SPOTLIGHT: Meet Ugwuanyi, English consultant who facilitated addition of 29 Nigerian words into Oxford Dictionary


    When news broke out recently that 29 Nigerian words were added to the updated version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), there was palpable excitement across the country.

    However, little — if any — made effort to find out how the feat was achieved.

    The OED had taken to its Twitter page on Tuesday to appreciate Kingsley Ugwuanyi, a researcher in socio-linguistics at Northumbria University; and Kolatu Tubosun, a writer, and cultural activist — both Nigerians — for their valuable contributions to the recent addition of local words to the prominent dictionary.

    But in a chat with TheCable Lifestyle, Ugwuanyi — who teaches English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu state — talked about how the project came about and its significance to the country.

    How did the recent addition of 29 Nigerian English words to Oxford Dictionary come about?

    That’s a very broad question. The OED recognises that English is now a global language, so it compiles English words from around the world. On the Nigerian English project, I was officially contacted to join the project team as their Nigerian consultant in April 2018. Actually, as I said earlier, my first project with the OED was on their English-Igbo Dictionary, where I served as one of the translators for the Igbo language. While on this project, I met one of the Oxford editors who took interest in my research and linked me up with the World English(es) team at Oxford. OED uses an in-house corpus (a digital database of written and spoken samples of language) to record/track new words emerging from the English-speaking world. So they had already prepared a long list of potential words for inclusion for Nigerian English, generated from the corpus. I was sent this list for my input. Based on frequency of use, widespread use and other criteria, this set of 29 words were selected for initial inclusion. These words have been included in the OED because we have found sufficient evidence of their use in English for a reasonable amount of time. We worked on these words (their definitions, history, examples, pronunciations, and nuances) till late last year.

    What role did you play in achieving that?

    As I said, I provided the Nigerian context drawing from my training and research experience as a linguist. However, the Oxford editors provide(d) most of the lexicographical expertise. Although I just obtained a certification in lexicography, I’m not really a lexicographer in the strict sense of it. Being a Nigerian-trained linguist researching Nigerian English was useful in providing context to how some of the words are used in Nigeria. I give you an instance. There was a lot of going back and forth between the editors and me about defining ‘egusi’. The first definition had something like “a West African stew made with ground melon seeds…”. I told them no, egusi is not stew, it’s soup. I fully understand why the editors thought it was stew: the English soup is rather watery. So because egusi is usually thick, they thought it to be stew. The discussion dragged on until one of the editors had to order egusi soup from an African restaurant to see/taste it. That was the kind of role I provided.

    What do you think is the significance of such to Nigerian languages and the country generally?

    I think this is really significant for Nigeria as a country and for indigenous Nigerian languages. First, I believe this has put Nigeria in the map of English-speaking world. It has further given credibility to Nigerian English. As a researcher and advocate of Nigerian English, I’ve had to explain my heart out to people whenever I mention to them that I’m studying Nigerian English. Granted, this is not going to be an automatic end to people asking ‘doubting questions’. But I think it will help. Also being that most of these words come from Nigerian languages (e.g., ‘tokunbo’, ‘egusi’, ‘buka’), it is also, in a sense, promoting the languages from where they come.

    Where do you see Nigerian English in the coming years on the global scene?

    Well, I see Nigerian English continuing to grow. But it must be pointed out that there are many factors that contribute to the growth of a language (variety). The inclusion of words in a prestigious dictionary like Oxford is just one of them. Another, which I consider extremely important, is people actually using these words in a range of domains. And also what speakers’ attitudes towards the language are – and this is the focus of my research. As you know that language grows, I anticipate that Nigerian English will continue to develop, perhaps to the point that most people, the world over, feels at home with it.


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