The power of words

power of words

Between September 11 and 14, 2023, the English Scholars’ Association of Nigeria (ESAN) under the leadership of Prof. Tajudeen Surakat of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, organised its 38th annual conference at Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos. The theme of the conference, “Language, Literature and Communication Studies for Peace, (In)security and Development in Nigeria” was roundly acknowledged to be apt, topical, relevant and thoughtful.

As keynote speaker at the conference, it was an opportunity for me to reflect on the power of words that is often taken for granted since language, literature and communication are united by the use of words to make things happen. To wit, language, literature and communication share a symbiotic relationship as each depends on the other for relevance. Without language, there is no literature and there is no effective communication in the absence of language. Besides, the chief function of language is communication and literature is language in action.

To imagine a world without language is to imagine a world of darkness and backwardness. Modern civilisation would not have arisen at all without language. This is because, as noted in Adedimeji (2005), the only reason Pythagoras was able to tell us that a2 = b2 +c2 is a right angle triangle; Newton, that acceleration is a function of force; Einstein, that E = mc2; and Charles Boyle, that volume is a function of temperature and pressure is a function of volume was because they had the means of communicating these ideas through language. Those ideas and others like them changed the world!

The world we live is a reflection of the words we use and the world will be better and safer if language users, literary artists and communicators at large use words more positively. Nigerians rant, curse their leaders, abuse their fellow citizens, verbally attack their neighbours in real life and online and they expect Nigeria to be paradise, which is a bit silly. Americans, on the other hand, say God bless America even when they are hurt.  Words become action, actions become habits, habits become character and character becomes destiny, to paraphrase Lao Tzu.

The power of words lies in the fact that they build and destroy. Words make and mar. Words save and kill. As I recalled in the said keynote address, words alone saved the life of author Laurens van der Post, the British Army Intelligence Officer who was saddled with the task of organising guerrilla resistance against the victorious Japanese army in Java, Indonesia, during the early period of World War II. He carried out the assignment for four months before he was captured by the enemy. He lived to tell his story:

“Our small force had been surrounded by the Japanese during the night. A Japanese lieutenant shrieked an order; a platoon of Japanese fixed their bayonets and charged straight at me, moving in a close circle. I raised up my hand and then out of my irrelevant past came a relevant word. There are many degrees of polite speech in Japanese. The politest form of all came unbidden unto my tongue although I had not spoken Japanese for sixteen years. I called out a phrase which can be translated as: ‘Would you please be so kind as to wait an honourable moment?’ The advancing soldiers stopped dead. Amazed, the other officer walked up to me, pushed the point of his gun into my navels and asked, ‘Was that Japanese you spoke?’ And so, my life was saved,” van der Post wrote.

Words are so powerful that the kind of language we use, hear or read, shapes, to a surprising extent, the world we live.  Many years ago, Newman Birk and Genevieve Birk in their “Understanding and using English” (1959 p.3) memorably noted thus: “Mere words can make and prevent wars, create understanding or inflame prejudice, form constitutions or destroy them, sell shoddy or superior products or ideas, justify man’s worst actions or express his highest ideals.”

Undoubtedly, if the potential of words is fully harnessed to promote positivity, advance literacy, and project best practices, the result will be peace in its inner and outer dimensions. If words are appropriately used in literary and creative works, from books to movies and music, to teach values and virtues, there will be security and stability. If words are purposefully used to entrench social justice and stimulate hard work, there will be development.

It is through words that wars are declared and ceasefires are pronounced. It is through words that tension is heightened and nerves are calmed. It is through words that democracies are preserved and autocracies are legitimised. It is through words, complemented by action, that Nigeria will become a country of our dream.