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Seminar paper by Jure Skubic

In this paper, I will take a look at the different perceptions of the language of the colonizer by the colonized. The theoretical basis for this composition will be the first chapter of Ngugi’s book Decolonising the Mind titled “The Language of African Literature,” with some references to the introductory chapter. In addition to that, I will focus on the first chapter of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Mask titled “The Negro and the Language”, and the second chapter from his book Dying Colonialism titled “This is the Voice of Algeria.”

LANGUAGE OF THE COLONIZER

In the 19th century slavery slowly started to lose its profitability because of the abolition movements. This was also the time after the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine which led to some of the most powerful countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Spain facing problems of hyper-production and lack of space. The expansion, therefore, became necessary and these countries started searching for the means of creating colonies in various unexplored parts of the world. “The European imperialist push into Africa was motivated by three main factors; economic, political and social” (Inweriebor 2007). Although the reasons were first and foremost economical. The growing European countries needed and wanted to expand their markets since their home markets were becoming too small and with colonization, they started exploiting those parts of the world which still had enough natural resources. In addition to that, the 19th century was also the time when Europe started facing social problems in the form of unemployment and poverty. As a consequence of the industrial revolution, these countries now had enough money to invest it in external colonization. They inhabited their subordinate countries, thus creating a form of capitalist slavery and economic nationalism. The struggle for invading African countries was so extensive that there was a danger of war against one another.

To prevent this, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened a diplomatic summit of European powers in the late nineteenth century. This was the famous Berlin West African conference, held from November 1884 to February 1885. This conference produced a treaty known as Berlin Act, with provisions to guide the conduct of the European inter-imperialist competition in Africa (Ibid.).

During the conference, they were bargaining about colonizing Africa and without having any consent from the countries ultimately divided the continent into parts. The lines were drawn with a ruler and a pencil, because of which African borders remain straight to this day. The colonizing countries invaded Africa and other unexplored parts of the world and started imposing their own customs and culture on the indigenous people. The colonized were usually seen as backward and underdeveloped since they lived in much closer symbiosis with nature and the environment. The colonizers, therefore, saw it as their mission to make indigenous people civilized and teach them how to live according to European standards. The idea of Eurocentrism helped them justify their doings. The whites appeared in the middle of the indigenous people and interrupted the way of life they were used to. In that way, the colonizer and the colonized were facing each other and the colonial situation was created. 

“The colonized were usually seen as backward and underdeveloped since they lived in much closer symbiosis with nature and the environment. The colonizers, therefore, saw it as their mission to make indigenous people civilized and teach them how to live according to European standards.”

A colonial situation is created, so to speak, the very instant a white man, even if he is alone, appears in the midst of a tribe, even if it is independent, so long as he is thought to be rich or powerful or merely immune to local forces of magic, and so long as he derives from his position, even though only in his most secret self, a feeling of his own superiority (Mannoni 1990, p. 18). What Mannoni tries to show is that the colonizers always thought of themselves as superior to the colonized, thus their culture and language were considered better than the “uncivilized” culture and language of the colonized.

Language is one of the most important entities of a certain nation or a tribe and stands as a building block which forms the culture and collective national identity of its speakers. Frantz Fanon dealt with the importance of language and had a great insight into what was happening to the language of the colonized when the colonizers began to take over. He grew up in Martinique which was under the French rule. He spoke Creole, a language considered subordinate to French which was spoken by the colonizers. As Fanon realized, the ability and availability to speak is extremely important for every human being since 

to speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization. (Fanon 1967, p. 8)

What he implies is that the language creates a culture of a certain nation and if a language becomes extinct, the development of that culture ceases. The colonized people were usually subjected to the pressure of adopting the language of the colonizers and therefore had to accept their culture. With that, the language and culture of the colonized people slowly became of minor importance. Not only that, the indigenous languages were usually forbidden after colonization happened. Indigenous tribes usually used only one language which was used in schools and during their work in the fields. What happened with the arrival of the colonizers was that suddenly “the language of my education was no longer the language of my culture” (Ngugi 1986, p. 11). This nicely reflects the idea that the colonizers considered themselves superior to the colonized since their language was of primary importance. Ngugi also reveals that if students were heard speaking in their mother tongue they were usually punished. With the adopting of the language of the colonizers, the black Africans were actually becoming white (i.e. civilized) Europeans. It was as if black people with their own culture were considered children without any knowledge. By adopting the white culture and language, however, they were learning how to speak. The idea behind all of it was that the language, which was newly presented to the colonized nations, would break their own language and make people inclined to learn and speak a new language.

