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OLUSA, Bamidele O.: Nigerianism and the English Language Use in the Nollywood: A Focus on Yoruba Films

Nigerianism and the English Language Use in the Nollywood: A Focus on Yoruba Films

Bamidele O. OLUSA

Director, Research & Documentation

National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO)


Website: www.nico.gov.ng


GSM: +234-803-376-1914


This paper is an outcome of observed linguistic peculiarities in the Nollywood entertainment industry. The set objectives of the study was to find out the linguistic peculiarities in the use of English in the industry, considering the fact that English is non-native to Nigeria, but nonetheless a national lingua franca. The study was executed through observation of by watching some films produced in the Nollywood industry. The observation was done at all linguistic levels: phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics/pragmatics. It was observed that players in the Nollywood industry demonstrate a mastery of the English language as second language users, especially at all levels except phonology which, according to linguistic critical age hypothesis, is age constrained. Nevertheless, players in the Nollywood entertainment industry are enjoined to realise that they are now global citizens who must use the global language with caution to ensure international intelligibility as they are likely to play a major role in the global entertainment industry, and this is not without some benefits to the nation.


The Nollywood industry has become very popular in the Nigerian entertainment industry, and, no doubt spreading its tentacles beyond the shores of Nigeria. The Africa Magic, on the satellite cable network, is also making entertainment in the industry available to non-Nigerians, not only on the African continent, but also in Europe and to Africans in Diaspora.

The Nigeria’s multilingual setting confers on the English language the status of the nation’s second and official language, and it is of course the language of wider communication. It is “the language of nationism (or inter-ethnic relations) in Nigeria. No other single indigenous language qualifies to perform this role” (Adegbite 13). Although, out of patriotism, arguments have come up in favour of the adoption of indigenous languages in some domains as a means of preserving these indigenous languages as well as their accompanying cultures. These have not yielded any meaningful dividend because, as observed by Egbokhare, “the fate of any language will be determined not by sentiments but the practical needs of modern man in the global environment and the ability of such a language to respond to such needs” (9).

Earlier, Osofisan sees the clamour for the use of indigenous languages as mere energy dissipation as “The social, economic and political forces that would make such a programme realizable are simply not yet with us” (127); thus, reinforcing Elugbe’s much earlier submission, which he cites, that “developing our indigenous languages does not mean abandoning English. There is, for the foreseeable future, no alternative to concurrent investment in English.” The position of Ogunsiji is congruent with these other scholars when he avers that, “the position of English will remain certain for a long time in Nigeria because of the country’s linguistic pluralism” (87). This appears incontrovertible. Svartvik and Leech, referring to Crystal on English attaining the status of a global language, argue in favour of English, not because it is superior to other languages; but according to them, “that English has turned out to be the most likely candidate for a ‘single world language’ ...merely reflects the fact that English has been lucky enough to be ‘in the right place at the right time’ (228). This is particularly so in Nigeria.

It is generally agreed that language performs some functions in human society. These functions, generally, include information, education and entertainment. Although the Nollywood industry is known for its entertainment role in the society, there is no doubt that the industry can, and actually does, combine all these roles.

The Research Issue

With over 500 languages supported by about 250 diverse cultures, Nigeria is a quintessential multilingual society. This has created a dilemma as to the choice of language in some domains. All the pronouncements on the use of language in some government documents have not been found to be practicable and useful. For instance, in the education sector, the National Policy on Education, in its various versions, recommends the use of indigenous languages or the language of the immediate environment for use in early primary education. This has been largely ignored as many schools and parents go for English-straight primary education, thus rendering the policy a nullity. Although the entertainment industry has the privilege of adopting indigenous languages as evident in the vernacular versions, the need to attract more audience necessitates translation in some cases.

In both the nation’s official language English version and the vernacular ones, with translations, in some cases, the peculiar use of English, sometimes referred to as Nigerianism is observable. Since these films are no longer meant for Nigerians, these peculiarities should not be overused as noted in the industry, to ensure intelligibility among non-Nigerian viewers of Nollywood films. No doubt, language contact generates a lot of issues and these are not uncommon with the contact of English with indigenous languages in Nigeria. Igboanusi says, “the contact that the English language has with Nigerian languages has affected and impacted a kind of ‘Nigerianess’ on the language such that scholars now only talk of Nigerian English and not the English language in Nigeria” (70). To this extent, one can almost confidently say that the English language is taking on a life of its own in Nigeria (Owolabi). We cannot run away from the fact that the English language will continue to change by virtue of its global widespread, as noted by Svartvik and Leech when they say: The plurality of English means that most members of an English-speaking community are likely to need more than one kind of English. One needs the English of one’s local community, yes, but also the English of the international community, and no doubt something intermediate between those, something like a national standard.... In the future, more than in the past, speakers will be multidialectal (225).

