Why it ’s diff ic ult for Nigerians to pronounce cer tain letters, by Linguists

When one fails to pronounce words properly, listeners may not quickly, and easily grasp the meaning or significance of what is said. In this report, ISIOMA MADIKE, through the eye of linguists, looks at some of the reasons why this lingers

Temitope Popoola, in a report, published by an online portal,, described English as a very interesting language but noted that its inconsistencies add certain twists to it. As a result, the speakers, he said, are encouraged to study more and adapt to the new words coined. “As if that is not hard enough for some people, they have to learn to use the words in the right context,” he added. But some speech experts have said that a nerve or brain disorder has made it difficult to control the tongue, lips, or vocal cords, which make speech.

Dysarthria, which is difficult to pronounce words, according to them, is sometimes confused with aphasia, which is a difficult language. Dysarthria occurs when the muscles used for speech are weak or have difficulty controlling them. It often causes slurred or slow speech that can be difficult to understand. For aphasia, it’s a communication disorder that results from damage or injury to language parts of the brain. However, there are common words that many Nigerians often mispronounce.

It varies from ethnic group to ethnic group but prominent in the many tribes in the country. For instance, Hausa has difficulty with words that contain the letters ‘F’ and ‘P’, ‘B’ as ‘V’. These letters are often used interchangeably and would make an average Hausa person pronounce the word ‘PEOPLE’ as ‘FIFLE’. They also pronounce ‘FIFTY’ as ‘PIPTY’, ‘FIVE’ as ‘PIPE’, ‘GLO’ as ‘GILO’, and ‘COME’ as ‘KWAM’. The same goes with some Yoruba people, who also mispronounce words that contain the sound ‘S’ and ‘SH’. This transcends into words with the ‘CH’ sounds and explains why many Yoruba people would replace ‘CH’ with ‘SH’ in the word ‘church’.

This is the same reason why they pronounce ‘Hit’ as ‘It’ as well. Other noticeable mispronounced words are: ‘AIR’ as ‘HAIR’, ‘EIGHT’ as ‘HATE’, ‘ZERO’ as ‘SIRO’ and ‘MTN as ‘HENTIIHEN’. The Igbos also have theirs as the letters ‘R’ and ‘L’ are often mixed up in words.

This accounts for pronouncing ‘LORRY’ as ‘RORRY’ ‘CHURCH’ as ‘CHECH’, ‘BATH’ as ‘BAFF’, ‘NAIRA’ as ‘NERA’, and ‘BED SHEET’ as ‘BAYSHEET’, ‘ROAD’ as ‘LOAD’ . This is also noticeable in the way some Chamba people in Jada Local Government Area of Adamawa State, interchange ‘J’ with ‘Z’ and vice versa. For most Edo people, ‘ARGUMENT’ is ‘AJUMENT’ while Warri pronounces ‘WITCH’ as ‘WINCH’ and Calabar pronounces ‘DON’T MENTION as ‘DON’ MENYON’, ‘DEPARTMENT’ as ‘DEPAMEN’, ‘JAMES’ as ‘YAMES’, ‘JOHN’ as ‘YUN’ and ‘GEN’ as ‘YEN’. An Associate Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University, Georgia, USA, Farooq Kperogi, has expanded this to include other Nigerians, who can’t pronounce Nigeria correctly.

Kperogi said the only Nigerians who pronounce the name of their country correctly are foreign-born Nigerians-or Nigerians who were socialised outside their country. Others, he said, are those whose exposure and education cause them to be guarded and self-conscious about their pronunciation.

He also noted that many Nigerians pronounce ‘BROCHURE’ as ‘BROKIO’ while others pronounce something like ‘BROWSHO’ and the ‘CH’ in the word sounds like the ‘SH’ in ‘sheep’. However, a Professor of Linguistics and Yorùbá language at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Fabunmi Felix Abidemi, has said that English pronunciation may be notoriously difficult for some Nigerians but that tribal affiliations, beliefs and practices are not responsible.

Most people, he said, speak the dialect of Standard English with an accent that belongs to the part of the country they come from or live in. “That is why we have British English, RP (Received Pronunciation), Standard English, non-standard English, Nigerian English, Ghanaian English, and so on.

In Nigeria, some people may find it difficult to pronounce some English letters of the alphabet not because they belong to a particular tribe, but largely because of some reasons, which are basically phonetics. In the first instance, nearly all Nigerian languages are tone languages. English language is not a tone language. “This is the reason why some English native speakers also find it difficult to pronounce some words in Nigerian languages, the most common example, is the pronunciation of “Ibo” instead of “Ìgbò.”

