Culture through Language in the Novels of Chinua Achebe

Jayalakshmi V. Rao, Lecturer in English, Mrs A.V.N.College, Visakhapatnam, India

The crowning glory of Achebe's novels is undoubtedly his language. What sets him apart from other African writers is the fact that he is, by far, more successful than others in his flawless integration of language and content. He was able to accomplish the difficult task of transcribing the working of African psyche from one medium to another, from an indigenous oral tradition to an alien form of European origin without obliterating the freshness and vigour of the former, and despite the vast difference separating the two cultures.

While discussing the problems of the African writers writing in English, Achebe claims: "The English of the African will have to be a new English, still in communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings." In his own fiction, he more than meets the challenge and succeeds in creating an English that is not only detached', 'stately', and 'impassive' as described by critics, but also singularly unique. A whole range of human experience is brought before our mind's eye by his consummate use of imagery drawn from both native and alien sources. He makes use of devices like proverbs, folktales, and religious tenets conveyed through prayer, speeches and song sequences. The artistic inter-play of form and content in Achebe's novels contributes to our understanding of the Ibo cultural ethic and aesthetics, creating delight. Achebe thus fulfills the writer's responsibility which according to Samuel Johnson is 'to instruct by pleasing.'

Achebe's novels let us have a close and real picture of the past and present African life with all their pains, pleasures and puzzles with immediacy and force. As he affirmed, Achebe wanted to convey through his novels that,

African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and above all they had dignity."

Besides trying to instill pride and self-respect among his fellow Africans, Achebe's novels also provide the world a mode of perceiving Black aesthetics. The wisdom and philosophy, the poetry and beauty of traditional Africa are impressively subsumed in the language of his fiction. According to Ibo culture, a good speaker is he who uses language, with skill and wisdom. For the Ibos the core of conversation is the appropriate use of proverbs. They believe,

Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten."

In all his novels Achebe makes prolific use of proverbs and popular adages. They reflect the good and the lean times through which their societies pass.

The society of Umuofia holds achievement and success in high regard. This is well expressed in sayings like,

You can tell a ripe corn by its look." (TFA, 16).

If a child washed his hands, he could eat with kings." (TFA, 6).

A number of proverbs are based on spiritual wisdom of the Ibo culture. For example,

When a man says yes, his 'chi' says yes also." (TFA, 19).

The 'chi' in Ibo cosmology is the guardian spirit granted to every individual at the time of birth. It being a part of the individual's 'supreme creative essence', the 'chi' is entirely responsible for the fortunes and misfortunes of the individuals. Thus, when Okonkwo strived for prosperity, his 'chi' agreed. But when he started becoming aggressive, his 'chi' disagreed and precipitated his downfall.

Mother is supreme." (TFA, 94).

In the traditional society mothers are accorded respect. When a man falls into misfortune, as in the case of Okonkwo, he seeks solace at his mother's place. Thus during his exile, Okonkwo takes refuge in Mbanta, his mother's village. Also, the last rites of a man are performed by his mother's people.

If one finger brought oil, it soiled the others." (TFA, 89).

This proverb shows the effortless spreading of anarchy among the natives after the advent of the white man.

You have the yam and you have the knife."

This saying is generally used with regard to a powerful deity. But leaders like Ezeulu and Nwaka are also hailed thus because they are rich and influential, and command the respect of the clansmen.

The resentment of the people towards Ezeulu's positive attitude to the whites finds expression in some proverbs as,

If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and his God." (TFA, 113).


When a handshake goes beyond the elbow, we know it has turned to another thing." (AOG, 13).

When Ezeulu goes to the white man's prison, people's indifference to his predicament is expressed thus:

The lizard who threw confusion into his mother's funeral rite, did he expect outsiders to carry the burden of honouring his dead" (AOG, 125).


A man who brings home ant-infested faggots should not complain if he is visited by lizards." (AOG, 59).

When Ezeulu fails as the keeper of the clan's safety people give vent to their anger by quoting some sayings such as,

No matter how strong or great a man was, he should never challenge his chi." (AOG, 27).


The man who carries a deity is not a king." (AOG, 27).


Šonly a foolish man can go after a leopard with his bare hands." (AOG, 85).

Both Ezeulu and Okonkwo for their apparent arrogance are compared to,

Šthe little bird Nza who so far forgot himself after a heavy meal that he challenged his chi." (TFA, 22).

