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The Crazy Pidgin Language That Unites Africa's Megacity

The Crazy Pidgin Language That Unites Africa's Megacity
Reuters

The metropolitan area of Lagos, Nigeria, is already home to more than 20 million people, and that number may soon be much larger. Recent estimates suggest that Nigeria's cities could grow by more than 200 million people by mid century. With people moving in from all over the country and the continent, Lagos has become a cultural mixing pot. With this cultural mix has come a literal grab-bag of languages and dialects.

But for people in Lagos, the mix isn't a problem. As this recent article from the Guardian explains, a fusion language has developed:

In Nigeria's megacity of Lagos, where the country's 500 languages come together in a chaotic medley, the rapid-fire rhythm of pidgin is the symphony of the streets. Africa's largest country is a sometimes fractious mix of 160 million inhabitants divided into 250 ethnicities. But street hustlers and Harvard-educated politicians alike greet each other with: "How you dey?" or "How body?"

The reply can range from a chirpy "I dey fine" to a downbeat "Body dey inside cloth," (literally meaning "I'm still wearing clothes"). Officially known as Naija, Nigerian pidgin is spoken by tens of millions across the country. Current affairs, English and local languages are brewed together to dish up playful imagery at breakneck speed.

For a little taste, this video from the Naija-speaking Nigerian radio station Wazobia is an example of the English-tinged pidgin language:

Catch any of that?

As hard as it may be for a non-Nigerian to understand, this language has filled a crucial role in the country where 40 percent of adults are illiterate. Having a language that can be shared across hundreds of different cultures is a major unifier. It would be hard to imagine Lagos developing into the megacity it is if people couldn't communicate with each other.

This dictionary offers a few common phrases:

Get road: 1. Right of way while driving e.g. Na mi get road but e come shunt me. 2. Delusions of grandeur e.g. See poor man dey waka as if na im get road.

Spoil: Talk badly of someone behind their back. e.g I hear as you dey spoil me for dat party.

Big grammar: Long and difficult English words. See Blow Oyinbo.

Take eye see: Look without touching e.g why you no fit take eye see Gulder i.e Can’t you see a bottle of Gulder without wanting to drink it?

Na so I see am o!: That's the way it is.

Hear di smell: Smell the aroma.

Reach: 1. Arrive e.g. Which day you reach? 2. Afford e.g. Na dat one my hand (pocket) reach.

Image credit: Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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