LANGUAGE AND THE DESTINY OF MAN
By Chinua Achebe
In his long evolutionary history, man has scored few greater success that his creation of human society. For it is on that primeval achievement that he has built hose special qualities of mind and of behavior which, in his own view at least, separate him from lower forms of life. If we sometimes tend to overlook this fact it is only because we have lived so under the protective ambience of society that we have come to take its benefits for granted. Which, in a way, might be called the ultimate tribute, rather like the unspoken worship and thanksgiving which man renders with every breath he draws. If it were different we would not be men but angels, incapable of boredom.
Unquestionably, language was crucial to the creation of society. There is no way in which human society could exist without speech. By society we do not, of course, mean the mechanical and mindless association of the beehive or the anthill which employs certain rudimentary forms of communication to achieve an unvarying, instinctual purpose, but a community where man “doomed to be free” – to use Joyce Cary’s remarkable phrase – is yet able to challenge that peculiar and perilous destiny with an even chance of wresting from it a purposeful, creative existence.
Speech too, like society itself, seems so natural that we rarely give much thought to it or contemplate man’s circumstance before its invention. But we know that language is not inherent in man – the capacity for language, yes; but not language. Therefore, there must have been a time in the very distant past when our ancestors did not have it. Let us imagine a very simple incident in those days. A man strays into a rock shelter without knowing that another is there finishing a meal in the dark interior. The first hint our newcomer gets of this fact is a loose rock hurled at his head. In a different kind of situation which we shall call (with all kinds of guilt reservations) human, that confrontation might have been resolved les destructively by the simple question: What do you want? Or even angry: Get out of here!
Nobody is, of course, going to be so naïve as to claim for language the power to dispose of all, or even most, violence. After all, man is not less violent than other animals but more – apparently the only animal which consistently visits violence on its own kind. Yet in spite of this (or perhaps because of it) one does have a feeling that without language we should have long been extinct.
Many people following the fascinating progress of Dr. L. S. B. Leakey’s famous excavations in the Olduvai Gorge in Eastern Africa in the 1950s were shocked by his claim that the so-called “pre-Zinjanthropus” child, the discovery of whose remains stirred many hearts and was one of the highlights of modern palaeontology, was probably murdered aged about twelve. Another excavator, Professor Raymond Dart, working further south, has collected much similar evidence of homicide in the caves of Transvaal. But we should not have been surprised or shocked unless we had overlooked the psychological probability of the murder outside the Garden of Eden.
Let us take a second and quite different kind of example. Let us imagine an infant crying. Its mother assumes that it is hungry offers it food; but it refuses to eat and goes on crying. Is it wet? Does it have pain? If so, where? Has an ant crawled into its dress and bitten it? Does it want to sleep? etc., etc. Thus the mother, especially if she lacks experience (as more and more mothers tend to do), will grope from one impulse to another, from one possibility to its opposite, until she stumbles on the right one. Meanwhile the child suffers distress and mental anguish. In other words, because of a child’s inadequate vocabulary even its simplest needs cannot be quickly known and satisfied. From which rather silly example we can see, I hope, the value of language in facilitating the affairs and transactions of society by enabling its members to pass on their message quickly and exactly.
In small closely-knit societies such as we often call primitive the importance of language is seen in pristine clarity. For instance, in the creation myths of the Hebrews, God made the world by word of mouth; and in the Christian myth as recorded in St. John’s Gospel the Word became God Himself.
African societies in the past held similar notions about language and the potency of words. Writing about Igbo society in Nigeria, Igwe and Green had this to say:
a speaker who could use language effectively and had a good command of idioms and proverbs was respected by his fellows and was often a leader in the community.
From another part of Africa a Kenyan, Mugo Getheru, in his autobiographical book gives even stronger testimony from his people: “among the Kikuyu those who speak well have always been honoured, and the very word chief means good talker.”
There is a remarkable creation myth among the Wapangwa people in Tanzania which begins thus:
The sky was large, white, and very clear. It was empty; there were no stars and no moons; only a tree stood in the air and there was wind. This tree fed on the atmosphere and ants lived on it. Wind, tree, ants, and atmosphere were controlled by the power of the Word, but the Word was not something that could be seen. It was a force that enabled one thing to create another.
