Regardless of the various controversies surrounding the origin of language, the presence of the existence of several widely differing, mutually unintelligible forms of human speech today is undeniable. And although many languages are radically different from one another in structure, the differences are merely apparent since each and every one of them can be used creatively. All languages possess the same creative potential.
Again a close analysis of the various linguistic groups reveals regularities, patterns and syntactic connections governing the combination of sounds to form words. However, and regardless of this, the representation of objects by sounds or words is arbitrary. The arbitrariness of attaching sounds to objects account for the different linguistic groups.
The sounds which speakers of a linguistic group use in representing ideas, thoughts, experiences and objects are arbitrary in the sense that there is nothing in the objects so called that is representative of the sound. This view that language is arbitrary and a cultural construct implies that an infant learns a language by listening to the speakers of the language of the particular community into which s/he is born; and the words used in the language as well as the particular grammar or syntax of the language have developed historically as a social product and been handed down by tradition. The idea that language is arbitrary is corroborated by various linguists:
“What we call ‘horse’, the Germans call ‘pferd’, the Frenchman ‘cheval’, the Indian ‘misatim’, and so on; one set of sounds is as unreasonable as any other”.- Bloomfield.
“I want you to remember that words have these meanings which we have given them and we give them meanings by explanations. A word has the meaning someone has given it”. - Wittgenstein.
“Language is a conventional system of habitual vocal behaviour. Before the establishment of a convention, any word could mean anything” – Yuen Ren Chao
“The fact that languages are arbitrary is sufficient evidence that they were invented. In any language, there are conventional ways of combining words to express the relations between ideas. There is no systematic correspondence between the forms of language and its meanings.” – Englefield.
The point to glean from these is that all languages are equal to one another insofar as they perform the function of aiding communication among humans within a given geographical formation. Hence one of the worst disgraces of colonisation, African scholars have said, is the destruction of native languages. The colonialists came in with the impression that everything about Africa is dark and therefore evil – from our skin colour, languages and up to our cultures generally. The impression was that we were inferior to the Whiteman. We must understand that every language is as good as the other. Every language spoken is essentially a tool for communication and once a language performs that function well, then it is as good as any other. Some people think that we are necessarily and eternally condemned through historical exigencies to the use of the English language. This to me is simply false. That we have, up till this time, failed to develop our indigenous languages to the level of creating with and in them is a fact but this has been due to negligence on our part or inability to see the worthwhileness of pursuing vehemently such a task, rather than being an inherent weakness in the languages themselves, neither is it too late to begin from now to do the needful.
Our fathers and grandfathers had very little or no contact with the English man and his language but that did not affect their creative capabilities. They enjoyed their lives to the full, at least within the context of the social milieu in which they lived, and when the English language did eventually come to them, it was more of a distraction and interference than an asset. This much the late professor tried to describe in his widely read Things Fall Apart.
A point to note about languages is that embedded in them are all sorts of indications of bygone cultures. This is why historians and especially anthropological linguists pay special attention to the study of different languages, in order to see through into a people’s past. Hence when we study and understand a language, we invariably learn about the history of the people who speak that language, and with it a profound acquaintance with their contemporary culture. It is also worthy to state the role language plays in knowledge acquisition. There is an intimate connection between knowledge and language because knowledge is a body of ideas, concepts and theories about what there is, expressed in one language or another. Man’s ability to pass knowledge from one generation to another is only possible because of the availability of language. Language has the capacity to represent objects and entities with abstract signs and symbols.
As paradoxical as it may sound, it is also instructive to note that language has a limiting influence on knowledge. There is the view that language directly influences or limits thought and thus determines reality. This is what Ludwig Wittgenstein has systematized into the famous “Picture Theory of Language” with the catch phrases “The Limit of My Language is the Limit of My World” and “What we cannot say, we cannot think either”. Language, curiously has also been described as a mirror, a weapon, and a shield. In this perspective, the position of Sapir and Whorf on the relation of language to thought and behaviour is that language is a “symbolic guide to culture” such that “a change of language can transform our perception of the cosmos”.
We also need to mention the point that language is an evolutionary phenomenon – in other words it is still evolving or developing. Just like culture which is dynamic, language is also dynamic. The dynamism of language is decisively determined by the dynamics of the life experiences of the speakers of the language.
If the speakers of a language do not expect to see a particular word or situation, there will be no word for it. We need to also emphasize on the role language plays in knowledge acquisition. In fact, there is an intimate connection between knowledge and language, because when we talk of knowledge, we are talking about ideas, concepts and theories all expressed in one language or another.
Man’s ability to pass knowledge from one generation to another is only possible because of the availability of language. Language has the capacity to represent objects and entities with abstract signs and symbols. Again, knowledge is best acquired only in the context of one’s own language or mother tongue. It is more difficult to absorb and understand a concept in a secondary language than in one’s first language. This probably explains the challenge of education in Africa considering the fact that students are not taught in their mother tongue but in colonial languages. Even the national policy on education formulated by such eminent scholars as Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa, which among other things, stipulates that the medium of instruction in schools, at least during the formative years, should be in the child’s mother tongue, only exist on paper.
Language is a social product invented by human beings, used by them but again and as paradoxical as this may sound, it is true that the same human beings who invented language also has the capacity to limit and ultimately kill it. How? By simply seizing to speak it! A language cannot be above or live beyond the people that speak it.
By Emmanuel Ogheneochuko Arodovwe
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