Aim and Objectives

The major aim in this work is to show the inevitability of the English language usage in the Nigerian entertainment industry. With this aim in mind, the following specific objectives are set out in this study:

  • to identify peculiar use of English, the nation’s official language in the Nollywood industry;
  • to classify these peculiar usages;
  • to help those in the industry to be more careful in the use of English as a way of promoting their trade and image, outside the shores of Nigeria.

Justification for this Study

The English language is still germane to Nigeria’s sociolinguistic existence as, “the choice of any of the indigenous languages as a national language… may cause more problems than it could solve” (Akinjobi 44). The need to continue to improve on the official language that binds the different ethnic groups together, therefore, becomes necessary. The Nollywood industry can be a source of education to address the issue of decline in the use of English, which has affected the general standard of education in the country. It is now obvious that the viewing culture is fast outpacing the reading culture in the modern Nigerian society. A recent study of reading attitudes and tele-viewing habit of secondary school students, which confirms similar earlier studies, shows the general attitude of students to reading as negative (Tunde-Awe 20). Moreover, a proper use of English in the industry is capable of widening the market and thus increase the country’s GDP. Through the Internet, mainly, and other avenues, Nollywood films are increasingly becoming more popular with viewers from other nations. No doubt, the English language will play a major role in this regard, as the world’s lingua franca.

Scope of the Study

Some constraints necessitated delimiting this study to Nollywood films in English and a few Yoruba films subtitled in English. Since it is not possible to survey all films in these two categories, only a selected number, viewed by the researcher and two other research assistants in recent times, and which were considered representative of the genre were considered for this study.

Ethical considerations

Our data comprise observed linguistic peculiarities in the use of English in the Nollywood industry, the identities of actors and films have been protected to ensure some confidentiality, often required in research of this nature.

Study Design and Methodology

This is basically a descriptive research of the survey type. As a non-experimental research it simply investigated the following: existing facts as they are on-going processes, obvious effects or trends that are developing in the Nollywood industry. This was done by collecting data and analyzing same from a small number of the population that is considered representative enough to generalize the result to the entire population. The data coverage includes the following linguistic levels:

  • Phonology;
  • Morphology (diction and orthography);
  • Syntax;
  • Semantics and Pragmatics

The data for this study came from the researcher’s personal observation of cases of Nigerianism in the use of English in the Nollywood industry, from films of Nollywood industry watched, and supported by that of two other viewer-research assistants, sufficiently proficient in English as a second language. The data are as presented at various linguistic levels and analyzed to see the appropriateness or otherwise of English language usage in the Nollywood industry. Where data are assumed to be obvious, such as cases of code mixing and code switching, and will be too unwieldy, for reason of space to present, we just offer simple discussion.


Although the concept of World Englishes permits pronunciations that are regionally permissible, but internationally intelligible, it is not prescriptive as to the standard of pronunciation expected from non-native speakers. Of course, it is obvious that there cannot be World Standard English (WSE), but varieties that are intelligible globally. Nevertheless, there are minimum standards that any speaker of English for public consumption must attain. This is the yardstick for the observed pronunciations in this study. This observation involved actual listening to pronunciations for both segmental and supra-segmental peculiarities in the industry, and how this affects intelligibility. It was observed that Nigerian Nollywood speakers of English as a second language, expectedly, use the variety peculiar to the regional variety of an actor. It is obvious that in Nigeria, regional variations are quite obvious in speech rather than in writing. For example, Akande, reporting an earlier research conducted by him says, “it was noted that there were pronunciation differences induced by the region of origin” (58). According to Eka, non-native regional variation is evident in phonologically conditioned variants and innovations that involve accentual patterning and simplification. Further, Eka says, “L2 speakers are generally known to use a local, indigenized or a nativized non-native variety... some of which constitute approximations of near-native speech and international variation” (9). It should be noted that peculiarities in the speech patterns of non-native speakers are not unexpected, as nearly all these actors have passed the linguistic critical age before their exposure to the English language.


