In an incisive article published in ‘The Punch’ and a few other platforms on Sunday, lawyer and professor Chidi Odinkalu examines the concept of what is arguably the most popular entry in the Nigerian English ‘dictionary’: japa. This is how she expresses it in the piece poetically titled ‘Japa: the verb that became a noun’.

Odinkalu does justice to the socioeconomic importance of the japa rebellion, but I must confess that it is the linguistic aspect that interests me the most. The reason is that he inspired the urge to make some observations and grammatical suggestions about the expression. I also consider it symbolic that the class is starting on this note this 2023.

One or two words?

The way we (Nigerians) extracted the term from the Yoruba language, as well as the way it is commonly spelled, is arbitrary. This will become clearer when one understands the dynamics of the way it is written in the source language, which is a bit different. I hope this analysis will influence the way some of us handle ‘japa’.

In Yoruba, as in many other languages, an adverb is written separately from the verb it modifies. So, it’s with ‘ha ha’. Here, ‘ja’ (to run) is the verb, ‘pa’ (away) is the adverb. Therefore, the Yoruba speaker or writer with a good knowledge of the language will write:

Or you ha ha (He has escaped.) Not ‘O ti jápa’.

Mo fe ha pa. (I want to run away.) No ‘Mo fé jápa.’

Gbogbo noòsì Nàìjíríà ló ti feè já pa tán. (Almost all the Nigerian nurses have run away.) Not ‘Gbogbo noòsì Nàìjíríà ló ti feè já pa tán’.

It is in the same way that the Yoruba will write:

Or you know it. (She has run away) No ‘O ti salo’.

O fe sa danu. (He/She/It wants to run away.) No ‘O fe sadanu.)

Japa as a noun or adjective?

Yes. The question must be asked: What if the expression is used as a noun or an adjective? In the original Yoruba setting, it will be declined as haha, hahaha either ìjápa (not ìjàpá the turtle!) In the English context, however, this is where the first option applies, with the two words together, with or without the aid of a hyphen.

Remember that it will no longer function as a verb and adverb, but as a noun that is now the subject or object of the clause (the verb is no longer modified) or as an adjective that describes another element of the clause:

Japa is all the rage now in Nigeria. (A noun)

Japa is the language on everyone’s lips now. (Noun.)

They talked about japa on the show. (A noun)

When two or more words are joined to form an adjective in English, the hyphen is usually used. This is how the punctuation mark becomes relevant here as well:

The ja-pa syndrome should worry any serious government. (Adjective)

The bank manager has joined the ha-pa train. (Adjective)

On italic?

Since japa or ja pa is a Yoruba expression, it is also good to put it in italics, especially in formal writings. This tells your reader that it has been borrowed and that you are not using it with impunity. Also, there are probably still billions of people, particularly outside of Nigeria, who may have never come across the word, or the way it’s used here, but who can find your article.

So, you don’t imagine that everyone is aware of what the term means. What this further suggests is that you may need to, as intelligently as possible, explain what the word means in context, by employing square brackets or hyphens, such as by putting (Nigerian expression meaning to flee or instant relocation) after the term.

So while ‘japa’, as it is widely written, is an expression that hit the market before scholars or even the dictionary, making it difficult or seem like a losing battle to control how it is used, consider the following suggestions:

  • When used as a verb, write ja pa.
  • As a noun, leave it as japa.
  • As an adjective, write it as ha-pa.
  • Be sure to write the expression in italics, especially in formal writing.
  • Define/explain it intelligently, especially in formal writings because it is a term yet to be formalized from another language.