LAGOS, NIGERIA – The chatter is fast-paced and the laughter infectious in the studios of the Lagos radio station Wazobia FM.
Programs at the station are broadcast only in pidgin — the English-based patois that is fast becoming Nigeria’s lingua franca.
In a country of 170 million, with hundreds of local languages and dialects, pidgin, rather than official Standard English, is the glue that increasingly binds disparate communities.
Wazobia FM’s sister stations are now broadcasting to millions from the southern oil city of Port Harcourt, the capital, Abuja, and even in the northern city of Kano.
“For you to reach the common man easily you must speak in a language that they understand: break it down, give them the broken English or the pidgin English,” said star presenter Steve Onu.
Onu, who is known as DJ Yaw, presents the ratings-topping breakfast show, and with his colleague Nedu effortlessly translates the day’s newspaper headlines from English into pidgin.
“Pidgin is growing and evolving every day. People come in with different languages and they make it up. The language is sweet, it’s an interesting language to speak, it’s humorous,” he said.
The largely oral dialect traces its roots to European explorers, who began trading with the coastal communities of West Africa as early as the 15th century.
Portuguese and later English blended with local languages of the Niger Delta to create a unique linguistic mashup.
“You sabi?” for example, means “do you know?” with “sabi” derived from the Portuguese “saber,” to know.
Other examples include “I dey hungry, I wan go chop” (“I am hungry, I want to eat something”) and “how you dey?” (“How are you?”)
As well as uniting different language communities around a common tongue, pidgin is credited with being the ultimate class leveler, spoken by everyone from taxi drivers to businessmen.
On the other hand, more formal English is seen as the preserve of a well-educated urban elite, complete with its own baggage of colonial repression.
But not everyone is pleased to see pidgin soaring and would be more than happy to see it knocked from its perch.
Teachers and academics lament the erosion of Nigeria’s official language and the spread of what they see as “lazy” language habits in the young.
At the private Jomal Comprehensive College in Lagos, English teacher Benedicta Esanjumi sometimes feels she is fighting against the tide.
“Pidgin English breaks the English language too much and it destroys the children’s written English as well as their spoken English,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything about it, but I still believe we can. It’s not a losing battle.”
English is not the only victim of pidgin’s popularity, with the major Nigerian languages of Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba also threatened.
The teaching of local languages in Nigerian schools has fallen away in recent decades and is no longer compulsory in many school curriculums. The government says it is promoting indigenous languages but admits that the policy has not been followed strictly in all schools.
Nigeria’s government has no policy on pidgin, which is viewed as an informal language, said Ofor.
But with pidgin now thought to be the most widely spoken language in the nation, it is more a case of accommodating rather than defeating it.
“I see pidgin English as moving towards becoming a national language,” said Chima Anyadike, the head of English at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife. “It is a viable means of communication in Nigeria. Language has power to unite people. It is a form of language imported from elsewhere but developed locally. “I look forward to when novels and dramas will be presented in pidgin. It has a mass appeal to Nigerians.”