A Gal’s Successful Attempt at Taming the Yorùbá Tongue
I learned from a very young age that people judge you based on two things when making their first impression of you: 1) How you sound/talk, and; 2) how you look/dress. As I surmised this while under my parents’ wings, I didn’t have so much control over the latter, so I began to, at a tender age, work on the modifiable one — the former. Also, luckily for me, my mom did her best to make sure that we were dressed niftily, so there really wasn’t anything to significantly change in that area.
My moment of epiphany regarding how much work was needed in my speech pattern came when I just got into high school. Having lived a somewhat sheltered life in Lagos, it was to be the first time I would be mixing with people from different walks of life — I would eventually spend six years of my life with these people. This school setting happened to be a boarding school for girls only. In high school (all hail FEGGO girls), you quickly learn about the social pecking order; people with similar interests (and often social status) form cliques. For example, they were the Catholic gals; the Londoners (those who travel to London for summer holidays); the Ibadan gals (see, I schooled in Oyo, so this was a given); the Ibo gals (significantly huge overlap with the Catholic ones); the Lagosians (yours truly was a minority member); the Unbels/bubbler jingos (colloquial term for the non-religion conforming gals. In retrospect, it must have been a group for those searching for the truth, and I no longer see anything bad about this); and the Day students (these were our mules; they helped transport contrabands and yummy treats across the border [From town to school]). I have always been a firm believer in mixing with people and not confining myself to one clique, so I moved around these circles of groups, especially those that would have me when I needed them.
From my short stint with the Catholics, I learned how to pray the rosary (I was also gifted one), I attended block rosary and was conveniently absent during the lent seasons. With the Unbels, I experienced the wanton freedom to sing secular songs and borrow copies of their lyric books — those were the days before the Internet, you see. The more I infiltrated other groups, the more I learned about a disease we ‘ Yorùbá-speaking’ gals suffered from; this disease called the H-factor. I was surprised after realizing I also suffered from the H-factor as well. Apparently, not even spending six years in a posh international primary school (Kabma-F International School), considered one of the best in my neighborhood, conferred the innate immunity against such an affliction.
For those not familiar with this issue, the H-factor is when certain words (typically h-free words, mostly words beginning with vowels) are pronounced as if they had ‘h’ in them and conversely (and conveniently) removing ‘h’ from words that begin with ‘h.’ It’s a typical manifestation usually observed among the Yorùbá people — an ethnic group of southwestern and North-central Nigeria as well as southern and central Benin, together known as Yorùbáland. Examples of H-factor manifestations include saying ‘hegg’ instead of ‘egg,’ or saying ‘amburger,’ instead of ‘hamburger.’ It wasn’t until I got into high school that I realized I had such an issue as well- no one told me this for the last 10 years of my life, and to say that I felt betrayed would be an understatement.
Thus, why I have since become the poster child and spokesperson for imbibing oneself in cross-cultural experiences. What made it even more embarrassing was how it was revealed to me — during an argument with a non- Yorùbá friend (now ex-friend) who pointed out how I mispronounced a sentence, which then made everyone else present burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Unknown to me was the fact that it was my pronunciation of a word that caused the risible situation, but like how foolish I can be at times, I kept arguing and defending the spelling. Of course, this didn’t help my case as it caused them to laugh even harder. It took one of the mockers pointing out the situation to me before I realized I had an H-factor. In a placating (and seemingly condescending) way, one of the gals said something about me not beating myself too much about it, that it was common with my people — the Yorùbás. Not one to sit on their laurels, I decided there and then to begin my rehabilitation out of the H-prison. After that life-changing moment, the H-factor is all I pick up from my Yorùbá counterparts; and I should also mention here that though this issue is common in Yorùbás, not all Yorùbás are affected by this.
I worked hard to mask this factor, and it accomplished two things for me: 1) Improved my confidence level while speaking; and 2) Made me more mindful of every word I uttered. It wasn’t an easy feat to achieve initially as I had to speak much slower than I normally would whenever I was about to pronounce words especially beginning with vowels. It’s been almost 20 years since my ‘aha’ moment, and I think I’ve come a long way since then. Although every now and then I drop the ball, especially when I am stressed, angry, or animated. During such vulnerable moments, my H-factor seeps out like that fart you’ve tried holding in for too long and ends up punishing you for such ‘unlawful confinement’ by announcing itself loudly in a room of people whose opinion (and respect) matter to you. But for the most part, you can label me as a rehabilitated H-factor ex-convict.
The Scientist in me has a lot of questions as to why the H-factor is a thing peculiar to my tribe, and I am still searching for answers. I have read somewhere that it’s because the Yorùbá words don’t usually begin with ‘h,’ so we don’t know how to pronounce such words. But this reason ONLY explains why we pronounce words beginning with ‘h’ as if the ‘h’ was missing but does not explain why we add ‘h’ to words starting with vowels. I crave the indulgence of the phonology experts to crack the code on this. But pending then, I think we need to start to think of the bigger picture here. People with ‘H-factors’ shouldn’t be judged or looked down upon, especially if you consider that language is a social construct, and your speech patterns are highly determined by either your geographical region or immediate environment. And while some Yorùbás have been largely discriminated by their H-factors, did you know that this is not only a Yorùbá issue?
I speak a bit of French, and I have interacted with French speakers from France and from French-speaking countries like Congo and Cameroon, and I can tell you the H-factor force is strong with them as well, at least when they pronounce some words. Another relatable example is with South Koreans, who often find it difficult pronouncing English words with /r/l/ or /z/ (the consonant ‘z’ does not exist in any of the 24 Korean jamos). When /z/ occurs at the end of a sentence, they often devoice it to an /s/ or a /ʒ/ sound. They also have the /p/f/ factors, so words like Sophia /Só-fy-ah/ or chef /shef/ are pronounced as /Só-pi-ah/ and /shep/, respectfully. The Hausas have the /p/f/ factor too and the Hispanics pronounce /j/ like /yod/. So, what I am saying, in essence, is that people shouldn’t be criticized for sounding one way or the other.
Language is an expression based on factors that are often beyond a person’s control. So, if you find the ‘r’ factor of a French-speaking person romantic and pleasing to the ear but something inside you dies when you hear someone with an H-factor, then you may need to check yourself. H. Jackson Brown said it best and I must agree with him that:
“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.”
Loosely translated, this could mean that those who have H-factors or other related factors just have a way of expressing common words differently. And for this reason, they should be commended for their efforts, or don’t you think so?