Broken English

« previous post | next post »

Just called a taxi from the Graduate Club at 155 Elm St. in New Haven, CT.  The service was completely automated.  I did not speak to any human being.  The taxi arrived within one minute, before I could walk out to the street!  It was uncanny!  The taxi driver had no contact with a human either.  He simply saw on his monitor that a customer was waiting for him at the Graduate Club.  He turned the corner from the street he was on and was waiting for me when I came out.

The driver was from Nigeria.  He spoke pretty good English, said that he had been in America nearly 20 years.  I asked him what the national language of Nigeria is and he said, "There are three:  Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, but everybody speaks Broken English".

"What?" I asked incredulously.  "You call it 'Broken English'?"

"Yes," he replied. "That's what we all call it.  Even the president calls it 'Broken English'.  Educated people can speak proper English, but most people prefer to speak Broken English because we feel more comfortable that way."

Dumbfounded, I asked him to give me an example of Broken English.

The taxi driver immediately said, "You de [pronounced like 'day'] come now?"  He explained that this is equal to "Are you coming now?", and one could also use the variant "You go come now?"

According to Wikipedia, English is the official language of Nigeria.

That Nigerian taxi driver made my day!

It was 9:15 a.m.  I gave him a big tip (making his day), dashed into New Haven's Union Station, sat down on one of the massive wooden benches in the waiting room, and began writing this post, then ran to catch the 9:39 train to Philadelphia.  "I go come now!"



"Broken English from Ahnold?" (11/11/03)

"John McWhorter responds" (1/29/15)

"Decrying Dialects and Despising Speakers" (1/11/17)


  1. empty said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 10:57 am

    This reminds me of the kind of English that Gerald Durrell speaks with the Fon of Bafut (in Cameroon) in "The Bafut Beagles".

  2. JB said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 11:24 am

    The BBC has been providing its service in Pidgin English for some time now, see

  3. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 11:27 am

    For about two years I knew a Nigerian who was a student in the United States. His English was so heavily accented that it gave the distinct impression of not being the first language he had learned or the language he knew best or the language he felt most comfortable in.

    After a few months, I asked him whether he knew any of the other languages of Nigeria (I carefully avoided asking him what his native or his best language was lest he take offense at what might be considered my intrusiveness).

    He said he knew only English.

    Still later, when he might have by then forgotten my question, he told me that more and more children were being born in Nigeria to couples who had no other language in common than English.

    I now realized what was happening: couples were raising children in what for them (the couples) was for each spouse a language she or he did not know well and the children, being excellent imitators, as children learning their first language always are, had acquired their parents' second (or third?) language as their native language without acquiring any skills in any other language of the country.

  4. jfruh said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 11:57 am

    @Suzanne Valkemirer — I had a similar experience on an intercity bus of all places, where a man from Nigeria asked his American seatmate to look over some of business documents to make sure they were in "American English." His seatmate was happy to do so, and at the end of their conversation he asked the Nigerian what his native language was, and he replied (more amused than angered as far as I could tell) "English."

  5. bulbul said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

    What the gentleman refers to is known to linguists as Nigerian Pidgin English (described e.g. by Nicholas Faraclas and Dagmar Deuber). Whether it's a proper pidgin or a creole is an open question at the moment – it is spoken mostly as a second language, but there are some indications that in some southern parts of Nigeria, people learn it as their first language – but it is quite obviously related to Atlantic English-lexifier creoles like Sierra Leone's Krio or Cameroon Pidgin English.
    As for the glossonym, well, there is a project that seeks to investigate the current status of the language, NaiJaSynCor, which collected about 500.000 tokens worth of spoken data (including radio programmes and radio dramas) which I, being involved in the project, am currently working on. The term "broken English" is not used by any of the speakers in the corpus (though I've heard it elsewhere), the term Pidgin English is used when referring to it, e.g.:

    Delta State a di South South area of Nigeria | Pidgin na one of di languages weh | everybody dey talk | if you wan know general language weh everybody sabi for di whole South South na Pidgin English language

    Note e.g. the copula "na" (cf. Sierra Leone Krio "na"), the aspectual auxiliary "dey" (as in the driver's example), but also the verb "sabi".

  6. The other Eric said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

    Yes, Nigerian Pidgin (commonly referred to as “Brokin” [sic]) is a variety of a language, creolized among some speakers, used in Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon, and by the BBC for their broadcasts aimed at that region, as mentioned by JB above.

    De pronounced like “day,” also written dey, is a progressive/locative marker.

    Many creolized varieties are of course considered simply “bad” versions of their lexifiers by the speakers themselves, and the language spoken in the Torres Strait Islands, which is similar to PNG’s Tok Pisin, is also known locally as “Broken English.” Other commenters may know of similarly named creoles.

  7. John Swindle said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    This creole was also discussed here:

  8. Chas Belov said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

    @JB: Odd, I would expect that there are many Pidgin Englishes in the world. I would have expected the BBC to specify which one they are using.

