Nigerian Native Languages and Nigerian Pidgin

About 400 different languages are spoken in the West African country of Nigeria. They belong to three African language families, namely the :Niger-Cordofanian, the Nilo-Saharan and the Afro-Asiatic family.

The three largest language groups in Nigeria are Hausa in the North (23.2 million speakers), Yoruba in the Southwest (22.6 million speakers) and Igbo in the Southeast (18.4 million speakers). Another 9 languages have more than one million speakers each. Altogether, these twelve major languages are the mother tongues of 90% of the population in Nigeria.

Some of the Nigerian languages are tonal languages, e.g. Yoruba and Igbo. In a tonal language, a difference in pitch in an otherwise identical syllable indicates a change of meaning. For instance, the Yoruba word „ko“ means on a high pitch „to learn“, on a middle pitch „to write“, and on a low pitch „to refuse“.

Only about 120 of the Nigerian native languages have been studied in depth with regard to their orthographic, grammatical and lexical systems.

Brief History of English in Nigeria

The Portuguese were the first Europeans who traded pepper and slaves from the Nigerian coastal area. They first arrived in Benin (city) at the end of the 15th century. From the mid 16th century, the British took over as major trading partners. With the abolition of the slave trade at the beginning of the 19th century, British colonial interests shifted to agricultural production for exportation to Europe.

In 1842 and 1846 the first missionary stations were established in Badagry (near Lagos in the Southwest) and Calabar (in the Southeast) respectively. The missionaries were mainly interested in spreading Christianity among the African pagans. In the schools they established in the Southern part of Nigeria (they were not allowed to settle in the Islamic North of the country) they also taught agriculture, crafts and hygiene. In order to easily reach the population, the language of instruction was usually the mother tongue of the natives. But the Africans refused to send their children to school because they needed them to work in the house and on the farms. Consequently, the missionaries paid compensation to the parents. All the same, the first generation of students was made up mainly of children of slaves who the village communities thought they would not miss much.

The British colonial government increasingly felt the need for Africans who were literate in English and would serve British colonial and trade interests (for instance as teachers, interpreters and clerks for local native courts and the trading companies). Therefore, missionary stations were ordered in the 1880s to teach English in their schools. In the long run, however, the missionary schools were unable to meet the demands for educated Nigerians, and the colonial government began to establish state schools from the turn of the century on. The first state school was in fact founded as a result of pressure from Muslims in Lagos in 1899 who had no access to missionary schools and felt they were at a disadvantage.

Nigerian Pidgin


Vowels: i, e, e, a, , o, u (plus nasals)

Consonsants: p, f, m, b, v, t, s, n, d, z, l, r, tú, dú, j, k, ×, g, kp, gb, w, h


Yoruba: oyibo – white man, wahala – trouble

Portugese: pikin – child, palava – discussion, sabi – to know

Hausa: wayo – tricks

new coinage: pele – disappear/escape quickly


  • reduplications: katakata (scatter) – confusion, chaos, wakawaka (walk) – wander perpetually, toktok (talk) – gossip
  • compounds: kresman – crazy man, switmaut (sweet mouth) – flattery, greed, wochnait – night watchman



  1. Sg. a 1. Pl. wi
  2. Sg. yu 2. Pl. una
  3. Sg. i/in 3. Pl. dem


  1. Sg. mi 1. Pl. wi/os
  2. Sg. yu 2. Pl. una
  3. Sg. am/in 3. Pl. dem


  1. Sg. mai 1. Pl. ia/awa
  2. Sg. yo 2. Pl. una
  3. Sg. in 3. Pl. dem/den



  1. Sg. mi
  2. Sg. yu
  3. Sg. in


  1. Pl. wi
  2. Pl. una
  3. Pl. dem

Definite Article

Singular: di + noun

Plural: di + noun + dem

Indefinite Article

Singular: won + noun

Plural: plenti, meni etc. + noun

Demonstrative Article


  • dis + noun
  • dat + noun


  • dis + noun + dem
  • dat + noun + dem


won – one, tu – two, tri – three, etc.

di tu – both, di tri – all three, di faif – all five, etc.

won won – one each, tu tu – two each, tri tri – three each, etc.

fes – first, sekon – second, nomba tri – third, nomba faif – fifth, etc.


little usage of prepositions, all-purpose „fo(r)“, occasional fixed verb-prepositions, as in „I vex wit di man.“


Na (it is) / No bi (it is not) + emphasized part of clause + rest of clause


Singular: kom kwik!, folo am go!

