When tasked with analyzing the language of any story, you should pay attention to several literary elements simultaneously as you read. I teach my students an acronym to help them structure their thoughts about the language of a passage. Perhaps it will help you with Achebe’s story “Dead Man’s Path” and other assignments you face in the future. The acronym is DIDLS:
Diction: What word choices are used? Is the diction monosyllabic or polysyllabic? Look for words with strong connotations, positive and negative, to help you think about an author’s word choice.
Imagery: What figurative language is used? How does the author use metaphor, simile, and other figurative devices? Is there repetition? Consider how these literary devices impact the reader.
Details: What details does the author include that are important? What could the author have left out? How do these details shape the reader’s view of a character or story?
Language: Does the author include words from other languages? Does the language used in dialogue indicate anything about the social status, education, or race of the characters? For example, a police officer on the beat will speak differently from an ambassador at a formal dinner. Examine the language of a story’s dialogue can help you analyze characters and is an important part of any language analysis.
Syntax: The sentence structure of a piece of writing can have significant impacts on the tone of a piece. Are the sentences lengthy or short? Ornate or simple? Choppy or flowing? How does the writing sound when read aloud? Is there internal rhyme?
Using this acronym as you read Achebe’s work could provide some insight into the
Regarding Chinua Achebe’s story “Dead Man’s Path”, the language is interesting because the narration and the dialogue are vastly different stylistically. The third-person narration is relatively simple. There are few flowery or ornate words, and the syntax is mostly short and succinct. Take the opening lines of the story as an example.
Michael Obi's hopes were fulfilled much earlier than he had expected. He was appointed headmaster of Ndume Central School in January 1949. It had always been an unprogressive school, so the Mission authorities decided to send a young and energetic man to run it. Obi accepted this responsibility with enthusiasm.
The simple syntax and earthy word choice are general characteristics of Achebe’s style and are consistently employed in the third-person narration throughout “Dead Man’s Path”.
By contrast, dialogue spoken by the story’s protagonist, Michael Obi, is flowery. He shows off an extensive vocabulary, which demonstrates his extensive education but also his arrogance and disdain for his employees and the village people he presumably educates. For example, Michael Obi describes his teachers as
old and superannuated people in the teaching field who would be better employed as traders in the Onitsha market.
This disdainful but complex language is repeated in Obi’s discussion of the tribal beliefs of the villagers. The language used by the protagonist is a key factor in revealing his feelings of superiority to the reader.
This dichotomy between the narrator and the protagonist’s language is intentional. Achebe uses this linguistic shift to highlight just how aloof Michael Obi is in his position as headmaster.
There is much more about the language of "Dead Man's Path" that you could explore, but I hope this helps get you started!