Annan hosts Nigerian novelist Achebe and others at UN forum on language

28 March 2006
Professor Chinua Achebe

Language has the power to connect people or divide them, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today introducing the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and the Irish poet Paul Muldoon to speak on “The Use of Language in War and Peace,” as part of Mr. Annan’s lecture series at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

“Language connects us to one another. But, ever since the Tower of Babel, it has also divided us,” Mr. Annan said during an afternoon discussion that occasioned more self-reflection and laughter than is normally heard in the chamber of the Economic and Social Council.

“Like other forms of diversity, linguistic diversity is well worth cherishing – because one of the great joys of human existence is learning from, and about, people who are different. But, like other forms of diversity, it can also become a source of mistrust, misunderstanding and even hatred,” he added.

Mr. Achebe, who serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and whose novel “Things Fall Apart” has sold millions of copies in over fifty languages, said that he first speculated on the power of language for mediating war or peace in the midst of the Nigerian civil war in the early seventies, “realizing it is a subject on which our lives depend.

“Language offers a chance to fight tomorrow instead of today, which is not a lot of promise,” he added. “But anyone who says it is nothing has never had to experience war.”

Mr. Muldoon gave examples of the fraudulent use of language, such as the advertisement of “direct flights” that make stops, that he said weakened its ability for mediation. He then read a sonnet series that explored the use and misuse of clichés and that seriously challenged interpreters, all of whom, aside from the Russian translator, eventually gave up trying to simultaneously translate.

The event was enriched by comments and questions from international diplomats and UN staff in attendance, including the Ambassador of India, who mused about the advantages and disadvantages of “UN-ese” and recounted an Irish explanation of why trousers were plural and singular at the same time.


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