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Naijá (Nigerian Pidgin)

written by David Esizimetor and Francis Egbokhare

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Nigeria has a population of more than 162 million people (July 2011 United Nations estimate) scattered across its 923,768 square kilometers of swamps, forests and savannahs. The country is an amalgamation of ethnically diverse groups of people speaking well over 500 different languages.

The country was first visited by European explorers and traders in the mid 15th Century. And this marked the beginning of an extended contact between the indigenous peoples of coastal Nigeria and visiting groups of Europeans.
The Portuguese were the first group of Europeans to visit and explore coastal Nigeria, especially around the area now known geo-politically as the Niger Delta. They started trading with the people of the region from as early as 1469AD. They established strong diplomatic ties between some of the great kingdoms of the region and Portugal.

They established schools and churches where they taught Portuguese and the doctrines of Christianity in the region. And this brought their language close to languages of the Niger Delta for an extended period of time. This, of course became crucial to the evolution of Naijá, which started out as a Portuguese-based pidgin in the Niger Delta.

Since the Niger Delta region was made up of diverse communities of Annang, Edo, Efik, Ibibio, Igbo, Ijaw, Isoko, Itsekiri and Isoko speaking peoples with no known or well-established common language of communication, it was therefore easy for many Niger Deltans to learn the Portuguese-based pidgin of the Niger Delta at that time.

After the Portuguese left the region, the Dutch followed and traded at the eastern end of the region for about half a century. They were then followed by the French who visited the region intermittently till even after the English arrived in 1650 AD to take effective control of trade in the region.
The English were initially interested in trade. But between the 1700s and the 1800s, this initial interest metamorphosed from trade to religion, from religion to education, and to a colonial focus. These changing interests came to mean change for the language situation of the Niger Delta.

With the introduction of English into the Nigerian environment, the existing Portuguese-based pidgin of the Niger Delta started evolving in the new direction of the language of the new politically dominant group, the English. In time English, the language of the English, supplanted Portuguese as the major lexifier of Naijá. By the 1900s, the now stable English-based Naijá started spreading across the emerging Nigerian nation.

And by the time Nigeria gained her independence from Britain in 1960, the language had not only become popular among those who could not speak standard British English but became commonly spoken among the multilingual populations of the big cities. Today the language has more speakers than any other language in the country.

Attitudes and Use

Nigeria is one huge and complex multilingual community with several different languages used within the public and private social space from city to city in Nigeria. This has made it possible for several different lingua francas to exist across Nigeria. But in the last twenty or thirty years, Naijá has become one of the most important, most widely spread, and perhaps the most ethnically neutral lingua franca used in the country today.

Current estimates show that around 5 million people speak Naijá as first language while over 75 million people use it as a second language in Nigeria and in Nigerian Diaspora communities in Europe, America and other parts of the world. 

Although English is still remains the country’s official language and the language of education in Nigeria, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba prominently feature as regional languages in the northern, eastern and western parts of the country respectively. But Naijá is not just endemic to the Niger Delta area alone, it is also widely spoken in many of the country’s big cities, tertiary institutions, police and military formations and the sabon-gari areas of northern Nigeria.

Though the language is still often stereotypically described as ‘Pidgin English’ or ‘Broken English, it is accepted by most people as a very useful language for public enlightenment campaigns, radio and television programs, inter-ethnic communication, commercial advertizing, sitcoms, stand-up comedies, popular music, religious music and for conducting common everyday business transactions in many parts of the country.

While the status of the language has improved tremendously as a language that can be used for serious purposes, only a small body of literature exists in the language. There are ongoing efforts among local linguists and writers to see that this aspect of the language is developed, especially since 2009 when the Naijá Langwej Akedemi (NLA) proposed a harmonized orthography for writing the language and adopted Naijá as the name for the language that was hitherto known as Nigerian Pidgin.

Recently, a number of linguists and writers have proposed Naijá as the best candidate for resolving the national language and national identity question in Nigeria.



Naijá is open to a lot of influences from English and local Nigerian languages, especially from Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and the Edoid group of languages spoken in the Niger Delta.

While much of the vocabulary of Naijá is derived from English its major lexifier, the rest of the vocabulary come from its other contributory languages such as Edo, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, as well as a significant contribution from Portuguese. See the following examples.


