Use of Language
Writers in Third World
countries that were formerly colonies of European nations debate among
themselves about their duty to write in their native language rather than in
the language of their former colonizer. Some of these writers argue that
writing in their native language is imperative because cultural subtleties and
meanings are lost in translation. For these writers, a “foreign” language can
never fully describe their culture.
Achebe maintains the
opposite view. In a 1966 essay reprinted in his book Morning Yet on Creation
Day, he says that, by using English, he presents “a new voice coming out of
Africa, speaking of African experience in a
world-wide language.” He recommends that the African writer use English “in a
way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the
extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. [The
writer] should aim at fashioning out an English which
is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.” Achebe accomplishes this goal by innovatively
introducing Igbo language, proverbs, metaphors, speech rhythms, and ideas into
a novel written in English.
Achebe agrees, however, with
many of his fellow African writers on one point: The African writer must write
for a social purpose. In contrast to Western writers and artists who create art
for art’s sake, many African writers create works with one mission in mind—to
reestablish their own national culture in the postcolonial era. In a 1964
statement, also published in Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe comments that
African people did not hear of culture for the
first time from Europeans. . . . their societies were
not mindless, but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and
beauty, . . . they had poetry, and above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that African people all but lost during the
colonial period, and it is this that they must now regain.
To further his aim of disseminating African
works to a non-African audience, Achebe
became the founding editor for a series on African literature—the African
Writers Series—for the publishing firm Heinemann.
The Use of English
Achebe presents the
complexities and depths of an African culture to readers of other cultures as
well as to readers of his own culture. By using English—in which he has been
proficient since childhood—he reaches many more readers and has a much greater
literary impact than he would by writing in a language such as Igbo. Writers
who write in their native language must eventually allow their works to be translated, often into English, so readers outside the
culture can learn about it.
Yet by using English, Achebe faces a problem. How can he present the
African heritage and culture in a language that can never describe it
adequately? Indeed, one of the primary tasks of Things Fall Apart is to
confront this lack of understanding between the Igbo culture and the
colonialist culture. In the novel, the Igbo ask how the white man can call Igbo
customs bad when he does not even speak the Igbo language. An understanding of
Igbo culture can only be possible when the outsider can relate to the Igbo
language and terminology.
Achebe solves this problem
by incorporating elements of the Igbo language into his novel. By incorporating
Igbo words, rhythms, language, and concepts into an English text about his
culture, Achebe goes a
long way to bridge a cultural divide.
The Igbo vocabulary is
merged into the text almost seamlessly so the reader understands the
meaning of most Igbo words by their context. Can any attentive reader of Things
Fall Apart remain unfamiliar with words and concepts represented by chi,
and obi? Such Igbo terms as chi and ogbanje
are essentially untranslatable, but by using them in the context of his story, Achebe helps the non-Igbo reader
identify with and relate to this complex Igbo culture.
Chi, for example, represents a significant,
complex Igbo concept that Achebe
repeatedly refers to by illustrating the concept in various contexts throughout
the story. Achebe
translates chi as personal god when he first mentions Unoka’s bad fortune. As the book progresses, it gradually
picks up other nuances. As discussed in the Commentary section for Chapter 3,
the chi concept is more complex than a personal deity or even fate,
another frequently used synonym. Chi suggests elements of the Hindu concept of
karma, the concept of the soul in some Christian denominations, and the concept
of individuality in some mystical philosophies. The understanding of chi and
its significance in Igbo culture grows as one progresses
through the book.
Another example of Achebe’s incorporation
of Igbo elements is his frequent reference to traditional Igbo proverbs and
tales. These particular elements give Things Fall Apart an authentic
African voice. The Igbo culture is fundamentally an oral one—that is, “Among
the Igbo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the
palm-oil with which words are eaten” (Chapter1). To provide an authentic feel
for Igbo culture would be impossible without also allowing the proverbs to play
a significant role in the novel. And despite the foreign origin of these
proverbs and tales, the Western reader can relate very well to
many of them. They are woven smoothly into their
context and require only occasional explanation or elaboration. These proverbs
and tales are, in fact, quite similar in spirit to Western sayings and fables.
readers of this novel not only relate easily to traditional proverbs and tales
but also sympathize with the problems of Okonkwo, Nwoye, and other characters. Achebe has skillfully developed his characters,
and even though they live in a different era and a very different culture, one
can readily understand their motivations and their feelings because they are
universal and timeless.
Speech patterns and rhythms are
occasionally used to represent moments of high emotion and tension.
Consider the sound of the drums in the night in Chapter 13 (go-di-di-go-go-di-go); the call repeated several times to
unite a gathering followed by its group response, first described in Chapter 2
. .Yaa!); the agonized call
of the priestess seeking Ezinma in Chapter 11 (Agbala do-o-o-o!); the repetitious pattern of
questions and answers in the isa-ifi marriage
ritual in Chapter14; the long narrated tale of Tortoise in Chapter 11; and the
excerpts from songs in several chapters.
Achebe adds another twist in
his creative use of language by incorporating a few examples of Pidgin English.
Pidgin is a simplified form of language used for communicating between groups
of people who normally speak different languages. Achebe uses only a few Pidgin words or phrases—tie-tie
(to tie); kotma (a crude form of court
messenger); and Yes, sah—just enough to
suggest that a form of Pidgin English was being established. As colonialists,
the British were adept at installing Pidgin English in their new colonies.
Unfortunately, Pidgin sometimes takes on characteristics of master-servant
communication; it can sound patronizing on the one hand, and subservient on the
other. Furthermore, using the simplified language can become an easy excuse for
not learning the standard languages for which it substitutes.
Achebe’s use of Igbo language,
speech patterns, proverbs, and richly drawn characters creates an authentic
African story that effectively bridges the cultural and historical gap between
the reader and the Igbo. Things Fall Apart is a groundbreaking work for
many reasons, but particularly because Achebe’s
controlled use of the Igbo language in an English novel extends the boundaries
of what is considered English fiction. Achebe’s introduction of new forms and language into a
traditional (Western) narrative structure to communicate
unique African experiences forever changed the definition of world literature.
Pronunciation of Igbo Names and Words
Like Chinese, the Igbo language is a tonal
one; that is, differences in the actual voice pitch and the rise or fall of a
word or phrase can produce different meanings. In Chapter 16, for example, Achebe describes how the
missionary’s translator, though an Igbo, can not pronounce the Mbanto Igbo dialect: “Instead of saying ‘myself’
he always said ‘my buttocks.’” (The form k means strength
while k means buttocks.)
Igbo names usually represent meanings—often
entire ideas. Some names reflect the qualities that a parent wishes to bestow
on a child; for example, Ikemefuna means my power should not be dispersed. Other names reflect the time,
area, or other circumstances to which a child is born; for example, Okoye means man born on Oye Day,
the second day of the Igbo week. And Igbo parents also give names to honor
someone or something else; for instance, Nneka means mother
Prior to Nigerian independence in 1960, the
spelling of Igbo words was not standardized. Thus the
word Igbo is written as Ibo, the pre-1960 spelling throughout Things
Fall Apart. The new spellings reflect a more accurate understanding and
pronunciation of Igbo words. The List of Characters includes a
pronunciation that uses equivalent English syllables for most of the main