The scope of morphology in this study includes choice of words, as well as orthography in translations. We are, however, not oblivious of strange coinages that are a part of the morphological processes of every living language. These are not considered strange as long as they follow acceptable rules of word formation and are appropriate in their contexts. This is one of the areas where Nigerianism is very evident in the English language, and more particularly, in the area of broadening and semantic shift/extension. Examples of these abound and they include a few cited here:

  • Know book to mean educated or brilliant
  • Flit to mean fumigate to kill insects
  • Take the light to mean a power cut
  • Coinages are very common, demonstrating Nigerianism in the Nollywood industry. Some of them involve hybridization, such as
  • Egusi soup referring to a variety of soup prepared with ground melon
  • Onibread referring to bread vendor.

Other instances of coinage, not involving hybridization include words that have now become parts of the lexicon of Nigerian English. These include:

  • Sugar daddy/mummy referring to a much older lover;
  • Yellow fever, meaning, Traffic Warden;
  • Go-slow, meaning, Traffic jam, defined by Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as, “a long line of vehicles on a road that cannot move or that can only move very slowly.”

Besides all these, there are also cases of loan words or borrowing, usually from indigenous languages to English. Loan words are usually found in the proper names, such as food, name of individuals or titles, etc. Spelling errors were only noted in translations that appear on the screen.


As a way of stringing words together to make meaningful utterances, English syntax has a certain word order which speakers of the language know intuitively. For example, Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams say, “English is a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language” (116). Of all the aspects of English, the syntax is one level that cannot be tampered with without doing serious damage to the language. Although, for a purpose, there may be exceptions, this does not cover movies that are solely in English or translations into English from vernacular movies. Be that as it may, we hasten to say that the syntax of English used in the Nollywood industry is not different from the standard variety anywhere in the world, except for common errors that are associated with users of English as a second language. Some of these are highlighted here. For example:

Errors of aspect and tense are common as found in the following:

  • No weapon fashion against you will prosper
  • I nearly urinate on my body… (referring to a past action)
  • En hen, what bring you to my… (referring to a past action)

Error of grammatical concord which is a common feature of dwindling proficiency in Nigerian users of English as a second language also pop up in some of these movies as evident in:

  • The gods

While errors are not encouraged, as much as possible, it should be said that errors are a part of second language acquisition, and, in fact, do not, in any way, impinge on intelligibility or comprehensibility of Nollywood products.

Semantics and Pragmatics

Although in semantics sentence meaning is resident in words, pragmatics, according to Yule, “is the study of ‘invisible’ meaning or how we recognize what is meant even when it isn’t actually said (or written)” (127). For this to happen, it is assumed that both the speakers (writers) and hearers (readers) must have some things in common. To a large extent, meaning is context dependent, and many words in English have taken on new meanings depending on the context of use. In the Nollywood industry, many English words have been domesticated to fix into the Nigerian context. It appears this is another area where actors take liberty with the language. This is permissible because the English language global geographical spread has, no doubt, affected its features, because it has to adapt to any new environment where it is used. This is part of the dynamism of any living language, as Svartvik and Leech’s have noted: Although we cannot predict in what way English will change, we can be certain that change it will-that’s in the nature of languages. It is only dead languages such as Latin or artificial languages such as mathematical notations that do not change (226).

For example, many indigenous proverbs have no perfect Standard English equivalents, and pragmatic and semantic considerations come into play in rendering such to be internationally intelligible and globally acceptable.

Pragmatic use of the English language in the Nollywood industry necessitates such language situations as code switching and code mixing; two concepts that are very familiar in the literature of second language usage. Instances of code switching and code mixing are too numerous to categorize here, as nearly all Nollywood films are replete with instances of them. Also evident is semantic extension, which is expanding the frontiers of meaning attached to English words in regional usage.


Language will continue to play major roles in the life of any nation, notwithstanding the fact that little or no attention is paid to it, by authorities in national planning. As the Nollywood industry gets set to play a major role in Nigeria’s socio-economic development, with the potential of contributing to the nation’s GDP, the question of languageuse now becomes vital. If it is to play its roles of entertainment and player in the nation’s economic development, as well as project the country’s image internationally, English as the global lingua franca, surely, has a place in the Nollywood industry and it must be given its due.

Players in the Nollywood entertainment industry must realise that they are now global citizens who must use the global language with caution to ensure international intelligibility and acceptability. There is no doubt that these players, although are non-native speakers, are gradually demonstrating a mastery of the English language, and are set to play a major role in the global entertainment industry, and this is not without some benefits to the nation.

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