Plural: mek una getop!, una sidon!, mek wi go nau

Subordinate clauses

se – that, we – who, di tin we – what, wetin – what, til – until, if – if, wen – when, wie – where, bifo – before, mek – so that, etc.


Yes/No Question: Shebi + clause (no inversion)? – Isn’t it the case that …?

Clause-initial question item: (Na) wetin i de du?

nko = what about?: Una mama nko? (how is your mother?)

nko = what if?: If a si di man nko? (what if I see the man?)

Non-verbal clauses: Hau nau? (how are things?), Hau bodi? (how are you?), No be so? (is it not so?)

Tense and Aspect

1. neutral i komi go kom
  he camehe will come
2. imperfectivei de komi de komi go de kom
 he comes/is cominghe is coming/usually comeshe will be coming/continue coming
3. perfective   
a) inchoativei don de komi don de komi go don de kom
 he has started cominghe had started cominghe will have started coming
b) terminativei don komi don komi go don kom
 he has come/arrivedhe has come arrivedhe will have come/arrived

Aspect and Tense: Examples

  1. Past or Present? Watch out for indications of past tense and/or context.
  • Wen yo mama rich hie yestade, a de chop. When your mother arrived here yesterday, I was eating.
  • A si am las mont, i stil de krai. I saw him/her last month, he/she was still crying.
  • Dem don chop di chop finish, wen a rich haus las nait. They had eaten the food completely, when I arrived home last night.
  1. Present Perfective
  • A don de tek bat. I have started taking my bath (and am still bathing).
  • A don tek bat. I have taken my bath (and am clean now).
  1. Future
  • A tel mai papa se a go de kom si am evri de. I told my father that I would (will) be coming/will continue coming to see him every day.
  • If wi go go fo Lagos fo ivnin, NEPA go don tek lait. If we go to Lagos this evening, NEPA will have taken the light/will have switched off electricity.
  • A go don de kuk di sup wen yu de rich haus fo ivnin. I will have started cooking when you arrive home tonight.
  1. Past marker bin
  • A bin chop. I ate.
  • A bin de chop. I was eating.
  • A bin don chop. I had eaten.

Translation of the English to be

  • as zero, with an adjective:
    • A veks. I was angry.
    • Di tin fain tru tru. The thing is really/truly beautiful.
  • as de, with a location:
    • I still de fo haus. He is/was still at home.
    • Wi de fo Lagos. We are/were in Lagos.
  • as na, when linking to noun phrases (esp. in 1st person singular also bi):
    • Mercedes na dash. Mercedes (cars) are a bribe.
    • A bi jos wuman. I am only a woman.

Source: Ben Obi Elugbe and Augusta Phil Omamor. Nigerian Pidgin: Background and Prospects. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books, 1991.

Forms of Popular Nigerian English: Examples

A Variations

  1. Errors/Variants

1.1. Classification

1.1.1. Category Shift: reclassification of noun/adjective/adverb as verb: Horn before overtaking! Off the light! It tantamounts to fraud. I was not chanced/opportuned to come.

1.1.2. Countable/Uncountable Nouns: Singular of a SE mass noun: a staff, a cutlery Abstraction in SE, instances of abstract idea in PNE: behaviour, issue Reclassification of countable nouns as uncountable: give chance, take bribe, make mistake

1.1.3. Progressive in State Verbs: I am seeing/hearing/smelling. I am not having much money. Let me be going.

1.1.4. Object Patterns: He allowed them go. She made him to work hard. The child refused going to bed. She avoided to meet him. She didn’t arrive on time – she always likes to disappoint. It was a wonderful party – we enjoyed!

1.1.5. Prepositional and Non-Prepositional Verbs: You should dispose your car. Why did you not reply my letter? The library comprises of many sections. They are demanding for money. He emphasized on the importance of rest. I regret of not arriving earlier. Let us request for more lectures.

1.2. Inflexion

1.2.1. Indiscriminate Use of Infinitive/Basic Form: Yesterday they go to your office. She cook delicious peppersoup.

1.2.2. Double marking: He did not went. Did she wanted him?

1.2.3. Wrong Formation of Parts of Irregular Verbs: hitted, splitted, grinded

1.2.4. Inflexion of Relevant Words of Idioms: They ran for their dear lives.

1.2.5. Spelling Errors (faulty inflexions due to wrong analogy): dinning, strenght, maintainance

1.3. Selection

1.3.1. Shift of Sense or Reference: Rice is too cheap nowadays, unlike what it was last year. His hand pained him too much that he could hardly write.