They mistakenly pronounce the phoneme /gb/ as /b/ because they cannot cope with the difficulty of double articulations. Unfortunately even many Nigerian native speakers are still repeating the European phonetic mistakes of “Ibo/Ìgbò” till today,” he said.

Abidemi said that phonetic features like intonation, stress, and pitch are very prominent in English pronunciation, but that they are absent in Nigerian languages. In addition, he said that the alphabetic systems and principles in English language and Nigerian languages are not totally similar.

He said: “Some letters are blended together to make one sound in English; that is not so in many Nigerian languages. The most important factor is that some letters of the alphabet in English are not found in many Nigerian languages, and in such cases such letters are simply substituted.” For Dr. Kolawole Adeniyi, another Senior lecturer in the department of Linguistics and African language also at OAU, it may have to do with the language of place one first acquires. “Let me just begin by saying that it doesn’t have anything to do with food. We normally have this traditional belief that when you drink the water of a place, you talk like people from that place. But, I think it’s just traditional, it doesn’t have any scientific backing.

“Place of birth, to some extent; not really a place of birth but something perhaps that has to do with the language of place one first acquires. We call it the first language and many prefer to call it mother’s tongue. So, when someone acquires a language first, he acquires systems of the language, the tendency is that when that person now acquires another language later, there will be interference from the first language. For instance, in Hausa language, the word that has F, if used as P, does not affect it.

“But, in linguistics, it is called special variation. So, an Hausa can say Yusuff or Yusupp, it doesn’t mean anything to them because the brain of a typical Hausa person does not even think that there is anything wrong; it’s normal. It has nothing to do with phonology. So, different variants of these words exist in the brain, they are not even aware of what is going on. “A Hausa man sees an F as P and does not feel there is something wrong. But then when they now begin to speak English, the beginning of the problem is that, in English, F and P are different and cannot be interchanged.

But you see a Hausa man has learned the system that allows him to interchange this in his first language. “So, every time he encounters those sounds, he subconsciously interchanges them because it is something that he already internalised. That is what happens. That is why you see so many people that are well educated, even broadcasters sometimes, would speak in that form. It’s not that they have problems with those sounds.

They don’t, it’s just that those languages they first acquired, often their mother’s tongues, allow for that. “Take another example of Igbo, but not all the speakers of Igbo; it’s only those from particular areas. For instance, they tell you that they are going to church to go and ‘play’, but as far as they are concerned, they meant ‘pray’ and it’s difficult to correct them because they would tell you no, I didn’t say ‘play’, I said ‘pray’.

So, it’s just a question of language, the mother’s tongue not the difficulty. “If you want to then learn a language, it’s not just the language that you are learning that you will pay attention to. You should also pay attention to the language that you already know because the language speakers do not just pick the language that they are supposed to speak but the understanding of the language that they already know,” he said. However, in the course of learning a language, Adeniyi said it is expected of the speaker to largely lay emphasis on that one that he doesn’t really know and to be conscious of the variation in his first language.

This, according to him, is because ‘L’ and ‘R’ really do not mean anything to certain Igbo people, who interchange the letters. Adeniyi said: “In the subconscious of the speaker, it doesn’t really mean anything, but now that you are learning English, you have to make a conscious effort not to do that.

So, in that aspect of making conscious effort, the people go on to learn the second language with interference to their first language. It is just a case of interference not because they have difficulty. And this applies to other tribes that have this peculiarity. It also has to do with sounds somebody is not exposed to early in life; the person now has to pay personal attention to. “Again, English has a lot of weak vowels and many Nigerian languages do not have.

When you come across those weak vowels, we speak English in such a way that those outside Nigeria will find it difficult to understand. So, that’s a case of difficulty, but largely first language one is exposed to early in life, and the inability to identify those difficult sounds that you are exposed to later. Different aspects affect different languages. “For example, Yoruba does not have weak vowels like the Hausa language. So, when a Yoruba man speaks or pronounces those weak vowels, it becomes obvious to an Hausa person just the same way the ‘F’ and ‘P’ is obvious to a Yoruba person.

What I’m saying in effect is that sound variation affects parts of Nigeria differently.” Also, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Lagos, Dr. Chris Anyokwu, told this reporter that there is actually no mystery about the sociolinguistic phenomenon of phonic interference.

He said there is already an enormous amount of literature on it as linguists over the years have explored and investigated it almost to the level of triteness. He said: “In the early years of a child’s life, he is exposed to his mother tongue, which he learns as she gives him suck.

