Language As A Political Tool For Survival In The World Of Existential Power Struggle

By Simon Aihiokhai, Ph.D. July 15, 2020

Language As A Political Tool For Survival In The World Of Existential Power Struggle

In this brief reflection, I shall explore two themes that I have been researching into over the years – accent and the use of language. The evaluation of accent is itself rooted in systemic discrimination. I find this aspect of systemic racism a bit funny because of how over the years, I hear Americans of all racial background thinking that they do not have an accent in relation to people from  other countries. One of my first exposures to systemic discrimination occurred in 2001/2002, when I was discerning to enter the seminary to study for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I was mandated by tone of the he vocation directresses to go for accent reduction lessons. Reason being that for me to actively minister in the archdiocese, the faithful have to be able to understand my accent. Here was I, a gullible know nothing young man in my twenties taking classes on how to realign my organs for speaking to meet the expectations of others who have already judged my ability to communicate as inferior to what they consider the standard form of communicating. After some months of dutiful obedience, my teacher summoned the courage to share the following with me: “Simon, i do hear you perfectly when you speak. Your accent is part of your identity. Letting go of it will lead to an aspect of you dying. You never want to do that in this country. I will inform the pastor of the parish (My teacher was working at the parochial school run by my parish in Long Beach, California) that you should not be allowed to go through such a program that was not designed for persons like you. However, if you still choose to show up for your classes, I will go ahead to teach you and also enjoy the money. Do this for me, Simon, when you speak, speak slowly and that will solve any concern anyone may have with regard to your accent.” I have lovely memories of my accent reduction teacher. She was one of the first friends I made in the State of California. However, I never showed up for that class again.

Looking back now, and with all I have come to learn about institutional discrimination in America, that experience of being mandated to go for accent reduction was one out of many experiences where I was objectified and simply reduced to a creature of accent and nothing more. Yes, Accent plays a role in selective approach to the whitening process of the job force in America. Just as many of us have also come to realize that one’s name can either open or close the door to the corporate world in this country.

My first city of residence in America was Stone Mountain, Georgia. It was there that I was first exposed to the beautiful accents of African Americans and their usage of the English language; one that speaks to the fluidity and dynamism of living languages. I have seen job descriptions in the academe where the following is stated, “Ability to speak English properly is essential to being hired for this position.” That, there, is the coded message of reminding minorities that they are not to apply for the job. I do not trivialize the need to have some command of a language. But one must never forget that the most relevant aspect of language usage is one’s ability to use it to communicate one’s message to another. Yes, syntax, grammar and so on are helpful in bringing about this purpose and usage of language. However, the fact remains; if language is dynamic, then each usage of it in a community must always be recognized as legitimate, especially when meaning is effectively communicated among all parties.

Among the languages I speak is Pidgin English. It is one of the most dynamic languages in the world. I find myself learning new rules of the language each time I visit my first home country, Nigeria; because of how dynamic this language is. The rules guiding our usage of the language is its ability to help mediate meaning between the speaker and their audience. This language originated amongst enslaved Africans in the different plantations owned by different European plantation owners in the Americas. This language appropriates vocabularies from the following languages: Native American languages; English; French; Portuguese; Spanish; German; Dutch; and many African languages that were spoken by the African slaves themselves.

We sometimes forget the following: That language and its usage by a community is not defined by universal rules, especially when it pertains to colonized or previously enslaved communities. For many years, I have been studying how language evokes, appropriates, and enforces power dynamics. All my many years of this curious study of language and its usage by either the majority or those at the margins can be summarized by the following maxims that I have developed: “FOR THOSE AT THE CENTER OF POWER, IN SOCIETY CLARITY IS THE ONLY LEGITIMATE WAY OF BEING HUMAN. FOR THOSE AT THE MARGINS OF SOCIETY, VAGUENESS IS THE MODE OF BEING.”

May I ask you a very poignant question, one that will help each of you to understand where and how you position yourself in your social locations: How do you use language? I mean are you the type that seeks out clarity? Or are you the type that is comfortable with vagueness?

Many in the western world moralize the usage of language. When one is vague, they are immediately defined as dubious, unethical, and suspicious. For many in the non-western world, vagueness allows for radical inclusivity because clarity can be threatening and does not allow for fluidity in boundary negotiations. The western usage and preference of clarity in our usage of language is radically a product of imperialistic posturing in the world. Those of us who have studied the colonial agenda of the western world since the age of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade know that many empires, kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and republics in non-western societies lost their independence as a result of how the colonial agents used vagueness and clarity as tools of exploitation. For example, the document of friendship signed between the representatives of the Unified Italy under King Victor Emmanuel  II, who was previously also the King of Sardinia, and the representative of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia under the treaty of Wuchale had two contrasting views. The Italian version was different from that of the Amharic version. This differing versions of what was supposed to be the same document will eventually lead to a major war between both countries. However,  luckily for Menelik II, he had been amassing the weapons being given to him by the Italians over the years when, as governor of one of the imperial provinces of the Ethiopian Empire, he was engaged in a civil war of succession with the reigning emperor, Yohannes IV. When disputes began over the interpretation of Article 17 of the treaty that the Italians had intentionally interpreted to mean that Ethiopia was conceding its independence to Italy as a protectorate, Menelik II appealed to the Amharic version, which never gave away the independence of Ethiopia. To address this conflicting interpretations, both nations chose to go to war. This was a calculated blunder on the part of the Italians because Italy and Ethiopia had the same type of weapons. Secondly, the war was fought in Ethiopia in a region where the Ethiopians had more knowledge of the topography than the Italians. At the Battle of Adwa in 1896, the Ethiopian army defeated the Italian army and thus reinstated its independence in the community of nations and empires in the known world.  Yes, Menelik II won his battle. But many other empires, kingdoms, and territories in Africa lost their independence due to how the western powers manipulated language and interpretation to their advantage.

Yes, Martin Heidegger beautifully stated that “Language is the house of being.” But he forgot to mention that that house can either be a prison or a palace depending on how language is being manipulated. Studying the experiences of the colonized and enslaved closely, one will discover that fluidity in the usage of language has always been a survival instinct on the part of these communities. When I first used the maxim: VAGUENESS IS A MODE OF BEING, several years ago, many of my intellectual friends in the western world disagreed with me vehemently. But I knew they had not yet engaged the insights that gave birth to my maxim. Again, may I ask you to share with me how throughout your life you have used language. If you do this exercise, you would realize that in areas of your life where you have power, you tend to use language as a way of expressing clarity. In the areas of your life where you are most vulnerable, you tend to use language as a form of vagueness. On that note, I say, vagueness is not just a linguistic tool, it is also a survival mechanism.