Patience Jonathan’s Peculiar Grammar

By on March 22, 2011

By: Farooq A. Kperogi

Nigeria’s First Lady “Dame” Patience Jonathan has by now securely established well-deserved notoriety for herself as someone who is compulsively incapable of stringing together a single sentence that is not a comical ridicule of the English language.

There is probably no public figure in Nigeria’s recent history who has publicly and mindlessly murdered basic English syntax with as much recklessness and regularity as “Dame” Patience Jonathan, whose middle name is now “umblera” on account of her widely publicized, laughably consistent mispronunciation of “umbrella” (the People’s Democratic Party’s icon) when she stumped for her husband recently.

Although I have been greatly entertained by the First Lady’s hilariously uneducated speech mannerisms and solecisms, I used to be one of her greatest defenders during informal conversations with my friends. I had frankly thought that she had not had the privilege of getting a formal education, and so I had attributed her rib-tickling gaffes to illiteracy. I had challenged some of my friends if any of their illiterate sisters, suddenly thrust to the limelight, could do better than “Dame” Patience Jonathan in public oral delivery and grammatical correctness.

You can imagine my outrage when I discovered that the First Lady actually earned a National Certificate in Education (NCE) from the Rivers State College of Arts and Science in 1989 and a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology from the University of Port Harcourt, her husband’s alma mater, in 1994. But what is even more scandalous is that she was a high school teacher for many years. Hmm. What did she teach her students? And in what language did she teach them?

The Nigerian cyberspace—what I christened “Cyberia” in one of my academic writings—has lately been agog over the First Lady’s humorously embarrassing grammatical and pronunciational somersaults. That’s how I got to know about this. Her “umblera” (mis)pronunciational salvo is undoubtedly her most popular. It has drawn tens of thousands of eyeballs on YouTube, inspired several creative spoofs and remixes and is, I am reliably told, a hit ringtone among Nigerian mobile phone users. (I wonder how the “Dame” sings Rihanna’s hit single “Umbrella,” especially the “ella, ella” hook; I can’t wait for someone to do a spoof of that!)

Other hilariously egregious errors attributed to the First Lady include the following: “My husband and Sambo IS A GOOD PEOPLE”; “the president was once a child and the SENATORS WERE ONCE A CHILDREN”; “my fellow widows” [she reportedly said this while addressing widows. We know whom to hold responsible if President Jonathan drops dead!]; “the people sitting before you here were ONCE A CHILDREN”; “it is not easy to CARRY SECOND in an international competition like this one”; “the bombers, who BORN them? WASN’T it not a woman? They were ONCE A CHILDREN, now A ADULT, now they are bombing women and children making SOME CHILDREN A WIDOW”; “my heart feels sorry for these CHILDREN WHO HAVE BECOME WIDOWS by losing their parents for one reason or another”; “We should have love for our fellow Nigerians irrespective of their NATIONALITY.”

Four things are clear from these statements. First, the First Lady has clearly no sense of subject-verb agreement—much like her husband. Second, she doesn’t know the difference between “child” and “children.” She evidently never listened when her teacher taught “singular and plural” in her primary school. Three, she obviously has no clue that “fellow” is used to refer to people who share a commonality with you, so  she doesn’t realize that by calling the widows “my fellow widows” she means that her husband is dead, too. Four, she has not the vaguest idea that “widow” is not an all-purpose word for people who have lost their loved ones. That’s why she (correctly) uses it for women whose husbands are dead AND (incorrectly) for orphans, i.e., children whose parents are dead.

I can forgive her use of the Nigerian Pidgin English expressions “carry second” [place second] and “born” [gave birth]—and her misuse of the word “nationality” when talking about Nigerians who actually all share the same nationality. After all, her husband, who claims to have a Ph.D. in zoology, recently said at a political rally that we are“diverse in terms of different human species.” If a putative Ph.D. in zoology (the branch of biology that studies animals, including humans) doesn’t know enough to know that all humans belong to the same species, why should we expect a less educated, grammatically challenged “Dame” to know that all Nigerians belong to the same nationality?

But, seriously, the stupefying ignorance of Nigeria’s First Family provokes many troubling queries. If the president and his wife, who should be our role models, can’t even obey the most basic rules of our national language (which, by the way, they, like all of us who went to school, learned from elementary school to university) why do we express phony outrage in the national media every year when we are confronted with data of mass failure in English in school certificate exams?

We expect our kids to pass “O” level English in high school, and we collectively wail hypocritically when mass failure is recorded in school certificate exams. We also, as an official policy, expect our kids to pass “O” level English as a precondition to even read Nigerian languages in our universities. But we lower the standards—and expectations— when we assess the performance of our political and public leaders. Suddenly, we remember that English isn’t native to us. What galling double standard!

I recently had an argument with a passionate defender of the Dame’s habitually unenviable grammatical and speech aberrations. My interlocutor advanced the sadly familiar infantile argument that the First Lady’s foibles should be excused because English isn’t our native language. But a single question I posed to her shut her up. I asked her if she would honestly want her daughters to imitate the Dame’s speech mannerisms and indefensible grammatical imperfections. She was quiet. When I pressed her further, she shamefacedly said “no.”

But a First Lady is supposed to be a role model for young girls. So I wondered aloud: if you don’t want your girls to grow up to be like “Dame” Patience Jonathan, why should you defend her consistently embarrassing slips? You got it: hypocrisy!

The excuse that English isn’t our native language and therefore shouldn’t be the basis for judging the public address of public figures is just downright silly and duplicitous, especially for a woman whose first name is an English word (is there no word for “Patience”—and, for that matter, “Good Luck”!— in Ikwerre or Ijaw?), who bears the English title “Dame” even though she has never been conferred that title by the Queen of England (whose language she has formed a habit of murdering), and whose people’s “traditional” sartorial symbol is a colonial felt hat handed down to them by English colonialists!

(For the record, I have no problems with the Niger Delta’s symbolic fedora; I only have a problem with people who ignore its obvious colonial origins but rail at people who insist on a basic proficiency with the English language, another hold-over of our colonial encounter with England).

The First Lady has three options. One option is to speak to us in Ikwerre (which I am told is her native language) and get an English interpreter. The second option is to address her audiences in Nigerian Pidgin English, which she speaks quite proficiently and which most Nigerians understand. The third, and perhaps best, option is for her to remain silent. She doesn’t have to speak in public. A popular aphorism says, “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

About Terry Biodum

128 Comments

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