AFRICAN LANGUAGE AS AN ADEQUATE DEPICTION OF AN ADEQUATE AFRICAN REALITY
EVOLVING ON ADEQUATE YORUBA LANGUAGE
This chapter will examine Godwin Azenabor’s view that the particular language used to report African philosophical temperament is insignificant as long as the temperament reported is acceptable. The chapter argues that what is important is the fact that one must be communicating with the audience to be address. The implication to this is that Yoruba language like every other African language including the ideas and belief of the people is thrown into relegation and a whole lot of things about the conception of reality in Yoruba language will be lost
In the current chapter an attempt will be made to further Makinde’s view that African languages are underdeveloped was also examined. It was noted that the underdevelopment that African languages were accused of, is only relevant when one compare them with other languages but since every culture is dynamic, such dynamism will be taken into the culture’s language.
The current chapter will examined Makinde’s view that African languages are underdeveloped. With regards to Yoruba language, the chapter will argue that inter-cultural influences can help to develop Yoruba language better through the assimilation of basic concepts.
1.1 Language, Culture and Reality
As human beings, the function that language plays in our lives cannot be overlooked. It is a necessary condition for human existence since humans are all members of a culture and because this so, one of the components of a culture is the language in which its members communicate their ideas. Besides being a means of communicating our ideas, language is also a means of thought. The thought that it seeks to communicate is of course influenced by the cultural context into which its thinkers belong. Each and everyone have a differing frame of thought, before even taking cultural factors into consideration at all. It is this kind of reasoning that underlies the contributions of the Milesians who were of the same society and still postulated different things in their attempt at apprehending nature. It is the same reasoning that lies behind the thoughts of British Empiricists, Locke, Berkeley and Hume as well.
Thus, it is established that our language is a necessary condition for philosophical thought. It becomes impossible to think, believe, or to act or even to be conscious without a language. Hegel wrote in his preface to his Science of Logic: “It is in human language that the forms of thought are manifested and laid down in the instance”[i]. For Micheal Dummett,
Language is the expression of what the speakers want to express, that is, their thoughts and experiences. It is commonplace to hold that language is a medium of communication and also a vehicle of thought[ii]
Since our world includes our thought as well as our reality, whatever thought we may have, it will be impossible to capture concepts that are alien to once culture with the language. This is because even attempting to think about alien ideas to one’s culture requires the usage of one’s language as a basis of conceptualization. Even Noam Chomsky mentioned that the “possession of human language is associated with a specific type of mental organization”[iii] so that whatever mental organization allows one to think beyond the confines of his/her culture, is only in connection to our language. Much like in the complex ideas of John Locke which explain language as the combination of several simple ideas in the mind of the perceiver.
One beliefs and intentions cannot really be articulated, not even in behavior, unless they are expressed through language and same goes for cognitive states as well. That language enables us to communicate our ideas to others does not imply that this process of communication is one of simplicity. An individual may convey different modes of thought in different ways. At one point of time, the adult may use language to assert, at other times to state objective facts or convey information, for instance, “the weather is changing for worse”, “bodies fall to the ground”.
The relationship between language and culture is a complex one due largely in part to the great difficulty in understanding people’s cognitive processes when they communicate. Language does not exist apart from culture, from the socially inherited assemblage of practices and beliefs that determines the texture of our lives.[iv] The fact that one uses their language to capture our reality in different ways enables it to affect our communication. Since language is tied to cognitive ability, and it is in an attempt to communicate ideas which themselves are mental events that one employ language. It is therefore natural that differences as well as disparities should emerge out of our attempts to capture our reality. On another ground, it is true that reality is subjective to individuals and is just “out there” for us to apprehend, but the language with which one attempt to apprehend this reality is of a subjective character and if it is the only means through which one could adequately capture Yoruba reality, then there are bound to be differences, since language being subjective can be employed as pertaining to the mind-frame of each user. More or less most people agree that language is, in some way, a system of symbols related to entities in the world (as they are represented mentally) and to the connections between them.[v]
1.2 Language, Thought and Reality: The Yoruba Thought System
Having asserted that our language is indeed a reflection of our world, there is an attempt to examine the connection shared from the perspective of the Yoruba language speakers.
