It was circa 8 a.m. on Tuesday, February 21, 2023. I switched on my TV set only to be met with a submission by the former General Secretary of the People’s National Convention (PNC), Benard Mornah, on the Key Issues segment of TV3’s New Day morning show. Bernard was interpreting an earlier statement made on the same programme by a co-panellist, Pius Enam Hadzide, Chief Executive Officer of the National Youth Authority. The topic for discussion was the performance of the ministers-designate in the ongoing parliamentary vetting process and matters arising therefrom.
Pius had earlier submitted that the minister-designate for agriculture, Mr Byan Acheampong, was a sharp brain. ‘Yesterday [Monday, February 20], the comment was made that not many people knew, for instance, the steel that the gentleman, for instance, Mr Bryan Acheampong, is made of. He is a good friend of mine. I know him very well, and I do know that given time, people will even be more impressed. He is [an] academic, very learned, very calm demeanour.
‘He pays attention to detail. You could see yesterday…Him [sic] churning out figures and facts relative to even trajectory and the growth rate in the agric sector, and the consistency with which he flowed, and the data that he was [giving]. I marvelled. I am like ah, “Did he know that he was going to be [a] minister”? “Did he understudy the minister [Dr Afriyie Owusu Akoto] or what”? It tells you that this is a sharp brain, who will not take time to abreast himself with [sic] the issues. The same can be said for Honourable K. T. Hammond, whom [sic], by the way, we know, is quite jovial and makes light of situations,’ Pius said.
I reproduce the long quote to put things in proper context, but the statement in contention is, ‘It tells you that this [Bryan] is a sharp brain, who will not take time to abreast himself with [sic] the issues.’ This statement, according to Bernard Mornah, means Dr Owusu Afriyie Akoto [Byan’s immediate predecessor if Bryan is approved] was a dull brain. Bernard wouldn’t budge but insist on his ‘logic’, even when Pius impugned the logic in his (Bernard’s) inference. ‘Now I listened to my brother Pius, and I chuckled when he said that some people were sharp brain [sic].
You [Pius] want to say that the minister who resigned was a dull brain. Bryan Acheampong, going to the Ministry of Agric, is described as [having] a sharp brain. [Pius interjects] Pius…Pius, if you decide to question my logic, you will not speak on issues because I will, I will interject with you. [Pius interjects again, but the programme host, Roland Walker, intervenes] So can’t I make inferences? So, he [Pius] should keep quiet and allow me to make my point. You [Pius] sat here and said that Bryan Acheampong is a sharp brain, and I’m saying that is it to relate that the previous minister [Dr Owusu Afriyie Akoto] was a dull brain?’ Bernard questioned, amid Pius’s failed attempt to explain himself.
But is the statement, ‘This [Bryan] is a sharp brain’ logically equivalent to ‘[That] Akoto is a dull brain’? Before we attempt to answer this question, let’s obtain some background knowledge of sentence stress and how the stressed word in an utterance determines the meaning of that utterance or sentence. My take One sentence can possibly have as many meanings as the number of words in it. Shocked? This is exactly the same way I felt almost exactly seven years ago when I learnt this strand of knowledge from Dr Elizabeth Orfson-Offei of the University of Ghana Department of English Language. Dr Orfson-Offei was teaching the topic ‘of stress’ to a class of which I was a part. The class was the February 2016 Batch of Phonetics and Presentation Skills learners at GBC Radio Training School.
Unlike other languages like French and Japanese, which are syllable-timed, whereby all syllables take roughly the same amount of time, English is a stress-timed language, whereby stressed syllables take longer time than unstressed ones to achieve a rhythmic effect. In phonetics, stress is loosely defined as the intensity or prominence or emphasis a speaker of a language gives to a certain syllable in a word or to a certain word in a sentence. The given emphasis results in a relative loudness of that stressed syllable in the given word or that stressed word in the given sentence. Hence, there are two types of stress: word stress and sentence stress. In a sentence, the stressed word carries the meaning of that sentence. This is why one sentence can have as many possible meanings as the number of words in it. Let’s consider the following example: ‘Ato can drink this wine.’ The foregoing sentence has five words in it.
