By Goke Ilesanmi
On Friday May 29, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari delivered a masterpiece of an inaugural speech, in which he unveiled his administration’s plan for our great nation Nigeria. He expectedly stressed the resolve of his administration to urgently tackle the multi-pronged challenges of insecurity, corruption, unemployment, infrastructure, etc., amid thunderous applause.
Even though the different promises he made in the said speech have continued to elicit reactions from different stakeholders, one major aspect of the speech that has generated most reactions is the statement or compound sentence “I belong to everyone and I belong to nobody”. In short, since the president delivered the speech, we have been extremely busy in the Language Department of our Empowerment Clinic as more and more language “patients” are daily admitted for diagnosis, X-ray and medication following the extreme “headache” of interpretation the statement has caused them.
It is noteworthy that this statement has really called the fields of English Studies like Semantics (which is concerned with meaning of words) and Discourse Analysis (which is concerned with interpreting utterances or speeches) to task because it is like a riddle. Many people have argued that the compound sentence radiates two contrasting coordinate clauses. This submission is true at the level of literal, surface or direct meaning. After all, by semantic analogy, “I collected money from everyone” is the opposite of “I collected money from nobody”.
However, the real meaning is recoverable at the metaphoric level, especially because by mathematics of linguistic interpretation, “Everyone” is Plus-Human and “Nobody” is Minus-Human. The intended meaning of the second independent clause (“I belong to nobody”) of the seemingly antithetical statement is idiomatic and metaphoric as it cannot be recovered from surface interpretation of the constituent words. After all, when we hear expressions like “Kick the bucket”; “Hit the nail on the head”, etc., we know their meanings cannot be recovered from direct interpretation of the constituent words. That is, their meanings are embedded. By restatement, “I belong to everyone” also means “I do not belong to just one person” which by analytical and paradoxical extension implies “I belong to nobody”. It is like the answer “Yes, I was” or “No, I wasn’t” in which the second part of each of them reinforces the “Yes” or “No”.
Context and meaning
It should be noted that context is also very critical to meaning in Discourse Analysis. Did the president utter the statement during a face-off with his party members and political associates, thus claiming not to be owned by them any longer? No! It was during his inauguration and his major concern was to persuade those on the other side of the political divide to come closer for collective participation rather than an attempt to ridicule his political party or political associates that he has disowned them, after all they are also part of the “everybody” accommodated in the ownership of the president. Also on context and accuracy of interpretation, the fact that the president said “I belong to nobody” in a political context does not mean in a context of marriage, he no longer belongs to the first lady, Aisha but all women.
Most times, utterances taken out of context can be misinterpreted. For instance, if you are asked to give your impression about a boy that said “Daddy, don’t ever try it”, the ready conclusion will be that such a child is very rude especially that the background or context is not provided. But if you are told that the boy uttered the statement when his heavily-drunk father came home in the midnight and wanted to hit the head of his (the boy’s) mother with a hammer, I am sure your negative impression about the boy will definitely change.
Nigerian English and elasticity of meanings
The major challenge we have in Nigeria with elasticity of meanings of such a statement is due to our over-reliance on constituent words for meaning, over-generalisation of meaning, etc. For instance, “Do-or-die” is a positive idiom that means “Strong determination” in British English. But we use and interpret it negatively in Nigerian English because of the word “Die”.
Sometimes ago, I was compelled to link people up to the online comment of the captain of one of the English clubs that survived relegation on the last day due to exceptional team determination. The captain showered praises on the team-mates thus, “Congratulations guys. Our do-or-die attitude has saved us from relegation”. Does it mean he was insulting his team-mates for doing a positive thing? No. We have also wrongly substituted the word “Send-forth” for the correct version “Send-off” because we consider the adverbial particle/preposition “off” as negative. I wonder why we have not changed the school admission “cut-off” mark to “cut-forth” mark!
Most Nigerians also interpret the idiom “No love lost” to mean that the love between two people is intact. This idiom actually means that two people involved hate each other, that the love does not exist in the first place not to talk of losing it. Meanings of expressions are often not based on meanings of individual words but embedded. On a radio sports programme some years ago, one of the ex-Super Eagles players was asked about his relationship with another ex-Super Eagles player, he said their relationship was intact and also used the idiom “No love lost” to emphasise it. What a self-contradiction!
In the same vein, the expression “Play the Devil’s advocate” is misinterpreted in Nigerian English because we rely on individual words for its interpretation. The fact that it contains the word “Devil” further makes us commit the blunder. The dictionary meaning of “Play the Devil’s advocate” is: “to pretend to disagree with somebody in order to have good discussion about something”. But in Nigerian English, it is wrongly used to mean that somebody is defending an offender, like an advocate or lawyer.
Most people have expressed disappointment with the President for saying “I belong to nobody”. But in the context in which it was uttered, it was actually not intended to insult his associates but to accommodate or woo his antagonists, especially given the tension that had mounted ahead of the elections and before he finally took over on May 29. It was psychologically and morally right for him to assure the multiplicity of ethnic nationalities, political parties and others that he is not the exclusive property of just a few people but belongs to everyone, so that he can been seen as a rallying point of different interests. The need to assure everybody of collective ownership and equality became imperative considering that he had been accused of tribal, religious and political bigotry.
On a note of analytical finality, in everyday conversation, misunderstanding often manifests because speakers make wrong assumptions regarding what their listeners know or ought to know. At such points, the conversation can break down and may need to be modified through questioning, clarification and cross-checking. Despite the intended or contextual meaning, one major shortcoming of the statement “I belong to everyone and I belong to nobody” is its ambiguity, that is, double meanings. Also since “I belong to everyone” has full meaning, it is redundant or unnecessary to add “I belong to nobody”.
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GOKE ILESANMI, Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Professional Public Speaker/MC, Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker and Career Management Coach. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.
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