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A Weapon Called Language – Ganiu Bamgbose, PhD

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Ganiu Bambose, Dr GAB, English grammar, English Language, Queen, Media, Communication In Conflict Management, Memorandum, Ethnic Stereotypes In Nigeria, academic writing

It Each of you possesses the most powerful, dangerous and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised. It’s a piece of neural audio technology for rewiring other people’s minds. I’m talking about your language, of course, because it allows you to implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else’s mind, and they can attempt to do the same to you, without either of you having to perform surgery. Mark Pagel (TEDGlobal, 2011).

Language is the most significant tool in human existence. It is the means through which humans bond, and it is the distinct property that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. Beyond being a means of communication, language serves as a carrier of culture, the instrument of ideologies and a tool for carving identities.

In the words of Lewis, quoted in Algeo, (1974):
The gift of language is the single human trait that marks us all, genetically setting us apart from the rest of life. Language is, like nest building or hive making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die as surely as bees lost from the hive.

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A practical citation of the significance of language in the security of a nation is the story of how an ill-chosen translation of the Japanese word, mokusatsu, resulted in the United States’ decision to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a city in Japan, in 1945. In July 1945, allied leaders meeting in Potsdam submitted a declaration of surrender terms to Japan and waited anxiously and almost impatiently for their reply. The terms had included a statement to the effect that any negative answer would invite “prompt and utter destruction”.

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Truman, Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-Shek stated that they hoped that Japan would agree to surrender unconditionally and prevent devastation of the Japanese homeland and that they patiently awaited Japan’s answer. Reporters in Tokyo questioned Japanese Premier, Kantaro Suzuki, about his government’s stance to the Potsdam Declaration. Because there had not been any concrete decision on the part of the Japanese government at the time, Suzuki replied that he was withholding comment and that was expressed with the Japanese word; mokusatsu, which sadly could generate two interpretations.

The international media gave the interpretation that the declaration of the allied leaders was not worthy of comment; that being the second interpretation of the word, mokusatsu. The rest of the story was the leveling of Hiroshima within ten days. A magazine article once reported this scenario as: “The World’s Most Tragic Translation”.

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Many African countries have been and remained victims of language-induced cases of instability, conflict and general absence of peace. With emerging security issues, language is also being used to craft ideologies which lure vulnerable members of society like the youth into unlawful groupings. Such groupings include terrorist groups, mafias, cults or any other unlawful groups.

Moreover, the commercially and politically influenced mass media propagation of polarised ideologies of “Us or Them, Good or Bad” has manipulated the minds of the common man. This manipulation has resulted today in bias, discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance replacing empathy, compassion, coexistence, and the critical thinking abilities of the population in all spheres of life and this has resulted in linguistic violence.

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This short piece is a call to everyone to think of language as a two-edged sword, with a side that cuts and another side that soothes. Everyone needs to embrace nonviolent communication. “While studying the factors that affect our ability to stay compassionate, I was struck by the crucial role of language and our use of words… while we may not consider the way we talk to be violent, words often lead to hurt and pain, whether for others or ourselves” (p. 2, 3).

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These were the words of a renowned scholar of Nonviolent Communication, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Language is a reflection of the world and the world can be understood, organised and moderated through the instrumentality of language. Your language is your clothes; do not dress badly, do not dress to torment others, and do not dress to cause unrest.

(c) 2024 Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University

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