This means the utterance can have five possible meanings, depending on which word is stressed at different times. To get the logical equivalence of a sentence, one has to contrast the stressed word in the given sentence with another word of its kind in the new sentence. So, in the given example, if the stressed word is the name ‘Ato’, whether other names have been mentioned in the context or not, you necessarily contrast ‘Ato’ with another name, like Kofi or Kodwo or Kwamena in the context to obtain a logical equivalence. If the stressed word is the modal auxiliary ‘can’, you contrast ‘can’ with another modal auxiliary, like should or must or will. If the stressed word is the verb ‘drink’, you contrast ‘drink’ with another verb, like sell or dash or spill.
If the stressed word is the determiner ‘this’, you contrast ‘this’ with its past form, ‘that.’ Finally, if the stressed word is the liquid ‘wine’, you contrast ‘wine’ with another liquid, like water or soup or porridge. Let’s look at each of the five possible interpretations in more practical terms. The emboldened word in caps in each of the sentences is the stressed word. 1. ‘ATO can drink this wine’ means Ato is the only one who can drink this wine. This also means that not Kofi or Kodwo or Kwamena can drink this wine. 2. ‘Ato CAN drink this wine’ means either Ato is permitted or Ato is able to drink this wine. It also means that not that Ato is obliged or is mandated or is certain to drink this wine. 3. ‘Ato can DRINK this wine’ means Ato can only drink this wine. It means Ato can’t sell or dash or spill this wine. 4. ‘Ato can drink THIS wine’ means Ato can drink this particular wine, which the speaker must’ve shown to his or her listener(s).
This means Ato can’t drink that wine or the other wine. 5. ‘Ato can drink this WINE’ means Ato can drink this wine, and not this water or this soup or this porridge. As indicated before, a stressed word comes out longer than the unstressed words in a speech, as indicated in each of the example sentences above. But apart from having longer time, stressed words can also come out with a louder sound or a higher pitch than, or a different vowel quality from, unstressed ones. With this understanding, let’s now look at the statement by Pius Hadzide. ‘This [Bryan] is a sharp brain.’ Based on our understanding, to say the above statement is logically equivalent to ‘Akoto is a dull brain’ means the interpreter (Bernard Mornah) is contrasting the determiner, ‘this’, which is performing the function of a noun equivalent for ‘Bryan’, with Akoto.
For Bernard to be right in this sense, one assumption should be met: that is the speaker (Pius) must have stressed the noun equivalent, ‘this’. How’s this assumption met or otherwise? Did the speaker actually stress ‘this’? Listen to the statement, which can be heard from the 10:20 to 11:34 time frame of this one-and-a-half-hour video. Bernard’s interpretation can be heard from the 29:21 to 30:57 time frame of the same video. Per what I heard (I may be wrong because my ears can deceive me.), Pius didn’t stress ‘this’, the noun equivalent of Byan. Pius arguably rather stressed the modifier ‘sharp’ in the noun phrase ‘sharp brain’. Even assuming Pius didn’t stress any word at all but spoke on a monotone (or with the same tone), the rule is that in a situation of a monotone, the last lexical word becomes the automatic stressed word.
For the avoidance of doubt, lexical words (also called content words) include (pro)nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Lexical words contrast with function words (also called grammatical words). These are words belonging to the other parts of speech such as auxiliary verbs, propositions, conjunctions, and articles. The last lexical word in Pius’s statement is ‘brain’, which is still the headword of the noun phrase, ‘sharp brain’. So, in either case, it is the noun phrase, ‘sharp brain’ that should be in contention, which phrase should contrast with such other noun phrases as ‘dull brain’ and ‘pin brain’. That is, the issue should be whether Bryan is a sharp brain, or Bryan is a dull brain.
And not whether Byan is a sharp brain, and Akoto is a dull brain. As you may have noticed from the explanations, one may be committing a logical blunder if one contrasts two words in the same utterance [such as ‘Bryan’ and ‘sharp brain’] with their opposite numbers [such as ‘Akoto’ and ‘dull brain’] to form the logical equivalence of that utterance, as Bernard did. Thus, it’s logically untenable for Mr Bernard Mornah to extrapolate that Mr Pius Enam Hadzide meant Dr Owusu Afriyie Akoto is a dull brain, simply because Pius had said Mr Bryan Acheampong is a sharp brain. Such illogical extrapolation from utterances is rife, especially in our mediated public discourses and political debates.
