Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Soyinkarian English

I'm sure a lot of you have already read Soyinka's piece comparing the sack of Ribadu with the assassination of Bhutto (here if not). Its a good article, penetrating as ever in highlighting the essential relation between corruption and democracy. However, as I read it, I was as mindful of the English being used as the points. There is a certain grandiose pomposity to Soyinka's journalistic articles which sometimes gets in the way of the force of his insight. He uses the royal 'we' and words such as 'incubus' and 'nexus'. Whether you have a thing for latin/latinate words and ornate phrasing (sometimes I'm a sucker), I took exception to this tortured sentence:

"The reign of vanishing files, denied directives and ambiguous legal advices has begun where dubious Attorney-Generals fill the vacuum created by high level movements of personnel in multiple directions where those in the most sensitive and knowledgeable places vanish into the bureaucratic maze, with hardly a trace of the rewards of their long dedicated industry."

I can't believe he wrote 'advices' - that must have crept in at the newsroom stage - so let's pass on that one. However, if only he had broken this voyage of a sentence into three or four simple subject-verb-object sentences, we might have a chance of understanding his intent without hurting our heads in the process. Sub-editor: where art thou?


Anonymous,  4:56 pm  

Just finished reading You must set forth at Dawn. There were instances were I felt I needed a breather with the long run sentences. A couple of shorter sentences would have made a difference.

Anonymous,  6:00 pm  

Chris Okotie is another kind of Nigerian that can 'speak' english more the english people.

Anonymous,  6:36 pm  

Long winded or not, it won him the Nobel, didn't it?
Soyinka is a tiresome read - except perhaps for 'Ake'.

Anonymous,  8:30 pm  

Perhaps you havent lived in Nigeria long enough to realize that the average educated Nigerian (the truly educated - not the ones who believe they're educated) and not just Wole Soyinka speaks a version of English that can at times seem 'grandiose'. I grew up in America surrounded by American English but with educated Nigerian parents who used words like "coagulate" during everyday and seemingly simple activites like cooking. But as a scholar of Nigerian culture and history, and more importantly as an Englishman, it should be no wonder to you or rather it should be quite obvious where this practice was inherited from. So blame your ancestors for the annoying linguistic habits of todays Nigerians.
- i. ukpong (brooklyn, NY via calabar, 9ja)

Anonymous,  5:27 am  

Jeremy, great stuff!Brazen critique of Soyinka - few would dare, really...

Asides issues of grammar, Ribadu's exit, is the pathological (sorry O!) story of Nigeria's stagnation as scripted and directed by benign looking 'government' leaders. Macabre anti-climax.

Now, I'm really honoured to have been under your tutelage (well, taught by you) while at WANGONeT.Your insights into the 'history' of language, and all the s-v-o models of sentence construction is still remembered. Applied? Well....

Best wishes,

Toks- Boy 10:02 am  

J - surely you must be used to the Naija need to be grandioise in all manners of speaking and writing in order to show our close affinity to the Queen. After all if she can be the Royal "we", why can't we all be "we" if you get my meaning.

I was watching the local news the other night and a chap was commenting on the arrest of Ibori and uttered this entence which will probably stay with me for life. "Ibori's arrest is both frivolous and fabulous". You should have seen the look of admiration from the gathered hacks and members of the public at the wisdom of this great man. They could just tell that he had been schooled abroad.

By the way he was against the arrest but I guess you would have already gleaned that? No? Me neither.

Nkem 12:35 pm  

Bruv, many of us have been saying this for years:

bello.fighting.ignorance 12:54 pm  

LoL! Agba ti nde!! He's become like my Mom. "Advices" ouch!,"Attorney-Generals" ouch,ouch! Trees just dey fall for London.
They could be typos though 'cos my Naija copy of 'Samarkand and Other Markets' had about forty something typos. Yeparipa!!

Wordsbody 1:58 pm  

I read WS's original email - received third-hand.

He did indeed write "advices".

Anonymous,  2:34 pm  

Happy New Year!

Na true ting wey you talk oga Jeremy. Ake was a great read. Everything else of Soyinka is... Soyinka-d, i.e. great but it hurts. And I bet you no sub-editor or editor will edit him because... he's Soyinka. Howz about Cassava Republic give it a go - you know, pick an article and wield your pen. We await the results...

Anonymous,  4:43 pm  

Soyinka's style won him the Nobel.

It works for him. Maybe not for his readers...!

Anonymous,  5:49 pm  

The piece itself was quite interesting and incisive. I'm personally aware of his tendency to dictate some of these 'urgent' releases.I assume it's one or two missing commas or semi colons

Anyway, mr anonymous, I'm not sure there's anything tiresome about death and the king's horseman or lion and the jewel, or the jero plays etc etc
I think the big grammar thing is a bit of a stereotype-he is actually more often fairly simple, witty and even colloquial in his personal conversations, writings and interviews if you are familiar with them at all

ijebuman 6:55 pm  

good old Soyinka, and then he wonders why no one in government listens to him. (hint: Know thy audience)

Waffarian 10:03 pm  

"The time has begun when files vanish into thin air, when directives are denied and legal advice becomes ambigous. Dubious attorney-generals now fill the vacuums left open by the disorganised transfer of personnel in the corridors of power. It is a time when people who have served in the most sensitive and knowledgeable of places vanish into the bureaucratic maze without any rewards for their dedication"


"The time don land when files go dey vanish anyhow, directions self, nobody dey follow, even self to ask for legal advice don get as e be. Na so, after dem don sack all those ogas dem anyhow, dey send them here and there, na so attorney general go siddon kakaraka for all the vacancy them. The people wey dey suffer pass na all those better people wey know book pass for all those matter wey nobody wan touch. Ehen, na all those people dem, go just lost anyhow. One kobo self, their eye no go see"

Anengiyefa 10:39 pm  

Jeremy, 'advices' is a legitimate word in the English language, and I'm not sure that it emerged only at the newsroom stage. But of course, only people of Soyinka's ilk are likely to use it...

