Nigeria’s Art of Flowery Language

In a series of letters from African journalists to the BBC, novelist Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani touched on the art of Nigerian verbosity.  First published on BBC Africa on February 5, 2017.

By: Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani

My friends in the international media are perplexed by the flowery language often used in press releases from Nigerian officials.

The pretentious diction, dying metaphors, and padded sentences would make George Orwell somersault in his grave.

Take, for example, this paragraph from a press release by the Nigerian parliament:

“The seminar is aimed at making good the promise of the National Assembly that we are on the same page with the President Buhari led administration and in line with the legislative agenda, that there is a synergy between the National Assembly and the Presidency in the fight against corruption.

“It is to reaffirm the point that you cannot clap with one hand. It is our way of saying that there must be a legislative strength to back the anti-corruption stance of the present administration.”

Here is another example, this time a paragraph from a Nigerian military press release:

“The Nigerian Army in synergy with other security agencies under its constitutional mandates… acted responsively in order to de-escalate the deteriorating security scenario in-situ.

“Instructively, the military and other security agencies exercised maximum restraints against the odds of provocative and inexplicable violence that were employed against them…

“It is rather inconceivable for any individual or group to have decided to inundate the general public with an anecdote of unverified narratives in order to discredit the Nigerian Army in the course of carrying out its constitutional duties despite the inexplicable premeditated and unprovoked attacks…”

Such long-winded passages can also be found in the local press, which commonly use expressions such as “the remains of the deceased have been deposited in the mortuary”, “men of the underworld”, “hoodlums” and “tantamount to insubordination”.

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Foreigners wonder why Nigerian government officials do not opt for simpler language.

Are they intentionally trying to confuse the public or to conceal information?

Well, these press releases are simply following an age-old Nigerian tradition of verbal ornamentation.

For us, important information has always been best conveyed with grandiloquence.

Writing a love letter

Back in my teenage years, long before the era of texting and sexting, there was only one way for a Nigerian boy to prove his sincere feelings for a girl: By writing a love letter.

Any boy serious about catching the attention of the girl he fancied knew better than to do it in simple English. He had to find the right big words.

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If his vocabulary was lacking, there was always that nerdish classmate of his who, for a fee in cash or kind, could take on the role of scribe plenipotentiary.

Either that or the boy could copy verbatim from a love letter already written by someone else.

And so, the typical love letter that many of us Nigerian girls received went something like this:

“My dearest, sweetest, most magnificent, paragon of beauty, I hope this letter finds you in a current state of sound body and mind.

“My principal reason for writing this epistle is to gravitate your mind towards an issue that has been troubling my soul.

“Even as I put pen to paper, my adrenalin is ascending on the Richter scale, my temperature is rising, the mirror in my eyes have only your divine reflection, the wind vane of my mind is pointing north, south and east at the same time.

“Indeed, when I sleep, you are the only thought in my medulla oblongata and I dream about you…”

If these sweet nothings were from a boy in whom you had absolutely no interest, the thing to do was to set his letter ablaze, enclose the ashes in an envelope and promptly return to sender.

Nigeria’s notorious 419 internet scammers adopted this same tradition of using high-sounding words.

Persuading gullible foreigners to part with millions of dollars and pounds is serious business, definitely not a task for everyday words and simple sentences.

A typical excerpt from a 419 scam letter reads something like this:

“Dear Sir,

“I do not come to you by chance.

“Upon my quest for a trusted and reliable foreign businessman, I was given your contact by the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I hope that you can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude.

“It is risk-free, as all modalities have been put in place for a smooth and successful conclusion.

“Thus, I crave your distinguished indulgence and honest cooperation to guarantee that this mutual transaction will be executed under a legitimate agreement that will benefit you and lend credence to my humble belief in your honesty and trustworthiness.”

Like the 419 scammers and the love-struck lads, many Nigerian government officials choose the path of verbosity, expansiveness, and repetition in their press releases.

Of course, it is tempting to, as usual, blame the British for all this, for bringing us their English language and their pen and paper.

But then, communication was not any less complicated in the days before Nigerians learned to write press releases in English.

‘Wear out your listeners’

As veteran Nigerian journalist and author Peter Enahoro noted in his 1966 classic, How to be a Nigerian, the power of Nigerian oratory is measured by the strength of the speaker’s legs – and what better way to ensure that your speech never ends than to punctuate every sentence with a proverb or parable about the tortoise or the monkey.

According to Enahoro: “A sprinkling of logical conclusions is permissible but not vital… If there are two ways of making a point, one short, the other long, plug for the longer route… The idea is to wear out your listeners because the power of your oratory will be determined by the strength of your endurance.

“If your listeners save their sanity and survive you, then you have made a poor speech.”

Despite modern technology, the general rules of Nigerian communication have obviously not changed much since Enahoro’s observations.

