LAGOS (AFP) – The chatter is fast-paced and the laughter infectious in the studios of Lagos radio station Wazobia FM.
Programmes at the station are broadcast only in pidgin — the English-based patois that’s fast becoming Nigeria’s lingua franca.
In a country of 170 million, with hundreds of local languages and dialects, pidgin, rather than official Standard English, is the glue that increasingly binds disparate communities.
Wazobia FM’s sister stations are now broadcasting to millions from the southern oil city of Port Harcourt, the capital Abuja and even in the northern city of Kano.
“For you to reach the common man easily you must speak in a language that they understand: break it down, give them the broken English or the Pidgin English,” says star presenter Steve Onu.
Onu, who’s known as DJ Yaw, presents the ratings-topping breakfast show and with his colleague Nedu effortlessly translates the day’s newspaper headlines from English into pidgin.
“Pidgin is growing and evolving every day. People come in with different languages and they make it up. The language is sweet, it’s an interesting language to speak, it’s humorous,” he told AFP.
The largely oral dialect can trace its roots to early European explorers, who began trading with the coastal communities of West Africa as early as the 15th century.
Portuguese and later English blended with local languages of the Niger Delta to create a unique linguistic mash-up.
“You sabi?” for example, means “do you know?” with “sabi” derived from the Portuguese “saber”, to know.
Other examples include “I dey hungry, I wan go chop” — I am hungry, I want to eat something — and “how you dey?” — how are you?
As well as uniting different language communities around a common tongue, pidgin is credited with being the ultimate class leveller, spoken by everyone from taxi drivers to businessmen.
More formal English on the other hand is seen as the preserve of a well-educated urban elite, complete with its own baggage of colonial repression.
But not everyone is pleased to see pidgin soaring and would be more than happy to see it knocked from its perch.
Teachers and academics lament the erosion of Nigeria’s official language and the spread of what they see as “lazy” language habits in the young.
At the private Jomal Comprehensive College in Lagos, English teacher Benedicta Esanjumi sometimes feels she’s fighting against the tide.
“Pidgin English breaks the English language too much and it destroys the children’s written English as well as their spoken English,” she said.
“Sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything about it but I still believe we can. It’s not a losing battle.”
English is not the only victim of pidgin’s popularity, with the major Nigerian languages of Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba also threatened.
The teaching of local languages in Nigerian schools has fallen away in recent decades and is no longer compulsory in many school curriculums.
“This lack of attention to local languages could lead to the extinction or death of these languages,” said Lere Adeyemi, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Lagos.
“In most secondary schools in Nigeria, unlike in the past, local languages have been (optional). Local languages were made compulsory subjects in the school curriculum before. But not any more.”
One university in southeastern Nigeria, where Igbo is the native tongue, said recently that it plans to make Igbo classes compulsory for all second-year students.
At the federal level, the government says it is promoting indigenous languages but the ministry of education admitted that the policy had not been followed strictly in all schools.
“The policy is designed such that the first four years of school age will be taught in the indigenous language of that particular area,” said the ministry’s coordinator for Nigerian languages, Nneoma Ofor.
“For the subsequent years, the school curriculum makes indigenous language a compulsory subject for all but only up to (the third year of secondary school)” after which it becomes optional, she added.
Nigeria’s government has no policy on pidgin, which is viewed as an informal language, said Ofor.
But with pidgin now thought to be the most widely spoken language in Nigeria, it’s more a case of accommodating rather than defeating it.
“I see Pidgin English as moving towards becoming a national language,” said Chima Anyadike, the head of English at the Obafemi Awolowo University in the southwestern city of Ile-Ife.
“It is a viable means of communication in Nigeria. Language has power to unite people. It is a form of language imported from elsewhere but developed locally.”
“I look forward to when novels and dramas will be presented in pidgin. It has a mass appeal to Nigerians.”