There has been a debate about the nature of African languages and whether they represent a sufficient means of capturing African reality. While some hold that language may be important in this relationship, one will be reluctantly reminded of the fact that the reality that one seeks to capture is one that is objective in nature, and because it is objective it is universal. As such, whatever language one employ is not the point, but the fact that it attains universal acceptability as well as understanding. Some hold that African languages are not a sufficient means of capturing African realities, and because they are not, there is a need to develop a universal African lingua franca through which the communication of ideas that brims in an average African may be given a continental acceptation and understanding.
Most if not all indigenous African languages have been accused of being underdeveloped, and because they are, they are unable to adequately contribute to several fields it is felt they can contribute in. The fact that they are underdeveloped thus has made it such that concepts in these languages can hardly be successfully translated into those of a different culture, or to be able to accommodate foreign concepts that ordinarily members of the culture can relate with and ought to be able to be assimilated in the culture. The inability to successfully effect translation has rendered it impossible to be able to view these cultures as being as advanced as they really are. Inability of translation for most people implies some inadequacy of whatever language cannot be translated.
The problem with this position however is that during attempts at translation, Yoruba culture rigidly want to hold onto the identity and whatever concept that one wants to translate is coming from the original owners of the concept. Forgetting that the reason why such concept if alien to the resident African language is due to its not being a part of the African culture, showing the inability of the language to capture it. Ordinarily, if a concept exists in in a culture, and is original to such culture, then it is natural for the linguistic mechanisms of that culture to be able to capture it. But if the concept is alien to some culture, then for as long as we are attempting inter-cultural and so inter-linguistic translation, then one must to some extent be ready to let go of the rigid identity with which it was brought into the indigenous African culture in order that it may be captured by the language. It should be noted that the purpose of this reduction in strict identity is not to alter the identity of the concept, but to be able to accommodate in some other language which will already have it represented in a way that differs from how it is originally recognized.
Therefore, that a concept lacks adequate translation is not as a result of the inadequacy of the secondary language, but because of the inability of the speakers to take note of the above mentioned point. Regardless of this, it has been noticed that some languages lack some basic syntactical abilities that is thought ought to be primary to any language. For example, the Yoruba language represents a female as oun in speech, so that when we want to for instance mention that “she ate it” we say oun lo ję. When however the pronoun is in its male form, when we want to say “he ate it”, the Yoruba language does not recognize any difference between any of this senses of usage. So that it is also referred to as oun lo ję. It is due to instances of examples such as these and some others that such language is deprived any linguistic credentials worthy of a standard language. It may then be concluded on this ground that as much as such language is used adequately by its speakers to represent their reality within their culture without controversies or misgivings, it cannot function adequately outside of this culture. It simply will not meet the standards set by other “standard” languages with which it might come in contact with.
For Makinde, he had claimed that individuals are an effect of whatever culture into which they belong, and because they are then it seems natural for these to be reflected in their perception of reality. Including how they perceive other people’s cultures as well. But there is an inability of African languages to be able to capture adequately concepts that themselves employ as typified by the pronoun case cited above, and those that are brought into the culture as a result of cultural influence like mathematics. This inability has impaired majorly the ability of Yoruba philosophers for one to be able to pass across what qualifies as African philosophy in their own languages.
It is this inability of language that renders it inferior in contrast to some “superior” language. One should however note that the case is that of an attempt to juxtapose two different languages, and as far as our claim of language as an adequate tool to depict reality goes, two different tools of depiction. For people to even consider an attempt at comparison, it is for no other reason than due to the fact that a difference is discerned, if one now seeks for similarity even amidst this difference between languages, it contradicts the initial position. For it has been established that language is a mental systematization of thoughts, it is unlike the reality Yoruba language purport to report, subjective and because it is subjective it cannot adhere to the objective reality of some other culture for which it was not initially suited to cater for. It might not be the best course of action to attempt to use the standard of some other language considered “superior” or more advanced to juxtapose some other “inferior” language and hence claim that it is on the grounds of its inferiority inadequate and lacking.