By the time we come to the Ibo society of Nigeria in No Longer at Ease, most of the traditional values have disappeared. However, some of the proverbs which explicate moral and spiritual wisdom remain with the people. Here are a few examples.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end."

Wherever something stands, another thing stands beside it." (NLE, 145).

Šhe who has people is richer than he who has money." (NLE, 72).

The impatience and the foolhardiness of the Obi Okonkwo's are compared to that of

Šthe young antelope who danced herself lame when the main dance was yet to come." (NLE, 10).

A Man of the People, Achebe's fourth novel has a number of proverbs that clearly trace the decline decay of the cultural values of the Nigerian society. Selfishness and greed for power and money are the characteristics of political leaders like chief Nanga. The general motto of the people and their leaders is,

Ours is ours but mine is mine."

Achebe is of the opinion that a wealth of culture is stored in the folklore of a race. He feels that it can provide answers and show solutions to the questions and problems of the people. Hence folklore which is an important feature of the Ibo cultures finds ample and appropriate place in the novels of Achebe.

Achebe's characters make use of folklore to make their arguments forceful and effective. It also helps in criticism and mockery. It illustrates moral values.

The importance of the 'chi' in Ibo cosmology is highlighted with the help of some fables. The story of the little bird Nza occurs both in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. It brings home the fact that a man should never provoke his fate. He should know where to draw a line of limit in his pursuit of power. The same wisdom is evident in the story of the bird Eneke-nti-Oba (TFA, 38) and the story of the wrestler (AOG, 26).

Among the Ibos and excellent wrestler is who wins not only in the human world but also in the world of spirits. Thus Okonkwo's ability at wrestling is aptly compared to that of 'the founder of the town' who according to folktale,

engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights." (TFA, 3).

The didactic animal tale appears in almost all the novels of Achebe. The tales of the wily tortoise (TFA, 38, 67) expose the wicked nature of beings. It also points out indifference and inconsiderateness of human beings (NLE, 149). The story of the mother kite shows the folly of the people of Abame in Things Fall Apart (TFA, 98). The story of the leopardess illustrates the ill effects of greed (NLE, 53).

Men's and women's stories illustrate male and female values. While Okonkwo's stories exemplify warfare and violence in order to inculcate courage in children (TFA, 53, 37), Ekwefi's stories of the mosquito (TFA, 53), Obiageli's unending chain tale (AOG, 65) are meant for entertainment.

Legend is one of the many elements that lend fascination to Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Several of them concern the origin of Ulu (AOG, 157), the legend of Idemili (AOG, 41), the legends of Egwugwu (TFA, 63; AOG, 199). These are a few of the many legends mentioned. Since market is important in the Ibo society, market legends are also mentioned (AOG, 19, 1). The popularity of the legends shows that the traditions of the clan are kept alive.

The elaborate description of the various ceremonies gives us a chance to have a closer look at the well-developed sense of the symbolic view of religion in the ancient societies. They also lend charm to the narrative as do the stars to the night sky. Some interesting ceremonies include the appearance and proceedings of the Egwugwu (TFA, 63, 84; AOG, 199), the first coming of Ulu (AOG, 71), the Idemili festival (AOG, 39). The ceremony of Akwunro (AOG, 94) and the ceremony of Ogbazulubodo (AOG, 23).

Another element that contributes to the success of Achebe's fictional art is his subtle use of English to suit the African sensibility. Ezeulu's speech to Oduche has a distinct African style.

I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eye there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying 'had we known' tomorrow." (AOG, 45-46).

The same speech if written in formal English as shown by Achebe is not half as effective.

I am sending you as my representative among these people --- just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight."

The language acquires naturalness despite frequent allusions to African terms mostly because he is adept in integrating the African panorama into English. His use of the customs provides an example as seen in the description of the treatment given to a guest. Upon entering a friend's Obi, a guest is seated either on a goatskin mat or on an earthen stool. Then he is given a piece of chalk with which he draws his emblem on the floor and paints his toe or face. The bond of goodwill is complete with the passing of the kola around, and sharing its contents (AOG, 61, 94, 191; TFA, 5; NLE, 47).

The description of Okonkwo's obi and shrine (TFA, 10), Ezeulu's shrine (AOG, 209) tells us of their architecture. Simultaneously there are human sacrifices (TFA, 43), mutilation of a diseased Ogbanje child (TFA, 55), the Osu practice (TFA, 111), the belief in juju medicine (TFA, 79; AOG, 147; AMP, 85), the belief in reincarnation (NLE, 48), the spirit possession (TFA, 70, 72; AOG, 225), the belief in the divinity of a python (TFA, 112; AOG, 48), the belief of running over a dog for good luck and the taboo of running over a duck (NLE, 14), cast a shadow on the culture of the society.

