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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 15, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    In praise of English

    Pól Ó Muirí

    The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe will need no introduction. He has a collection of essays out, The Education of a British-Protected Child (Allen Lane), in which various talks and articles produced since the late 1980s are brought together. Not surprisingly, the role of language features. In the piece “Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature”, Achebe takes issue with the view of his fellow African writer, the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose view is characterised by Achebe as being one in which he “argues passionately and dramatically that to speak of African literature in European languages is not only an absurdity but also part of the scheme of Western imperialism to hold Africa perpetual bondage. He reviews his own position as a writer of English and decides that he can no longer continue in the treachery. So he makes a public renunciation of English…”

    (A farewell to English, like Michael Hartnett, who, if memory serves me right, once suggested that English was a good language to sell pigs in!)

    Achebe writes that “the difference between Nguigi and myself on the issue of indigenous or European languages for African writers isthat while Ngugi now believes it is either/or, I have always thought it was both”. (Emphasis by the author.)

    Achebe carries on: “No serious writer can possibly be indifferent to the fate of any language, let alone his own mother tongue. For most writers in the world, there is never any conflict – the mother tongue and the writing language are one and the same. But from time to time, and as a result of grave historical reasons, a writer may be trapped unhappily and invidiously  between two imperatives. The is not new in the world. Even in the British Isles, the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots may suffer anguish in using English…”

    Achebe says that he writes in English, that English is a world language but that he does not write in English because it is a world language but because English is part and parcel of much of daily life in Nigeria: “As long as Nigeria wishes to exist as a nation, it has no choice in the foreseeable future but to hold its more than two hundred component nationalities together through an alien language, English … English is therefore not marginal to Nigerian affairs. It is quite central. I can only speak across two hundred linguistic frontiers to fellow Nigerians in English.”

    It struck me that Achebe’s defence of English echoes some of the sentiments posted here by readers about the utilitarian value of English which allows the Irish to speak across linguistic frontiers, in our case, global ones. However, does he let himself off to lightly in dismissing Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s defence of the writer, the lone writer, choosing his mother tongue as a medium and its immediacy to the places from which it grows? After all, books are translated into other languages and, ignorant as I am of African writing, even I have some very fine books by Ngugi wa Thiong’o in my book case – in English, of course!

    • Bryan says:

      Ngugi’s last novel was translated into English from Gikuyu. It’s a difficult issue! Ultimately, I think Ngugi is right. An idea that has a lot of currency in both analytic and continental philosophy is that language is constitutive of reality. If a language dies, or even if it’s just replaced, I would imagine that the reality of that people – their way of life, their culture – changes, with important elements dying.

      That said, the pragmatic position is probably Achebe’s. In an Irish context, the individual who is more proficient at English will probably get further than the man or woman from Conemara who struggles to communicate in the dominant language. The same is probably true of nations. Were Ireland to ‘ditch’ English a la Ngugi, it would lose out on foreign direct investment.

      I think Achebe’s is the path to survival and Ngugi’s to authenticity.

    • Yes, I realise his work is translated – which, I sort of thought, undermined Achebe’s argument a bit in that writing in a native language is no barrier to being translated into a global one.

      “I think Achebe’s is the path to survival and Ngugi’s to authenticity.” Good point. Chewing that over. grma.

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