From English:



‘to eat/to consume’


‘door mouth area’






‘throw away’


‘to speak’


‘to walk’


From the Edo:





‘plantain chips’




‘vegetable oil’


‘a big problem’


From Hausa:



‘to destroy’


‘a tall person’


‘cola nut’


‘horse whip’


‘spicy grilled meat’


From Igbo:



‘corn starch /pap’






‘second-handed item’


‘a water spirit’


‘pumpkin leaves’


From Yoruba:



‘tie and dye’


‘herbal medicine’


‘a prostitute’






‘happen/take place’


From Portuguese:






‘to know’

Naijá also has many words from English that came into the language in their plural forms. Among the most widely used are:





skul fis

‘school fees’





BACK TO TOP           BACKGROUND               GRAMMAR 



Naijá has its own sound system that is very similar to those of other English-based creoles of West Africa. The language also has its own spelling system. This spelling system or orthography was adopted by the NLA in 2009 as the harmonized way of writing Naijá. Note that all Naijá spellings used here are given in that spelling system.


Naijá has a sound system of seven oral vowels - a, i, e, ɛ, o, ɔ, u, alongside their nasalized counterparts.  These sounds are conveniently represented by the letters <a>, <i>, <e>, <o>, <u> in the writing system, where <e> represents both [e] and [ɛ] and <o> represents both [o] and [ɔ]

The symbol ɛ (a forward facing epsilon or Latin small letter open E) is similar to the sound of ‘e’ in English bed while the symbol ɔ (a backward facing small letter c or Latin small letter open O) is similar to the sound of ‘aw’ in English law.

The language also has about four common vowel sequences or diphthongs - ai, ao, iɛ, ɔɛ or their variant forms used by speakers of the language.

And the language does not make distinction in the pronunciation of some words originating from English. For example, bit for bit/beat; ful for full/fool; kot for court/cut.


Naijá has about 22 consonant sounds that the average speaker uses in combination with the vowels and vowel sequences in producing sounds that are typical of the language. These consonant sounds are distinctly represented in the writing system by 22 Roman letters and their combination - b, ch, d,  f, g, gb, h, j, k, kp, l, m, n, p, r, s, sh, t, v, w, y, z.

<ch> is pronounced similar to the ‘ch’ in English chat, <j>is pronounced similar to the ‘j’ in English judge, while <sh> is also pronounced similar to ‘sh’ in English shoot. Both <gb> and <kp> are evidence of the influence of Nigerian languages on Naijá, for example: agbo (Yoruba) ‘herbal medicine,’ kpako (Yoruba) ‘hard/someone of poor background’, kpekere (Edo) ‘plantain chips,’ ogbono/ogbolo (Igbo), ‘slimy soup’.

In many words derived from English where ‘th’ sounds exist, they are usually realized as ‘d’ and ‘t’ in Naijá. For example: dem ‘them’, di ‘the’, tink ‘think’ and tank ‘thank’.


Naijá is a tonal language. That is, the pitch of different syllables in words, which could be high (H) or low (L) are often used to create a difference in the meaning in the language. Tone affects a significant group of words sourced from English and other contributing Nigerian languages. For example:

babá (LH) ‘an old man’

bába (HL) ‘a barber’

fadá (LH) ‘a Catholic priest’

fáda (HL) ‘a master at something’

igbó (LH) ’marijuana’

ígbo (HL) ‘a member or language of the largest ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria’

papá (LH) ‘daddy or father’

pápa (HL) ‘an old man’

BACK TO TOP            BACKGROUND               VOCABULARY




Naijá has grammatical features that are similar to those of many Nigerian languages and significantly different from those of English.

Word Building

Naijá lacks the typical inflectional word building system found in English and other European languages. New words in Naijá can be formed mainly by derivation. Among the commonest word building processes in Naijá are compounding, reduplication and zero-derivation.

Compounding involves the combination of two or more existing words into a new word. This process can apply to words sourced from English and other Nigerian languages. Words from the same or different source languages can often be compounded into a new word in Naijá.



‘a women who fries and sells bean cakes’


French + English



Edo + English

‘a bouncer at  a club,  a thug or hoodlum’


English + English

‘traffic jam’



‘one who shows he knows too much’

In Reduplication the same word or part of the same word is repeated in the formation of a new word.



‘in large number’



‘a male household servant’



‘someone who thinks he or she knows everything’



‘someone who about aimlessly or without any destination’ or ‘a prostitute’

 As for Zero Derivation, it is a word building process whereby a word changes function or is converted to another word without changing the physical form of the word. This process affects words sourced from English and other Nigerian languages.

baz (verb)

‘to smoke’                 

baz (noun)

‘a stick of cigarette’

bulala (verb)

‘to flog ’

bulala (noun)

‘a cane or whip’

dagbo (verb)

‘to fake a document’

dagbo (noun)

‘a fake document’

Naijá also lacks the inflectional word-building processes common to English verbs like    -s, -ed and –ing, which are fused to the verbs to mark tense and aspect. Instead Naijá employs the use of separate markers like bin (past tense marker), de (progressive marker) and don (perfective marker), while the modal is indicated by words like go (‘will/shall’), fo ( ‘would/should’ + ‘have’), fit (‘may/might, can/could’).

