Linguistic imperialism Essay
Linguistic imperialism can be defined as the enforcement or imposition of one language onto another; it tends to be a key tool of the colonialist seeking to mend the ‘backward’ societies that they find, generally to their own purpose. Thus, writers such as Friel and Achebe have sought to rectify the still ever present colonialist perceptions of the west by attacking the use of language in their societies, for example, Hiberno-English in Translations.
Furthermore, it is necessary to analyse the form and structure of the primary texts, for instance, how Achebe and Friel both manage to structure their texts in such a way that it gives a distinctly ‘foreign’ aesthetic, whilst still creating a subtly intelligent and critical narrative. Also, it is important to look at the literary techniques and devices that are used within Translations and Things Fall Apart, for example, dramatic irony (e. g. the reference to the potato famine in Translations) or symbols like Mr. Brown in Things Fall Apart, who represent a could-have-been harmonious presence between two vastly different cultures.
In addition, it is necessary to contrast and compare the primary texts with secondary texts such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The Language of African Literature’, and analyse how relevant or constructive Things Fall Apart and Translations are in their underlying criticism of linguistic imperialism. Overall, it is a crucial to explore these various threads of investigation to come to an overall conclusion in terms of how Friel and Achebe present the issue of linguistic imperialism and how successful they are.
George Steiner, in After Babel, writes that “Translation exists because men speak different languages” (1998, p. 51). He goes on to question it, by asking “Why should human beings speak thousands of different, mutually incomprehensible tongues? ” (1998, p. 51), that homo sapiens are basically biologically the same; why have we not evolved to speak one common language? Steiner’s study of language and communication concludes that with the death of a language comes the dissolution of cultures and identities: “Each takes with it a storehouse of consciousness” (1998, p.56).
This was of consequential influence to Brian Friel and Translations, notable throughout the play. For instance, the various ways in which Friel portrays translation – the cartographers; Owen’s “not-completely-correct” translation of Lancey; Maire and Yolland’s romantic tryst and so forth – create the notion that the English language is not compatible with Irish culture. This is an overarching idea that reaches its crescendo with the Donnelly twins, Friel’s representation of the Provision IRA within the play i. e. the violent end of Yolland, inferred by the actions of the Donnelly twins, is an echo of 1980s era conflicts.
These conflicts were created by tensions still remaining today, by Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; the Catholics calling for the reunification of Ireland, and Protestants wishing to remain separated – realistically, these tensions would have not necessarily existed had there been no British colonising of Ireland, and Translations has been identified as echoing Friel’s political interest in the matters.
The reader or audience of Translations are bound by Friel to a highly complex idea of translation and the place of language in a culture; similarly, we are made aware of this in Things Fall Apart. One of the most accessible passages that exemplify this goes as follows: “When they had all gathered the white man began to speak to them. He spoke through an interpreter who was an Ibo man, though his dialect was different and harsh to the ears of Mbanta.
Many people laughed at his dialect and the way he used words strangely. Instead of saying ‘myself’ he always said ‘my buttocks’. ” (Things Fall Apart, p. 136) Subtly, Achebe feeds the reader linguistic perspective alien to most Western culture – that Africa was not, and is not, a land full of savages who cannot communicate as well as the Europeans, and instead a variety of different tongues that is not necessarily exactly recognisable from one clan to another.
In regards to Translations, Friel has been left relatively unscathed by those in Ireland who may have felt abandoned by Friel’s artistic decision to employ Hiberno-English as opposed to contemporary Gaelic, whilst both authors have clearly chosen English as a medium to address linguistic imperialism (using the tool of colonialism against the colonialists). Achebe has been highly criticised for writing in English. Ngugi wa Thiong’o criticised African authors who chose English over their native tongue to write in.
He asked “How did we arrive at this acceptance of ‘the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature’, in our culture, and in our politics?… ” (1995, p. 287) Thiong’o goes on to say that as the bullet is to physical subjugation, “language was the means of spiritual subjugation” (1995, p. 287). To understand Thiong’o’s logic, the reader needs to take into context a passage further on in the essay, which refers to his experiences at a colonial school and the use of his mother tongue, Gikuyu:
“Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks – or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY … ” (1995, p. 288) Thiong’o is asserting that the use of English was imposed upon many of the African tribes and with it the enforcement of superiority and supposed civilisation… to use Gikuyu was to be made to feel inferior and stupid, and to speak English fluently would be the height of education achievement.
A further statement by Thiong’o states “Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance. Orature in Kenyan languages stopped. ” (1995, p. 288). The loss of such orature and its replacement by the English written word was heavily destructive, according to Thiong’o – he concludes the essay be acknowledging that human society and culture is formed by the interactions and communication of people, that complex systems of ethics and experience, these systems creating one distinctive society from another.
