Language: Spoken or Written?

Zandra Kambysellis '01, English 27, Autumn 1997

Language, a means of identity as much as a tool of empowerment, is at the heart of a culture and of a people. With language, people describe their surroundings and thereby claim ownership over the wilderness that engulfs them. "In both literature and politics," quotes Simon During, a modern post-colonial theorist, "the drive towards identity centers around language." (The Post-colonial Reader, 125) In the western world, one person's words can separate him from another and create the world's conception of him. At the same time, in many African communities, a certain dialect separates one tribe from another and creates a particular identity for that grouping of people, based upon the way words are put together and used.

The oppositionality brought into being by colonialism appears in the clash between the written word and the spoken word. When an imperialist country enters another and subjects the people to a new language (think of the written word as a language distinct from the spoken word), a change that can be considered purely "post-colonial" occurs. The indigenous people must struggle with a new force that threatens their old standard, and come to some sort of compromise -- Do they adopt the new language? Refuse it? Use it as a tool to fight the oppressor? Or does it enter worlds of their own, stretching tentacled fingers into most private realms that previously seemed impenetrable to foreign influence?

The answer, as we shall see, takes the form of all of these, varying in combination. All of the novels mentioned provide clear evidence that written language (as a manifestation of post-colonialism) has penetrated the institutions of community and religion. The old tradition of orality is questioned, and the newer, foreign convention of writing attempts to take its place. The duality summoned up by post-colonialism becomes clear, and the struggle of the indigenous people to retain or reshape their identity and deal with the sudden shift takes a variety of forms.


A large percentage of the body of African post-colonial writing addresses the significance of orality to African communities. There is an understandable and undeniable link between the spoken word and the closeness of the community. Indeed, according to The Historical Dictionary of Nigeria,

there were certain members in each community whose duty was to remember, off the tops of their heads, the history of the community or their rulers and the events that had taken place during their reign. For example, among the Yorubans, many Obas retained professional oral historians who gathered their information from various sources such as titles and names, poetry, genealogical lists, tales and commentaries (270, A. Oyewole)

On occasions when one of these "oral historians" (or storytellers) was to speak, the entire village would leave individual huts or places of dwelling and gather in a large group to listen. A speaker demands an audience (only a crazy man speaks to himself), and so many of the spoken word customs demanded a response. (In the cases when words were written in traditional oral societies, they were written upon the surface of one's actual body. By this manner, the people were nonetheless brought together, and the idea of audience was still retained.)

It can be said that within the Western culture -- the culture that came to impose its customs upon the African continent -- the written word has had a homogenizing influence on the people. The invention and expansion of the printing press consolidated many of the Western world's variances within written and spoken language into one. Dialects disappeared, accents became less distinct, and the written word became condensed into a standard entity. This technological breakthrough served to form a cohesive people, based more upon the differences with others than upon a shared past or heritage. ("The link between post-colonialism and language has a history...Nationalism emerges when some language get into print and are transmitted through books, allowing subjects to identify themselves as members of the community of readers implied by these books." During, 126)

This pull towards the standardized written word in Western cultures sharply clashed with the long running African tradition of orality, a tradition which believed "dialogues are infinitely more interesting than monologues" (142, Achebe, Anthills of the Savanna). When the colonizers in Vera's Nehanda entered Africa, they carried their written word and its tradition with them. They brought Bibles and entire libraries of literature to the savanna, so that at night, when work was put aside, "they would each find a book on the shelf to read." Such an employment of their written culture served to isolate the two Western men from each other to the point where books superseded any kind of oral interaction between them. And indeed, "Mr. Browning [one of the colonizers] wishes he had brought a larger library to Africa."[52]. Rather than speaking (a type of human contact and interplay), the two Western men chose to draw themselves away from each other and into their own separate worlds, illustrating the active isolation inherent in the use of the written word.

The contrast between the two cultures and the conflict that occurs when they rub up against each other can again be illustrated in all excerpts that show the colonists reading from their written Bible. "But Kaguvi cannot see what is being put into the priest's mouth, and although he watches for a long time, there is no swallowing." (Vera, 103-5) There is a cultural roadblock when the written word encounters traditional religion in Africa. The Bible was introduced by Western missionaries, but the natives either had no respect for it or found no use for it. Claimed as the mouth of God, the written Biblical word held little power in the eyes of the indigenous populations. There is an utter incomprehension at work here that distances the colonizers from the colonized, and serves as an obstacle in the penetration, the assimilation, and the potential absorption of the colonial religious culture into the lives of the natives. Here, language becomes an obstacle rather than a vehicle for assimilation within post-colonial theory.


