Vernacular, plain and simple
By Paul Ugoagwu
Thursday, November 16, 2006

It was Ali Baba who once cracked the joke that the English language suffers from serious internal disorders. The ace comedian wondered why the language is so inconsistent and tasking. He gave a particularly funny example: Why is it that the past tense of make is not mook since the past tense of take (a similar word) is took and the past tense of shake is shook? To worse matters, some words which have their roots in French and Latin make nonsense of regular pronunciations. Words like bonafide, chauffeur, rendezvous, etc could embarrass you if you were saying them for the first time. I have personally watched people blush when they try to spell fluorescent, endeavour, occasion, etc. And if you were a kid in the western part of Nigeria, the way you were taught to pronounce security would differ from how your counterpart in the Eastern part of the country would be tutored.

The point here is that except for those Nigerians who attended very good schools, or had great teachers or were fortunate to have educated parents, most people struggle with the English language. Even those who can write and read the language with ease stammer a bit when they have to speak it. As a football fan, I have long decided that that if I could avoid it, I would not go through the torture of listening to local commentaries any more. When I compare what I hear on Super Sports to what I suffer from our local stations, I realize that it is not just about passing the information, it is about the beauty of the language as well. I used to think that when our politicians and opinion leaders chose their words or lace their sentences with em, uh, er, they were trying to act like big men. Now I realize that principally they were just being careful not to shoot a bullet.

Again, people speak in all kinds of funny accents just to prove that they are touched. One former school mate of mine was particularly mad at another class mate who was speaking as if she was born in Britain. I know this babe, my friend swore. She no even get international passport. Her accent is very fake.
Conversely, I have been amazed at how relaxed people are when they speak in their mother tongues. I normally don’t hear the pauses. People don’t choose their words. There is hardly any confusion about their statements. What you heard was what they said. The meanings are clear, easy to understand. Plain simple.
I am of the opinion that our communications efforts have not taken advantage of the strategic importance of our local languages. Most agencies are slow to recommend that commercials be done in Nigerian local languages. Their argument is that producing commercials in our mother tongues brings down the brand and takes away from its premium positioning.

Yet you cannot remove from the magic of commercials done in Yoruba, or pooh-pooh the beauty of the ones rendered in Igbo. If you listen to jingles done in Hausa language, you would agree that there is nothing like speaking to a people in their local language. In the last political campaign, the most interesting political advertisements as far as I was concerned were the ones done for the Governors of Lagos and Ogun states. They were both done in Yoruba, using local brands of music. People never failed to respond to these beautiful commercials anytime they were aired on television. Nigerians would agree with me that commercials done even in pidgin English (our Nigerian version of English) has more communication power, is far more entertaining and definitely more far reaching.

While it may be difficult to defend an automobile television commercial in local language, it is equally tough to justify a complete boycott of vernacular when doing advertisements for brands like food seasoning, toilet soap, milk, cereals, baby food, toothpaste, beverages, over the counter drugs like paracetamol and anti-malaria medicines. The current practice where clients and agencies produce television commercials in English but limit local languages to radio is not enough. Also, when a commercial is first written in English and then translated or adapted to local languages, the original meaning is in danger of being smudged. In fact, commercials ought to be written first in vernacular and then translated to English and not the other way round.

There is much lessons to be learnt from the Nigerian home videos. The most entertaining by far have been those done in local languages with subtitles in English. I remember Living in Bondage, the great Herbert Ogunde films, Saworo Ide and a host of others which recorded huge success among the Nigerian populace.
Those done in English simply don’t have the same magic. Script writers struggle with plot and screen play. Dialogues are often amateurish. Models find it difficult to act out their roles properly. As you watch, you realize that the actors are speaking English but acting in Yoruba or Igbo. And outside of Nigeria, people struggle to understand the words. But comedians like Baba Suwe, Osofia, Aluwe and others thrived on vernacular and pidgin. And expectedly the difference is clear.
It is a mistake to think that all the 130 million Nigerians speak perfect English or are comfortable with that foreign language.

It is equally wrong to conclude that eight key cities (like Lagos, Kano, Aba, Kaduna, Ibadan, Onitsha, Abuja and Port Harcourt) are the places where majority of Nigerians are domiciled. Statistics still prove that majority of the Nigerian population are rural dwellers. And it is this important majority that is being cheated in our advertising media strategy.

Granted, it will be expensive to produce television commercials in all three major languages and pidgin. But doing it in English language alone is hardly any better and most times represents an easy way out. Another old argument in the favour of English language television commercials is that TV is a city thing, and that the rural folks don’t have many TV sets or that power supply is an issue. Again, these are excuses. There are more homes today with colour television sets than there were ten years ago, yet there is no corresponding increase in vernacular communication through that medium.

There are more reasons why we should begin to seriously consider doing more advertisement in our local languages. Chief among them is that part of the duty of advertising is to preserve and promote the values and culture of a people, or at least reflect them. Local languages are rich in idioms, proverbs, innuendoes, puns, alliterations and witty sayings. These are gradually being forgotten as we lean more towards the English language.

I will confess to a more selfish reason as a Nigerian. More vernacular communication ensures that we protect our advertising industry from foreign invaders. There is so much off-strategy foreign advertisement being forced down our local throats in the name of globalization. This is very common among agencies which are tied to the apron strings of their international affiliate. Commercials that are so obviously culturally foreign are handed down on a daily basis. This needs to be checked. Besides, how else can we develop local language advertising without actually getting down to it? I honestly think that agencies the world over are now recycling old ideas, especially English speaking countries. There is more creativity to be explored in local languages. If handled well, advertisement done in our mother tongues holds more promise in terms of originality, comprehensibility, memorability and sheer entertainment value. Home videos are proving to us that this is the way to go. Let’s go for it!


  1. hassan aliyu Says:

    lets starts and see how effective it would be.

  2. hassan aliyu Says:

    to the market women and less priviledge individuals lets encourage that and am sure it would workout to be the best.



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