My first status update this year is a quick reflection on Professor Wole Soyinka’s language use in his December 30, 2017 article titled, “Blame Passing, Social Media Automated Mumus – The New Year Gift To A Nation.” In the article, Soyinka translated a Yoruba proverb as follows: “Some voices alerted the k-legged porter to the dangerous tilt of the load on his head. His response was- Thank you, but the problem actually resides in the legs”.
At issue is the expression “k-legged porter.” People who have read my grammar columns and my book will be familiar with the fact that “k-leg” is an idiosyncratic Nigerian English expression for what native English speakers call “knock-knee.” But Soyinka is clearly not unfamiliar with this fact. He isn’t just a maestro of the language, he was educated and socialized in native English environments and has near-native mastery of the language. Because he has mastered the rules of the language so well, he occasionally chooses to bend them in the service of communicative and cultural convenience—like Chinua Achebe did. Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
If Soyinka had intended for his article to be read by native English speakers, he would have rendered “K-legged porter” as “knock-kneed porter.” But I can bet my bottom dollar that 90 percent of Nigerians have no clue what “knock-knee” means. I’m delighted that someone of Soyinka’s stature has chosen to use this uniquely Nigerian, but supremely evocative, expression in an article. That’s how we can internationalize the distinctive expressive repertoires that define our dialogic encounters.
In my more than one decade of writing about Nigerian English usage, I’ve noticed that many Nigerian English users instinctively refrain from using expressions I’ve identified as peculiarly Nigerian. This isn’t necessary. To imagine that, as a Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria, you can speak or write English that doesn’t reflect and inflect a Nigerian flavor is akin to assuming that you can have a place without a climate. That’s an existential impossibility.
In addition to “flashing” (intentional missed calls), “K-leg” is my Nigerian English candidate for inclusion in prestigious, well-established global dictionaries like Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Chambers Dictionary, Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English, etc.
But words don’t just get listed in dictionaries because some linguistic nationalist desires it. Sometimes, it takes a concatenation of improbable circumstances for this to occur. Take the word “trek” as an example. It used to be an exclusively South African English word for “long walk” by way of Afrikaans, the Dutch-inflected language spoken by white South Africans. After repeated use of the word by prominent South African writers, it got a big boost with the iconic science fiction TV series called “Star Trek.” “Trek”—along with its various inflections such as “trekker,” “trekking,” even “trekkable”— is now an everyday word in every English variety, and competes with the older, better-known “walk” or “hike.”