1.3.2. Prepositions: in –> at: at my old age, of –> at: as at now, on –> at: at my arrival, at –> on: on the table, in –> on: to deal on, in –> with: with the belief, for –> to: I left Lagos to Ibadan, except –> unless: Nobody knows the answer, unless myself, unless –> except: You cannot receive the money except you show your I.D. card

1.3.3. Tense Past Perfect Instead of Present Perfect: In 1986 the nation was selling her crude oil at 28 Naira per barrel. Today, the price of oil had tumbled to an all-time low of 10 Naira per barrel. Might Have: After the referee might have arrived the match will begin. Reported Speech: Yusuf said he is entering the house when his brother drove up.

1.4. Copying (syntactically redundant use of words):

1.4.1. Subject Copying: My father he works under NEPA.

1.4.2. Object Copying in Relative Clauses: The car which he bought it last year is already giving trouble.

1.4.3. Relative and Possessive Sequence: I know the man who his father died.

1.4.4. of  Before which: It was a very horrible experience of which I hope it  will not happen again.

1.4.5. Other Cases: in case –> should in case, better –> more better, can –> can be able, repeat –> repeat again

1.5. Ordering

1.5.1. Demonstrative + Possessive + Noun: this town of ours –> this our town

1.5.2. No Reversal of Inversion after Wh-Words in Indirect Speech: He asked me what was the time.

  1. Loan Words

2.1. Food: akara (Yoruba: small deep-fried bean balls), buka (Haussa: cheap eating-place), ogbono (Igbo: soup based on the seed of the Williamson tree), ogogoro, kai-kai etc. (various languages: local gin)

2.2. Dress: agbada (Yoruba: large gown worn by men, often embroidered at the neck and cuffs and with flowing sleeves that can be hitched over the shoulders), danshiki (Hausa: gown with wide armpits reaching to the knees)

2.3. Forms of Address and Titles: alhaji (Haussa: Muslim who has been to Mecca), oba (Yoruba: primarily a specific title, often used loosely to refer to any traditional ruler), obi, eze (Igbo: specific titles), oga (Yoruba: big man, master, fairly general in the South), baba (Haussa, Yoruba: father, old man, fairly general in the West and North)

2.4. Traditional Religion: babalawo (Yoruba: diviner), Ifa (Yoruba: oracle), chi (Igbo: personal god), ogbanje (Igbo: changeling)

2.5. Interjections, Discourse Particles: a-a! (Yoruba: strong surprise, disbelief), … abi? (Yoruba: isn’t it?), kai, chei (Haussa, Igbo: strong surprise), ooo! (various languages: yes), … o(h)! (Yoruba: appendable to almost any word, indicates speakers’s personal involvment, implications according to context, e.g.: sorry-oh!)

B Restriction

  1. Avoidance of SE Syntactic Forms

1.1. Reflexive Tag and Echo Questions

1.1.1. All-Purpose Tag: isn’t it?

1.1.2. All-Purpose Verificational Question: Is that so?

1.2. Tenses: future perfect, perfect infinitive and continuous forms of perfect tenses are avoided particularly in V1 and V2.

1.3. Auxiliaries: must and should most frequent, ought less frequent, needn’t, dare and be to usually avoided

1.4. Passives: generally avoided particularly in V1 and V2, they + active  form often used: There was a security light outside my house but they have stolen it.

  1. Style: prevalence of an abstract, impersonal, formal style

2.1. stilted or pedantic English: Everybody must bring his or her book. They all went to their respective homes.

2.2. ‘bookish English’, biblical echoes: harlot

2.3. Mixture of Styles:

2.3.1. formal style in informal context: How are you? I hope you are in good health. For your information, I arrived home on the 28th of March.

2.3.2. informal style in formal context: I was sorry to hear that your mother kicked the bucket.

2.4. Clichés:

2.4.1. Clichés of formal style: in the final analysis, in no small measure, to mention but a few, the order of the day

2.4.2. Clichés of informal style: men of the underworld, the national cake, spread like a bushfire in the harmattan, we have a long way to go

2.5. Proverbs:

2.5.1. SE proverbs: (What is) sauce for the goose is (also) sauce for the gander. (There is) no smoke without fire.

2.5.2. NE proverbs: Nobody is above mistake. God never sleeps. What a man can do a woman can also do.

2.5.3. Direct translation from MT: When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.

2.5.4. Pidgin proverbs: Monkey dey work, baboon dey chop.

Source: David  Jowitt. Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction. Ikeja: Longman Nigeria, 1991.

Quotes by St. Therese of Lisieux

19. Giving Life? Does It Just Mean Having Lots of Children?