Pidgin is an English-based creole language and Nigeria’s real lingua franca. English might be the official language, but the lower down the socioeconomic scale you go, people’s grasp of it declines. There are well over 250 other local languages, the most common being Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. Pidgin developed to aid communication among people from different parts of the country, and also between locals and Europeans.
Three common words
Three words which occur frequently in pidgin are na, dey and wetin. Na and dey are the verb ‘to be’ and wetin means ‘what’. It’s as simple as that, but you’ll come across them a lot.
How far na?
This common greeting means ‘How is everything?’. A marker of camaraderie between Nigerians, it is a simple, informal greeting that’s best used with people you know well, or in casual settings. The verb at the end is often dropped, so beware: if someone asks you How far?, they aren’t referring to your journey to meet them.
‘What’s up/What’s going on?’ This is another highly informal greeting – one to try out with a taxi driver or market seller, for instance. If anything, this one is even more informal than how far. It can also be used aggressively in the sense of ‘what’s your problem?’. Dropping the dey and asking someone wétin only is a good way of telling them to back off. Back it up with your best scowl.
Wétin be dis?
This simply means ‘What is this?’. Try it out when shopping in a market if you come across an unfamiliar object.
You no dey hear word
‘You’re not listening’. You might hear this in the middle of a haggling session or some other exchange and it indicates frustration on the part of the speaker. This would be a good point to pause and change tack.
A corruption of the Portuguese verb saber. Some latin-root pidgin words come from contact with Portuguese slave traders who were active on the West African coast long before the British arrived. The name of Nigeria’s largest and most well known city, Lagos, is another legacy of early contact with the Portuguese. Sabi means ‘to know’ or ‘to understand’, depending on context. For instance, ‘You sabi pidgin?’, would be someone asking if you understand pidgin, to which you can reply: ‘Yes, I sabi am’.
To expand on the sentence above, am in Pidgin means ‘it’, so Yes, I sabi am means ‘Yes I understand/know/speak it’.
This is another common word and means ‘you’ or ‘your’, depending on context (but always a plural you). For example, Una dey go school?, means ‘Are you going to school?’. It can also mean ‘Do you go to school?’ and would be used to address two or more children.
There isn’t a direct translation to English. It functions as a call to action and depending on context, can mean ‘come on’ or ‘hurry up’, similar to vamos in Spanish or schnell in German. It can also be used to cajole; oya na can mean something along the lines of ‘please reconsider’.
This one means ‘please’ and is sometimes used with na as in abeg na. Abeg, can also be used to express incredulity. For instance if you were engaged in a good old haggling session and the trader gives you a ridiculous price, you can let them know how ridiculous you find the price by exclaiming, ah beg o!
This one means ‘trouble’, similar to the way the word bacchanal is used in the Caribbean. It can also refer to stress.
Commot is an ellision of the words come and out, and is used to mean ‘leave’ or ‘get lost’, again depending on context. To strengthen the point (when trying to get rid of someone), you can add an abeg (before) and/or jaré (after) to strengthen the effect and say: abeg commot jaré! Vamoose, the less common variant, is another derivation from Portuguese.
This is an expression of surprise, similar to ‘wow’. The ‘oh’ ending is a kind of conversational tick that gets added to lots of words and phrases to add emphasis.