towards defining the scope of meaning in esl in

Semantics is not a single-well-integrated discipline. It is
not a clearly defined level of linguistics, not even
comparable to phonology or grammar. Rather it is a set
of studied of the use of language in relation to many
different aspects of experience, to linguistic and nonlinguistic context, to particular bit of language is
appropriate (Palmer, 1981:206).
Words are not coined in order to extract the meaning of
their elements and compile a new meaning from them.
The new meaning is there first, and the coiner is looking
for the best way to express it without going to too much
trouble. If parts can be found whose meanings suggest
the one in mind, so much the better, but that is not
essential (Bolinger, 1965:109).
Semantics is generally defined as the study of meaning, and it seeks
to convey and classify human experience through language. When the
study of the meaning of utterances first began, scholars in this field
concerned themselves with arguments which have now been discovered to
be mainly tangential to the understanding of how words combine to convey
human experience. For instance, there was an initial pre-occupation with
the distinction between “being meaningful” and “having meaning” (Lyons,
1968:402). The progressive accumulation of research evidence, influenced
largely by the diversity of view points, goals and orientations, has led to a
continuous re-examination, and redefinition of what should be the scope
and goals of intellectual endeavours in meaning explication. Leech’s
(1983:4) summary of this “confusion” is illuminating:
Socio-linguistics has entailed a rejection of Chomsky’s
emphasis on a ‘process’ model of human language
abilities at the expanse of Chomsky’s disassociation of
linguistics theory, from psychological process. Text
linguistics and discourse analysis have refused to accept
the limitation of linguistics to sentence grammar.
Conversational analysis has stressed the primary of the
social dimension of language study … pragmatics …
(discusses) meaning in use, rather than meaning in the
One clear picture from the rather long quotation above is the undue
compartmentalization of these approaches and insights. This weakness has
thus rubbed off so much of the gain derivable from the cumulative insight
into the process of understanding utterances, the factors involved in this
understanding, the format for the precise representation of meaning at all
levels of language study, the definitions of meaning – dependent properties
of expressions and relations between them, and the explication of how
human beings relate utterances to background experiences.
This chapter, in a practical manner, offers a definition of the scope
of linguistics meaning in ESL in Nigeria. This is done by attempting a
semantic interpretation of Niyi Osundare’s poem titled “Ekuulee e”,
published in the “Nigerian Tribune” of January 8, 1989. On the basis of the
analysis of the poem, a conclusion is drawn on what a semantic study that
is worth its salt in ESL (in Nigeria) should involve.
That is what the gecko chants at the portals purple twilights
And the walls throw open their welcoming hands; E kuulee o.
These are the first lines of this poem. Apart from “e kuuleee o”
which is a Yoruba expression used by someone just coming into greet the
people at home, the remaining part of the quotation above has English
words; but note of the fact that the lines above are essentially odd. What is
odd about the lines? Look at the lines again.
The poem has seven (7) stanzas of unequal number of lines. Let us
take the remaining lines of the first stanza as we begin to examine the
address of the seeming English words in the poem:
That is what alapandede chirrups from the plump distance of
baobab tops.
And house spread out their eaves for her coasting guide;
The weaverbird knows the magic of a talkative coming,
cruising back to base with a quarry of straw in its wandering
Ile koko n’tagbe
Ile koko n’tagbe
Ile ko
Ile ko
The outstanding oddness of the lines above is easily represented
using the rhetorical feature of personification. In terms of examining the
semantic relations between the words in each thought unit, our knowledge
of the world makes it strikingly odd to us that a gecko intentionally
“chants” such that inanimate walls could “thrown open their welcoming
hands”. Our experience of the world does not normally attribute such
intentional actions to “things” e.g. a bird and other inanimate objects.
The second outstanding oddness of this first stanza is the use of nonEnglish expressions; that is, the Yoruba expressions, “Ekuulee o”,
“alapandede”, and the refrain “Ile koko n’tagbe”. These help to foreground
the native cadence of the poem and to arouse readers’ (‘listeners’)
attention. Traditionally, ‘ekuuleeo’ is used by the sojourner to pay homage
to the people at home one returning from his journey. The refrain is, on the
other hand, incantatory in emphasizing the fact that a kind of wood cock
(agbe) in its sojourn will always return home. For these Yoruba
expressions to achieve the intended incantatory effects, they should be seen
as aspects of the interrelationship between rule-breaking and implicature
(Grice 1975 and Pratt, 1977). It is an intentional deviance employed
because of the poet’s presupposition that the cooperative principle (CP) is
in force, and also because the immediate audience is predominantly
Yoruba, for the “Nigerian Tribune” is published in Ibadan. The
presupposition is that the audience will make appropriate inferences from
the poem.
