Hundreds of languages are spoken in Nigeria. Apart from the most prominent–Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and English languages–521 other languages exist that have significant numbers of speakers. 521 languages in one country about double the size of Texas, amazing. So how does a Urhobo man from Delta state converse with a man who speaks Edo? English is the official language of Nigeria because of British colonial rule. From the time kids start primary school they are learning and speaking English. The numbers are diminishing, but youth still hear their native languages. They learn Tiv or Igala in the classroom, just like they learn math and science, and of course if their parents speak something other than English at home, they will speak that. But wheat you hear students gossiping, it is not in proper British English or deep Yoruba. The language is called Pidgin, or Broken. It is Nigeria’s lingua franca, understood in all 36 states. It is how Nigerians in the most northern cities and those in the Nigeria Delta are able to communicate; yet, you will not find a classroom in the whole country that teaches it.
To condense volumes of academic writing into a short blurb: Nigerian Pidgin is a Creole language from the English Creole family. It follows the same basic grammar structure everywhere in Nigeria but mixes with native languages to differentiate and enrich it slightly. For example, the Broken vocabulary for two Hausas will be somewhat different than two Yorubas but not enough to prevent easy understanding when they meet. It is essentially simplified, slang-ridden English that is incredibly witty and fun to speak.
As my host mom says, Pidgin dey for blood, it na flow. Translated to English: Pidgin is in your blood, it just flows. You cannot sit in a classroom and learn Broken because it is always changing, adapting to the situation and the time. People coin new words every second so it is utterly impossible to write a comprehensive dictionary that encompasses the dynamic language. Some organizations have done really well with compiling words and phrases into a searchable online dictionary, like www.naijalingo.com but because of the ease and fluidity with which words are created or redefined, a dictionary can never be complete. People from the Niger Delta speak the best Pidgin, where it is many people’s first language.
I am by no means fluent in Broken, it will take many many returns to Naija to achieve that, but I understand it much better than when I arrived (when I thought “I don do” meant “I have not done”). If you don’t think too hard about it, it comes pretty intuitively and will just flow. Listening to Naija hip hop music helps a lot too because all the artists like D’Banj, MI, Wande Coal and 2face rap in Broken. Speak Pidgin well and you will be able to survive anywhere in Nigeria or West Africa.
A possible Pidgin scenario between two Yoruba guys in Ibadan
Bros, How far? Dude, how are you?
–I dey. How now? I’m fine. What’s up?
I dey on top. We thank God ooh. I’m doing really well.
–Where you dey go? Where are you going?
I wan go chop for dat new place in Bodija. Titi talk say dey get rice to make sense gan. You sabi am, abi? I want to go eat at the new restaurant in Bodija. Titi said they have delicious rice. You know the place, right?
–Ooooh ya ya, I don chop dere. Na correct place. Se you go climb okada? De place be far ooh. Yeah, I’ve eaten there. It’s a great place. Are you taking an okada (small motorcycle)? It’s far from here.
Se you fit carry me go? Can you take me there?
–Ah omo, I don tire for today. Ah, my friend, I’m tired.
Chairman, abeg. E jo. Please, please.
–Ah, I dey collect ooh. Fine, but I’m charging you.
O ya. No wahala. Alright, no problem.