A classic example is that which I took notice of in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, which example involved a declarative statement, a somewhat promise, NPP’s Candidate, now President, Akufo Addo made: ‘I am not coming to steal your money.’ Whether he meant it or not, and whether he’s lived up to that promise since he assumed the reins of governance, are a different kettle of fish to analyse in another writing. But his statement can be analysed now. An enthusiastic fresh ‘graduate’ of Phonetics and Presentation Skills and eager to test my newly acquired skills, I listened up to Candidate Akufo Addo’s statement more than a few times, but I didn’t perceive a stressed word. It was quite a monotone too. And I wasn’t sure of the context in which Akufo Addo made the statement. I could only speculate. Take it or leave it, there’s been a long-standing, universal negative perception about politicians, especially ours: something like, ‘All Ghanaian politicians are the same; they come to power to steal our money.’
So, my speculation was that Akufo Addo was responding to this general perception about the character of Ghanaian politicians. Or perhaps a rather specific perception about his own being relative to money. If the general perception was the case, then he was seeking to achieve either of two things: (1) to proclaim that he was a different politician, in which case he should have stressed the pronoun ‘I’, or (2) to propose what he would rather do (and/or not do) with our money, in which case he should have stressed the verb, ‘steal’. But if the specific perception (about his being relative to money) was the case, then he was seeking to parry the negative perception about him, in which case, he should have stressed the adverb, ‘not’. Thus, in the final analysis, one of the following three conclusions, based on my perception of the context, was possible:
1. ‘I am not coming to steal your money’; meaning, for example, ‘Yes, I concede your quintessential Ghanaian politician comes/is coming to steal your money, but I am not coming to steal your money. I am not like the other politicians. I am different.’
2. ‘I am NOT coming to steal your money’; meaning, for instance, ‘People think of me or perceive me as coming to steal your money, but that is not true. I am not like that. This perception doesn’t define me. This is not who I am. This is not the way I was born.
3. ‘I am not coming to STEAL your money’; meaning, for example, ‘That [stealing] is not what I am coming (or intend to) do your money. I am rather coming to protect it or share it (equally) or put it to judicious use, not steal it. It wasn’t clear which of these three meanings Akufo Addo wanted to communicate because the statement lacked context.
But expectedly enough, NDC communicators chose the one they thought would help them in their cause–‘Akufo Addo says HE is not coming to steal your money; meaning, SOMEONE ELSE is coming to steal your money’–and went ahead to attribute that someone else to their candidate, John Mahama. So, they got something like, ‘Akufo Addo says HE is not coming to steal your money; meaning, Mahama has stolen/is stealing/is coming to steal your money. Do you see how reckless he is in his speech? Speaking ill of his co-contenders without a scintilla/shred of evidence/proof [in Murtala’s voice].
This is someone who is asking you to vote for him to become your president. Don’t vote for such a reckless speaker/person/man.’ In fact, that ‘someone else’ could’ve been any other candidate in the presidential race, but it makes some sense for NDC people to have attributed the ‘someone else’ to John Mahama because at least, he was the only candidate in the presidential race who had been and was even still president. Besides, He was the main competitor, looking at how insignificant the cumulated votes of the other contesting political parties had been and continued to be since the inception of the fourth republic.
But it doesn’t make logical sense for the NDC members to have interpreted the statement the way they did. For them to have been logical, Akufo Addo should have stressed the pronoun ‘I’, but he didn’t. He spoke on a monotone, in which case the automatically stressed word was supposed to be the last lexical word–‘money’. This means with all of the other words in the sentence, including ‘steal’, held constant, ‘money’ was the word to contrast with other ‘stealable’ resources of the nation, perhaps gold or diamond or bauxite. So, they could’ve argued something like the following: ‘You [Ghanaians] have been saying that politicians come to power to steal from the nation.