Many still hold on to the ancient belief that complexity of message is proof of power, intellect, and influence.

That supposed proof is probably more important to the Nigerian government official than whether or not you understand what he is trying to say.

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Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Plot

In 1801, Mr. Lockwood was driven by the often unfriendly mien of his Landlord Heathcliff who lived in the ancient manor of Wuthering Heights – four odd miles away from his house called Thrushcross Grange. This leads to an inquisitorial quest to find out a bit more about his landlord and ends up putting down his findings in his diary courtesy Nelly Dean – Mr. Lockwood’s housekeeper who incidentally had worked at the wuthering Height before. Lockwood’s chronicles in his diary makes the bulk of Wuthering Heights. Nelly recollects living with the Earnshaws at wuthering Heights. They had two children, Hindley and his younger sister Catherine. There’s yet another son, Heathcliff who Mr. Earnshaw had adopted during his sojourn to Liverpool. Mrs. Earnshaw dies shortly, and Mr. Earnshaw’s love for Heathcliff grows even deeper much to the chagrin of his biological son Hindley. Noticing this, Mr. Earnshaw enrolls Hindley to a college just to keep him away. After Mr. Earnshaw dies some three years later, Hindley returns to inherit the manor with his wife Frances and takes his maltreatment of Heathcliff a notch higher. Meanwhile at the Thrushcross Grange, there lived two pampered Children of the wealthy Lintons; Edgar and Isabella. Heathcliff and Catherine visit them with the intention of teasing them but when it was time to go back to Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff had to leave Catherine behind beacause she had sustained a dog bite which would take some five weeks to heal. In the process, Edgar falls in love Catherine and marries her.

Hindley’s wife Frances gives birth to a baby boy names Hareton and dies shortly after. A distraught Hindley takes to alcoholism and gambling afterwards.

Heathcliff goes to foreign land and acquires strange wealth and returns to Wuthering Heights to exact vengeance on all who had offended him. He starts off his grand scheme by lending out huge sums to Hindley to bankroll his drunken lifestyle, plunging into further debts and misery. He later inherits the manor when Hindley dies ad sets out to inherit the Thrushcross Grange as well by marrying Isabella Linton. Isabella then flees to London to bear Heathcliff’s son and names him Linton because of Heathcliff’s cruelty to her. Meanwhile, Catherine dies after giving birth to a daughter and names her Catherine.

Young Catherine later meets a sickly Linton and kicks start a secret love affair entirely through letters. Linton finds he is being forced to marry Catherine just so to inherit the Thrushcross grange – to complete his revenge on Edgar for taking his woman Catherine from him….

Review

Wuthering Heights is a novel based on unrequited love and one man’s quest for revenge. This book details the tense goings on of Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship and how society keeps them apart and segues into Heathcliff’s motive for revenge on Hindley. Eventually he attains his revenge and then repents for all he has done wrong to get it which eventually allows him to be with the one character in the text that he shows any sort of feeling towards. It is their relationship that builds this novel and is probably why this novel has come to be well loved by everyone.

It is the presentation of and connection to the character of Heathcliff that is the most intriguing part of this novel. He is presented as scruffy, unfortunate, cruel, an outsider and likened to the Devil but it is seems that no matter how badly and satanic that he is characterised as I still feel sympathy for him and could possibly argue that he is one of, if not the only character, that is wronged throughout the entire novel. He has no background and was brought into a family where no one knew him or understood him. After Mr Earnshaw dies, Hindley treats him horrifically and he seeks revenge for this which he devotes the rest of his life to. The way that Heathcliff hears and interprets Catherine’s speech of how she views him is unfortunate but is ultimately why he leaves and comes back as a better man, although his determination for revenge on Hindley overpowers his sense and reasoning.

Most of the narrative is viewed through Lockwood’s perspective of Nelly Dean’s account which leaves the reader with a heavily biased view of events. However, it is through Nelly’s naivety that Brontë can display her main thoughts and ideas and it is through Nelly that we learn of Cathy and Heathcliff’s love. Heathcliff falls in love with her almost as soon as he moves into live with the Earnshaw family and they become close friends through the opening chapters of the novel. However, Catherine chooses to reject Heathcliff and marry Edgar Linton for money instead but eventually Brontë is able to present the two lovers as soulmates that live together in eternity. This, she demonstrates through Heathcliff breaking into her coffin and laying with her. Not only is this one of the main Gothic scenes but it portrays this idea of Heathcliff’s true feelings wanting to be with Cathy forever in eternity.

Bronte’s nested narrative style is clever since we become so immersed in the story we forget who is actually speaking. And to think Nelly actually has a phenomenal memory! Although some will argue that the ending was a bit forced as Emily sought to create a happy ending, you can’t fault the beauty of the writing, the imagery, how the characters are carried throughout the novel. This is a masterpiece and I will highly recommend it.