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Christopher Agbedo, Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of Nigeria and currently NIAS research fellow, is the guest speaker at this ACLC seminar. He will talk about 'How to do nothing with words, communicative validity deficit and implications for good governance in Africa'.

Detail Summary
Date 19 February 2021
Time 16:15 -17:30


This paper engages John L. Austin’s (1962) How to do things with words and Jürgen Habermas’ (1981) Theory of communicative action in accounting for the illocutionary force and communicative validity of selected presidential speech acts and how they speak to concerns about the continued retention of the colonial language policy and the resultant challenges of communicative competence and pragmatic failure in interlingual (ESL) contexts of Anglophone-speaking states of Africa. It seeks to establish causal links between the failure or seeming inability of political leaders to ‘do things with words’ and achieve communicative validity in their political communication and good governance deficit. To this effect, we examine the speech acts of former President Goodluck Jonathan on replicating the Asian Tigers economy in Nigeria before the end of his tenure and President Muhammadu Buhari’s ‘I belong to nobody and I belong to everybody’. Drawing on the language-philosophy of Austin and Habermas’ communicative action, the paper considers what happens to performative locutions - speech acts that actually make things happen or utterances oriented at achieving mutual understanding - when such statements are driven more by political expediency than communicating successfully by meeting communicative validity conditions. This qualitative study relies on documentary method for data elicitation and content analysis as method of data analysis. The picture that emerges from data analysis suggests that such locutions as those of former President Jonathan and President Buhari tended to lose their performative (illocutionary/perlocutionary) ‘forces’ and communicative validity respectively. Both speakers performed different speech acts that are characteristically assertive, commissive, and declarative but which fall short of the full complement of sincerity and commitment. This obvious lack, which turns a supposedly performative utterance into a non-performative and vague grey mush, makes mockery of political leaders who strive (perhaps unwittingly) to do nothing with words and fail to establish a legitimate verbal contract with their audiences. In Habermasian terms, both presidents’ attempts at communication failed given that the propositions of their speech acts hardly elicited their addressees’ conviction on the grounds of nonvalidity because they ‘presupposed or explicated states of affairs, which were not the case; did not conform to accepted normative expectations; and raised doubts about the intentions or sincerity of the speakers’. Failure on the part of the speakers to redeem the validity claims of their statements tended to rob their administrations of public trust, which is the fundamental key that drives good governance. A political leader, who commits to the principles of good governance must, among other things, strive to earn the trust of the people he professes to ‘lead’ by ‘doing things with words’ and ‘raising validity claims’ of his political communication. Such a political leader, who fails in this regard, either on account of interlingual communication challenges or sheer obsession with political language is genetically wired to fail the test of true leadership. This calls for a rethink of the colonial language policy and reformulation of a realistic national language policy that emphasizes the developmental aspects of all Nigeria’s indigenous languages as well as re-invention of language teaching curriculum to include critical language awareness, which implies the mobilisation of critical understanding and knowledge of the English language for engaging in counter-hegemonic narratives and interrogating the ways language is used to dominate, manipulate, and subjugate the ‘silent majority’.

About the ACLC seminar series

The ACLC seminar series is a two weekly lecture series organized by the ACLC, research school for linguistics of the Faculty of Humanities.