The nation is blessed with very many resources like gold, diamond, and bauxite. Akufo Addo says he is not coming to steal your MONEY, leaving out those other resources, which, of course, can be stolen, too. Why didn’t say he isn’t coming to steal those too? If he is not coming to steal your money, then he is coming to steal your gold, diamond, and bauxite. Don’t vote for such a person, who will come and steal the precious gifts God has blessed you with and leave you with nothing to depend on or to hand down to your children and grandchildren.’
Obviously, the NDC people’s interpretation of Akufo Addo’s statement was for political expediency, a calculated attempt to whip up public disaffection for Akufo Addo and public sympathy for its candidate, John Mahama. My contention is that they were even more likely to have been more effective and efficient with their mission if they had chosen the logical path. But they chose not only the weak but also the illogical path. Such illogical extrapolations are found not only in the public space but also in our private circles. My unpleasant experience Two years ago, I was one of ten participants in a fellowship programme. I had a banter with one of the other nine participants, and I said to her, ‘I am not close-minded.’ Even though it was clear that the context was about my being–that is whether I am close-minded or open-minded–and not about who between us was close-minded and who was not, she interpreted my statement to mean she was close-minded.
That wasn’t all. She managed to obtain the backing of the eight participants of the fellowship. I was a loner. It was one against nine. Like Bernard Mornah, my co-participants believed in their ‘logic’. And like in Pius Hadzide’s case, I couldn’t get a word in edgeways to explain myself, as I’ve done here. And even when I finally got the chance, after the intervention of our assigned editor, to do so, my co-participants still wouldn’t accept my explanation, a slothful induction fallacy, you may call it, perhaps to the satisfaction of their self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, this unpleasant encounter would be the straw that broke the camel’s back not only to sour the relationship between my co-participants and me but also for me to withdraw from the fellowship. I broached my intention to our editor; he dissuaded me from doing so. He enjoined me to stay on, but I didn’t enjoy my stay.
My only consolation was perhaps I would’ve behaved the same way or even worse than they had I not been exposed to this knowledge. My observations But I also began to question why our institutions of learning don’t include this piece of knowledge in their curricula. High schools are supposed to be teaching stress as part of the listening and speaking (also known as oral English) aspect of the English language, but I daresay they don’t. Yet, all high school students, regardless of their programmes of pursuit, are expected to answer questions on it. Little wonder about the wanton rate of failure in the English language exam! Institutions of higher learning could also be teaching this as part of the communication skills course, which every student, irrespective of discipline, takes. But not even our communication training institutions, at least neither of the two I’ve so far attended, teach this.
I had to scrimp and save from an already precarious lifestyle and free up some time from the tight academic timetable, to seek this extra tuition at GBC Radio Training School. If Bernard Mornah, who has at least a master’s degree, had been exposed to this knowledge, he might have admitted his flaw at least after his attention had been called to it. If the NDC communicators, who perhaps had at least a bachelor’s degree, had been exposed to this knowledge, they might have exhibited so in their interpretation of Akufo Addo’s 2016 statement. If my co-participants in the fellowship programme, all of whom were either graduates or undergraduate students of communication, had been exposed to this knowledge, they might have better understood my explanation.
They rather mocked it. Yes, I wrote ‘might,’ not ‘will’, taking cognizance of the fact that not all we study in school do we integrate into our lives. There is a proverb in Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not To Blame to the effect that the hen eats pebbles but complains of having no teeth as if she had teeth she would eat gold; the cow who has teeth eats even grass. Take, for instance, logic and critical thinking or whatever name is given to it in our various institutions of higher learning.
Just as they’re supposed to take communication skills, every level 100 student is mandated to take a logic course, yet I wonder how many of us apply the course content in real life! Our media space is awash with logical fallacies of differing kinds, ranging from ad hominem through strawman to red herring. Like this one. Yes, I concede sometimes, these fallacies are deliberately committed for expediency in the political space, in the courtroom, etc. But for the most part of the time, I daresay their commission is based on sheer ignorance. But we can do better.
The writer, Michael Aidoo, is a Freelance Journalist | Copywriter | Content Writer | Copy Editor | Proofreader).
He also teaches English Language and Communication Skills at the Shiv-India Institute of Management and Technology (SIIMT) as well as Remedial English to private WASSCE students.
He can be reached at email@example.com or on 0556489113 or 0248568216.