Postcolonialism’s Engagement with Language

Postcolonialism is characterized by the rejection of Western universalism and political imperialism, soon after independence gained by Asian and African countries, and an awareness that the colonizer’s language is permanently tainted and to write in it involves a subjugation to colonial structures. The expression “postcolonial discourse” refers to the viewpoint of several critics from the Third World settled in the West, who believe that the study of English language and English literature in the colonies was aimed at reinforcing certain images of the Western and Eastern civilizations- images that generally projected the western man as rational, balanced, scientific, and intellectually superior, in contrast to the impulsive, imitative, irrational native. Knowledge is not innocent but profoundly connected to the operations of power. This Foucauldian insight informs Edward Said‘s Orientalism (1978), which points out the extent to which the knowledge about the Orient as it was produced and circulated in Europe, was an ideological accompaniment of colonial power.

The language question in colonialism is a good example of the cultural dimension of the empire. Colonial administrators like Warren Hastings and Macaulay, academic scholars like William Jones and commentators like James Mill first studied Indian languages (especially Sanskrit and Persian) by translating classical texts into English. They were known as Orientalists, as specialists in Oriental languages and culture. In the second stage, they announced that Indian texts and cultures were primitive and irrelevant. In the third stage, they substituted English as the medium of instruction, and as the language of knowledge itself. Arguing that English alone could ensure equality, liberty, development and modernisation, colonial administrators introduced English.

Kanthapura.jpgDue to this imposition, the natives began to be detached from their language and culture. English was used to introduce not just the language, but the culture and a Western way of life. As early as 1930s Raja Rao mourned the legacy of English in the preface to Kanthapura, pointing that he could not capture the emotions and feelings of the heart in a language that was not his own.

Postcolonial studies perceive European languages as instruments of thecolonial power. The language of aesthetics derived from English and European has been used to homogenise, catalogue, organise and discipline native landscapes, people and cultural practices. The colonial rule imposed the European languages on the natives by destroying the aboriginal and vernacular languages. Further the acceptance of English by natives in the colonial period created a politics of representation. English  became the means of acquiring power for the native elites -thus even after political independence, the English speaking minority dominate  the postcolonial societies.

Frantz_Fanon_The_Wretched_of_the_Earth.jpgFrantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) discussed the role of language in colonisation, which involved subjugation in terms of linguistic ability and identity. Chinua Achebe also realised that language was a powerful instrument of control used by the coloniser, because it is through language (which is a large part of culture) that people express their folktales, myths, proverbs and history, the totality of which defines a culture’s identity. And for this reason, the imperial powers attempted to obliterate the local languages and replace them with their own. The two possible responses, as Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin point out, are rejection and subversion. While Ngugi wa Thiong’o outrightly rejected the coloniser’s language (abrogation), Chinua Achebe opted for subversion (appropriation).


Chinua Achebe

According to Ashcroft et al, Achebe’s writing “displays a process by which 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 coloniser to convey the Igbo experiences of colonisation. The idioms, proverbs and imagery of these books invoke his Eastern Nigeria culture, forcing the readers to accept on Achebe’s linguistic terms, the story he has to tell. The novels offer at least a minimum knowledge of lgbo words (obi, chi, osu), and they become assimilated very quickly into this knowledge, through the way in which Achebe scatters them throughout the work. 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 phrasecdogy and terminology. Achebe also appeals to the oral tradition, which is an integral part of the lgbo culture, attempting to record and preserve it.


Ngugi wa Thiongo

Ngugi wa Thiongo called for the “abolition of English departments.” He argued that language transmits culture and for the native culture to survive, it needed its own forms of expressions and language. He Posited that natives of the Third World would remain colonised as long as they retained English, and in order to “decanonise the mind”, they need to shut out English.

A brand of criticism called Nativism (Bhalchandra Nemade and Makarand Paranjape, for instance) argues that writing in English continues colonial oppression and that the native can never be free until they abandon English. However, Derek Walcott and Salman Rushdie argue that colonial language does not remain an oppressive “master” any more and that postcolonial authors indegenise / nativise/ appropriate it and make English their own- what Rushdie terms as “chutnification”.



Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: