A VICTIM OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE?!
The child kept crying in bits of hysteria, clutching unto his mother as he happened upon my disfigured face. Of course I do not blame him. Instead my mind travelled down memory lane: I am flat on my back, or what is left of it, on a hospital bed, with third-degree burns. A victim of the English language.
You see, I’m an African born in Nigeria. I grew up speaking my mother tongue, Igbo. The originator of the language had to be God, for there is no inherent ambiguity about the language. “Good” is always “good”, “bad” meant just that, bad. In the safety of this language I stayed, and never had as much as a scratch due to a conflict of meanings based on arbitrary and ambiguous rules of semantics. Until English language happened.
I had just started school and you know the drills: A for apple, B for ball, C for cat, and so on. So was I introduced to the English language. It was fun and quite enjoyable, initially. Then came antonyms: tall and short, good and bad, right and wrong, and the likes. Soon we encountered words whose meanings change upon the introduction of a prefix: responsible and irresponsible, decent and indecent, expensive and inexpensive, etc. Well, it was on the basis of this knowledge I trustingly did what I did which yielded such an unforeseen result.
I had gotten home from school that fateful day, still chanting the new words I just learnt. As usual, there was no one at home. My parents get home from work in the evening, so I had liberty to engage in some little mischief. Smoking was a new fun I had begun to indulge in. I was only ten. Mother often wondered about my new predilection for garlic. Of course I hated garlic! The smell, the taste and after taste, but it was a necessary evil to hide the smell of cigarette in my breath. I had just brought out the two sticks of cigarettes I bartered for with my school lunch of bean cakes when I heard uncle Chibueze calling out my name from the entrance. I quickly hid the sticks and went out to meet him.
“Ojiogwu” I greeted in our dialect
“Thank you my son” he responded. “Take this jerrican of petrol and keep it for your father” he said handing me a can. “Tell him I will collect the money for it by the next market day” he added as he walked away.
“Okay uncle” I answered and made my way back into the house. Father had bought a motorcycle the month before and uncle Chibueze had been supplying fuel for it. Our remote village could not boast of a gas station. That day was the first time I had taken personal delivery of the parcel. As I made for father’s room, I noticed a red sticker with an inscription on the side of the jerrican. The words inscribed were to change my life forever: “HIGHLY INFLAMMABLE”.
You see, my ten year old mind reasoned quite intelligently that if irresponsible is opposite to responsible, and indecent is opposite to decent, then inflammable must be opposite to flammable. To verify my logic, I took off the jerrican’s cover, got a match box, took out a match, and struck. I was wrong. So wrong. The English language proved to be inconsistent in its rules and I paid dearly for it. Ever since, I have been distrustful of the language. And of course, I have not touched a cigarette since then.