THE POLITICS OF LANGUAGESeptember 28, 2000
From: Chief Adetola Adeniyi
In the beginning was the Word, and the WordThroughout the ages, the Word has always being regarded as a potent weapon. All societies, all cultures, all races, all religions allocate unparalleled reference to the spoken word. The spoken word is communication's most prominent vehicle, its conveyor of images, the ogbonno soup that draws its amala through the esophagus to the stomach. When chanted, the word becomes incantation; when rhymed and undulated, it becomes a song; when solemnized, it becomes a prayer; and, when vulgarized, it becomes an offence.
was with God. And the Word was God.
Idioms, proverbs, puns and onamtoepea are all built with uncanny use of the word by master craftsmen, architects who draw pictures with words as a spider weaves its web. Every situation, every effort, every object, virtually everything that the mind conjectures has a word that best describes it, and yet within the same scenario, two words, one favourable and the other less flattering may be employed to describe a single object or express a single sentiment. And this is where the politics of language begins.
Language is defined by the Collins 'Compact English Dictionary" as a system of spoken sounds or conventional symbols for communicating thought, the language for a particular nation or people, the ability to use words to communicate. It is also defined as any other means of communicating, for example, the specialized vocabulary used by a particular group like legal language.
And it has long been established that language is the singular most important component of a people's culture, since culture itself is defined as the " ideas, customs and art of a particular society or civilization at a particular period in time". This is why cultures ascribing superiority to themselves usually impose their languages on cultures perceived as inferior. An example readily comes to mind: Immigrant Italians or Ukrainians residing in the US or Canada have been so assimilated that even their thought processes, I mean their minds, are anglicized. The only thing left of their originality is the Italian or Ukrainian blood in their veins and their food culture. This example applies to all societies that have been colonized or have submitted themselves to cultural imperialism to the extent that Nigerians in this gathering generally think first in English before conveying a Yoruba, Igbo or Fulani thought, or the thought of some of the other 247 ethnic nationalities that make that great African giant, Nigeria.
If you want to destroy a people's self -esteem, all you need to do is to destroy their language; make it impossible for them to discuss amongst themselves in a language incomprehensible to their new captors their masters. Thereafter, put your own language into their mouths, and then let them grow up as your caricatures.
The other day, America's Bill Clinton was in Northern Ireland, and he said, "I am an Irish living in America." But nobody believed him. I doubt if he believed himself. Even though Americanism is a vulgarized sub-culture of the British, of which the Celtic descendants were a part, everybody knows the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh and the Corneal people had all lost out to the English, the Anglo-Saxon 'super race' of the world.
Which now brings me to the kernel of my treatise today, the POLITICS OF LANGUAGE: the all- pervading power of language to manipulate and, depending on whose purpose it is meant to serve, to unleash unmitigated dehumanization on its victim.
Let us look at a long list of words and expressions: western world, hard currency, developing world, terrorists, hard-liner, moderate, reform, secular, portico, single parent, sexual orientation, white people, black people, yellow people, red people, first world, third world, anti-Semitism, free market economy, bribery and corruption, tribe, ethnic, leprosy or Hanson's disease, fat and full bodied, accent, international community, werapons of mass destruction and so on and so forth.
Can any one in this gathering define for me what is called Western world and what qualifies any region of the world, or a group of political entities to call itself 'west'?. If the terminology 'west' is geographical, then all the countries that lie to the Western hemisphere qualify to be called the western world, in which case all countries on the west of the meridian including Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, Algeria, are in the west. But the truth is; the west really implies the west of Europe, but as many people of Western Europe began their heavy migration to the Americas, especially to North America, it became fashionable to group everyone of Western European descent, wherever they may be, even South-east Asia where Australia is situated, as belonging to the 'west'. Then the word Europe was dropped, and for hegemonic and racist purposes, the word 'west' sticks. All other words of supremacist intent then followed in torrents. 'First World', which of course includes Japan because of her status as the world's second biggest economy, and excludes Africa, the real FIRST world where the first human beings ever lived, and China, the second most ancient civilization known to man. China had invented printing a thousand years before Europe even ever heard the word! Look at the ludicrous term 'Hard Currency'! Which currency is made of hard metal, and which ones are made of tissue paper? The word 'hard' is meant to conjure superiority even at a time when the American dollar was two to Nigeria's one naira.
