Pidgin Vs. Rotten English in Soyinka and Saro-Wiwa

Jonathan R. Greenberg '94 (English 32 1990)

Twenty years ago, at Ibadan University, I wrote a story titled "High Life" and showed it to one of my teachers, Mr. O.R. Dathorne. He read it; just possibly liked it, but he did say that while the style I had used might be successful in a short story, he doubted that it could be sustained in a novel. I knew then that I would have to write a novel, some day, in the same style. The Nigerian Civil War which I saw from very close quarters among young soldiers in Bonny where I was civilian Administrator, provided me with the right oppurtunity.
Mr. Dathorne later published "High Life" in a collection, Africa in Prose Penguin African Library (1969). The entry against it runs thus "...the piece is not in true 'Pidgin' which would have made it practically incomprehensible to the European reader. The langurage is that of a barely educated primary school boy exulting in teh new words he is discovering and the new world he is beginning to know." Mr. Dathorne goes on to describe the style in the story as "an uninhibited gamble with language," and "an exercise in an odd style."
Both "High Life" and Sozaboy are the result of my fascination with the adaptability of the English Language and of my closely observing the speech and writings of a certain segment of Nigerian society. For, as Platt, Weber and Ho accurately observe in their book, The New Englishes, (RKP 1984) "In some nations...the New Englishes have developed a noticeable range of different varieties linked strongly to the socio-economic and educational backgrounds of their speakers."
Sozaboy's language is wha I call "Rotten English", a mixture of Nigerian Pidgin English, broken English and occasional flashes good, even idiomatic English. This language is disordered and disorderly. Born of a mediocre education and severely limited opportunities, it borrows words, patterns and images freely from the mother-tongue and finds expression in a very limited English vocabulary. To its speakers, it has the advantage of having no rules and no syntax. It thrives on lawlessness, and is part of the dislocated and discordant society in which Sozaboy must live, move and have not his being.
Whether it throbs vibrantly enough and communicates effectively is my experiment.
---Ken Saro-Wiwa, Author's Note from the preface to Sozaboy (1985)

Although the style in which Saro-Wiwa writes his novel is quite experimental, the actual concept of "rotten Englsh" has been in existence for years. In actuality, "rotten English" is used by more Nigerians than any other language, including their native tongue and Pidgin English. In most places Pidgin is reserved for the upper classes of society, while the majority of the people speak what Saro-Wiwa labels Rotten English. The author applies his experiment quite skillfully. He allows a barely educated character (Mene) to speak very coarse English while his thoughts and decisions show him to be a thoughtful, and eventually wise and enlightened young man. Although Mene had a minimal amount of education (his education ended after elementary school) he is just as capable of sensible and sometimes even profound thought. The author claims furthermore, that a novel or story written in Pidgin would not truly capture the true tradition of the Nigerian language and English dialect.
On the other hand, however, Wole Soyinka in his earlier works, The Trials of Brother Jero (1964) and The Road (1965) uses Pidgin English to accent the socio-economic aspects of Nigerian pre-civil war life. In most of his earlier works, the proportion of pidgin compared with English seems to increase in favor of teh former with the degree of informality of its speakers. Particularly worth mentioning is Soyinka's The Road. The following passage from this play contains Yoruba, pidgin and many other English varieties:

Samson: Sisi! A-ah. Sisi o. Sisi wey fine reach so na only bus wey fine like we own fit carry am. Wetin now sisi? Oh your portamentaeu, I done put am inside bus. Yes, certainly. We na quick service, we na senior service...Oyo, mama, we done ready for go now now. Come-o come now. Service na first class, everything provided. If you want' pee we go stop. No delay!

Even though Pidgin and Rotten English are used by different authors for different purposes, they both have several goals and reasons in common. They both offer a feasible alternative to using any European language. European languages do, in fact, fail to convey the African verncacular experience. Even though the ex-British African colonies had many strong ex-British feelings, many educated Africans began to realize that the advantage of writing in a European language was to obvious to be disregarded. In the specific case of Nigera, for example, with a population of about 70 million (in 1985) speaking about 250 languages, none of which has more than six million speakers. English, the official language of the country seemed a possibility worth considering. ALthough only a small percentage of people could actually speak it, it seemed like a wonderful oppurtunity to gain popularity abroad.

Although writers such as Chinua Achebe (and even Soyinka) have proved that English is a more than decent way to explain the African experience, several attempts have been made to adapt the English language to this new function. Two prime examples of these attempts are evident in the works of Ken Saro-Wiwa and Wole Soyinka.

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Nigeria OV Saro Wiwa OV

Last Modified: 18 March, 2002