It is a sociological fact to say that the best way to understand a people’s culture, way of life and thoughts is through their language and if language is anything to go by, then in contrast to English and French languages, the Yoruba language suffers a shortcoming. It is easier to do philosophy for example in English language because in contrast to Yoruba language, it enjoys universal acceptation and a wide range of understanding. For the reason initially cited of the latter’s being underdeveloped and so inadequate but one should note that for as long as one is a member of the Yoruba speaking community of Western Nigeria and because of the several ethnocentric comments made about such language, had to adopt a secondary language in order to make a philosophical contribution. Language is understood to be very flexible, and because it is, it is very easy for a foreign speaker to adopt a language and employ it as much as the native speakers do. But for as long as this is held to be a valid comment, it means that my original language plays a role in the successful adoption of the secondary language of communication. It assists in understanding some concepts one would otherwise not understand, and these concepts might not even exist in the Yoruba language but it only means that one know what it means for the concept not to exist, and so one is able to easily adjust to having it exist and be able to relate with it. In the Yoruba language, they use the term meta to represent the figure “3”, when one comes into contact with the branch of philosophy called “metaphysics” however, it is immediately seen that they do not belong to the same contexts of usage. And our grasp of what 3 means in Yoruba helps us establish a difference between it and the “meta” in “metaphysics”.
For philosophy to be done in an African language, it requires that there be an attempt to establish a continental language that will be widely acceptable and shall be the means of the communication of our ideas. Western languages have succeeded in doing this as we can see there is wide usage of English and French for instance. This is due to the fact that there was cultural as well as linguistic assimilation, so if any African language is to be recognized as universal, there must be assimilation between the several cultures concerned.
1.3 The Inadequacy of African Languages to Depict an African Reality
The charge of underdevelopment stands against the possibility of assimilation. If Yoruba language are said to be underdeveloped, how could they then be intelligible enough to enable an effective assimilation? The possibility of a successful assimilation in the case of the Western languages is only made necessary due to some functions of linguistic accommodation as well as intelligibility discerned. So if African languages are deprived of this intelligibility, then how is the assimilation to be effected? We might as well be giving a person food to eat while taking away his appetite.
The worldview as well as culture of a people determines their language.[vi] The implication of this is that, if there is going to be some sort of misgiving on the part of the culture, it will reflect in the language but the objective and subjective nature of both culture and language should be taken into adequate consideration as well. For culture, it is not the characteristic of it that one tends to compare it to some other culture. Culture is of a dynamic nature, and because it is, to compare one culture with some other one is to commit an unfair mistake. On the part of language however, when a deficiency is supposedly recognized within a language, it is not in consideration of the speaker’s independence of other cultures and languages. It is through Africans’ attempt to compare more than one language that we tend to recognize supposed inability and inadequacies. The attempt to carry this inability to the cultural landscape however is a surprise. It has been asserted that these two influence each other, but one should not make the mistake of carrying an inability of language into culture.
Due to the connection, the learning of the language of a people brings one closer to their culture, and because it does, one is well on the way to the adoption of other people’s culture. This is the fact that underlies modern philosophical landscapes. Granted that the inadequacy ascribed to African languages is an unfair one, it might seem rather justified to use the medium of comparison with some other language which supposedly reaches the extent that African languages do not to compare and so conclude. This renders the inter-cultural comparison justified in a way, so that the adoption of the English language by an African gives him an edge over even the speakers of the language. But this does not shadow the inadequacy that is characterized in one’s own language.
One of the problems for the justification that Yoruba language is not adequate to depict reality is in relation to the counting system. Yoruba counting system is complicated and obscure. Counting system is easy in English language compare to Yoruba language which their counting system is difficult to represent in numbers. The more the number increases the more it gets complicated. For instance to counting system of “1000” is egberun while “2000” is egbewa. The question is how will they account for millions without complications?
There are certain concept that are ambiguous which which make it difficult for the idea in Yoruba language as compare to other idea in other culture. For instance the concept of truth and truthfulness. truth is Otito which applies to proposition and it is an epistemological concept. Truthfulness is olooto which applies to person character and is of moral concept but in Yoruba truth and truthfulness will be represented as Otito which is why it is difficult to analyze Yoruba concept of truth and truthfulness.
These are some of the lapses why Yoruba language is not sophisticated enough to depict their reality. But then it could be argued that the fact that these differences could not be clarify in Yoruba language does not mean that Yoruba language does not recognize the epistemological and moral concept of truth and truthfulness. It is recognize through the way they talk and this affirm the differences. For instances what he said is true could simply interpret to mean otito ni nkan to so different form he/she is a truthful person olooto eniyan ni yen (this is simply about character). Yoruba language has a way of recognizing concepts although does not make explicit of it.
One should however note that the fact that the Yoruba people have a language that is not adequate enough to capture their reality does not mean that they do not have some other means through which this reality could be captured.