The above is actually the case with the whole poem which is replete
with the resonances of literal Yoruba interpretations. This indeed is the
crux of the matter with respect to the perceived oddness of utterances in
the poem.
The poem “Ekuuleee o” treats the theme of homecoming by a
traditional oral performer, the poet/persona who has been away from home
for “a long season”, mounting “the spur of a thousand clouds” and
ploughing “through a thousand seas”. It is an adventure during which the
poet discovered many things. The fact is “mounted”, “ploughed”, ‘spread”,
“raised”, “heard” etc. The word ‘seen’, for instance, occurs eleven times in
this poem. This therefore is a journey of discovery of himself and his land.
In this regard, the poet is placed on the same pedestal as the
traditional bard. He is able to thus arrest the attention of the audience
because his quest has made him more knowledgeable and better informed,
and thus in a position to inform others.
It is this theme of the homecoming of the sojourner/adventurer that
is established in the title and the refrain earlier cited. It is also in this regard
that we are better able to establish the incantatory mode of stanza one in
which the poet piles up antecedents to convince the people at home that he
deserves a warm welcome from them. The reference to antecedents, in
consonance with the incantatory mode, has evocative power which
placates the people at home and compels them to welcome this
traveler/wanderer who flies about, like these birds (gecko, swallow, the
weaverbird and the wood cock) in pursuit of a calling. The refrain
reiterates a law of nature that “agbe” (the woodcock) does not get lost in
the woods, it must surely return to its nest. This bard must also return
home and he must again entrance into his home, which is the heart of the
The poem begins with a referencing (anaphoric) construction, “That
is what the gecko chants … “The demonstrative pronoun “that”, which has
been used for deictic reference, performs the role of thematic focusing by
making an anaphoric reference to “Ekuu leeo”, the homage-paying term.
The simple present tense used in this first line, and indeed in the whole
stanza, underscores the universality and constancy of the antecedent
actions and reactions being evoked by the poet. For instance, compare (a)
and (b) below:
That is what the gecko chants
That was what the gecko chanted
emphasizes that the action is habitual, whereas (b) only
reports a past event. The evocative efficacy of incantations lies mainly in
the habitual nature of the antecedents being called up by the speaker. This
habitual feature is so much elevated that it has now become a natural
In addition, the action words (verbs) used in the first stanza
effectively point to the role of the poet as a singer of tales. The verbs being
referred to are “chants and chirrups”. The “talkative” birds signal their
arrival through their chants. These enforced. Rather, the impression given
is that they are undertaken out of volition as long as the conditions guiding
the action – reaction chain are met:
“walls throw open their welcoming hands”, and “house
spread out their eaves.”
Since this “talkative” of a bard is “cruising back to base (home) with
a quarry of straw in (his) wandering beak” (a lot of sweet tales on his lips),
the audience would take delight in necessarily listening to him.
The point being made is that to unravel the oddness of the first
stanza of this poem, for instance, we need to understand the traditional
Yoruba role of a poet as a singer of tales, the homecoming motif and the
incantatory poetic motif. With this background, one can then proceed to do
a lexical analysis of the poem to reveal the meaning suggested by the
words in the linguistic and socio-cultural contexts of use. It is instructive to
note that in each case, the poet has a choice; that is, in terms of the words
to use, the collocational range of the words, and their grammatical
patterning. It is therefore on the basis of what the poet eventually decides
to come up with (choice and collocation) that an inference is made on the
intended effect of the message on the audience. The inference made by the
audience begins from their knowledge of the denotative meaning of the
utterance and proceeds to other meanings (compare Leech’s seven types of
meaning) that are super-imposed on the denotative meaning. the success or
failure of the audience in unraveling the meaning intended by the
speaker/poet is a factor of the shared background experience (MCB’s)
between poet/speaker and audience.
Before proceeding with this summary of the insights required for
adequate meaning explication, let us point out a few more meaning-bearing
features of the sample poem.