Working as a journalist in the US in 1979, when the stadium that hosted the 1994 Olympics was undergoing construction, I said to my editor, 'What's happening?' And the guy replied innocently, 'We are developing our stadium to meet international standards.' So, I said, 'You too are developing!' Bulgaria was involved in heavy developmental projects in 1980/81, so I told the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce who were my then hosts in Sofia, ' So you too are a developing country?'
The truth of course is that every country of the world is developing. Man stops developing only when he dies. All the world's societies keep developing, but it is within the purview of language manipulation to make one people immerse themselves in perpetual inferiority by running them down with the tag 'developing'.
The same selectivity applies in the world of real politics. When Somalia had the same ethnic rivalry or civil war which also engulfed the former Yugoslavia, the leaders of various ethnic groups in Somalia were called 'tribal warlords', while the same warlords in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia were called 'Generals' of the 'ethnic' Bosnia, the 'ethnic' Albanian. This time, they were not 'tribes' but 'ethnic'.
It becomes the more infuriating when those for whom these abuses in language are applied also help in propagating the slanderous manipulation. Someone once asked me which 'tribe' in Nigeria do I belong to, and realizing the guy was from Norway, a nation of less than five million people, I said Norwegian tribe! How can you, or anyone for that matter refer to the Yoruba nationality of 37 million people within the borders of Nigeria, and some 47 million world-wide as a tribe. And the people of Luxembourg, a country of only 381,000 [three hundred and eighty one thousand] refer to themselves as an ethnic.
Or, looked at another way. How do a people accept to be labelled 'people of colour', or the 'coloured' people? Like I said at the Annual General Meeting of the Writers Union of Canada in Kingston Ontario , "Whose skin is colourless?" Every human's skin is coloured---- brown, pink, whatever. All human beings on the surface of the earth are coloured.
Basque terrorists in Spain, or the murderous terrorists in Northern Ireland are hardly referred to as terrorists. They are Basque separatists in Spain or the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, but elsewhere outside the supremacists' clan, its terrorists in Palestine, terrorists in Peru, terrorists in Colombia. But no, McVeigh in the US is not a terrorist, hundreds of assassins sponsored by the CIA on missions abroad to terrorize and destabilize other countries and other governments are not terrorists according to the politics of language.
One more example. Reform. Reform means : 'toe the American line'. Be Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American in political, social, economic and religious liberalism. You must 'reform' your values so that every other society should be just like America which produces a half million under age mothers every year. Muslims must not adhere to the tenets of their religion, no; to do so would make them 'hard-liners', 'conservatives', 'fanatics'. It is okay to have the Christian Democrats in power in Germany, but not the pro-Islamic party in Turkey. It is okay for Catholic fanatics and Protestant terrorists maiming and killing in the name of religion in Northern Ireland, but is not acceptable to the 'civilized' world for Shiites and Sufis to settle scores in Iran or for the Algerians whose election victory was annulled in 1992 because Islam is a threat to certain sensibilities.
Yes, the word accent. Every human speaker has an accent. It is not an abuse. It is not anything to be ashamed of or be apologetic about. A german speaking in English would naturally have his English laced with a German accent. There is the Quebec accent, the Calgary accent, the Mississippi accent, the Texan accent, and of course the rich melodious Fulani accent. In every society, in every nation, there are as many accents as there are people who speak a language, for after all, accent is a product of voice modulation.
In the 'Western' world, it is okay to give huge sums of money to lobbyists [substitute bribe givers and corrupters] who in turn give the money to parliamentarians and ministers to buy influence to the advantage of your company or to secure huge contract for you. Which reminds me of the Tory members of British Parliament who demanded and accepted bribes from companies to help such companies make inquiries from government. It is all within the armpit of lobbying, a clever use of words!
In conclusion, I wish to make an appeal to writers worldwide to be faithful to the use and employment of language, and resist the temptation of carrying all age-long prejudices [which language has been used to foster ] into the 21st century. And in making this appeal, I include all those who use language as their primary tool, in whatever language to heed this plea: there should no longer be a 'kololo', a 'Gambari', an 'ngbati', a 'Yanminrin' or 'Kobokobo'.
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