OCHIENG: The irrationalities of language


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Although no one is obliged to accept any gift from whoever gives it, I must say that I do not know why a gift chair would be unacceptable to a priest just because the giver is a county governor.

I am referring to the headline on page 10 of the Nation of March 28, which screamed: “Priest rejects gift chair that governor sat on”.

In Kenya, however, it is easy to imagine why a genuine “man of God” might be suspicious every time a politician tries to ingratiate him with an unsolicited material gift.

Although I am not a man of God – nay, because of it – I am always suspicious every time anybody announces aloud that it is “in God’s name” that he or she has done something.

Please just give whatever it is you want to give, and do it wholeheartedly. What’s more, please do it in good language.

Otherwise, you may be accused of being the one who influenced the reporter and the subeditor into reporting you in such appalling English. For level-headed English-speaking people do not sit on chairs. No, they sit in them.

But do not ask me why you must sit in a chair whereas it is obvious that every time you are perched there, the chair is what is beneath you.

However, language does not easily lend itself to rationales of that kind. And I am not the one who invented English. I only happen to have had the privilege of attending an excellent high school called Alliance at a time when all of our British teachers of English there came from the English nation (except the eccentric old James Stephen Smith, the Scotsman who took us through England’s William Shakespeare, and the remarkably cultured Kikuyu individual called Joseph Kariuki of Kiambaa, who introduced us to some of the most sublime of poetry by English individuals.)

Our British teachers of English were individuals who had, into the bargain, gone on to the university to study their own mother tongue on a more scientific basis.

This was the same basis on which our headmaster, an Englishman of Pauline discipline called Edward Carey Francis, would on occasionally come down to gather some of us from Luoland for lessons on our own mother tongue Dholuo.

During his tenure at Maseno High on the Luo-Luhya border, where he had begun his teaching career in Kenya, Carey Francis had fallen in love not only with the Luo language but also with the Luo people, in the same way that, after his transfer to Alliance on the border Kikuyuland and Maasailand, the Kikuyu language and people would deeply intrigue him.

As the English poet would have pointed out, the priest works his own works, I mine. That is o, you do not sit on a chair. You sit in it.

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