Ama Ata Aidoo: Language in The Dilemma of A Ghost

Megan Behrent, Brown University '97

The Dilemma of a Ghost , Aidoo's first play, puts on stage a wide array of characters from diverse heritages, educational backgrounds and thus, linguistic backgrounds. Language plays an extremely important role in that it is the primary way in which differences in background and educational status are represented, and it is also central to the miscommunications that occur between the different characters. In "Language and Drama," Dapo Adelugba argues that 'speech, in Aidoo's plays is an index of social class, age and blackground". He identifies 'six levels of language: the American English of Eulalie Yawson [an African-American woman who returns to Africa with her new African husband], the educated African English of Ato Yawson[the husband], the stylized poetry and prose of the prelude, the childlike talk of Boy and Girl, the chit-chat in verse of the 1st Woman and the 2nd Woman, and the language of Nana, Akyere, Petu, Mansa, Akroma, and Monka [Yawson's family]." Later he narrows this down to three major language groups which are the ones I will focus on.

For Eulalie, an African-American woman, English is a first language and Aidoo tries to demonstrate this in this character's speech. Although she certainly succeeds in distinguishing Eulalie's speech from the other characters, it is perhaps in her attempt to portray American-English that Aidoo is least successful. Lines such as "Aren't they gotten any meaning on this rotten island" (48) and "Or are you too British you canna hear me Yankee lingo" (46) sound fake and perhaps demonstrate Aidoo's own unfamiliarity at the time she wrote this play with American patterns of speech and expression. However, she certainly succeeds in distinguishing Eulalie's linguistic register from that of the rest of characters; demonstrating her inability to communicate with Ato Yawson and his family.

Ato Yawson's language clearly reflects that of the educated African, one who has spent time abroad, a "been-to," who is thus alienated from his family and his heritage as well as from his wife, caught in the middle between Africa and the West. His tone is often condescending when speaking to his wife and to his family, for example: "Those were only funeral drums. But I think you must have a siesta. If you don't you'll have a nervous breakdown before you've learnt enough to graduate in primitive cultures" (26) or "Now all this racket you are putting on will bring the whole town here" (19). His language is fairly callow and often has a tone of lecturing. This represents his alienation and his inability to relate to his family or his wife; his African heritage or the American culture he studied in. Like the Bird of the Wayside he is caught at the crossroads.

Perhaps the most interesting and successful use of language is that of the family as well as the two old women. Although written in English, Adelugba notes " there is every reason to believe that these speeches are made by characters who speak a Ghanaian language, probably Fante, and Aidoo . . . wants us to believe so." Traditional proverbs and imagery are easily incorporated into the dialogue and speeches as one can see in the dialogue between the two women:

1st W.:But you know, my sister,
That my name is Lonesome.
I have no one to go and listen
To come back and tell me.
2nd W. Then scoop your ears of all their wax
And bring them here.(p.37).

Nana's speech also demonstrates the way in which language is used to demonstrate ties to tradition, through her references to African cosmogony : "My spirit Mother ought to have come for me earlier/Now what shall I tell who are gone?" (p.19). These characters' language clearly differs from that of Ato Yawson's and Eulalie's. They represent the more traditional, non-western-educated Ghanaian and their language despite being in English is in a sense closer to the Fante.

The diversity of linguistic registers in this play clearly show the differences between different characters, in their classes, background and educational status. Aidoo's manipulation of language in her earliest work shows the potential use of English not just as the colonial language but also as a way of expressing Ghanaian linguistic styles and forms. Her appropriation of English in a way that reflects Ghanaian English speaking and non-English speaking society is already in her first work, highly successful. In later works such as No Sweetness Here and Changes , she continues this endeavor; but it is in here in her earliest work that her dexterity with different forms of speech is perhaps the most evident, in that the wide variety of linguistic registers contrast with one another and point clearly to her conscious use of different language types.

The debates around language and orality which have been at the center of much of the discussion surrounding African Literature resonate in much of Ama Ata Aidoo's work. In her work, Aidoo actively engages in these discussions by placing language and orality at the center of her work and demonstrating the way in which they can function in contemporary written African literature. In both The Dilemma of a Ghost, and Anowa, but particularly in the latter, she draws on African oral traditions, stylistically and thematically and demonstrates their relevance to contemporary literature. Her conscious use of oral literature in her own work demonstrates her own project as a contemporary writer engaging with the African oral traditions and art forms. It points to a view of orality not as constitutive or an essential element of written African literature; rather, it suggests a dynamic relationship between the two. Similarly in her use of language Aidoo engages in the debate surrounding the language of African literature by demonstrating the way in which language, specifically English, can be mobilized to express diverse backgrounds and experiences in a way that clearly shows the effects that colonialism has had on communication between African people of different educational and social backgrounds. Language and orality both occupy an important position in Aidoo's work and in this sense her writing constitutes an important contribution to debates surrounding African literature.

[These materials have been adapted from an honors thesis written by Megan Behrent, Brown University, 1997]

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Ghana OV Aidoo OV discourseov