Languages of Wilder Confusion: Big Words, Big Trouble

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What I like about English,” a student pastor told me at the end of one class, “is that you have so many special words for things, so that means you can think and talk about so much more than we can in our own languages.”

Student pastors in Kagoro Seminary

This sounds fairly convincing. English has a word ‘justification’ and so it’s easy to talk about it — easier than trying to talk about the same thing in a Nigerian language, at least. It’s not just religious terms but science too: how would you teach people about hydration or polymers or anatomy. This is commonly a justification for rushing kids to English in school and abandoning the foundational languages they come with. There are no words for these ideas in the home languages and we have no textbooks (and don’t intend to write any) in local languages for children to memorise. So far, so convincing, but of course that’s only part of the picture. Leaving aside the slightly questionable Sapir-Whorf exaggerations, the argument relies for its adequacy on two questionable assumptions which no-one really questions.

  1. Education is chiefly about learning big words and regurgitating their definitions to pass tests, get a qualification and thus get a salaried position.
  2. If we all use the same terms, then we’ll all understand the same thing. Shi ke nan! (Kinda Hausa for Slam Dunk!)

I’ll leave aside the educational philosophy issue for now and tackle the second.

What’s the Ishɛ word for ‘OO gauge’ locomotive? For rolling stock?
For model trees? For ‘you’re off your head’? 🙂

Using the same terms doesn’t guarantee mutual understanding

I think it’s hard for people raised in one dialect of English to appreciate the confusions and miscommunications that can go on between dialects. Brits and Americans have long experienced being divided by a common language, where everyday items have somehow ended up with wildly different senses, implications, connotations and politeness values. But surely well defined technical terms are safe territory?

My suggestion is that while technical talk is probably often safer than colloquial talk between Englishes, it’s still a very dangerous area. The more I teach in Nigeria and the more I try to listen to how different Nigerians are using English, the more occasions I see for deeply ingrained misunderstandings and talking at cross-purposes. English has a high status as the language of education and also a longish history in Nigeria. This means that like in America, the English spoken in Nigeria has split off significantly from the mother English dialect and it is developing in its own way. For sure the divergence isn’t yet as wild as the divergence between ‘Arabics’ of North Africa, but it’s likely heading in that direction, and the sheer number of Nigerians speaking Nigerian Englishes even after the government said thank you and goodbye to foreign teachers in the 1970s, ensures the self-sufficiency and self-proparation of the language(s) without being continually dependent on British English.

(As an aside, I’ve been intrigued when Nigerians in formal papers cite dictionary definitions which differ from their own usage of a term, without recognising the difference. Nigerians use words like ‘bush’, ‘peculiar’, ‘hand’ and ‘jargon’ quite differently from modern British or American people, but will often cite dictionary definitions at the start of a paper, presentation or sermon which give the British or American understanding of the term. The lack of cognitive dissonance on such occasions is itself quite interesting to me. That is, the fact that no-one points out that the dictionary definition isn’t what people actually think, just raises more questions in my mind about whether any communication in English is actually expected to match up to reality in any coherent way. Such people are not stupid, but somehow utterly incompatible or contradictory statements can all be affirmed with equal enthusiasm when it’s in English. Nigerian friends have told me that if you want to hide something from an African then put it in writing, but I find myself wondering whether it’s as much about the language of the writing as the writing itself. Anyway, enough of that.)

An insight from Latin, French and English

English now functions in Nigeria in an analogous way to Latin in Europe from 200-1600AD. It’s the language of education. Educated people from different countries should thus be able to use the same books and understand each other perfectly well. However, when my wife studied medieval Latin, she says it took some getting used to because there was quite a lot of regional variation — much more so than in the classical Latin we learned at school. There are traces of this still in the Western European languages that have been heavily influenced by Latin, and this gives us a chance to glimpse what may well be going on when today people lean on English as a language of wider communication.

Imagine the following surprisingly plausible conversation between a Frenchman and a Scotsman:

F: “Have you been in the city centre today?”
S: “Yes”
F: “Did you see the manifestation?”
S: “What?!”
F: “Yes, there was a manifestation in George Square.”
S: “I’ve never heard of anything like that happening before.”
F: “Really? They happen very often in France.”
S: “Did you see it?”
F: “Well I passed by but I didn’t join in. I’m not very political, despite being French.”
S: “What happened?”
F: “I think it was a manifestation of victims of the holocaust.”
S: “Really? Who said they saw them?”
F: “What do you mean? Everyone who passed saw them?”
S: “You too?”
F: “Yes, certainly. It was mainly students I think.”
S: “What on earth are you talking about?”

