The Map of my Mother Tongue

It all began in the sanatorium of the South African boarding school I was attending in sixth form, when a classmate asked: “Why do you use such big words, Dami? Is this how all Nigerians talk?” I struggle to recall the offending words now: Perambulate? Circumvent? Rigmarole? They had rolled off my tongue easily, leaving no imprint on my memory. Yet other details of that conversation are crisp: the sanatorium’s glossy white walls and bright fluorescent lights, the other girl in the room giggling in tacit agreement at our exchange, the surprise I felt at being picked on. In the middle of biology class a few months earlier, I had slowly raised my hand to inform the teacher that what I was seeing under my microscope didn’t look like the textbook drawing. Now I felt like the one being studied suspiciously and found wanting. I was sixteen, going to school outside Nigeria for the first time, and learning that my vocabulary was bewildering, my tongue was shaped specifically to my country of origin, my experience of the English Language was not universal. I smiled, trying to hide the shock and self-consciousness sliding down my throat. “I don’t know,” I finally said, “I guess Nigerians talk like this”.

But how do Nigerians talk? And how has being one actually shaped my tongue? Until I lived outside the country, I never gave these questions thought. I was born in Ibadan in the late 1980s to a pastor and a doctor, and raised in the overflow of the intellectualism and propriety which the country’s premier higher education institution, the University of Ibadan, embodied. A dear uncle often tells of how at age two, in those first stages of childhood speech and language development, I was already reading and making up hilarious hybrid English-Yoruba sentences. He recalls how I once asked “Who te-ed the bed?”, moulding the Yoruba word for “lay” into an English infinitive and turning it into past tense. I realize now that as a toddler, when joy was as accessible as diving into a picture book to learn about Binta and her dog, or the adventures of Janet and John, long before my experience of being Nigerian would be mediated by South Africans, and before I would need to fight the Americanization of my accent, my mind was already rationalizing the unique blend of unequally weighted languages spoken around me. Outside our home, my most memorable formative interactions were split between my parents’ respective places of work – church pews and the floors of the University College Hospital – where I was also learning the rules of language as fast as I could and applying them in my own way.

The influence of language in society runs as deep as society itself, so in a nation as diverse as Nigeria with over two hundred million inhabitants speaking one colonial language and over five hundred native languages and dialects, it is a worthwhile journey to dig into how deeply a Nigerian’s experiences are a result of her unique exposure to language; to examine what stands out and what falls away. Richard Rodriguez’s Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood deftly explores how Spanish and English shaped his early perceptions of, and interactions with himself, his family, and the outside world. He writes of the dichotomy between home and outside; of the comfort and intimacy of speaking Spanish at home as a young boy in Sacramento, California, and the slow stripping away of the same after Catholic schoolteachers instructed his immigrant parents to speak only English at home. Extending Rodriguez’s view of the tension between languages public (cold, distant) and private (intimate, family), I think of it as a fusion of vocabulary, diction, and style that exist not just relative to my home, but within and outside my very Nigerian self. And while Rodriguez oscillated between Spanish and English, I realize that I encountered a unique blend of Yoruba, ‘Christianese’, and Nigerian English: the multiple parts of what I now know to be my mother tongue.

Yoruba, the native language of my tribe, as well as Ijesha, the specific dialect of my maternal grandparents, live within the innermost border of my tongue. If my tongue were a continent, Yoruba would be a democratic country, as this part is governed wholly by me, for me, and of me. Growing up, I was rarely spoken to directly, or expected to speak much in Yoruba or the Ijesha dialect, but all around me the language echoed richly and meaningfully between my parents and uncles and second cousins and grandparents. I’ve come to find, in my thirties, that though I’ve never spoken Yoruba or Ijesha much, they are buried as deeply in my bones as my DNA code. I speak them to myself when I’m by myself, in my most private and comfortable moments. The other day, I saw a window washer in the high-rise across from my apartment building making his way down the scaffolding too quickly, and whispered “o je fi ara buruku bale”. I smiled mischievously at the thought that my inner Yoruba woman is so much more confident and cheeky than my outward persona; the thought that these days, things I never dreamt of saying when I was younger, or even knew I had the capacity to say, glide unfiltered off my tongue.