Regardless of the ironical nature of development in a culture and subsequently in language is only base on the fact that one has to come in contact with some other culture which in effect influences one and the improvements in such influenced culture, will be according to the experience gathered from other cultures. Thus, while it may be true that African traditional language is an inadequate tool for philosophical ratiocination and analysis in light of Western language and culture, an attempt to develop the language takes us back to the foreign influence. Hence, it cannot be denied that cultural assimilation is an adequate suggestion to the development of any culture and language; it however should not be only one culture but between two cultures regarded as both inferior.
1.4 The Possibility of the Development of an African Language to Capture the African Reality: The Yoruba Language
The recognition of the inability of a Yoruba language to depict its cultural reality will suggest that a solution must be effected. To consider the Yoruba language for instance, having been charged with the underdevelopment characterized like other African languages, it is pertinent to attempt to rise to the problem by assessing the language and proffering a solution that will be relevant to the reality concerned.
It has been established that there is an unbreakable connection between culture, reality and language, to be able to develop the Yoruba language for instance will imply that, one looks to the development of the culture and hence the perception and depiction of reality. The charge of underdevelopment however should not be forgotten and if the language is underdeveloped, then it must be some consequence of the culture. Reality is an objective fact as opposed to the subjective nature of language. Culture cannot be regarded as being underdeveloped; this is because it is meant to be an index according to which a specific people live. The charge of underdevelopment only comes in, in the event of a comparison of a culture with some other one. If this is done, it will be an attempt to compare two depiction of reality, which is not a rational approach. No depiction of reality can be subsumed under some other because the component of each system differs, and because it does, what would obtains within such systems will also differ.
If language is a constituent, a tool to the effect of the description of such reality, one can transfer the point that it will amount to a comparison of two realities on the similar ground as that of culture. It is not a coherent assertion to claim that a language is not able to adequately capture some other reality from which it was not abstracted. This will be asking of it much more than it can afford to proffer, more than it was devised for. If languages are a part of culture then they were abstracted from such cultures and on the grounds that they are inadequate only records an attempt to compare them with some other culture which does not conform to the reality from which it was initially extracted.
To develop the Yoruba language therefore will mean that one develop the realities of the Yoruba people. It will mean that Yoruba culture will be put alongside some other culture used as a relevant yardstick and attempts will be made to meet the criterion of such culture but one should note that culture originally is dynamic, the dynamism is a function of the individuals who are the thinkers within such culture, and this dynamism contributed could only emerge because of the external cultural influence to which they have come across. To consider the word used to refer to an onion for instance, alubosa is a term originally belonging to the Hausa language. Onions are imported from the Northern part of Nigeria and because they are, they are not a function of an indigenous Yoruba reality. This explicates the point that when there is a need for expansion, the languages seek to adopt the identity of the concept involved and accommodate it within its own confines.
The same thing applies to “blessing” called alubarika which was originally imported from the Arabic language in which it was called Al-barka. While the language might not be developed enough to propagate a thought or philosophy, it will attempt to rise to the occasion whenever need arises in order to accommodate the idea presented. Whether it now enjoys universal acceptability is another question. One does not expect concepts alien to Yoruba culture and reality to suddenly spring up and have linguistic identity in the framework. They are concepts belonging to some other culture and will be accommodated as much as Yoruba linguistic flexibility reaches. That the Yoruba language is however flexible enough to accommodate the concepts that it can which are originally foreign to it, is in itself a mark of an advanced and evolving language. The inter-cultural influences pave a way for languages which are borrowed. For instance as it is argued earlier on that the counting system of the Yorubas devoid them to adequately depict reality but then a lot of languages are borrowed from Arabic even mathematical calculations does not make use English numbering system but rather different concept have been borrowed from Latin words to English language therefore on this basis the conceptual assimilation is not new, it has been adopted but then more concepts can be assimilated. In doing this better will enhance Yoruba language.
The current chapter examined the role and connection between language, reality and culture. It also examined the inadequacy of African languages as been obvious, and because it is, it is an adequate suggestion that inter-cultural influence will enable the development of indigenous African languages which will be carried into their perception of their world as well. This chapter finally suggested that, Yoruba language however, as long as it is able to accommodate concepts originally foreign to it, is a developed language and is capable of representing or depicting reality in the way in which Yoruba people perceive it.
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