Comment on this text from Chinua Achebe related to translation, specifically the word "English." What did the author mean?  "What I . . . see is a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of...

Comment on this text from Chinua Achebe related to translation, specifically the word "English." What did the author mean? 

"What I . . . see is a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a world-wide language. . . . The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. . . . The African writer should aim to 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. . . . He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience . . . I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings." (1994: 433–4)

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Achebe wishes to transform the symbolic construction of what "English" is and move it to a realm of where it can be.

My comment comes from Achebe's own narrative.  He saw the "English" language represent Colonial dominance.  Achebe saw his parents convert to Christianity.  He grew up with the understanding that English was the language of the conquerors.  This came at the cost of indigenous communication.  Achebe is the product of an imperialistic world where those in the position of power used English.  Europeans used English to silence others means of communication and alternate voices.

It is in this light where Achebe insists upon a new development of English. Achebe feels that English should be used to communicate "peculiar" experiences.  He wants the English language to represent the language of inclusion. Achebe seeks for his own voice to be articulated.  He seeks to expand the contours of the language.  It no longer has to solely speak for the powerful. It can speak for those who have been denied power.  

"English" can be the language of inclusion, enabling victors to better understand the position of those who are vanquished.  It can also become the insistent call for change because it speaks to the powerful in their own language. In using the language of dominance, Achebe suggests that the demand for change can no longer be brushed aside.  It is for this reason that Achebe uses English in works such as Things Fall Apart.  He wants to use the language of "conquerors" to express the reality of those who have been "conquered."  In doing so, Achebe changes the capacity of the language.  Achebe wishes to use English to communicate the full extent of his African condition.   

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

If we look directly at the quotation, without considering information external to the cited quote, we see Achebe's objective opinion of and dream for English. The first thing of import to note about the quotation is that it is objective. It is a very cool, unemotional expression of linguistic philosophy and literary aesthetic (the structure of concepts around which an author builds his literary work). Achebe is not expressing personal, subjective experience in this specific excerpted quotation. He is expressing his view of the function and purpose of English as a "world language."

The second thing of great import to note about the quotation is that Achebe never speaks of the people or nations associated with English, much less of any peoples' role in making English a "world language." Achebe very deliberately separates the language of English from people who are native English speakers and colonizers by personalizing and personifying the English language: "The price a world language must be prepared to pay ...." The personalization and the personification are clearly represented when Achebe says, in this brief quote, that English, the language, must pay a price to fill a role as a language used around the world, used by all peoples. This idea of a world language derives from a linguistic situation, not a political or humanistic situation.

Because English was used in the vast and extensive colonization of the British Empire, creating an English language empire, and because part of the foundational philosophy of colonization eventually came to be that colonized peoples would be educated on an English model and in the English language, people living in lands colonized by the English were raised speaking English as often as and almost as early in life as their native languages.

Further, because part of the scheme for educating colonized peoples was to develop teachers and professors from among the ranks of that people who would replace English teachers and English professors, varieties of the English language developed. What this means is that, in lands feeling the weight of colonization, English vocabulary, idioms, and pronunciation became mixed with features of the languages native to the colonized land. As a result, now we acknowledge the Indian Variety of English, the Malaysian Variety of English, the African Varieties of English, etc. Each has its own distinctive markers that set it apart from other varieties and from native English varieties used in England, America, Australia and Canada.

When Achebe says that "a world language" must be "prepared to pay" a price for being a world-wide, not a local, language, he refers to this fact, to the emergence of varieties of English born of societies and cultures that are different in many regards from the societies and cultures where English itself was born. He says that the price of being a world language is that "submission to many different kinds of use" is required. This submission to many different kinds of use includes (1) differences in structural syntax and differences in euphonic effect (sound) heard even in writing; (2) differences of imagery when describing unique cultural elements; (3) differences emergent when carrying unique social and cultural meanings in the uncommon English language of a variety or in English language uncommonly used.  

Achebe gives the caution that since the value of English is that it is a "medium of international exchange," there must be a marriage of message and language: he will "aim to 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 end result will be that the writer, who is emerging from a colonial experience of English and who is the owner of a variety of international English--not an owner of England's English--will be able to speak to a universal audience of very particular "peculiar" personal ethno-socio-cultural "experience."

Achebe says that English can "carry the weight" of his "African experience" when given personification and when dissociated from the personalization dependent upon historical and political events, events that spread English through the world. He says that English can "carry the weight" if his English is respected as a "new English," an English that was absorbed into, then grown out of the social and cultural experiences of the land English infiltrated. Yet, to be potent as an international medium of exchange understood universally, the altered "new English" of his variety must remain in "full communion" with the source of its native origin, England: "it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings." Without its origin as an anchor, English collectively ceases to be a language internationally understood and becomes something akin to a collection of dialects (varieties).

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