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The language of the novel is simple but dignified. When the characters speak, they use an elevated diction, which is meant to convey the sense of Ibo speech. Achebe has fabricated his novel sound like it is a narration of an Ibo character and has achieved this through the application of short sentences as well as typical Ibo proverbs and images. His short sentences are used straight away and he wastes no time for the reader to become aquainted with the Ibo language and sentence structure.
His first sentence has a mere 11 words and goes as follows ‘Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond’. Within these short sentences, Achebe explains an incredible amount of information required to understand the text. Within the first paragraph, we are supplied with an outline of the character of Okonkwo as well as an introduction to the wrestling – an indispensable part of Ibo culture. Achebe desires to make his novel sound ‘African’ and achieves this in a number of different ways. This allows us insight into the Ibo world and helps us to relate to the novel more.
The simple sentences and their basic structure help the book sound like the tone of voice of that of an Ibo man himself. The words are also simplistic and he has made little effort to make them sound abstract and complicated, therefore, further enhancing the realism of the novel. Images that are used in the book are entirely from the Ibo world as are the similes and comparisons (though these are not used as much). For example, ‘Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire during the hamattan’, ‘[Ikemafuna] grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season’ and ‘a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens’.
In addition to this he uses imagery such as ‘he has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart’. And so, the simplicity of the words used, combined with the imagery reinforces strongly the simplicity of the sentences and creates the impression that one is totally immersed in the world of Ibo society. This impression is only further elevated by the use of proverbs in the novel. Achebe believes that “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” and he has used them continuously throughout the novel.
Proverbs are wise sayings, which embody some supposed truth or moral lesson. The Ibo society is non-literate and uses proverbs as an every day means of communication. Proverbs were used as a form of polite conversation (this can be seen when Okoye is trying to prompt Okonkwo to pay his debts and Okoye ‘said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs’). Ibo proverbs are also taken from Ibo beliefs and experiences. For example ‘the lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did’.
It should be remembered that each proverb is brought in aptly to accord with the circumstances it is commenting on, be it Okonkwo’s achievements or his pride. This allows us to understand the characters better as well as the thoughts of the people and how they related nature and wildlife to everyday life. Often the proverbs merge with and blend into references to the folk tales and legends of the Ibo and every man there was aware of these stories. For example, the story of the tortoise and his shell and the mosquito story.
These stories are effective as they allow Nigerian beliefs to subtly enter the novel as well as some relief for what is about to occur. For example, when Efwefi is telling the story of the tortoise, we are provided with some light reading and a peaceful atmosphere of a mother telling her child a night-time story, making what happens thereafter more frightening (Chielo carries Ezinma away). Also, all the proverbs have relevance to the story – when Okonkwo is telling the story of the mosquito, Ezinma later becomes sick with malaria.
Also, the tale of the Mother Kite in Chapter 15 warns against attacking before knowing the strength of one’s enemy – thus heightening the tension for the reader. The use of proverbs and folk tales is yet another way in which Achebe adds truth to the Ibo atmosphere in the novel. To omit them, or to use extensive tricks and flourishes of more advanced written language would have created a book from which the reader is looking into the Ibo culture from the outside. Achebe’s style adds life and heightens the tension in his novel.
Proverbs are used to help us understand the character’s feelings. The use of short sentences helps the reader see the sentence structure and the way the Ibo people spoke in a small, yet significant way and thus helping us identify with the characters more. Overall, I would say that Achebe has made use of an African style of writing in an extremely attractive way as it helps us identify and enter the Ibo world, instead of merely reading the book and imagining what it could be like.