But although contemporary societies in Africa and elsewhere have moved away from beliefs and attitudes which had invested language with such ritual qualities, we can still find remain of the old dignity in certain places and circumstances. In his famous autobiography, Camara Laye records the survival of such an attitude in the Guinea of his boyhood, the strong impression that the traditional village could make on the visitor from the town:
In everything, I noticed a kind of dignity which was often lacking in town life . . . And if their minds seemed to work slower in the country, that was because they always spoke only after due reflection, and because speech itself was a most serious matter.
And finally, from a totally different environment, these lines of a traditional Eskimo poem, “Magic Words,” from Jerome Rothenberg’s excellent anthology, Shaking the Pumpkin:
That was the time when words were like magic
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen
all you had to do was say it.
In small and self-sufficient societies, such as gave birth to these myths, the integrity of language is safeguarded by the fact that what goes on in the community can easily be ascertained, understood and evaluated by all. The line between truth and falsehood thus tends to be sharp, when a man addresses his fellows they know already what kind of person he is, whether (as Igbo people would put it) he is one with whose words something can be done; or else one who, if he tells you to stand, you know you must immediately flee!
But as society becomes larger and more complex we find that we can no longer be in command of all the facts but are obliged to take a good deal of what we hear on trust. We delegate to others the power to take certain decision on our behalf, and they may not always be people we know or can vouch for. I shall return shortly to a consideration of this phenomenon. But first I shall consider a different, though related, problem – the pressure to which language is subjected by the mere fact that it can never change fast enough to deal with every new factor in the environment, to describe every new perception, every new detail in the ever-increasing complexity of the life of the community, to say nothing of the private perceptions and idiosyncrasies of particular speakers. T. S. Eliot comes readily to mind with those memorable lines from the Four Quartets in which he suggests to us the constant struggle, frustration and anguish which this situation imposes on a poet:
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure . . .
Of course one might wonder whether this problem was a real one for ordinary people like ourselves or a peculiar species of self-flagellation by a high-strung devotee seeking through torment to become worthy of his deity. For when Eliot goes on to celebrate the “sentence that is right” his words do assume accents of holy intoxication:
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together . . .
This curious mix of high purpose and carnival jollity may leave us a little puzzled, but there is no doubt whatever about Eliot’s concern and solicitude for the integrity of words. And let us not imagine, even the most prosaic Eliot advocates are appropriate only to poets. For we all stand to lose when language is debased, just as every one of us is affected when the nation’s currency is devalued; not just the Secretary to the Treasury or controllers of our banks.
Talking about Secretaries of the Treasury and devaluation, there was an amusing quotation by Professor Douglas Bush in an essay entitled “Polluting our Language” in the spring 1972 issue of The American Scholar. The secretary of the Treasury, John Connally, had said: “In the early sixties we were strong, we were virulent.” Clearly, that was only a slip, albeit of a kind that might interest Freudians. But it might not be entirely unfair to see a tendency to devaluation inherent in certain occupations!
We must now turn from considering the necessary struggle with language arising, as it were, from its very nature and the nature of the society it serves to the more ominous threat to its integrity brought about neither by its innate inadequacy nor yet by the incompetence and carelessness of its ordinary users, but rather engineered deliberately by those who will manipulate words for their own ends.
It has long been known that language, like any other human invention, can be abused, can be turned from its original purpose into something useless or even deadly. George Orwell, who was very much concerned in his writings with this modern menace, reminds us that language can be used not only for expressing thought but for concealing thought or even preventing thought. I guess we are all too familiar with this – from the mild assault of the sales pitch which exhorts you: “Be progressive! Use ABC toothpaste! Or invites you to a “saving spree” in a department store; through the mystifications of learned people jealously guarding the precincts of their secret societies with such shibboleths as:
“Bilateral mastectomy was performed” instead of “Both breasts were removed”; to the politician who employs government prose to keep you in the dark about affairs on which your life or the lives of your children may depend or the official statistician who assures you that crime rates “are increasing at a decreasing rate of increase.” I shall not waste your time about this well-known fact of modern life. But let me round off this aspect of the matter by quoting a little of the comment made by W. H. Auden in an interview published by the New York Times (19 October 1971):
As a poet – not as a citizen – there is only one political duty, and that is to defend one’s language from corruption. And that is particularly serious now. It’s being so quickly corrupted. When it is corrupted people lose faith in what they hear, and this leads to violence.
