If you are a linguist like I am, chances are that you have come to appreciate the value of words. Politicians with savvy know too well that politics is about weaving words like a spider and getting all others but oneself caught in the web. Words evoke emotions; they help us to think clearly. The power or words lie in the fact that they are the most potent instrument for control. Man has not been able to invent a better means. Words never fail, they cannot fail if we know how to string them together, if we apply them with the right dose of passion and if we learn how to pamper them and tease out the juice in them.
Words can also be terrible if we fail to understand them. For instance, it is a taboo to break words because they are like eggs, you cannot put them back together. You don’t also throw them at others because they can harden on contact with the hearts or men and become missiles thrown back at you. The greatest thing about words is that they are poor servants sometimes, they can tell stories which we do not intend. They reveal the secrets of our hearts in such remote and dark places which even God may not have been to. I am more fascinated at how words tell stories about our lives and our society. For instance, a poor man gets killed, a rich man or person of substance is murdered, a politician or ruler is assassinated.
What is the difference in real terms? Someone just got erased and has ceased to perform the aging progression. The right word to use then depends on the value placed on the life by society. Imagine what you would think about meat if goats are murdered not slaughtered. I will not eat the meat of murdered animals. Euphemisms help man to make light words that would otherwise evoke serious emotions. Thus, a person who has “kicked the bucket” or “passed away” has experienced perhaps less death than one who has died. In fact, “going to sleep with the Lord” is a better way of breaking the emotions than simply talking about dying. Armed robbers don’t say they will kill you; they tell you that they will “waste you”. Words can be deceptive. Sometimes we deliberately make them so to cover up our pain. In politics today, when government says “we are going to leave no stone unturned…” It means that they are not going to do anything about a situation. But we believe that something is going to be done even though no such thing has been said. What has stones got to do with it anyway? “Government will bring offenders to book” means that the offenders are above the law or that government is the offender. If there is an offender and he or she is known, the name of such offender ought to be mentioned. The term is a mask, but one which allows government to achieve its plans. Talk tough, but take no action. Once a name is mentioned, then a commitment to justice becomes inevitable. There are many other words and expressions. The police “bares its fangs”. The police are not a dog, except otherwise the police dog is the real police. But fangs are more associated with snakes. That is the point. You evoke fright and in an ironical way show that the police are a green snake under the green grass.
What are the differences between kpekere and plantain chip; groundnut and peanuts; guguru and popcorn? It depends on how you feel, the image you want to cut for yourself and who you are talking to. Words are notoriously deceptive. All over the world, the recognition of the potency of words is the beginning of political wisdom. You do not say that something said by a person of higher status is a lie. Big men don’t tell lies. At worst, it is untrue or full of contradictions. People are diplomatic not dishonest, they compromise not capitulate; negotiate not sell out – especially when this is in the interest of peace. Compromise is a virtue but collaboration is a vice. But really who says? You can deceive a person or trick him as long as you do not use those words. It is better to say that you persuaded him or her. If you implore, you are not considered weak but to beg is a disgrace. Only a common person steals, if he employs some force, he is an armed robber. But a big man commits fraud, misappropriates funds or misapplies it. There is some class when you do this. That is not all; there is a difference between insurgency, rebellion, rioting, terrorism, struggle depending on who is telling the story and from which angle. One man’s terrorist is another woman’s freedom fighter. A suicide bomber on CNN is a martyr on Aljazeera. Wonderful world of words! In the Niger Delta, Ijaw youths have grown from armed bandits to rebels and are now referred to as terrorists; quite some promotion within a short while, or a demotion, depending on whom is saying what. But they are heroes to those who share their beliefs. An “axis of evil” can easily be seen as an “orbit of righteousness” depending on whether you are George Bush or Osama Bin Laden. It is not so bad if you are gay – it sounds attractive but being homosexual evokes negative emotions. Homosexuals and Lesbians want to marry but many argue that marriage is a contract between a man and a woman. If we change the word, will this allow them participate?
Imagine human eggs being harvested, or people talking of stem cells. Are we trees? Maybe people are just too scared to feel like trees. Terms like alternative lifestyles shield unpleasant things from the open. In Africa, traditional people disappear but they are zapped or are beamed in science fiction. You transform into different shapes if you had juju or are a powerful witch; but in a world of scientific gadgets one will speak of morphing. Are witches mutants? Can men get pregnant? Finally, why do animals copulate and humans have sex? Even though the former show more discretion in the business. Words are clay; we simply mould them into subjective shapes.
Sometimes, languages have no words for normal occurrences in society because they are so unpleasant that no one wants to talk about them. Those things we would like to keep in the closet. What is the word for rape in your language? If there is no word, perhaps there is an expression. You may also want to find out what the term for incest is. Some men don’t commit adultery and boys are never loose and men are generally never prostitutes, such terms would have no reference to men but women only. What we don’t name technically does not exist.
Professor Francis Egbokhare teaches phonetics and phonology at the University of Ibadan. He has held important administrative positions in the University. He was head of Linguistics and African Languages Department and Director of The Distance Learning Centre.