The conclude discussions on the habitual action being called up by
the poet, one significant grammatical and collocational pattern deserves to
be mentioned: the Noun Phrases (NPs):
Their welcoming hands
Her coasting glide
Its wandering beak
Have the constituent, Det + Adjectivized gerund + N. The premodification of the Heads of these NPs by the deverbalized (-ing) nouns
give the impression that the attributes are inherent to the nouns. This is a
corroboration of our earlier submission that the action – reaction chain
called up by the poet are habitual (indeed natural) events of the subjects,
and this further heightens the evocative power of the incantation. The
progressive tense of the utterances “a talkative coming” and “cruising back
to base”, are also significant in cohesively foregrounding the imperative
nature of the reaction expected by the poet from the audience.
Following the example of our analysis of stanza one, you can
proceed to identify the odd expressions in the remaining part of the poem.
It should be increasingly observed that native cadences are too obvious in
lines to pass by unrecognized. The clear implication is that the poet
exploits the socio-cultural affinity he has with his audience. For instance,
the passage of season with all its attendant indicators, is the fore grounded
motif in stanza two. The traditional perception of the passage of season and
the cyclical nature of this passage helps to sustain the incantatory mould
into which the poem is cast:
A long season has passed
Days mounting days, weeks mounting weeks
We have seen the gallant moons galloping by
On the saddle of the sky;…
Our nights will never reap their dawns
Without a compost of sprouting
So as days come after days to become weeks etc., the mention of
“moons” (not moon) gets clarified. In other words, several moon phases
have been witnessed in the passage of time. Expectedly, the stanza ends on
an emphatic note of hope, because after a dark night there will be a new
dawn from where new/fresh visions will sprout.
As the lexical choice and collacational pattern of the poem are being
analysed, attention could be given to such forms as idioms, borrowings,
coinages, analogy, transfer and semantic shift (cf. Adegbija, 1989 and
Babatunde, 197). It would be seen at the end of the analysis that the lexical
and semantic features of the poem have their root in the poet’s sociocultural
communication, therefore, the audience need a knowledge of the sociocultural presuppositions in the poem.
At this point, we can then pause to ask ourselves what on the basis
of the foregoing, the scope of semantics in ESL is.
The foregoing discussion has revealed the following:
Meaning is inferred (albeit negotiated) on the basis of the social,
cultural and linguistic presupposition believed to be in force in linguistic
communication. Cultural assumptions play very significant roles in this
regard. This is why a knowledge of the communicative mode of
incantation and the traditional singer of tales is very paramount to the
understanding of our sample poem.
The poet utilizes much of what he assumes to be shard with the
audience in terms of general conventional discourse features and strategies,
specific cases of linguistic presupposition, e.g. in code-mixing and lexical
and semantic variations of ESL in Nigeria, and the assumed interpersonal
knowledge of the poet by the audience. These have been demonstrated in
the poem to have a tremendous impact on the form and content of
linguistic communication (cf. Babatunde 1994 and 1997).
Decoding linguistic meaning in ESL requires a careful examination
of both the intra – and intersentential relations. It is necessary that these
relations along with the vertical and horizontal axes (choice and
collocation) be carefully studied with respect to how they are perceived
and utilized by the encoder and how the encoder attempts to influence the
decoder to perceive and utilized the relations. The analysis of the first
stanza of the poem has been used to illustrate this. Each word in the lines is
very carefully chosen in terms of the words and the grammatical form. The
cumulative effect of the lines produce the incantatory cadence earlier
mentioned, and this effect is further heightened by the assertive (cum
“naturalized”) declaration in the refrain. Each stanza of the poem
foregrounds a feature as seen in the writer’s understanding and feeling
through lexical choice and collocation. Stanza two for instance
foregrounds the passage of season. The reader should carefully examine
the instances of the use of “season”, its synonyms and other lexical items
in this field.
In stanza three, the poet suddenly “realizes” that he could use
“month”, a variation from the use of “season” and its cultural implications
in the previous stanza. What is however foregrounded here is the use of
“thousand” and its implied culturally marked meaning. The remaining
stanzas of the poem can be carefully each stanza is a progression towards
unraveling the tales of the traditional bard as he utilizes the grammatical
relations in the units and structures of language, and as he generously
exploits the social, cultural and linguistic affinity he believes to be
common between him and the audience.
