Sun, 08 Dec 2013 Feature Article

When a Dictionary Enters the African Head

When a Dictionary Enters the African Head

When he was a member of parliament at the Nigerian National Assembly, Hon Patrick Obahiagbon excited the House with what Nigerians call 'Big grammar.' He would plead for a “tsunami of developmentalism” instead of increased development projects in his constituency. When something was not going well, he called it a “veritable bugaboo”, instead of just saying 'I don't agree with a point of view'. When his colleagues accused him of speaking English the way he likes, he called them political halleluiah boys who favoured “legislative rascality and parliamentary gambadoism”. He was asked to apologise, but he sounded even more grandiloquent–and incomprehensible, finally ending his submission with an “unreserved apologia” for “enveloping his audience in a state of ogamoga”.

At a point, nobody understood whatever he said, perhaps except his very intelligent self. His constituency, Edo Sate, had had enough of what the Speaker of the House called the “incredible manner in which he controlled the English language”, so they removed him. But they would remember him for his description of the Nigerian democracy as cabalocracy-government of the cabals, by the cabals and for the cabals. Nobody would also forget his trademark expressions of “syphilitic parochialism,” “epileptic nepotism” and “cancerous tribalism.” The most popular was “ogodomigodo.”

Recently in the Ghanaian parliament, a minority spokesperson used the word 'surreptitiously' in way that was perhaps most surreptitious. In the heat of the exchanges, the minority walked out, after the spokesperson had floated the Speaker's instruction to retract and apologise for the use of the word. But the surreptitious use of the word 'surreptitiously' was most tolerable compared with K.T Hammond's conduct and use of insulting adjectives on the floor of the House. If the members of Nigerian National Assembly would struggle to understand Obahiagbon's 'gambadoism' and 'ogamoga,' Ghanaian parliamentarians would also have some difficulty making sense of K.T Hammond's use of 'stupid', 'foolish' and 'palpable nonsense.' Talk is not as cheap as we say; it is the misuse of talk that makes our communication 'ogamoga' (difficult, incomprehensible, unintelligible or whatever Hon Obahiagbon meant).

While most grammarians and language puritans would think the internet and the smartphone may have negatively affected our proficiency in English, especially written English, others say the English language is changing for the better. By its very peculiar development, the English language is so open to changes, gradual or drastic. When we read “Hwaet, We Gardena in geardagum” in the Beowulf olde English dialect, we genuinely looked troubled even though the context often gave a few pointers for some comprehension. It was easier in Chaucer, because the words were more familiar: “himselve” “knowe.” Well, when you read 'go to' or 'making the beast with two backs' in Shakespeare, they meant something quite different. 'Go to' would be a dismissive “go away' while 'making the beast with two backs' is what the Vandals of University of Ghana's Commonwealth Hall refer to as 'munching' or 'getting laid' in North America.

Today, the university student would textspeak instead of simply speak or write the correct form taught by E.B White in The Elements of Style. The first time I read a text from my sister, I sincerely thought she was writing Beowulf: “Hp ur fyn. Thx 4 lst 9t. Hi to ur wyf lol.” White and present good English campaigners like Martha Brockenbrough, the founder of National Grammar Day in Seattle, would cringe at these staccato forms. How much energy does anybody save by writing 'wyf' and 'fyn' instead of 'wife' and 'fine'? And why does everything sound funny lol? Where is the wisdom in 'Lmao' or mdfskkk (meda fom sere kwakwakwa) when all we have done is to sacrifice all the writing rules we have learnt since we became familiar with the parts of speech?

While very few of us have Hon Obahiagbon's capacity for 'big grammar', not many speakers of English would like to speak or write that way. We have graduated from the 'big word says it all' in our secondary school days, when it was fashionable for the dining hall prefect to quote Nietzsche or Plato just to warn junior students not to take food out of the hall. When you sounded incomprehensible and difficult, you were brilliant and scholarly. You often got away with a laughable word like 'menempenem' or 'catacum' because your audience didn't care much what meaning you sought to convey. It was time for somebody to speak, and they waited to be entertained by the most confused rhetorician who didn't care much about the ethos or pathos of his own rhetoric.

Well, the days of the big word may be over but we are still confronted with even bigger problems such as punctuation, capitalization, register, parallelism and collocation. The puritans say scholarship has fallen so bad the English language would not be salvageable if the iPhone textspeaker and the IPad wielder continue to sacrifice the rules of the game with such impunity. The modern email and text message format requires less than half the energy we used to handwrite a letter on a writing pad for the reading pleasure of our friends in another school. Today, a Facebook or twitter message would do just fine, with greater efficiency and immediacy. If those fail, there is whatsApp, Viber, magicjack, Tango and many to save us time and spelling effort. These applications come with templates of what to say when running late for a meeting, complete with spell checks and other comforts. Suddenly, life is very easy.

This communication revolution has been so rapacious that fastidious grammarians and fierce language critics appear to have been tamed by the very comforts of the things they would usually strike out with their red pens. The English language of today is part of the culture of the day. Who do you blame for having a device that completes our thoughts just as we start thinking? Well, Hon Obahiagbon would call it a 'veritable bugaboo' but we are far better sending a misspelt tweet than writing ogodomigodo.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
[email protected]