This page last revised 19 May 1998
All quotations from the fiction are taken from the 1988 Picador edition of Chinua Achebes The African Trilogy.
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 Thiongo is famous for advocating outright rejection of the colonialist language, believing that this rejection is central to the anti-imperialist struggle, Chinua Achebe has chosen the idea of subversion rather than rejection. According to Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, his writing displays a process by which the language is made to bear the weight and texture of a different experience. In doing so it becomes another language. In The African Trilogy, Achebe uses the language of the colonizer to convey the Igbo experience of that colonization. The idioms, proverbs and imagery of these books all invoke his Eastern Nigerian culture, forcing the reader to accept on Achebes (linguistic) terms, the story he has to tell.
Any reader of The African Trilogy comes away with at least a limited knowledge of Igbo words and phrases. Some words such as obi, chi, osu, and egwugwu become assimilated very quickly into this knowledge through the way in which Achebe scatters them casually through the text. 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 should be sent to learn these new things, tell him that a man must dance the dance prevalent in his time (514) . The outcome of this kind of thinking is seen in the various attitudes towards language in No Longer at Ease. Those who have command over the English language are admired. When Obi is asked to speak at the Umuofia Progressive Union, his speech is delivered through Igbo and also through English, but his audience still seemed highly impressed. They liked good Ibo, but they also admired English (240). Obis feelings towards the language of the colonizer are not so clear cut. While in England he pursues a degree in English, yet:
He spoke Ibo whenever he had the least opportunity of doing so... But when he had to speak in English with a Nigerian student from another tribe he lowered his voice. It was humiliating to have to speak to ones countrymen in a foreign language, especially in the presence of the proud owners of that language. They would naturally assume that one had no language of ones own. (214)
While Achebe himself may share some of these feelings, he is adamant today that the language situation is not solved by taking doctrinaire decisions such as a decision to banish the English language from Nigeria, for example. He is aware of the practical implications of such a decision, admitting You cannot administer Nigeria as it is for one single day without English (Writers Talk: Chinua Achebe interviewed by Nuruddin Farrah). The literary situation may not be as simple as the administrative one. However, Achebe has highlighted the complexity of his multi-lingual society, and his belief that the all-embracing Igbo culture is in fact based on complexities such as these. In The African Trilogy, he has turned this idea around. By combining poetic English prose with Igbo words, phrases and images, he has attempted to make English all-embracing also. Rather than rejecting the colonizers language, he has used it as a medium through which the experiences of the colonized can be communicated.
This page was written by Katharine Slattery. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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