Expressions are used to refer, and efforts are made to enable the
hearer to perceive the reference and the overall mode of referring.
Ultimately, therefore, the perception of the overall meaning (i.e. the overall
intention of the speaker) is clearly enhanced by the foregrounded overall
system of reference in the form and content of linguistic communication.
Getting overall meaning is certainly the concern of semantics. As such, the
semantic study of language in communication requires the lexical and
supra-lexical levels of analysis. For instance, the meaningfulness of the
following utterances is determined by an examination of the way the units
(works, phrases etc) are combined and correlated at the levels of linguistic
and social contexts:
The bachelor’s wives are many
He is a married bachelor
The boy is the father of the man
I am married to my books.
Let us again further exemplify the point being made here using the
sample poem “thousand” is used twice in stanza three of the poem. Please
note the use of the indefinite determiner ‘a’ in each case (i.e. in lines 2 and
4 of the stanza). “A thousand” is used here culturally to connote multitude
(or uncountable). The use of “a thousand” to connote numberless is
enhanced by the following expressions in the subsequent lines of the
stanza: “everywhere”, “kindred ears”, “resounding chorus” and “differing
tongues”. By the end of the stanza, it has become clear that the poet it not
interested in precisely counting “clouds” and “seas” in lines 2 and 4 of
stanza three.
In addition, an important mode of reference in the poem is the use of
synonyms to denote contrast at the levels of words and discourse. The
contrast is effected both overtly and covertly; that is literally and by
inference. For instance, the first stanza contrasts “wandering” (going
away/about) with “returning”. Apart from “wandering”, the notion of
going away is mainly indicated in the poem covertly; whereas returning is
overtly marked by “welcoming”, “coasting”, “coming” and “cruising
Stanza two contrasts the features of the passage of season. In this
case, we have the dry season denoted by “harvested yamfields”, “naked
droughts”, “incontinent fires” etc., while the wet season has such features
as “juicy tendril of August”, “floods” and ‘thundering rains”. Before the
end of the stanza, we now see the poet using the contrast of seasons as an
extended metaphor to juxtapose nightfall and dawn on one hand and
“dying dreams” and “sprouting visions” on the other. The poet’s positive
attitude to the passage of season is indicated by the fact that the stanza
ends with the statement,
Out nights will never reap their dawns
Without a compost of sprouting visions
This positive attitude becomes the sustained attitude towards the use
of contrast in the poem, especially from stanza four to the end. The weight
of evidence from the poem thus clearly suggests to the audience that the
poet believes that after every nightfall there will always be a dawn of a
new awareness.
It is a rewarding exercise for you to examine the forms and modes of
contrast in the poem from stanza four to the end of the poem. By the time
you get to the end, the social relevance of the tale rendered by our
traditional bard here would have become very apparent. So also will an
exercise in semantic study become very interesting and rewarding.
We can now clearly uphold the ideas of Palmer (1981) and Bolinger
(1975) quoted at the beginning of this discussion. Palmer especially
presents our position on the scope of what semantics is, especially in ESL.
This is again summed up in the question: What does the speaker mean by
saying X (The utterance) to the Hearer in the given context? This is
different from a question that suggests a narrow context-free definition of
the scope of meaning; i.e. What does X (the utterance) mean? A
comprehensive determination of the scope of semantics will enable us to
take cognizance of all the relevant factors and input for the appropriate
analysis of linguistic meaning. Hutchinson and Water (1987:12) say
A logical development of the functional or notional view
of language which had shown that there is more to
meaning than just the words in the sentence and the
context of the sentence is also important in creating
Among other things, the foregoing discussion has exemplified this point.
Finally, meaning is not an exclusively abstract entity, and as opined
by Leech (1983:7) in his complementarist view of semantics and
pragmatics, any account of meaning in language must be faithful to the
facts (of language) as we observe them and must be as simple and
generalizable as possible as possible. The facts of language include both
the abstract entities and the features of use and usage. The linguistic form
and the entire structure of the world view that inform the sensibility of the
speaker are necessary inputs to a proper understanding of meaning because
it is this perception that informs what meaning S (speaker) intends to
express (cf. Babatunde, 1998).
Adegbija, E. E. (1989) “Lexico – Semantic Variation in Nigeria English”,
World Englishes 8, 2:165-177.