Initially he lisps and later speaks the first language well. His vocal cord and other speech organs are formed, developed and set during this incipient period of language acquisition. “Normally, at school the pre-school child at crèche and nursery school is exposed to a second language, usually English in this instance. He cannot speak it with the sure-footedness, the natural effortlessness of a native speaker, coming to English after the acquisition of an African language.

Even with the best effort, the second learner speaker of English will betray the intonational and phonic peculiarities of his mother tongue. “More crucially, whilst English is a stress-timed language, African languages are mostly syllable-stressed ones, relying overwhelmingly on tone as a unit of meaning-signalling sounds.

Thus, the Nigerian speaker of English, however well-educated, tends to inflect and modulate his performance with the phonic interference of his mother tongue.” Dr. Oluwafemi Emmanuel Bamigbade of the department of Linguistics and African language at the Obafemi University, Ile-Ife told Saturday Telegraph that it is essential to first understand the background toi the diversity of speech forms, for example, language varieties, dialects, sociolects, idiolects and accent. From a linguistic perspective, Bamgbade said the speech form diversity is generally attributed to the incidence at the Biblical Tower of Babel in Genesis Chapter 11. This linguistic division, he further said, successfully disrupted their unit ed force towards the successful completion of their work.

He said: “It is believed that ever since the world has begun to grow in terms of speech form and language diversity. Hence, ethnic and tribal differences emerge. Historical, etymology and origin and migration account of races and people are also significant factors responsible for such language diversities.” He said also that language has become a major identity of different ethnic groups and means of cultural preservation. “For instance, in another biblical allusion in Judges, Chapter 12, Verses 4-6 when the people of Gilead needed to identify the people of Ephraim during a battle. Jephthah told them to do a linguistic test for the Ephraimites. They were made to pronounce the word ‘Shibboleth’ /sibәulẹθ/ and about 42 thousand Ephraimites failed the test and were killed.

“The /s/ versus /ṣ/ test was used to determine those who were non-Gileadites to avoid mixed identity. Within an enclave of an identified linguistic group also exists different dialects based on geographical boundaries; sociolects, within specified social, clan, lineage or family group; mesolect, a speech pattern of merged speech forms, which may be a pidgin or creolised form and idiolect, a speech pattern that marks an individual,” he said.

Each language, Bamigbade said, has a specified speech sound system, which characterizes the number of consonant and vowel sounds in the language under the universal system of the International Phonetic Alphabets (IPA). The IPA chart, according to him, is derived from the Latin sound system adopted by English sound system with modification and is further adopted in language studies of many other languages of the world with modification as necessary based on the sound pattern of the language.

“Variation in speech form exists in different forms, which include amongst other accents, prosodies (stress and tonal pattern) and intonation. Certain pronunciation rules are permissive in certain languages, redundant in some other languages and arbitrary in others.

“Narrowing down to African languages, the major challenge with pronunciation of sounds and words in African languages, and more narrowed, Nigerian languages, is based on the fact that Nigerian languages are being studied using the sound pattern of English language via Latin as a yard stick. For instance, Yoruba and many Nigerian languages do not attest the sound /p/ as in ‘paper’ in their sound system but have something similar which is /kp/ as in ‘kpako’ meaning chewing stick, where aslo, a dialect of Yoruba alternate /s/ and /ș/, hence, instead of having /oṣẹ/ – soap they pronounce /osẹ/ and instead of having /òsẹ̀/ they pronounce /òṣẹ̀/.

“This also explains why the Chamba ethnic group in Adamawa State seems to pronounce /z/ in the place of /j/ and some Hausas seem to pronounce /f/ in place of /p/ and /v/ in place of /b/. In actual sense, the sound that the Chamba people produce is not the English /z/ but a different sound that is attested in their sound system that is close to English /z/ just as the Yoruba produce /kpa/ which is the closest alternative for /p/ in Yoruba language. “Same goes for the Hausa people, the sound they produce is not the English /f/ and /v/ but /γ/ and /β/ respectively, for example /γiγl/ – people and /βәuβә/ – Volvo. Also, the alternation of /l/ and /r/ is a case that is referred to as sounds in free variation in linguistic studies. Certain sounds are in free variation naturally in some dialects of certain languages.

“An example is illustrated in Yoruba above /s/ and /ṣ/ are in free variation in Ibadan variety. The English word ‘finance’ can also be pronounced as / fainanz/ or /finanz/ the diphthong / ai/ is in allophonic or free variation with the vowel /i/ in the word. Summarily, it is apparent that a number of factors such as genetics, ethymology, historical migration and social contact are responsible for such linguistic variations rather than environmental factors that may not have linguistic basis,” he added.


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