On Language


So let's talk about language.

Language is the slyest thing I know, and that includes some people I've met whose sole mission was to find out your secrets and reveal them to the rest of the world. You can't hide, language will expose you. It will tell everyone who you are, where you come from and what you believe me. Don't believe me? Oya, let's do a small test. I enter a public bus in Lagos but I call it an 'araba' instead of a 'danfo', you can tell I grew up in somewhere north of the River Niger. When I have to write in the third person, I use she when I'm talking in general, make whatever conclusion you will from that. The way you pronounce my name gives me a general idea of where you're from and the rate of exposure you have; as I live in Lagos, I meet a lot of people who call me what I think of as the Yoruba version of my name (Inkeshi or its variants, instead of Nkechi).

Recently, a colleague was trying to explain that she was late because she was taking care of her baby, and unlike the other relatively new mother in the workspace, her mother “runs a buka, canteen, restaurant” leading me to hound her. I wanted to know which one it was and why the way she describes it makes a lot of difference. It's an odd thing language; odd in the sense of how a collection of alphabets, what really is an ascription of meaning has come to mean so much in so many different ways that we sometimes get paralyzed by its meaning and its implications.

In those far off days when I was still a semi-serious academically minded person, I did a paper with a theory whose name I have long since forgotten. The gist of it though, is that meaning in not created in isolation. Meaning is ascribed to everything subjectively, based on values we believe the society has bestowed on the particular thing we are attempting to define. So if all language is subjective and nothing has an intrinsic value or meaning, why do we kill ourselves on and for the things we say?

The concept of political correctness has fuelled many a social media debate. Accusation and counter accusation of political correctness (or the threat thereof) have had so many people hold back on opinions, one could be forgiven for assuming all some people care about is European football, American celebrities and Big Brother Africa. My question is this, who died and made you the Queen of Language? To paraphrase Nigerian musician Falz the Bahd Guy, someone cannot talk to you, is that how you use to do?

And while we are on the subject of languages, can anyone please explain to me why we feel the need to use language like a weapon of mass or small scale destruction? If a person’s command of English language is not up to your standard, does that mean you should get out your verbal guns and take aim ni? Abi are you Mama Charley’s cousin? Attacking a group of people or even just a single person because they are not quite up to your standards just strikes me as a way to invite chaos to your village dance. And if you think that’s a fun idea, ask the brothers from the folk tale who decided to ask Ekwensu to settle their conflict. Spoiler alert, they’re still feuding till today.

Then there is the concept of dirty words, when and how did they play in the mud and get dirty? Did someone throw the dirt at them or are they constituted by dirty alphabets? What does that even mean?

In the midst of all these questions, I seem to have somehow derailed from my original subject, so let me quickly get back to it because if I ramble too much, my power might go out before I make my point or points. Anyway, language is an expression of shared meaning that in and of itself has no value. So if the values of language – and by extension, society – are something we came up with ourselves, we can change these meanings when they cease to serve the function for which they were created.

And if you think I’m using language as a not-so-clever metaphor for society, clap for yourself, you get the giant gold star. You are what my grandmother would call pikin wey sabi!

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