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Nigerian English Discourse and Features

By Abdul-Lateef Solihu


Subsequent to the recent published article entitled “The Indigenization of English Language in Nigeria” which addresses the evolution of the Nigerian English and its main characteristic features in fourfold, namely phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics, this article is designed to throw some light on the discourse aspect so that readers can enhance their understanding of what the Nigerian English variety looks like in this regard.

In linguistics, discourse is conceptualized as the stretch of language beyond the sentence level. It is the language use in correlation with the social, political, and cultural norms of the society whereby it is employed. This is underpinned by Henry and Tator (2002) when they assert as follows:

Discourse is the way in which language is used socially to convey broad historical meanings. It is language identified by the social conditions of its use, by who is using it and under what conditions. Language can never be 'neutral' because it bridges our personal and social worlds (p. 25).

As language is inseparable from the culture of its speech community, discourse covers verbal and non-verbal communications which define the social relations and social identity of the users. Researchers have pointed out that the Nigerian English discourse is replete with the use of communication strategies different from those in British English. Most of these strategies are employed to either avoid a direct confrontation with the interlocutor during conversations or to show respect for the elderly ones and/or the people of dignified status in the society (Ekpe, 2010; Ogu, 1992).

One of such communication strategies characterized by the Nigerian English discourse is what Ekpe (2010) refers to as the persistent use of title names such as ‘sir’, ‘ma’ (i.e. madam), ‘chief’, ‘comrade’, ‘imam’ (i.e. an Islamic leader), evangelist (i.e. a Gospel preacher), ‘doctor’, ‘professor’ and so forth.  Although the use of title names is evident in several genres of the British English, an examination of the Nigerian English divulges an excessive use of these titles to maintain a high level of politeness by avoiding face threatening and saving face, especially when conversing with the elderly or the superiors. It is indeed indubitable that the unceasing recourse to the use of titles the Nigerian English is a culture bequeathed by the Nigerian indigenous languages in which inadequate or lack of employment of suitable title name in addressing the interlocutor is considered lack of courtesy.

Another noteworthy feature of the Nigerian English discourse is language alternation. This stems from the fact that Nigerian English speakers are mostly bilinguals who, with their multifarious linguistic backgrounds, often switch from English to their native languages to create certain effects. A thorough examination of bilingual speeches would find language alternation as an important characteristic of bilinguals. Bilinguals alternate between languages (e.g. between English and Nigerian indigenous languages) to perform a number of important communicative functions in conversations with their audience (Shin, 2010).

As palpable in the English variety used in Nigeria, Gumpez (1982) proffered an answer to questions revolving around the reasons why bilinguals switch from one language to another amidst conversations when he highlighted six major functions which language alternation has set out to perform, namely quotation marking, addressee specification, interjections, reiterations, message qualification and personalization/objectivization.

 “You are going shopping today, abi?” (Alternating to Yoruba)

You are going shopping today, aren’t you?


“My sister a pass-iala WAEC examination ya.” (Alternating to Igbo)

My sister has passed her WAEC examination.

“His mood is always swaying depending on lokaci” (Alternating from Hausa)

His mood is always swaying, depending on time.

Among such features is the indigenization of British English proverbs in such a way as to suit the social and cultural norms of the Nigerian society. As Kaan, Amase, and Tsavmbu (2013) reported, a number of English proverbs and idioms have been nigerianized. For example, consider the following proverbs with their Nigerian English versions:

“A swallow does not make a summer” (British English)

One tree cannot make a forest (Nigerian English Version)

Unlike the British English version, this Nigerian English proverb shows the significance of social solidarity as it is hard for any individual to live in isolation without needing the help of others.

“Cut your coat according to your cloth” (British English)

Cut your coat according to your size (Nigerian English Version)

This Nigerian English proverb is semantically identical with the original British English version as it denotes that everyone should do without exceeding the limit of his ability.

“A pretty face and fine cloth do not make character” (Nigerian English)

This Nigerian English proverb shows that in the Nigerian culture, a woman’s beauty is valueless in the sight of men who would seek her hand in marriage if she is devoid of good character. The same is applicable to men since being handsome and affluent cannot gain them any respect if they lack good character.

“A man being short does not make him a boy” (Nigerian English)

This alludes to the pivotal role played by men in not only Nigeria but African society. They are being venerated as family and community heads, community peace makers and so on.

Conclusively, the adoption of English language in the Nigerian speech community has led to the emergence of a new variety with all its features distinctive from the British English. The phenomenon of indigenization has culminated in the infiltration of some elements of users’ native languages into the English variety spoken therein in order that it is well equipped to carry the burden of conveying the culture and traditions of the new users. There are other features of Nigerian English discourse which could be found in the course of reading through Nigerian English literature.



AJatau, N. (no date). Code-Switching and Mixing among Hausa/ English bilinguals: A linguistic and socio- psychological survey, English Unit, Languages Department, School Of Arts and Languages, College Of Preliminary Studies Yelwa- Yauri.

Ekpe, M.B. (2010). The English Language in Nigeria, National Open University of Nigeria.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Henry, F. and Tator, C. (2002). Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian English-Language Press. University of Toronto.

Kaan, A.T., Amase, E.L. and Tsavmbu, A.A. (2013). Nigerian English: Identifying Semantic Features as Variety Markers, Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 16(5), 65-69.

Ngozi, U.E. (2014). Code Switching in Igbo-English Bilingual Conversations, British Journal of English Linguistics, 2(3), 1-6.

Ogu, J. (1992). A Historical Survey of English and the Nigerian Situation. Lagos: Krafts Books ltd.

Shin, S. (2010). The Functions of Code-Switching in a Korean Sunday School, Heritage Language Journal, 7(1), 91-116.