"Information communicated; news. Often used in the plural: advices from an ambassador" Soyinka's case, ambiguous legal 'advices' from dubious Attorney Generals.

Now, this is where I think the newsroom has stumbled, because, when they are more than one, they are Attorneys General, and not Attorney Generals...

Wordsbody 6:14 am  

I agree with Anangiyefa re 'advices'.

"Advices" is a bit like when some people in England write:
"This development will effect my quality of life".

"Effect", used as verb, instead of "affect" always strikes me as odd. But it is not incorrect.

Anonymous,  6:34 am  

@anengiyefa and@wordsbody

'Advices' AND 'Attorney-generals' are allowed. Ref the cambridge dictionary:

<– Back to results

Attorney General noun [C] plural Attorneys General or Attorney Generals
the top legal officer in some countries, who advises the leader of the government

(from Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

Ola,  7:31 am  

I think these accusations of inaccessibility come mostly from people who either have not been exposed to a good share of his works or simply do not appreciate the context in which the man is deservedly celebrated.

An open minded reading of his works (ake,isara, death and the kings horseman, the lion and the jewel, the swamp dwellers, the jero plays etc)will confirm that he is, as a matter of fact, accessible in a good percentage of his works. I'd be worried if a 12 year old couldn't read, understand and thoroughly enjoy these works. I'm sure you never heard of opera wonyosi or even the comedy childe internationale. You are also probably unaware that the man even waxed a chart-topping album with songs written entirely in pidgin english. Rememeber, "I Love my Country I No go Lie"?

I'd also prefer to make a distinction between the artist and the political activist-most of his recent writings have been political(perhaps a reflection of his increasing frustration with the situation in his country)and I suspect not a few people wear artistic lenses in critiquing these works-i do not think they should be considered artistic works at all. His art should be looked at in the unbeatable majesty of Death & The King's horseman, the charming simplicity of ake, the witticism and prescience of The Jero Plays and the moving broodiness of the man died. I think all this micro-judging i.e debating advice vs advices, comas etc is a little unecessary.

Wordsbody 12:29 pm  


You will see from reading my comments again, that I never quibbled with WS' use of "advices".

I was saying essentially the same thing as you: "Advices" is not incorrect.

So you may be preaching to the (long) converted on that one.

I said nothing about 'Attorney Generals' and see no reason to do so now.

Wordsbody 12:40 pm  


O kare lae!

"I love mai kontri I no go lie
Na inside am I go live and die…"


"Etike-tike wetin?
Ethical revolution…"

(etcetera etcetera)

*And there's nothing obscurantist about 'The Man Died'.

Anengiyefa 1:43 pm  

Ola, I agree with you 100%.

Anonymous, thanks for pointing out that bit about Attorney Generals. This is something that is not widely known.

MsMak,  5:21 pm  

Personally, i find many Soyinka's writings unnecessarily verbose, and a little painful to read through. I thoroughly enjoyed his plays, but the others? Mba. Granted i haven't read them all, but again, that is not from lack of trying.

Several years ago it occurred to me that i hadn't read enough of the man and i started again with 'The Interpreters' and then "The Open Sore of a Continent'. Couldn't finish either.

I don't think it has to do with the use of 'big grammar'. Many Nigerians i know (myself included) love to read and occasionally use these words, and i usually prefer the use of longer sentences to short ones, simple ones (so typical of many Yankee writers; often oversimplified for me). It's not subject matter either (politics or otherwise) because they're often things i enjoy reading about.

Somehow Achebe,Rushdie and others manage to get the point across less painfully...

Gbemi's Piece 4:06 pm  

He is Soyinka, he can say advices if he wants to. He's got the poetic license. That being said, it hurts my head to read his latest book.

Bagubagu,  4:54 pm  

Politically Ribadu should have been removed by MYA immediately he took office, but this was not practicable as Nigerians would have cried foul. However, having established his own credentials MYA can now do so. It is simply not pragmatic to retain the hatchet man of a previous administration - it is not done anywhere in the world. This is not to say Ribadu is a 'bad' man, as such, but the role he played for OBJ exposed him and threatened the long term anti-corruption effort.

The simple fact is that OBJ used Ribadu as a front, whilst perpetrating one of the most corrupt and bloody administrations this country has ever seen. There is no way Ribadu can distance himself from that.

If he accepts his NIPSS posting in good faith, goes quiet and out of media sight, I see Ribadu coming back to national prominence in time, re-born, refreshed and ready for higher office.

Naapali 10:07 pm  

My opinion of your post depends on which domain you criticize from. If as a magazine/newspaper editor, you push for simpler more direct writing, I would agree. However, if your criticism is based on purely writing style then I disagree. Yes, WS spearheads a group of Nigerian writers including Ben Okri that reach for the grandiloquent when lofty would suffice but so bloody what! English as spoken by the billions, majority of whom have no ancestry in England is richer because many choose to not only add new words to it but to sustain those that would become extinct from disuse.

So please let WS be, he adds to the richness of the language.

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