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Nigeria was recently in the spotlight when the Oxford English Dictionary announced that its January 2020 update included 29 Nigerian English words.
The reception, in both the traditional and new media, was nothing short of sensational. Most Nigerians expressed a great sense of pride in the fact that the unique ways in which they use English were being acknowledged internationally.
The Oxford English Dictionary said in the release note:
By taking ownership of English and using it as their own medium of expression, Nigerians have made, and are continuing to make, a unique and distinctive contribution to English as a global language.
Interestingly, the idea of Nigerians owning English is the fulcrum of my doctoral research. In it, I found that increasingly Nigerians are demonstrating a strong sense of ownership of the English language, and in particular their use of it.
The inclusion of Nigerian English words in the Oxford English Dictionary is, in a sense, a recognition of the tremendous efforts by scholars of Nigerian English many of whom have produced discipline-shaping research. This has included four published dictionaries of Nigerian English.
These developments indicate that Nigerian English has indeed come of age. They also validate the concentric circle model developed by Professor Braj Kachru, the father of world Englishes research. This avers that the ‘outer-circle’ varieties of English (where Nigerian English belongs) is ‘norm-developing’. In other words, that Nigerian English is adding to the norms of English.
I think the English, indeed the English-speaking world, should be thankful to Nigeria for this historic gift.
So how were the words chosen?
As the Nigerian consultant to the project which saw the inclusion of the words, I have insights into the process the team underwent in adding them. These include the rationale for adding them, and the enormous significance the inclusion holds for the English language.
How, and why, new words are added
The Oxford English Dictionary has a wide variety of resources to track the emergence of new words and new senses of already existing words.
The Oxford English Corpus is one. This is an electronic database of different types of written and spoken texts specifically designed for linguistic research. In the case of Nigerian English and other World English varieties, for instance, suggestions of new words and senses come from the corpus, reading books and magazines written in the English varieties in question as well as looking at previous studies, and the review of existing dictionaries, if any.
Once there is a list of candidates, a team of expert editors at the Oxford English Dictionary looks closely at the databases to ensure that there are several independent instances of the words being used. And how they are being used.
Other factors that are considered include the time period over which words have been used, as well as their frequency and distribution. But there’s no exact time-span and frequency threshold. Some words – such as Brexit – are relatively young but were included quickly because of the huge social impact they had in a short space of time. Others are not used frequently but are included because they are of specific cultural, historical, or linguistic significance to the community of their users. An example is ‘Kannywood’, the word describing the Nigerian Hausa-language film industry, based in the city of Kano.
It’s clear therefore that the editors don’t simply select the words or senses that appeal to them. Instead, they are guided by use, which links in with the prevailing thought in lexicography and linguistics more generally: that the remit of dictionaries and linguistic research is not to prescribe how languages should be used but to describe how languages are being used.
Words are added because the Oxford English Dictionary recognises that English is a universal language. It believes that including words from varieties of English all over the world enables it to tell a more complete story of the language.
These varieties also reflect the unique culture, history, and identity of the various communities that use English across the world. Nigerian English is a good example. Like other English varieties, it is a living ‘being’ with its own unique vocabulary, encompassing all sorts of lexical innovations. These include borrowings from local languages, new abbreviations, blends and compounds.
Failure to capture such words would deny English an opportunity to grow. It would also deny the flavour of what the speakers of these varieties contribute to the development of English.
What does it mean for English?
One of the reasons previous world languages such as Egyptian and Ancient Greek ceased to exert dominance internationally was their inability to keep pace with developments around the world.
Perhaps this is one factor that clearly distinguishes English. It has demonstrated a capacity for growth by keeping its borders open, helping it to develop from a West Germanic dialect spoken in a small island into a world language. English is now spoken by about 1.75 billion people – a quarter of the
world’s population. This includes first and second language speakers.
One way English grows is by admitting new words and senses not just from other English varieties but from virtually all languages of the world. For instance, English has had the word ‘postpone’ since the late 15th century, but it was through India that its opposite ‘prepone’ entered English in current use during the 20th century.
Similarly, Nigerian English is reintroducing the verb meaning of ‘barb’, which existed in 16th century British English.