Babatunde, S. T. (1995) “The changing socio-cultural Terrain in Nigeria
and the Pragmatic Implications for Communication in English”
Babatunde, S. T. (1997) “Axes to the Roots: A Lexico – Semantic
Analysis of Tunde Olusunle’s Fingermarks” in Lawal, (Ed).
Stylistics in theory and Practice Ilorin: Paragon Books.
Babtunde, S. T. (1998) Structure and Meaning in Olu Obafemi’s Suicide
Syndrome in M. P. Awodiya … (ed) Olu Obafemi: Interpretive
Essays (Forthcoming).
Bolinger, D. L. (1965) “The Atomization of Meaning”, Language, 41, 55573
Grice H. P. (1975) “Logic and Conversation” in P. Cole and J. Morgan
(eds) Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic
Hutchinson, T. and Waters, A. (1987) English for Specific Purposes: A
Learner-Centred Approach. Cambridge: CUP.
Keith, Allan (1986) Linguistic Meaning vol. 1. New York: Routledge and
Kegan Paul.
Leech, Geoffrey (1983) Principles of Pragmatics London: Longman.
Palmer, F. R. (1981) Semantics.
Pratt, M. L. (1977) Toward A Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
SONGS OF THE SEASON (“Sunday Tribune”, Jan. 8, 1989)
That is what the gecko chants at the
Portals purple twilights
And the walls throw open their
welcoming hands; E kuuleee o.
That is what alapandede chirrups from
The plump distance of baobab tops
And houses spread out their eaves
For her coasting glide;
The weaverbird knows the magic of a
talkative coming,
Cruising back to base with a quarry of straw
In its wandering beak
Ile koko n’tagbe
Ile koko n’tagbe
Ile ko
Ile ko
Ile koko n’tagbe …
A long season has passed
Days mounting days, weeks weeks,
We have seen gallant moons galloping by
On the saddle of the sky;
We have seen the juice tendril of August
Brown into spongy rags on the stooping shoulders
Of harvested yamfields;
The floods which skirted baffled houses
In the copper madness of thundering rains
Are naked droughts now in the saddening whimpers
Of the season of incontinent fires
Corpulent dreams have thinned into flimsy nightmares
Where bastard apparitions stand guard,
A barking gun in each hand
But dying dreams are cradling ashes
For stirring flames:
Our nights will never reap their dawns
Without a compost of sprouting visions
Ile koko n’tagbe
These five months have split like a ripened pod:
I have mounted the spur or a thousand clouds
And pulled laughing suns by their gentle beards
I have ploughed through a thousand seas
Fated by romping ranks of seraphic shoals.
Everywhere I have spread my mat of songs,
Sat kindred ears round the fire of my dreams,
And raised a resounding chorus from a tribe
Of differing tongues.
Ile koko n’tagbe
From door to door, from port to port,
My goatskin bag has garnered a seasonless wisdom;
I have seen rivers glide up mountains
Like magic pythons,
I have seen men who sneeze in gold
Lying each night in beds decked with silver sheets,
I have also seen the streets where man
Wake dawn after dawn amid a
cacophony of empty pots;
I have seen men who wield power,
Men wielded by power;
I have seen horses so tame they claim
Their masters’ backs
Ile koko n’tagbe
Everywhere I have
The sturdiest mountain,
Bridge across the widest waters,
A brave, persistent ray even in a wilderness
Abandoned to darkness.
Ile koko n’tagbe
Everywhere I have seen the smallness of the world
And man’s towering stature in its happily abridged version,
I have seen the master in every slave,
The slave in every master;
I have partaken of the triumph of invisible wings
Which fly heavy risks beyond the fancy of jealous birds,
Where earthly castles look like match boxes,
The roads like desperate worms wriggling through
The anonymous jungle of abbreviated streets.
I have shaken the seaman’s finny hands
On coats loud with carousing shells,
I have heard the laughter of the prow so cautious
Of the scurvy below the deck,
In the deep, deep mystery of the sea
Ever so whimsical like the temper of a jilted goddess;
I have witnessed the triumphant roar of coasting waves,
Their teeth sun-white with mischievous guffaws;
I have head the shark’s funeral tale
From the swollen lips of widowed maidens,
Counting bones of shipwrecked dreams
And slaves whose fins faltered in the cannibal destiny
Of our Middle Passage
Ile koko n’tagbe
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