And unlike English where inflectional markers such as –s, -es or –ies are affixed to nouns to indicate plural, a separate marker like dem is used to mark plural in Naijá. However one may often hear some educated Naijá speakers using English-like inflections to indicate plural.

Basic Sentences

In some basic sentences the verbs dé (‘is/are at’) and ste (‘stay/live’) are frequently used to indicate position or location, as in the following examples.

Mi dé maket.
‘I am at the market.’

Mama dé Legos
‘Mother is in Lagos.’

Mama de ste Legos.
‘Mother lives in Lagos.’

While the verb get (‘has/have’) is often used to indicate ownership of a thing, sabi (‘know/understand’) is another verb that is often used to indicate knowledge or understanding.

Di man get moni.
‘The man has money.’

Wi get am plenty.
‘We have a lot of it.’

Dem sabi mi.
‘They know me.’

Mai pikin sabi di maket wel-wel.
‘My child understands the market or business very well.’

Many sentences in Naijá are structurally and semantically similar to those of many West African languages.

(NAIJÁ)  Fie   de kach        Jon.
                 fear   is catching  John
                 ‘John is afraid’

(EDO)      Ohan mue            Ejoni
                 fear    is-catching John
                 ‘John is afraid’

(NAIJÁ)  Madalin     fat   pas        Meri
                 Magdalene fat surpass  Mary
                 ‘Magdalene is fatter than Mary’

(EDO)      Madalin       kpolo  se            Meri        
                 Magdalene   fat       surpass  Mary
                 ‘Magdalene is fatter than Mary’

Negative Constructions

Negation is commonly achieved in Naijá with the negative markers no (‘not’ or ‘do/did not’) and neva (‘has/have not’).

A no kom.
‘I did not come’
Wi no go kom.
‘We will/shall not come’

Meri neva chop.
‘Mary has not eaten.’

Dem neva du am.   
‘They have not done it.’

Focused Constructions

These are grammatical constructions in which a specific part of a sentence is emphasized. To achieve a focused construction, Naijá employs the focus marker na, which is similar in form and function to those of many Nigerian languages as well as other West African creoles.

Na yu a de tok to.
 ‘It’s you I am talking to.’

Na bush-pig mai papa kil.
It’s a wild-boar my father killed.’

Na naif Jon tek kot fish.
‘It’s a knife John used cut the fish.’

Na polis kach di tif.
‘It’s the police that caught the thief.’

Na hu de die?
‘Who is it that is there?’

Serial Verb Constructions

Serial verb constructions are a part of Naijá as much as they part of many West African languages. In such construction, a string of verbs or verb phases are linked together n the same sentence without an intervening conjunction.

A     bai        shu   giv   mai broda
1SG bought shoe gave  my  brother
‘I bought shoes that I gave to my brother.’ 

Jon   tek   naif   tek   kot  di   yam.
John took knife took cut  the yam
‘John used a knife to cut the yam.’

Di  pikin we  de         chop mango de         go.
the child  that PRO G eat     mango PROG  go
‘That child that is eating a mango as he is walking away.’


BACK TO TOP           VOCABULARY            SOUNDS



Agheyisi, R. N. (1971) West African Pidgin English: Simplification & Simplicity. A PhD Thesis Undertaken at the University of Stanford, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Egbokhare, F. O. (2001).  The Nigerian Linguistic Ecology and the Changing Profiles of Nigerian Pidgin. In Igboanusi H. (ed.) Language Attitude and Language Conflicts in West Africa. Ibadan: Enicrownfit Publishers.

Elugbe, B. O. and A. P. Omamor (1991). Nigerian Pidgin: Background and Prospects. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria PLC.

Esizimetor, D.O. (2011). A Study of the History and Structure of Naijá Words. A paper presented at the Meeting of the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics (SPCL), 2-6 August 2011, Accra, Ghana.

Faraclas, N. (1996). Nigerian Pidgin. London, New York: Routledge.

Ihemere, K. U. (2006) A Basic Description and Analytic Treatment of Noun Clauses in Nigerian Pidgin. Nordic Journal of African Studies 15(3): 296–313.