Brathwaite's "Nation Language," Saro-Wiwa, and Achebe

Brandon Brown, English 27, 1997

The strategies used to demarginalize the postcolonial experience, such as those used by Achebe in Anthills of the Savannah, Saro-Wiwa in A Forest of Flowers, and Soyinka in Aké, contribute to the creation of what Brathwaite calls a "nation language." Brathwaite focuses on the context of Caribbean English Literature, but his model applies to trends of language use throughout the postcolonial period. Nation language resembles closely the imposed language system, but it is "influenced strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World / Caribbean heritage [or the living traditional model or aspect of any postcolonial location]" (Brathwaite 311).

A nation language decentralizes the control over the imposed language system -- specifically European languages -- in the postcolonial era. Brathwaite uses this term "in contrast to dialect." since dialect tends to carry "pejorative connotations," perhaps suggesting that those designated by it speak an inferior version of the imposed language system. Brathwaite's nation language describes a creative system that infuses the imposed language with the attributes of the suppressed system. Underground language codes live within the dominant code. The written English vernacular codes of American and Irish writers are two of the best examples of established nation languages.

Nigerian authors such as Chinua Achebe and Ken Sara-wiwa have developed their own written English vernacular codes. In Soyinka's Aké, Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, and Sara-wiwa's A Forest of Flowers, these writers Nigerianize the texts using pidgin English in their dialogue. This dialogue, which reflects the way English is actually used by some Nigerians, includes words that only Nigerians use and word morphologies specific to Nigeria.

Ah-ah, oga, wetin be dis? Oh Gawd I don die for dis prison. Every tin plus urine and shit (Sara-wiwa 77).

That paper wey I give you just now na your cover till Monday. If any police ask you or particular show am that paper. And when you come for Monday make you bring am (Achebe 119).

The rhythm or story-telling styles of nation language reflect the orality of the subversive language system. In the autobiographical Aké, Soyinka utilizes a type of story telling that does not mark time by age. It is not clear how old Wole is throughout much of the text. Time is marked, however, by Wole's changing relationships with his family within the compound, such as when Wole is told to sleep in the room with his father, or when his mother begins to rely on him to watch the store while she runs important errands. In his collection of stories A Forest of Flowers, Sara-wiwa infuses orality into his stories. He locates all the stories in the same town and runs some of the same characters and themes throughout the stories. One will find these same characteristics in a set of fables, mythologies, or other types of oral traditions.

Postcolonial writers are modifying the English language. Each new work that is published affirms Chinua Achebe's claim that "the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African [or any postcolonial] experience (ptd. in Wa Thiong'o 6)." But Ngugi's question still looms in the background, why "should an African writer, or any writer, become so obsessed by taking from his mother-tongue to enrich other tongues?" (8) The unfortunate answer seems to lie in the roots of the struggle for decolonization itself, a struggle that has not come to an end. Language is power. The extent to which cultures all over the world have been devalued throughout the movement of social history is reflected in the fact of language repression and the world-wide dominance of English.

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Nigeria OV Saro Wiwa OV Postcolonial Theory Overview

Last Modified: 18 March, 2002