Many times, the colonized rejected the colonizer' s imposed way of life clearly and unequivocally. Stemming either from a lack of comprehension, or from a fierce hatred of the colonizer, some indigenous people absolutely refused to have anything to do with the new, imposed way. The colonized people distanced themselves from the Western ways (here, the way is the written word, embodied again within the Bible) and tried to ignore its presence, continuing with their own lives in an as uninterrupted manner as they could manage. This idea is symbolically captured within one character's action in the book A Forest of Flowers: "He jumped out of bed and flung his New Testament Bible at it [a cockroach]; it flashed into hiding immediately." (19, Saro-Wiwa) On one level, the action of the priest can be read as a violent and purposeful casting off of the imposed way. In another sense, he has discovered a productive use for what he has branded a useless tradition (writing).

Why this angry rejection of the written word? Often, the effects of replacing orality with the written word within different African religions and communities proves to be even more dangerous than useless. The written word can have a deleterious effect on African religion, drawing its followers away from it. After the presence of the colonizers had had time to pervade much of the Shona culture, Vera cites (in the voice of Nehanda): "Even in the silence, sometimes we were sure something vital to our future was communicated to us, but we could not hear what it was. The spirits too had adopted a tongue that we could not comprehend." (659. Further illustrating the harmful effects generated by replacing orality with writing, she argues, "Silence is more to be feared than the agitation of voices." (43)


While it is often that native populations recognize and reject the destruction of traditional society by colonial customs, assimilation or hybridity most commonly occurs. When two cultures clash under the auspices of post-colonialism, confusion results, and the intermingling of colonial and indigenous customs becomes difficult to sort through. Beliefs are intermingled, and modern customs mix with past myths. Little Wole questions, "Do the egngn speak English?" as he confuses the Western Christian saints with pagan African spirits of the dead in Ak: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka's autobiographical novel (32-33).

Again and again we see the written word of colonialism subtly interjoining with the oral traditions of the colonized persons. Soyinka and his culture hold fast to their traditional values (oral story-telling) and locate them within the new way of life (imposed religion, Christian Sunday school).

For it was at the Sunday School that the real stories were told, stories that lived in the events themselves, crossed the time-border of Sundays or leaves of the Bible and entered the world of fabled lands, men and women. (33, Ak: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka)

Note that although the written and spoken word intermingle, and although European and African traditions combine, the notion of "the real stories" manages to transcend both writing and speech. The idea of the two distinct and separate cultures falls away, and those which are important ("the events themselves") rise above the level of language and transcend both the written and spoken word. What is significant to Wole is that storytelling (or reading stories; there is no distinction here) can carry him to other worlds and help him cross "time-borders". (This perhaps is a limitation of the post-colonial methodology. Instead of focusing upon the differences between how cultures express what they perceive as the truth, perhaps we ought to examine the similarity between what they are saying. The most interesting observations might not be of how cultures speak, but of the universal truths in what they speak.)

As we began to see in the last example, an integration of new customs and cultures does not necessarily mean a resolute forfeiting of everything old. Various mechanisms of synthesis and recombination are at work in forming a new union, essential to the notion of post-colonialism. In two novels, communal prayer is the driving force behind a community's practice of religion. With resoundingly loud and repeated spoken choruses of "Is!", traditional oral African religions smack the face of silent Christianity. By holding fast to their old tradition at the same time as accepting the new, the native people prevent the colonizer' s imposed religion from being a controlling and one-sided written monologue or ultimatum. Two cases illustrate this integration without forfeit -- one a funeral for a villager who died of influenza at the height of the slave trade (in Emechatta's Slave Girl), and the other a child's naming ceremony (a rebirth of traditions) that comes to pass in an invented present day, very much removed from the presence of colonialism (but certainly not from the effects of it) (in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, 211). The prayer in both cases is not silent, but draws together all participants in a communal feeling. Though we see the struggle for identity continuing long after the colonizer has left (Anthills), we also see that the colonized people have retained much of their cultural heritage throughout it all.


In the face of opposition, the answer does not seem to come not from a rejection, nor from an assimilation, nor even from a combination of cultures. The resolution for many of the societies we read about seems to have been to transform the intrusion of language into a tool, and use it against the oppressor -- as they would use the land, or any other thing that had been granted to them. The people in Vera's Nehanda, Hove's Bones and Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah turned around the post-colonial manifestation of written language and made it work for them as a means of empowerment.

The post-colonial authors, like their characters, seemed to know the value of language. Hove tells us, "Words have weight...Words with strength do not suffer the night's dew. They remain on your legs even after a storm has passed."(33). Vera speaks as her character Nehanda: "Our elders have taught us the power of words." (42). And Achebe puts it clearly with: "Storytellers are a threat."(l41)

The idea of using the colonizer' s own way of life as a tool to defeat him works wonders here. Like the Zimbabweans of the first Chimerenga -- who watched as the Western world introduced them to guns, then turned around and used them to shoot their colonizers -- the indigenous people have found something of a middle ground, where they can adopt foreign ways to an end useful to themselves. Neither rejecting the imposing colonial way, nor assimilating it into their former daily life habits and patterns, they have established a brand new way of living to fight against the brand new ways of life that try to impose themselves.

