Essay on Chinua Achebe and the Language of the Colonizer

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Chinua Achebe and the Language of the Colonizer

A powerful instrument of control used by the colonizing powers is the instrument of language. Language forms a huge part of the culture of a people - it is through their language that they express their folk tales, myths, proverbs, history. For this reason, the imperial powers invariably attempted to stamp out native languages and replace them with their own. As Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin point out, there are two possible responses to this control - rejection or subversion. (The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 1995. 284) While Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is famous for advocating outright rejection of the colonialist language, believing that this rejection is central to the
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Others, which occur less frequently, require translation or a few words of explanation, such as ilo (the village playground), or agbala (woman, or ‘man without title’). Proverbs also play a large part in all three books. The English translations provided by Achebe are a personal rendering, attempting to invoke the spirit of the proverb, while retaining a faithfulness to the phraseology and terminology. Oral and communal storytelling traditions are very much a part of the Igbo culture, and Achebe has stressed in the past how these have been an inspiration to him, and admitted that he continually appeals to this oral tradition in his writings, wanting to record and therefore preserve it.

The issue of language is also raised directly throughout The African Trilogy. There is a telling exchange between Obierika and Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart:

“Does the white man understand our customs about land?”
“How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?” (145)

Achebe is at pains to point out the way in which language can act as a barrier between two cultures. Around thirty years later, in Arrow of God, language is still a barrier to communication, yet the Igbo have been forced to realise that the acquisition of English is crucial to understanding the white man and his religion. Ezeulu sends his son to Oduche to be educated at the missionaries’ school, reminding him of the importance of “knowing what the white man knew” : “If anyone asks you why you

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