Addressing a problem with a problem through linguistic shyness
AREWA AGENDA – Nigerians tend to be so decent that we often shy away from calling certain things their names just so that we do not appear immoral or amoral. A caption on a television programme today reads: MOTHER EXPRESSES SHOCK OVER DISCOVERY OF 11-YEAR-OLD SON’S ADDICTION TO ADULT FILM.
Books, magazines, films with no artistic value, but that describe or show sexual acts are called pornography. The choice of adult film as used in the caption is A COMMON ATTEMPT AT AVOIDING CERTAIN NAMES BY NIGERIANS IN A BID TO AVOID IMMORALITY.
On the contrary, such avoidance of certain lexical items only promotes the immorality we hope to avoid. There is something magical about knowing the labels to things and phenomena. They help achieve a clear picture of such things and properly ruminate on them.
This is why people who incantate in Yoruba are sometimes heard saying “they’ve known the name death is called so death cannot kill them”. Knowing names and calling things by their names promote clarity. It explains why even an English idiom says “call a spade a spade”.
Ours is an environment where children are made to refer to the penis, vagina and breasts as “things” rather than being called what they are. Many Yoruba would even prefer the onomatopoeic description by referring to the penis as “piun piun”.
I even recall sadly how my biology teacher in SSS1 killed my joy of learning the topic I had long anticipated: REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM. My brothers had told me the fun that comes with learning that topic when private parts are openly mentioned in clear terms and I had looked forward to that for years.
Sadly, my born-again teacher made the topic boring by deciding to code the words for private parts. She would rather say “a woman’s thing” than say vagina. Our girls have now been grown into teenagers who would rather say “he touched my thing” than say he touched my breast.
Avoiding the names things are called do not in any way strengthen moral standard. It rather creates obscurity in a child’s mind. I will round off this with the story of a mother who told the child not to let a man see her pants. The daughter was climbing a tree in school one day and she remembered what her mother told her.
She rushed down the tree, went to a corner to remove her pants then returned to climb the tree with no pants on. The mother could have straightforwardly told the girl not to engage in sexual intercourse at an early age.
It is similar to the story of a father who warned his daughter not to ever let a man climb on her. On the daughter’s first sexual experience, she insisted to be on top of the man in order not to disobey her father.
Words should be used with precision and information should be passed with clarity. Do not lie to young people that there is nothing interesting about sex. Tell them sex is fun but then it is worth waiting for.
Using language appropriately contributes in no small measure to achieving a decent society. Language scholars have talked about the ABC of communication. Be Accurate by calling a spade a spade.
Be Brief as words are like leaves and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found. Be Clear so as to avoid misinformation and misdirection.
Dr. Bamgbose (Dr. GAB) is of the Department of English, LASU.
Arewa Agenda is a publication of young writers and journalists from Northern Nigeria geared towards peaceful coexistence and national development through positive narratives.