If the means of communication that has developed such a community is, like Tobair Vree in Translations “something is being eroded” (p. 53), or destroyed, then, much like Steiner, that society is lost. To Thiong’o, Achebe’s use of English over his native tongue is, rather than delicate manipulation for the anti-colonialist purpose, actually conducive in destroying that particular culture forever. However, despite Thiong’o’s clear dissatisfaction at Achebe’s use of the English language as a general point, this point could be considered moot.
Early on in the essay, Thiong’o quotes Achebe as saying: “Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? IT looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and intend to use it. ” (1995, p. 285 citing 1975, p. 62) This is evident in the careful construction and consideration of Things Fall Apart. Achebe has written a novel in which the reader could easily imagine themselves around a blazing fire with an elder of a Nigerian clan, with the story being meticulously recited to them.
The rhythm of the novel is manipulated in such a way that it becomes less like an English-written novel and more a native piece of orature. For example, Achebe makes good use of drums in the novel, to create the rhythm of the traditional narrative: “Just then the distant beating of drums began to reach them… the drums beat the unmistakable wrestling dance – quick, light and gay, and it came floating on the wind. ” (Things Fall Apart, p. 41)
A further use of language to create an ‘African English’ is the utilisation of proverbs, which play a central part in emphasising the Ibo culture, as “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”. In addition, Achebe ‘peppers’ Things Fall Apart with Ibo words – this digression is an act of defiance to the colonists who felt they could just translate Ibo culture (religion, education and so forth). By this, Achebe means to illustrate the barriers of translation, in that there is no suitable word for, as an example, ogbanje, “one of those wicked children who, when they died, entered their mother’s womb to be born again”.
Similarly, Achebe’s conquest to turn the Colonialist’s language back in on itself, Achebe wrote an essay called ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’. Achebe analyses Western views of Africa (such as those of “that erudite British Historian Regius Professor of Oxford, Hugh Trevor Roper” (Achebe, 1961)) in stinging rhetoric which delivers the idea of that prolific early ‘anti-colonialist’ novelists like Conrad were, maybe unwittingly, racist in themselves. Achebe writes: “Conrad was born in 1857…
it was certainly not his fault that he lived… [in a] time when the reputation of the black man was at a particularly low level. But… there remains still in Conrad’s attitude a residue of antipathy to black people… Certainly, Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting as when he gives us this brief description [of a black person]:
A black figure stood up, strong long black legs, waving long black arms… as though we might expect them to… wave white arms! ” (Achebe, 1961) In this short except, it is noticeable how Achebe associates Conrad’s conduplicatio of ‘black’ as sinister, and potentially in itself, a form of linguistic imperialism – in this, it is the fact that the word black (and nigger) has previously been held to have negative connotations or was created for a negative purpose, but both create a “‘reputation of the black man… at a particularly low level” (Achebe, 1961).
Achebe also goes on to say that these psychoanalysts who have already written at length about Conrad fail to recognise his attitude to black people, even in discussion over anti-Semitic values, “which only leads one to surmise that Western psychoanalysts must regard the kind of racism displayed by Conrad as absolutely normal” (Achebe, 1961) and that this same book of “vulgar fashion prejudices insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies” (Achebe, 1961) has been “described by a serious scholar as ‘among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language” (Achebe, 1961).
From this, the audience of this essay can understand that Achebe, in as short a summary as possible, suggests that one of the most famous – or in this case infamous – novellas to be written on the subject of Africa by a European stranger epitomises how the English language has been used as Thiong’o’s subjugation of the soul – even if Conrad’s intentions in writing it were not consciously racist, in trying to purvey a certain message he colonised the African peoples by associating them with pejoratives and otherwise negative descriptors.
Friel and Achebe are both influential authors for similar reasons; they attack subversive, modern perceptions of ‘lost’ worlds that have in recent years movements like African National Congress in South Africa and the IRA in Ireland sought to revert nation-states to their ‘natural’, pre-colonial state. In this, they have both similar and not so similar approaches to literature, and have incorporated techniques to manipulate ideas incorporated in their book. For example, both authors make use of particular styles of writing to mimic the native language whilst writing in the colonial language (i. e. English).
In Friel’s case, this is Hiberno-English, which is a form of Irish that retains its Gaelic lexical structure whilst being spoken in English, for instance, when Doalty says to Manus “Hi, Manus, there’s two bucks down the road there asking for you” (Translations, p. 46) – in strict grammatical terms, Doalty’s syntax does not make sense in proper English, demonstrating inherent intimacy and deitis. Friel is applying the idea of Continual Presence of Gaelic to the English language.