Alone in my car, I am also prone to blurt out Yoruba phrases; the privacy of my Camry combined with the hyper alertness required to weave through city traffic cuts through me and scoops out my native language in chunks. As I once slowed down to let a fire truck zigzag past me at top speed on an icy road, I blurted out another hybrid English-Yoruba statement reminiscent of my two-year-old self: “Ibo ni were n sare lo bayi? Nobody knows”. The way my languages blend into each other takes me back to sitting at the feet of a parent or uncle as a child, picking at the carpet, eyes darting from one adult to the next while trying to patch together facial expressions, hand gestures, and the few words I could understand. Recently, as I manoeuvred past a slow driver in frustration, “Ko kuku sun li bee!” rolled off my tongue. The errant driver could not hear me, or even know I just cursed them out, but I felt a righteous resolution. Angst dissolved, as my use of Ijesha conjured an image of my grandfather perched on his brown leather loveseat reading the Punch Newspaper, and my grandmother next to him in a straight-backed wooden armchair making to-do lists in her trusty diary. My Ijesha, however broken, brought them back to life, both retired and basking in their glorious sunset years.

I realise that I am prone to speaking my native language when I’m alone because it is judgement-free. No one can laugh at my intonation or point out wrong words. Yet, I worry that Yoruba and Ijesha have gone to rest with my grandparents. I worry that my unborn children will not speak my native language and dialect, and I am internally appalled at my younger brothers, who comprehend even less of the language than I do. Eavesdropping via social media into the lives of friends and acquaintances who are finding ways to keep Yoruba alive with their own children in the diaspora is now a pastime.

The people and things we love draw us in in spite of their imperfections, and so do the other native Nigerian languages which take up less space on my tongue, but which I love all the same, even if my understanding and fluency in them is worse than Yoruba. There’s Idoma, which I took interest in as a teenager thanks to musician Tuface Idibia, Ibibio, whose sonic lumps and bumps are as delicious as the assorted meats found in its native soups, and most honorary of mentions, Igbo, a language adopted from family that came to be after the passing of my birth mother. This brings up one more worry: that the cross-pollination of Nigeria’s ethnic languages is occurring more rarely due to insecurity, urbanization, and the slow death of intra country travel. For the average Nigerian who makes it through university, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), which takes fresh graduates to far flung corners of the country, is their first and last exposure to the beautiful diversity of Nigeria’s languages.

Christianese, a language that is not peculiar to Nigeria, but has become part and parcel of close to half of us, sits within the next border line of my mother tongue. To the uninitiated: Christianese is a patchwork of lingo that emerges from forcefully flushing biblical language and ethos into everyday speech. The Urban Dictionary defines Christianese as a “language within the Christian subculture with words and phrases created, redefined, and/ or patterned, that applies only to the Christian sphere of influence”. The Nigerian variant of this language originates from the Pentecostal Faith-Scripture Union movement which made its way from auditoriums in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Lubbock, Texas to the University of Ibadan and other Nigerian campuses in the 1970s and 1980s. The movement took on its own life, birthing the megachurches, big name pastors, and the Pentecostal Christian culture largely devoid of Christ-like behaviour which we now assume as a given in Nigeria. In fact, I suspect that the Christianese part of my mother tongue is most responsible for my South African schoolmate’s comment, for when you interact with the Bible regularly, some of its long-windedness is bound to stick without you noticing.  

I grew up in a Pentecostal Faith household, that is to say, the wave hit my parents right when they were coming of age, and they ran with it and built their lives upon it. My father blasted and belted out Handel’s Messiah and Don Moen albums with equal gusto in the mornings as my brother and I prepared for school, and whenever I got into trouble, he calmly read a verse from The Amplified Bible – his favourite and the most verbose version – to explain why he was about to lash me with a specific number of strokes of the cane. Coming from this background, Christianese was and still is the lingua franca in our home. If my mother says “I’m feeling a bit strong,” I know it means she has a headache, perhaps a mild fever, and is considering starting treatment for malaria.

Faith, via language, is able to pass meanings that can confuse those outside of the culture, even if we’re both speaking English. How can a person be feeling both “strong” and ill? With Christianese, we intertwine Biblical references and metaphors into everyday conversation, forgetting that faith woven into language in this way can come off as counterintuitive to the untrained ear. But it is worth it; even a necessity. Just as my belief in God anchors my emotions against life’s trials and incredible opposition, Christianese phrases like “it is well,” deposit a surge of hope to places where “I’m sorry that happened” could never access.

