, and the rest of the English-speaking world.

The success of African Americans and all black men who speak and write good, proper English proves the point that "Ebonics" is not in the genes. It is certainly not in the African gene.

Reuben Abati is a Nigerian journalist studying at the University of Maryland on a Hubert Humphrey fellowship.

Pub Date: 1/23/97

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