One of the most intriguing aspects for me of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” is his deliberate use of Igbo words woven into an English-language text.  Given the books focus on native Nigerian village culture and the coming of white colonizers to the previously “untouched” village of Umuofia, the use of language has particular significance in the way it allows Achebe to relate to colonialism and the new culture it imposed.

The Lords Prayer in Igbo

When I first started reading “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe’s use of Igbo words didn’t seem all that unusual or remarkable.  Being myself at least mildly conversant in Kiswahili, I recognize that writing in English about Kiswahili terms is difficult because of the nuance packed into some words. I often end up including a few words in the original language, on the off-chance that a native Kiswahili speaker will get something extra from the text, or a curious scholar will look the word up online.

However, I did a little more digging and changed my mind after reading Brandon Brown’s short essay, Subversion versus Rejection: Can Postcolonial Writers Subvert the Codified Using the Language of the Empire? 

“Armed with their pens, the said authors address “the dominance of imperial language” as it relates to educational systems, to economic structures, and perhaps more importantly to the medium through which anti-imperial ideas are cast (Ashcroft 283). The postcolonial voice can decide to resist imperial linguistic domination in two ways — by rejecting the language of the colonizer or by subverting the empire by writing back in a European language.”

Brown goes on to summarize two African author’s viewpoints, both of whom believe that the latter option- subverting the power of the colonizer through the use of English- is an improbable solution.  Achebe, in writing “Things Fall Apart,” had to navigate this dilemma: on one hand, writing in English would make his book more widely accessible to the masses, and potentially have the power to affect views of the colonial system (it was, after all, published in 1958, when the colonial system was only beginning to break apart in Africa).  On the other hand, by using the language of the colonizer to tell a story about colonization in Nigeria, Achebe could be seen as bowing to Africa’s oppressors, and thereby losing some of his voice as an authentic “African writer.”  For me, the sprinkling of Igbo words into “Things Fall Apart” was a natural attempt to infuse the novel with an authentic Nigerian voice and navigate the territory between appearing too colonial or too provincial.  What do you think?

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One response »

  1. Steve B says:

    It seems to me that you’ve upended Brown’s proposition that only two options exist for the African writer. While I tend to lean more towards the use of native languages over that of colonizing languages, I think you’re right to suggest that neither of these options is actually sufficient to tell the story of colonial hybridity. Achebe, perhaps, uses both languages because both speak to the reality of the post/colonial condition. Great post!

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