Closely aligned to oratory are the salutation names. The naming system is important to the Ibos. Its importance is especially evident in Ekwefi's attempts to save the children by the name she gives. Nine die before one daughter Ezinma survives. She names the children in such a way as to break the cycle of Ogbanje children. A few were Onwumbiko, Death, I implore you," Ozoemena, May it not happen again," and finally Onwumna, Death may please himself" (TFA, 70). The naming system is shown to have importance in No Longer at Ease also. The respect shown to women is implied in calling a man Son of Our Daughter" (AOG, 22). Name calling such as ant-hill nose," long throat," descriptive phrases such as the tongue with which to tell the story" (TFA, 125), looking with the tail of his eye" (AOG, 158), or the sensitiveness of a snail's horn" (AOG, 191) in addition to curses, prayers, blessings and traditional taboos as the custom of forbidding titled elders tapping palm wine, forbidding outsiders into the meetings of elders (AOG, 141) all contribute to give the reader a new experience of reading the same language.

The use of idioms lends Achebe's language and style a native flavour and force. Besides giving us a close and convincing picture of a society in transition, this technique helps his characters sound natural while speaking an alien tongue. A few such idioms deserve our attention.

Frequent references to flora and fauna imply the proximity of the Ibos to nature.

ŠOkonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan" (TFA, 3).


Šdrank palm wine from morning till night and his eyes were red and fierce like the eyes of a rat when it was caught by the tail and dashed against the floor." (TFA, 44).

He felt like a drunken giant walking with the limbs of a mosquito." (TFA, 44).

Okonkwo felt as if

he had been cast out of his clan like a fish onto a dry sandy beach, panting." (TFA, 92).

Obierika's house is as busy as an ant hill." (TFA, 78).

Okonkwo's hard work is

Šlike pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes." (TFA, 16).

The earth burned like hot coals." (TFA, 17).

Ikemefuna grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season." (TFA, 37).

Yam is also used as a metaphor for manliness. It is evident in:

Yam the king of crops was a man's crop." (TFA, 16).

Yam stood for manliness, and he could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed." (TFA, 23).

Kola is symbolic of prosperity.

He who brings kola brings life." (TFA, 5).

Imagery of fire is used for a greater effect. Okonkwo is called Roaring Flame" and a flaming fire" (TFA, 108), while his son is cold, impotent ash" (TFA, 109).

Here are a few idioms from Arrow of God.

Ezeulu's power is like

the power of a child over a goat that was said to be his." (AOG, 3).

Women carrying pots are Šlike a spirit with a fantastic head" (AOG, 19).

Obika and his friend

were like a pair of Night Masks caught abroad by daylight" (AOG, 79).

The new road made a man feel

lost like a grain of maize in an empty goatskin bag" (AOG, 80).

Šlike the lizard who fell down from the high iroko tree" (AOG, 115).

Obika Šshivered like the sacrificial lamb" (AOG, 82).

The impact of the white culture is visible in several similes and metaphors, right from Things Fall Apart.

The bicycle is an iron horse" and the white man is an albino" (TFA, 97).

The white man is the masked spirit of today" (AOG, 154).

He is like Suffering" (AOG, 84).

As daylight chases away darkness so will the white man drive away all our customs" (AOG, 84).

He is also Šlike hot soup and we must take him slowly, slowly from the edges of bowl" (AOG, 85).

The change in the society is indicated by parodying the whites and their culture.

After his return from England Obi is compared to a

Šlittle child returned from wrestling in the spirit world" (NLE, 47).

Šgoing to England has become as commonplace as going down to the village stream" (NLE, 42).

Groaning and creaking like old machineryŠ"(NLE, 31).

The gap in the decayed set of teeth looked

Šlike a vacant plot in a slum" (NLE, 60).

In the final analysis, Achebe emerges as a writer of acclaim for his efficient use of European language to portray the gyres" that African life is made to whirl through.

His language a major component of his artistic strategy, which not only enriches the English language but gives the reader the experience of a whole culture. As Lloyd W. Brown aptly says Achebe's fiction

Šdemonstrates his preoccupation with language, not simply as a communicative device, but as a total cultural experience. At this level, language is not merely technique. It is the embodiment of its civilization and therefore represents or dramatizes modes of perception within its cultural grouping."

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