  9. Rob Wilson said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

    A fairly widespread pidgin English in central and southern Africa is Fanagolo "based primarily on Zulu, with English and a small Afrikaans input"

  10. Brett said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

    How far, my brother?

    No shaking for me. Miracle is on the way.

  11. chips mackinolty said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 5:12 pm

    @The other Eric. The Torres Strait Island creole is indeed known as "Broken English", commonly shortened to "Broken". For many years the most popular rock band in Ngukurr in south east Arnhem Land was named "Broken English". Ngukurr is home to the widespread north Australian creole known as Kriol.

  12. Chris Button said,

    July 22, 2018 @ 9:00 pm

    The taxi driver immediately said, "You de [pronounced like 'day'] come now?" He explained that this is equal to "Are you coming now?"…

    … but it is quite obviously related to Atlantic English-lexifier creoles like Sierra Leone's Krio or Cameroon Pidgin English.

    My wife's family on her father's side comes from the English speaking area of Cameroon and that is exactly how they would say it there too.

  13. B.Ma said,

    July 23, 2018 @ 3:59 am

    Suzanne Valkemirer's comment rings true for me too, since my Cantonese father and Teochew mother communicated with each other in English, and by extension, also used this language with me.

    Had I grown up in the PRC or even Taiwan I suppose Mandarin would have been my main language, but my parents would never have met or even existed if my grandparents did not depart China when it looked like their future was bleak.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    July 23, 2018 @ 5:19 am

    Broken? Interesting. I knew it as Rotten English; that's how Ken Saro-Wiwa, who wrote at least one novel in it, called it.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    July 23, 2018 @ 9:23 am

    Many decades ago I had a colleague from India, who spoke fluent, but to my ear lightly accented, English. I asked him once what his native language was, and he said "Indian English".

  16. Jonathan said,

    July 23, 2018 @ 10:07 am

    I recognize this type of English from listening to Fela Kuti.

  17. ajay said,

    July 23, 2018 @ 10:24 am

    "There are contingents sixteen nations in this task force," I was told once, "and the official working language is bad English".
    Indeed it was.

  18. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 24, 2018 @ 2:41 am

    @Robert Coren:

    I once met a Pakistani guy who insisted that he spoke proper English, whereas AE and BE are substandard variants. In particular, it is an error to realize "ch" and "j" as affricates. He appeared to be perfectly serious.

  19. julie lee said,

    July 26, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

    @Robert Coren:

    Re. "Indian English". My brother (who is Chinese) has a real knack for mimicking different foreigners speaking English–he can imitate a Russian speaking English, a Beijing native speaking English, a Frenchman speaking English, and so on.

    I was telling him the other day that whenever I call Google, Yahoo, Apple, or HP to talk to a computer technician about some problem with laptop, printer, or Google, etc., I always seem to get an Indian. I recognize the accent.

    My brother said, Yes. Said that once when he got an Indian technician on the phone to fix a laptop problem, he put on his Indian English, and was taken for an Indian When asked where he came from, my brother said "Bangalore", and then they just hit it off. It was a warm, friendly session, like between fellow nationals, with my brother and the Indian technician both speaking Indian English.

  20. Eidolon said,

    July 26, 2018 @ 9:15 pm

    The list of countries where English is an official language is quite large. Variously:

    Many of these countries are former European colonies. Others include countries with large English speaking populations, or which have adopted English as a shared language because there was no native lingua franca, and thus English became the practical compromise.

    There are also many cases where English is not the primary language, but is the language of higher education, and thus a necessary language for all educated persons.

    Suffice to say, all of this contributed to English becoming the modern international lingua franca.

  21. Eidolon said,

    July 26, 2018 @ 9:27 pm

    The list of countries in which English is either a de jure or de facto official language, especially with respect to higher education, is quite large, and has contributed significantly to the phenomenon of English becoming the international common language. But as the Nigerian taxi driver so astutely recognized, all English is not alike, not even within the same country. Often times, "proper" English is only spoken by highly educated urban elites. The rest of the country get by with a variety that is closer to a pidgin, but which through a process of nativization, will become the actual primary languages of populations. By the end of this century, we may be speaking of an English language family, rather than English-based creole languages.

  22. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    July 27, 2018 @ 8:40 am

    Somewhere in his publications, Pierre Delattre (1903-1969) noted that he knew a native speaker of English in France whose French was excellent (morphology, syntax, vocabulary, and style) though her pronunciation was atrocious (I cannot recall exactly what pejorative adjective he used to describe it but it was quite a strong word).

    After my post appeared, several posters here have mentioned pidgins. I would like to clarify that the Nigerian student I knew spoke good English except that his pronunciation was so unusual (at least to my ears) that I could not help surmising that English was not his first language. As it turned out, it was his first and only language.

RSS feed for comments on this post