This application is also a theatrical device – or conceit – whereby Hugh is usually portrayed with an English accent, as he does not use Hiberno-English. Similarly, Achebe put simply, “both in vocabulary and sentence structure, he opts for the straightforward instead of the obtuse” (Easthope, 1988) and in doing so imitates traditional Ibo storytelling. Another literary device used by Friel and Achebe in their respective texts is their use of symbolism. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe uses locusts to symbolise the invading colonialists: “And then the locusts came…
the elders said locusts came once in a generation, reappeared every year for seven years and then disappeared for another lifetime. They went back to their caves in a distant land, where they were guarded by a race of stunted men. ” (Things Fall Apart, p. 51) The above quote inferences that the locusts are the colonialists, by Achebe carefully alluding to the ‘race of stunted men’ that lives in a ‘distant land’. Achebe goes on: “Then quite suddenly a shadow fell on the world… At first, a fairly small swarm came. They were harbingers sent to survey the land.
And then appeared on the horizon a slowly moving mass like a boundless sheet of black cloud drifting towards Umuofia. ” (Things Fall Apart, p. 52) In this, Achebe’s symbolism is clear – those like Mr. Brown and initial missionaries were assigned only to convert those ‘African savages’ into morally correct Christians, and to some extent allowed their cultures to live as congruently as possible. It is only with the materialisation of the District Commissioner who declares the Ibo people to be “in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in the world” that this comes to a head.
Achebe foreshadows the ‘jumping ship’ of characters like Nwoye, by referencing the consumption of the locusts – such members of the community have consumed the colonialist culture, in all its forms, including language. Unlike Achebe’s extended metaphor of the locusts, Friel uses a passing, but nonetheless poignant, subtle symbolic reference to the potato famine. Bridget proclaims “”They say that’s the way it snakes in, don’t they? First they smell; and then one morning the stalks are all black and limp” (Translations, p. 18) with Maire exclaiming:
“Sweet smell! Sweet smell! Every year at this time somebody comes back with stories of the sweet smell. Sweet God, did the potatoes ever fail in Baile Beag?… There was never a blight here… but we’re all sniffing about for… a disaster. ” (Translations, p. 18) This is symbolic of the rotting Irish culture, and failing language as contextually the potato was the staple foodstuff. The potato famine was not only symbolic, but also highly ironic – when Maire says “did the potatoes ever fail in Baile Beag? ” the audience knows fully well that they would.
This device, more specifically referred to as ‘dramatic irony’, is used often by Friel in Translations, and serves to foreshadow eventual destruction too. Another use of it is Hugh’s recital of The Aeneid: “… Such was – such was the course – such was the course ordained – ordained by fate … What the hell’s wrong with me? Sure I know it back ways, I’ll begin again. Urbs antiqua fuit… ” (Translations, pp. 90-91) This is doubly ironic, as on the one hand, Hugh cannot seem to fully remember it – Latin and Greek are often referenced throughout the play by Jimmy Jack and Hugh, both of them themselves being dead languages and cultures.
Perhaps in further reference to After Babel by George Steiner, the fact that Hugh cannot remember it is a reflection of Gaelic – even intelligent scholars like him will eventually lose a tongue they have worked so hard to protect. A further projection of irony in Hugh’s recital is the content of Virgil’s The Aeneid. The Aeneid is a parallel between the destruction of Carthage, a city on the North African coast, by the Romans and the destruction of Baile Beag by the English.
What is highly ironic about The Aeneid, and almost makes this piece of dramatic irony self-parodying, is that The Aeneid was written in the language of those that destroyed Carthage (the Romans). Again, irony is quite prevalent in Things Fall Apart with the most pertinent example falling, like Translations, at the end of the novel. This is the District Commissioner’s reaction to Okonkwo’s suicide: “Everyday brought him new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading.
One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. ” (Things Fall Apart, p. 197) This is ironic because after the lengthy and tumultuous tale of Okonkwo and his struggles to not be like his father, the complex hierarchy of elders and the intricacy of Okonkwo and his struggles to not be like his father, the complex hierarchy of elders and the intricacy of their traditions and religion, the District Commissioner feels it can only ‘almost’ be written about in one chapter, and designates to only a paragraph.
This is highly representative of the failure of the white man to ‘translate’ the Ibo culture and ability into being a highly complex culture, and instead treats the colonisation of the Ibo people as “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (Things Fall Apart, p. 197). In conclusion, both Achebe and Friel carefully construct stories using literary devices that serve to recreate their personal heritage of a realistic and pitiful community who fall victim to unrepentant imperialism. In this, they have been able to repudiate colonial superiority in particular in regards to language and colonial ideas of ‘progression’.
Whilst both portray three dimensional characters in that they are atomistic – for example, in Translations, Hugh’s view of the English is different to Owen’s which is in turn separate from Manus’s – and provides a highly explorative analysis of linguistic imperialism and its effect on individuals and the community. To summarise, all of the text referred to in this essay, in their own ways, are deeply critical of the effects of linguistic imperialism, particularly in the context of colonialism and so-called ‘progression’.