All of the authors herein discussed have utilized the tool of writing (and furthermore, in the English language) to voice the conflicting ideas surrounding colonialism. In the same breath, writers curse and deride the written language, then use it as a tool of empowerment. The actual use of the written word has itself been a hot topic within the field of post-colonial literary theory. Various theorists have described it as a "linguistic tool and a sociopolitical dimension very different from those available through native linguistic tools and traditions." (Po-co Reader, 293) and as "a linguistic tool for the administrative cohesiveness of a country....provides a language of wider communication." (291) According to some, "It gives access to attitudinally and materially desirable domains of power and knowledge. It provides a powerful tool for manipulation and control." (295) And finally, "English continues to be a language both of power and of prestige....It has been perceived as the language of power and opportunity, free of the limitations that the ambitious attribute to the native languages."(291-2)


Countering all of this optimistic empowerment jargon is the idea that: "The disadvantages of using it are obvious: cultural and social implications accompany the use of an external language." (291) It is of these implication I should like to speak. Despite the noble intention behind using the tools of the invasive culture to oppose it, there is another serious issue is at hand, one which would challenge Machiavellian ends justifying the means. By using the written word (regardless of to what end), one is becoming like the colonizer himself. "For the post-colonial to speak or write in the imperial tongue is to call forth a problem of identity, to be thrown into mimicry and ambivalence," quotes Simon During (Post-colonial Reader, 125). Indeed, according to Kachru, "such a writer is suspect as fostering new beliefs, new value systems, and even new linguistic loyalties and innovations." (294). Chinchua Achebe, author of Anthills of the Savanna, tries to justify his own use of the written English word with some more English words:

Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it." (1975)

The debate between or spoken has somehow switched to the question of English or a native tongue. Raja Rao, an Indian philosopher and writer defends the use of English in a post-colonial society, claiming:

Truth can use any language, and the more universal, the better it is.... We shall have the English language among us, not as a guest or a friend, but as one of our own, of our cast, our creed, our sect and our tradition.

This parallels what Wole Soyinka attempted to say when he spoke of Sunday School stories transcending their written or oral bases. (It also goes back to our comments on the limitations of post-colonialism on page 8.) Kachru says that the use of English within a post-colonial society brings in "another dimension to the understanding of the regional, social and political contexts." (293) At the same time, our examination of the way indigenous populations respond to the invasion of a foreign, written language can sometimes lead us away from post-colonialism and into a more general world of language analysis. The limitation here is that many of the thoughts expressed by so-called post-colonial authors on the nature of orality can be transposed to almost any human culture. Do not all word have weight -- oral or written? Many of Achebe's and Vera's comments on the nature of language are applicable in any society that employs any mode of communication at all. In addition, we must be aware of our generalizations of societies when we come to the issue of whether words are separable or a part of their speaker. "We do not believe that words can become independent of the speech that bore them, of the humans who controlled and gave birth to them," says Vera (Nehanda, 40). Cannot the same ideas be expressed about the written word, about a man and the thoughts he writes down, and thereby takes possession of? I believe they may. (Indeed, it was either Socrates or Plato -- in either case a Western philosopher who utilized the written word -- who expressed a similar notion. Achebe lifts the power of language to a higher level and reassociates it with the general human race, pointing out its inherent power as well as its potentially extending ability to lead, to save, to direct:

It is only the story can continue can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort, without it we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story, rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from another." (Achebe, 114)

There is more to these novels than simply a cry against post-colonialism. The beauty of language in Nehanda often speaks of its power alone, and as it would be, regardless of whether colonialism penetrates the life or not. We must not allow ourselves to limit the messages of these novels as simply pro-orality. The silence between the two colonizers in Nehanda who read books to distance themselves from the company of each other must not be seen as a specifically western problem with communication, but as a phenomenon that happens in all societies, but here is given the vehicle of the written word to bring it to light.

In short, "post-colonial" describes the struggle of indigenous populations in retaining much of their old culture, tradition, and history after a colonizing power has entered their lives and, in effect, destroyed the old cultural regime through his presence. Whether language serves as yet another force that draws them away from their identities or whether it gives them a useful weapon in beating down the oppression of their cultures varies from people to people. We have seen, however, the written word used to illustrate all possible cases of what may happen to the written word when it is encountered by an indigenous people: its rejection, its acceptedness, and even utilization as a means of empowerment.

See also Post-colonialism: The Unconscious Changing of a Culture

Postcolonial Web discourseov