This is how English maintains its dominance. In addition, the Internet has given today’s Oxford English Dictionary editors wider access to non-traditional sources of linguistic evidence. This has enabled them to widen and improve the dictionary’s coverage of world varieties of English, affirming Oxford English Dictionary’s claim as “the definitive record of the English language”.
How many of these words, shortlisted by The Macquarie Dictionary in its search for the 2019 Word of the Year, have you used? Anecdata, big minutes, cancel culture, cheese slaw, cleanskin, drought lot, eco-anxiety, flight shaming, healthwashing, hedonometer, mukbang, ngangkari, robodebt, silkpunk, thicc, and whataboutism?
I confess the only one on this list (whittled down from 75 words), that has passed my lips has been “cleanskin”, but I wasn’t referring to someone with no tattoos – the new definition.
I may not have used these shortlisted words, but I have certainly experienced the effect of some of them and can appreciate the value of others. (“Whataboutism”, for instance, a technique used “in responding to an accusation, criticism or difficult question in which an opposing accusation or criticism is raised”, will come in very handy when describing many politicians. )
The Macquarie Dictionary committee has chosen “cancel culture” as its Word of the Year. The term is used to describe community attitudes that
…call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from [for] a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure.
Unfortunately, there have been any number of recent examples in Australia of ostracism through “cancel culture”, whose cases have progressed to the courts. I hesitate to mention Geoffrey Rush here.
The committee chose “cancel culture” because it believes the term “captures an important aspect of the past year’s zeitgeist”.
In looking over the list, I’m not sure that I like any of these words. I think a couple of them are ridiculous, in particular “hedonometer”, an algorithm using language data from Twitter to analyse levels of happiness.
To qualify as Macquarie’s word of the year, a word must be newly added to the dictionary in that year or, as is the case with “cleanskin”, an old word with an additional new meaning.
Macquarie points out that it differs from other dictionaries, as some simply choose the most common word being searched, or most topical word, regardless of its status as “new”. The people at Cambridge Dictionary, which chose “upcycling” for 2019, relied on their Instagram account to make the call.
If the Macquarie committee had done this, its 2019 Word of the Year would have been “cheese slaw” (a salad of grated carrot, grated cheese, and mayonnaise), which it admits would have been a “niche and controversial” choice.
Macquarie has posted a photo on its website of a cheese slaw (stuffed into a sandwich), as well as an equally unappetising photo of a companion food word “mukbang”. A mukbang, by the way, describes a live online broadcast in which someone eats, often a large amount, while simultaneously speaking to their audience.
Criteria apart from “new” for Macquarie appear to be that a word is ubiquitous, timely, influential, and makes a valuable contribution to Australian English. So, does “cancel culture” qualify? Kind of.
Macquarie sorts the year’s new words into 15 categories, and one could spend an enjoyable time and several hours cruising through them: agriculture, arts, business, communications, eating and drinking, environment, fashion, health, politics, sport, and technology.
ngangkari and thicc
Two of the most interesting new additions – both runners-up as word of the year (along with eco-anxiety) – are “ngangkari”, adopted unaltered from Pitjantjatjara, for an Indigenous practitioner of bush medicine, and “thicc” from African American English, which “celebrates body positivity that does not conform to conventional white standards of beauty”.
The environment figures strongly in this year’s shortlist, in “eco-anxiety”, “flight shaming”, and “drought lot”. Still, the folk at Collins Dictionary named their Word of the Year for 2019 as “climate strike”. The Oxford Dictionary chose “climate emergency” as its Word of the Year.
The Macquarie Committee has now opened the voting for People’s Choice Word of the Year 2019. Only once in the past five years has the committee’s and the people’s choice aligned. In 2015, “captain’s call” won both categories.
You may wonder why the competition is even called “word of the year” when it comprises two words, or even three. In 2016 the people’s choice was “halal snack pack”. As the website points out, it’s the lexical unit of meaning that the committee considers, what’s called the “headword” in a dictionary.
In the meantime, if you are interested in chasing up the Macquarie shortlist and maybe voting, you have until midnight on Sunday December 8 to do so.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at how words are added to the dictionary.
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The links below are to articles reflecting on the Oxford Dictionaries 2018 Word of the Year – toxic.
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