(not a real conversation)

At this point everyone is confused and quite clearly talking at cross purposes. What’s been going on?

Latin supplies French with the word manifesto meaning to make something public. This developed into a variety of senses, but is most commonly used when referring to people making a public protest about or for some cause. English, meanwhile borrowed the same word from Latin, possibly via French, but manifestation typically refers to the visible effects of sickness or a malevolent supernatural apparition. Incidentally Italian developed the word slightly differently giving us manifesto or manifest — a list of all the contents of a container/vessel. When a French speaker uses ‘manifestation’ he means not the shocking apparition but the everyday demonstration or protest. The word is the same, but the meanings are quite different. For the French speaker démonstration is about showing people how to do something, not protesting, so it may seem odd to use the word as the English do. Again it’s from Latin ‘point out’. Both the French and English derivations are plausible, but incompatible.

I’m grateful to my French friend Fabio Morin (who I haven’t seen for years) for confusing me and letting me into this kind of misunderstanding.

Something similar to this is likely going on all the time. At some point people stopped referring to French Latin as (broken) Latin and English Latin as (differently-broken) Latin and admitted that they were separate languages and started to feel better about communicating in something called French and something called English. (OK, that’s a slight misrepresentation, but not too far off.) What’s currently unclear in Nigeria is whether there is really just one Nigerian English or multiple. What is certainly clear is that using unadapted English language materials in Nigeria is just asking for trouble, though the misunderstandings may not become apparent for a considerable time.

Education is the only tool to win all the violence
See ‘win

Implications, or
“Why can’t we just ‘teach them all English’ and be done with it?”

There are some implications for:

  • People evangelising, teaching the Bible and discipling believers
  • School and university teachers

One of the attractive features of English is the availability of textbooks in English. You can buy English textbooks produced in the UK (obviously the most prestigious), or America or all sorts of other English-speaking places. The economies of scale and the difficulties of producing high quality material locally will push teachers, schools and universities towards just using materials from outside of Nigeria without thinking of how Nigerian students are likely to (mis)understand the language, illustrations and cultural assumptions.

Not only that, but when Nigerian professors and teachers write books in Nigeria in English, they usually seem so influenced by every other textbook they have read that they too will face a strong pressure to imitate the ‘correct’ foreign use of English. Plagiarism aside it’s going to be quite hard to escape aping foreign works unless they can consciously discipline themselves to ask the question ‘Is this how I would really explain _____ if I wanted it to be understood well?’

English is not Latin, and that’s OK

Even the English speaking world is still struggling to come to terms with our language not being as ‘perfect’ as Latin. We’ve been taught not to [wantonly] ‘split’ our infinitives, or end sentences with a ‘preposition’ even if we might want to [do so]. Those rules are predicated on the notion that English is good only when it has an exact Latin equivalent. In the real world English has left Latin long behind, and the convoluted expressions brought about by the slavish application of such rules are, in Churchill’s terms, nonsense “up with which I will not put”.

So the communicator using a language which feels endebted and inferior to another has to keep his head. Hence the popular scholar and translator Tom Wright thanked his family:

“Finally, in connection with my constant attempt to write clear, brisk English, I should also mention my beloved wife and children. They have regularly stopped me from using long, fuzzy words where short, sharp ones would do instead. This book is dedicated to them in gratitude and love.”

Preface, New Testament, NT Wright, 2011 (ePub)

The ‘long fuzzy words’ are likely those beloved, meaning-encrusted ‘jargon’ jewels which promise so much but betray the user. Knowing you don’t understand someone is bad, but how much worse to think you understand but to be thinking and talking totally at cross purposes. Wright’s ‘short, sharp’ words are the common, everyday words which everyone uses so much that no-one can really confuse them.

English isn’t a panacea after all

So perhaps we’re better to own up to the actual weaknesses of English as a global language of wilder confusion. Certainly it has its place, but as Jim Harries in Western Kenya always writes (and also here and more here), perhaps those teaching in Africa would do well not to neglect the African languages that make the everyday world go round. We can use both, but we’ll fool ourselves and fail our hearers if we pretend English alone will always do the job.

Obviously I’ve written all of this in English. And it’s not been adjusted to a Nigerian audience either. Not really. Perhaps my next task will be to try saying the same thing using my shamefully inadequate Hausa or Nigerian Pidgin. Or even Ishɛ. I think I’ll need some help from friends to do that, though.

Bootnote definitions

  • manifestation
    1. French: demonstration or protest for/about some topic
    2. English: spooky appearance of a supernatural being, or the outward show of a disease.

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