Christianese is a double-edged sword, however, and while it has the power to lift my mood, it is equally able to rile me up. The same language that offers faith and hope has been wielded to continuously oppress women (“the man is the head of the home, the woman is the neck”), and to enrich the pockets of megachurch leaders, helping them escape the consequences of their crimes (“touch not my anointed”). I am not innocent in Christianese offences; as I too have manipulated the language to my advantage. In my third year at university, I stood outside the girls’ hostel on a cool evening and broke up with my boyfriend who had come to visit from out of town. I couldn’t bear to tell him I was ready to move on and date other people, so I said “I don’t think it’s God’s will for us to be together anymore”. Nowadays, I interrogate Christianese statements when they are made flippantly, keeping the parts that still make sense to my core and peeling the rest away like dead skin; it is no longer useful to me.

Nigerian English lies on the outermost part of the map of my mother tongue. It sits on the tip, and is the first port of call in my daily interactions; the closest part to me. The power of Nigerian English is not just in what we say, though, it is as much in how we say it; in our accent and intonations which carry the forceful confidence of a nation that accounts for one in every three black people. I have followed keenly as language experts traced the evolution and recent mainstreaming of Nigerian English words and phrases like “ember months”, “next tomorrow” and “sef” which incorporate pidgin and words from our ethnic languages into that of our former colonizers.

Long before Senator Patrick Obahiagbon became a viral sensation, and our accents became a comedic punchline in the West, my Nigerian English vocabulary and accent were equally admired and attacked by non-Nigerians. In literature class at the South African boarding school I attended, a teacher once took a red pen to phrases I had written: “What does this even mean?” he scribbled in the margins of one essay. “‘Birthed’ is not a word,” he wrote in another. He openly mocked my accent: “you pronounce European as though the people there are from some fictitious continent called Europea,” he said, laughing the small laugh of a small man who relished the embarrassment of black students a third of his age.

Following these experiences as a teenager, my friend and teacher’s words wedged themselves in the back of my mind, filtering everything that came after. I slowly started to correct my accent and vocabulary to fit in, even coming back home after my first year of sixth form sounding like a strange blend of East and Southern African, thanks to mimicking my closest schoolmates. I picked my words carefully while speaking, and reserved using my mother tongue for safe spaces outside of class. By the time I moved to Chicago as a postgraduate student many years after and was told effusively, “wow, you are so articulate,” I did not hear the slur. I simply lapped up the praise. It would take a few years to attune my ear to the silent racism.

Time and Corporate America have since put a longing for those safe spaces with a shared mother tongue into me. Since graduating my masters, I have become exposed to various accents, especially of the immigrant and first-generation Americans who saturate my team at the tech company where I work. I envy the safety they find in names they can contextualize and won’t easily forget; names they can intuitively differentiate from one another. And in meetings at work, I am hardly ever at ease when speaking. I am always feeling like a performer. These days, my act involves smiling into the camera, at my work-from-home desk, and struggling, words tumbling onto one another in my mind, thumping against my forehead, poking my eyes from within, as I recount a phrase three ways to be sure my message is received clearly. I always want to close my eyes and clench my fists and promise that I am eloquent in Nigerian English.

Meeting a Nigerian at work, whose first name and my last name are an almost-anagram, was a joy. Being in work spaces with him was to savour the familiarity of his accent, the firm vowel sounds, the peculiar rising and falling, the unnecessarily big words.

“Have you met Dami?” this co-worker, a senior colleague, asks at every meeting we attend together. “We almost have the same email alias, and we get each other’s messages from time to time, so make sure you check well before emailing either of us,” he says, chuckling and leaving me with a feeling my other immigrant co-workers must take for granted; of being warm and known, as space is made for me.

I constantly tell my African American friends that though we’re all black, I need Nigerian spaces like these, those where I can exhale after many weeks and months of holding my breath. Here, I don’t have to repeat or contort myself to be understood. I can smile, spread out the map of my mother tongue, and remember that there are still millions who know that “o” can mean half a dozen things depending on my tone and expression, and that if I say “I am strong” my words can be immediately understood, and never judged.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Damilola Oyedele

Born in Ibadan, Nigeria, Damilola Oyedele is a graduate of The University of Chicago and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. She was the inaugural editor of YNaija online magazine, and her recent essays, book reviews, and music reviews have appeared in Brittle Paper, The Mantle, and elsewhere. She lives in Austin, Texas.