Language

We have touched on a number of issues related to language in Course Section 4, particularly in Ngugi’s and Achebe’s debate about the use of the English language in post colonial literature. As language is the medium of the literature itself, this is self evidently an enormously important concern. What are the implications for identity if the post colonial writer of a formerly colonised country expresses himself or herself in the oppressor’s tongue?

Language, however, is a living medium and a social construct, which constantly changes and is adapted by usage, so an African’s or Indian’s English is likely to be different form an Englishman’s. Perhaps this is most striking in the Caribbean, where the African languages were forcibly suppressed. Since the slave labourers were only allowed to speak in English, they had to adapt the language for their own uses, so that they could still communicate private thoughts while in the presence of the slave owners. Since English was not their language and they were offered no education, even their communication with the white plantation owners had to be in a version of English, known as pidgin, which is a stark example of the hybridisation of the language.

Equally, the English settlers of Australia and New Zealand had a language which had been honed out of their English experience and was the product of English society; in many ways, therefore, it was found inadequate in an entirely new society in a completely different landscape and environment. It did not contain the vocabulary to encompass the settlers’ new experiences, and immediately began a process of adaptation.

In the Foreword to Raja Rao’s novel Kanthapura, he says “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language.” While he accepts that colonisation has meant that English is now part of “our intellectual make-up”, he argues that “We cannot write like the English. We should not.” On the other hand, “We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American.” (Kanthapura, 1938)

It is significant, of course, that Rao refers to America and Ireland, two other formerly colonised countries where English has become the central language, but the effects of linguistic adaptation and hybridity are very clear. This calls to mind Brian Friel’s Translations again, a play about the political and cultural threat to Ireland through English control and focusing particularly on language. It is surely one of the play’s richest ironies that it is written in English and the audience hears English throughout, and it needs a neat dramatic device to allow the audience to understand that the characters are, in the main, actually speaking in Gaelic.

The Nigerian poet Gabriel Okara wrote about the fascination of writing in a hybrid English, enriching the English language with African features and stylistic devices. As might be expected, this drew criticism from Ngugi. “Why… should an African writer,” he argued, “or any writer, become so obsessed by taking from his mother tongue to enrich other tongues? … We never asked ourselves: how can we enrich our languages? How can we ‘prey’ on the rich humanist democratic heritage in the struggles of other peoples in other times and other places to enrich our own? … How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble towards the claims of our languages on us and so aggressive in our claims on other languages, particularly the languages of our colonisation?” (The Language of African Literature 1981)

Some features of African writing in English are shared by Achebe and Ngugi, before Ngugi’s decision to write only in Gikuyu. Both these writers incorporate vocabulary from their African languages into their use of English, without gloss or explanation of any kind. It is left up to the reader who is unfamiliar with the vocabulary to work out its meaning from the context. In Things Fall Apart for example, not only are specific terms such as obi (hut, homestead) and egwugwu (ancestral spirit) included in the narrative, but there are also sections of ritual dialogue. The suggestion is that English does not have appropriate words to translate the nuances of these Ibo terms, necessitating the enrichment of English by the acquisition of this vocabulary. Like Achebe, Ngugi also italicises his employment of African vocabulary in his English texts, so that the examples are immediately apparent. Arguably, in A Grain of Wheat, he makes the English-speaking reader do more work. In particular, the significance of the Mumbi/Gikonyo song is never explained and some of the significance of the nomenclature of the text is lost if the reader is unaware that Mumbi is the name of one of the mythic founders of Kenya.

You will find a number of other examples where the syntax of English or the apparent implications of certain terms are not the same as in standard English, reflecting a different kind of experience. Kanthapura, for example, is marked by immensely long, multi-claused sentences which contain rhetorical repetition and hyperbole reminiscent of the narrative style of Hindu myths. At other times, the structure of dialogue is mimetic of accented spoken speech, often also written phonetically, adjusting the spelling and grammar of written English to fit the voice. This is apparent with Hortense Bowden in White Teeth, for example.

The poetry of Derek Walcott, the Caribbean poet, often weaves together separate influences. In one poem he refers to “the English tongue I love”, and some of his poems are clearly influenced by the traditions of English poetry. However, he also often incorporates the Caribbean vernacular in his verse, which is deeply aware of the Caribbean’s colonial past and the displacement of its peoples.

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