Ayo Bamgbose on the Language Question

Brandon Brown, English 27, 1997

In light of the colonial legacy, the radical rejection of European language by Fanon and Ngugi is moving, but as Ayo Bamgbose's Language and the Nation makes clear, Ayo Bamgbose the "language question" has many factors, especially as it pertains to African literature. Although Bamgbose focuses on language policy in the new nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, his points are applicable to literature. He addresses four components of the language question. Not only must a policy maker (or a writer) consider the colonial legacy, but also multilingualism, the complex demands of the modern state, and the attitudes of government(s) (Bamgbose 13-15).

Bamgbose's work makes clear that Fanon's and Ngugi's rejection argument show characteristics of what Neil Lazarus calls "the reductive rhetoric of African anticolonialism," which implies that there is only one struggle to be waged and that a negative one: a struggle against colonialism, not a struggle for anything specific. In this case the discourse is not completely reductive since it proposes something to struggle toward -- an indigenized tradition of literature written in African languages. Its reductive rhetoric appears in the fact that it emphasizes a singular struggle against the empire. In his chapter on the "The Language of African Literature," Ngugi reports on a debate that took place at "A Conference of African Writers of English expression" which he witnessed as a student in Makare, Kampala, Uganda in 1962.

The debate which followed was animated: Was it literature about Africa or about African experience? Was it literature by Africans? What if a non-African who wrote about Africa. . . . . If . . . if . . . if . . . this or that except the issue: the domination of our languages and cultures by those of imperialist Europe ( Wa Thiong'o 6).

Ngugi appears preoccupied with "the issue." For this reason he may not be able to give full consideration to the complexities of the language question.

I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture given Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize winning, Nigerian dramatist, poet, and novelist, at Brown University in April 1997. Having just read his autobiographical work Aké, I, along with most of the students from my postcolonial English Literature class, listened through a deafening roar of expectations to his lecture on the use and manipulation of rituals. He, a Nigerian by birth who has been honored for his masterful use of English, not only sifted through the Western cannon for its most topical archetypes in Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and a play by Sartre, but he also referred to Yoruba mythology and funeral rituals that invoke the presence of the egúngún, something that occurs in Aké.

When the lecture ended and the audience was invited to ask questions, I crawled out of my row to the microphone with hopes of stirring intelligent controversy. I framed my question with a quotation I found in Ngugi's Decolonising the Mind, from another rejectionist, Obi Walli. Essentially, I asked Soyinka what his position was within the debate surrounding the language question. He began his response by asking me in what language I read Ngugi's book.

Then after explaining to me the importance of using English as a language of wider communication, Soyinka told me exactly where he stood within the debate. He advocates the use of Kiswahili as a pan-African LWC. This plan has some drawbacks. A pan-African language must satisfy the political needs of the entire continent. Because language itself is closely tied to culture and history, implementation of such a plan may pose problems unforeseen by visionaries like Soyinka. However, the installation of Kiswahili, a trading language perhaps easier to learn then many other languages, would be an obvious victory in the struggle to decentralize control over language.

Whether the impulse is to attach oneself to Great Traditions or to sever oneself from them, there is general agreement in all these stances about one thing: language affirms a set of social patterns and reflects a particular cultural taste. Writers who imitate the language of another culture therefore, allow themselves to be defined by it. The best of the commonwealth writers who do use English, however, have done more than just use language; they have also modified it, in the process of generating alternative literary possibilities (New 303).

Clearly, in choosing what language in which to write a play or a novel a Nigerian writer must consider more than simply the language of his people and the language of the Nigerian government. Bamgbose classifies this decision as a the choice between a Language of Wider Communication (LWC) and a Language of Narrower Communication (LNC). Many writers writing in the postcolonial tradition have chosen to write in LWCs, namely French and English. We shall explore how these writers have used LWCs and what strategies have been formed in which those who choose LWCs empower themselves in the continuing process of decolonization.

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