And leads also full circle to the caveman situation with which we began. And the heart of my purpose is to suggest that our remote ancestors who made and preserved language for us, who, you might say, crossed the first threshold from bestiality to humanness, left us also adequate warning, wrapped in symbols, against its misuse.
Every people has a body of myths or sacred tales received from its antiquity. They are supernatural stories which man created to explain the problems and mysteries of life and death – his attempt to make sense of the bewildering complexity of existence. There is a proud, nomadic people, the Fulani, who inhabit the northern savannah of Western Africa from Cameroon and Nigeria westwards to Mali and Senegal. They are very much attached to their cattle, whose milk is their staff of life. Here is a Fulani myth of creation from Mali:
At the beginning there was a huge drop of milk.
Then Doondari came and he created the stone.
Then the stone created iron;
And iron created fire;
And fire created water;
And water created air.
Then Doondari descended the second time.
And he took the five elements
And he shaped them into man.
But man was proud.
Then Doondari created blindness and blindness defeated man.
But when blindness became too proud,
Doondari created sleep, and sleep defeated blindness;
But when sleep became too proud,
Doondari created worry, and worry defeated sleep;
But when worry became too proud,
Doondari created death, and death defeated worry;
But when death became too proud, Doondari descended for the third time,
And he came as Gueno, the eternal one
And Gueno defeated death.
You notice, don’t you, how in the second section of that poem, after the creation of man, we have that phrase “became too proud” coming back again and again like the recurrence of a dominant beat in rhythmic music? Clearly the makers of that myth intended us not to miss it. So it was at the very heart of their purpose. Man is destroyed by pride. It is said over and over again; it is shouted like a message across vast distances until the man at the other end of the savannah has definitely got it, despite the noise of rushing winds. Or if you prefer a modern metaphor, it is like making a long-distance call when the line is faulty or in bad weather. You shout your message and repeat it again and again just to make sure.
Claude Levi-Strauss, the French structural anthropologist, has indeed sought to explain the repetitive factor in myth in this way, relating it to general information theory. Our forefathers and ancestors are seen in the role of senders of the message; and we, the novices of society, as receivers. The ancestors are sending us signals from the long history and experience of bygone days about the meaning of life, the qualities we should cultivate and the values that are important. Because they are so far away and because we are surrounded by the tumult and distractions daily life they have to shout and repeat themselves not only in phrase after phrase but also in myth after myth, varying the form slightly now and again until the central message goes home.
If this interpretation is right then Fulani myth of creation not only delivers a particular message on the danger of pride but also exemplifies beautifully the general intention and purpose of myths.
Let us now look at another short myth from the Igbo people in Nigeria which bears more directly on the question of language:
When death first entered the world, men sent a messenger to Chuku, asking him whether the dead could not be restored to life and sent back to their old homes. They chose the dog as their messenger.
The dog, however, did not go straight to Chuku, and dallied on the way. The toad had overhead the message, and as he wished to punish mankind, he overtook the dog and reached Chuku first. He said he had been sent by men to say that after death they had no desire at all to return to the world. Chuku declared that he would respect their wishes, and when the dog arrived with the true message he refused to alter his decision.
Thus although a human being may be born again, he cannot return with the same body and the same personality.
It has been pointed out that there are more than seven hundred different versions of this myth all over Africa. Thus, the element of repetition which we have seen in the form of a phrase recurring in time within one myth takes on the formidable power of spatial dispersion across a continent. Clearly the ancestral senders regard this particular signal as of desperate importance, hence its ubiquity and the profuse variations on its theme. Sometimes the messenger is the dog; sometimes the chameleon or the lizard, or some other animal. In some variations the message is garbled through the incompetence of the messenger, or through his calculated malice against man. In others, man in his impatience sends a second messenger to God who in anger withdraws the gift of immortality. But whatever variations in the detail the dominant theme remains: Men send a messenger to their creator with a plea for immortality and He is disposed to grant their request. But something goes wrong with the message at the last moment. And this bounty which mankind has all but held in its grasp, this monumental gift that would have made man more like the gods, is snatched from him forever. And he knows that there is a way to hell even from the gates of heaven!
This, to my mind, is the great myth about language and the destiny of man. Its lesson should be clear to all. Its lesson should be clear to all. It is as though the ancestors who made language and knew from what bestiality its use rescued them are saying to us: Beware of interfering with, when it is disjoined from truth, be it from mere incompetence or worse, from malice, horrors can descend again on mankind.