Yesterday, I told a friend and colleague of mine who’s working as a Research Assistant at the university, that I’m proud of her accomplishments and glad that she’s now “working class”. She took mild offense to being referred to as “working class” and corrected me accordingly, since her salary is quite good. It got me thinking of the many uses of the English language which Nigerians have turned on their colonial heads and inflected with new meanings. If I had referred to a fellow Nigerian as “working class”, he or she would’ve understood it to mean “salaried”, in the sense of “oru oyibo” – English/official job and not working class in the proletariat sense of labourers toiling under the sun for meager wages. This Nigerian understanding of “working class” is a relic from colonial times when villagers/natives were employed by the colonial administrators to work as “houseboys” – butler + housekeeper + cook, clerks, secretaries, interpreters, teachers, soldiers, etc. In those days, to work for/in the colonial administration entitled one to certain privileges and a claim to membership of the working class. My grandfather was a court clerk, a “privileged” native; he was of the working class, and he was proud of it. His family to date are proud of him.
Back to linguistic turns and ties. You know a fellow Nigerian by our use of certain phrases. Like when you pass by a Black man on the phone and hear him say: “make sure to…” Or when you come across Black parents talking to their little boy and the mother says: “let me hear word”. It’s not their accents that gave them away, for many Nigerians living abroad having taken to a meticulous erasal of their Nigerian accents. They’ve joined the “innit” and “gonna, wanna, fucking” squads. No, it was the phrases “make sure” and “let me hear word.” Those are the little things that give us away. We learnt the English language from the masters themselves, but we understand it differently and have styled it to suit our needs. If those needs still ring of colonial separatism – the term “working class”, for eg. – it is because we are still finding our way out of colonialism. We are yet to be decolonized, in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o speak (Decolonizing the Mind).