Language as a tool of conquest

By Azuka Onwuka

The month we know today as July used to be known as Quintilis. It was the birth month of Julius Caesar, the Roman general assassinated by his friend Brutus and other conspirators. When Caesar died, Quintilis was renamed July. Quintilis means “fifth month” in Latin, which represents where this month originally fell in the Roman calendar.

The Roman calendar had only ten months. Two months in winter were excluded. Later when the two months were added, all the months were moved by two months. Consequently, Quintilis (fifth month), renamed July, became the seventh month. Remember that five babies born at the same time are called quintuplets. September (seventh month) became the ninth month. October (eighth month) became the tenth month. November (ninth month) became the eleventh month. December (tenth month) became the twelfth month.

It was this same Julius Caesar that William Shakespeare wrote about. It was this same Caesar that first invaded Britain on August 26th, 55 BC. Rome conquered Great Britain and colonized it the same way Great Britain colonized Nigeria. Rome planted its language (Latin) in England.

As a result of that, most English words have their roots in Latin, which was the language of the Romans. Latin was regarded as the language of the educated people, while English was regarded as the language of the vulgar, the uneducated, and the unexposed people. English was so ridiculed as a low-class language that when William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, he was executed in 1536 for heresy for bringing the Bible to disrepute by translating it to the language of the commoners.

Does that remind you of how English is seen today in Nigeria in relation to the local Nigerian languages? We shall return to this shortly.

August was named after Augustus Caesar. Previously, August was called “Sextillia,” which was Latin for “sixth.” Sextillia used to be the sixth month until two extra months were added to the Roman calendar.

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Augustus Caesar (whose original name was Gaius Octavius or just Octavian) was the first Roman emperor. He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Caesar had no biological child.

You may remember the biblical saying: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s”? That was in reference to this same Caesar. He was the one whose head and name (“image and likeness”) were on the coins used in Israel then. This was about 2,000 years ago. Rome conquered the known world then and planted its language (Latin) all over.

When William Shakespeare began to be noticed as a playwright, who was writing in his native language English, a university-trained playwright known as Robert Greene mocked him as an “upstart crow”. The crime of Shakespeare was that he was not “educated”, since he was not proficient in Latin and Greek. When Ben Jonson wrote his eulogy about Shakespeare, Jonson noted that even though Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” he was still exceptional in the literary turf. That was Jonson’s way of confirming that Shakespeare’s lack of proficiency in Latin and Greek (two foreign languages seen as the languages of the educated in Elizabethan England) did not negatively affect his literary genius. It was actually a surprise to many that someone who was not learned in Latin and Greek like Shakespeare could excel in scholarship. The reason was that English was seen as the language of the uneducated.

Today, English is seen as the language of the educated because Great Britain conquered much of the known world and loomed large over the world for centuries. It also planted its language across its territories. In all its territories, the UK made it clear that English was the language of the educated, the sophisticated and the modern. Local languages of the colonised were portrayed as the language of the crude and unlettered.

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Luckily for the UK, when its reign over the world waned, the United States of America (which also speaks English), took over as the most influential country in the world and the unofficial controller of world affairs. That has made English to reign for long in the world.

China is rising and planting its language (Mandarin) around the world little by little, while the power of the USA is being challenged. Some Nigerian universities already have the Chinese institute where the Chinese language is taught. China Town is all over Nigeria. Chinese restaurants are all over Nigerian cities.

Not long ago, one of our children asked why virtually everything around him has “Made in China” on it. I checked and saw that it was true. I told him that China had made manufacturing and importation cheap and easy for Nigeria. Nigeria has abandoned manufacturing and is almost wholly dependent on China. The only thing China is not in charge of yet about Nigeria is its language. But it may be a matter of time before that happens.

Language is a tool of conquest, a tool of domination. Today, countries may not dominate others anymore with weapons and colonization. They use the economy to do so. And from the economy, they move over to language.

Nigeria has a big disadvantage. It has three major languages (Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba) and hundreds of other languages. Because of the subtle power tussle that exists among these three big languages as well as other languages, no ethnic group would accept that one of these languages be adopted as the national language, so that the power of English over Nigeria be dropped or reduced. In addition, unlike other countries where the citizens learn two or more of the internal languages and speak them fluently, to make discussions among people of different backgrounds possible, Nigerians have virtually stuck to their respective languages. The little exception may be the Igbo people who learn and speak other languages because they settle outside their ethnic terrain more than other ethnic groups do. Most Nigerians still look down on the languages of other ethnic groups and don’t care to learn such.

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Therefore, English remains the only national language of Nigeria. Many Nigerians do not seem to realise this. Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba cannot be used at the Supreme Court to adjudicate a case. English is the only language that can be used by the president of Nigeria or the Senate President or Speaker or ministers to address Nigerians. If any other language is used to address Nigerians, Nigerians would protest angrily. Leaders can only use their local languages when addressing their people.

That is one big disadvantage Nigeria has. It has no other national language except English. If it becomes hard for Nigerians to communicate with one another in English, they use pidgin English, which is still a foreign language.

When Nigerians gather at any international event and want to discuss among themselves without others knowing what they are discussing, they cannot even do so in public. Pidgin English may be their only way of making it hard for others to understand them, but if fellow West Africans are there, they will understand what Nigerians are saying among themselves. Other non-West Africans may even get an idea of whatever Nigerians are discussing through some key English words used.

Even though Nigerians can learn their local languages and use them among their people, such languages cannot be given a national backing and pushed internationally by Nigeria because of the power tussle among the ethnic groups. If Nigeria were to rule the world today, it would not spread any other language globally but English. This is a big challenge that Nigeria has no answer to.

—Twitter @BrandAzuka

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