Additionally, Ngugi noted that the language of the colonizer became the only language of conversation and teaching. In Kenya one was unable to finish their education successfully if they did not speak English perfectly. “English was the language of formal education. In Kenya English became more than a language; it was the language, and all others had to bow before it in deference” (Ibid., p.11). Even the highest positions in the society were reserved for those who excelled in English. With forcing children to learn their language the colonizers succeeded in creating a new generation of Africans who were completely subordinated to the language and the culture of Europe. Children were alienated from their own mother tongue and culture. English was not the only language colonizers enforced upon others; there were also French and Spanish which were imposed on the colonized. Language and literature were two vehicles which helped the colonizers draw the colonized further away from their own culture and give them their new identity. This mental supremacy was, in fact, the basis for the successful colonization.

“Language and literature were two vehicles which helped the colonizers draw the colonized further away from their own culture and give them their new identity.”

Although colonizers succeeded in imposing their language on the colonized, “imposed languages could never completely break the native languages as spoken, their most effective area of domination was the third aspect of the language as communication, the written” (Ibid., p. 17). As a consequence, children were split between speaking their own language at home and writing, speaking, and thinking in the language of the foreigners in public. The idea of making the language and culture of the colonizer a primary one succeeded. By abandoning their own language, the colonized forgot about their culture and therefore about their national identity. They became similar to the white people so they felt accepted and a part of the newly created society. Children, for example, saw the world only through the language and literature they were adopting. The language that was imposed on them created a new culture inside children who were the most vulnerable part of the society. It even went so far that the colonized people accepted the language of the colonizer as their primary form of communication, although they were forced to do so. Sedar Senghor, a Senegalese poet and cultural theorist, said that even though the “colonial language was forced upon him if he had been given the choice, he would still have opted for French” (Ibid., p. 18–19). The power of the colonizers is clearly visible. Senghor (as well as many others) internalized the language of the colonizer and saw it as the real language which other people can understand. He was even grateful to the French and those who brought the language to him. An immense adoption of European languages happened in Africa and together with that the emergence of a new culture and an almost complete loss of the old African heritage. One important note to make here is about the mentality of the white people who customarily think that with colonization they “rescued” black people from “underdevelopment” or “backwardness” and therefore assume that black people should be grateful that they were saved and should not complain about the loss of their own language and culture.

Although colonizers succeeded in imposing their language on the colonized, “imposed languages could never completely break the native languages as spoken, their most effective area of domination was the third aspect of the language as communication, the written” (Ibid., p. 17). As a consequence, children were split between speaking their own language at home and writing, speaking and thinking in the language of the foreigners in public. The idea of making the language and culture of the colonizer a primary one succeeded. By abandoning their own language, the colonized forgot about their culture and therefore about their national identity. They became similar to the white people so they felt accepted and a part of the newly created society. Children, for example, saw the world only through the language and literature they were adopting. The language that was imposed on them created a new culture inside children who were the most vulnerable part of the society. It even went so far that the colonized people accepted the language of the colonizer as their primary form of communication, although they were forced to do so. Sedar Senghor, a Senegalese poet and cultural theorist said that even though the “colonial language was forced upon him if he had been given the choice, he would still have opted for French” (Ibid., p. 18–19). The power of the colonizers is clearly visible. Senghor (as well as many others) internalized the language of the colonizer and saw it as the real language which other people can understand. He was even grateful to the French and those who brought the language to him. An immense adoption of European languages happened in Africa and together with that the emergence of a new culture and an almost complete loss of the old African heritage. One important note to make here is about the mentality of the white people who customarily think that with colonization they “rescued” black people from “underdevelopment” or “backwardness” and therefore assume that black people should be grateful that they were saved and should not complain about the loss of their own language and culture.

Although there was severe pressure from English, French and Spanish colonizers on the colonized, some nations succeeded in preserving their mother tongue and their culture. African tribes are one such example since the “African languages refused to die. They would not simply go the way of Latin to become fossils for linguistic archaeology to dig up, classify and argue about the international conferences” (Ngugi 1986, p. 23). African tribes did not allow the European languages to uproot their own language, so they retained it in spheres of their homes. Those tribes were united, and they opposed the colonialist movements and have taken an anti-colonialist position. The peasantry was the one with the most important role in keeping the African languages and culture alive. In their home sphere, they retained traditional African customs and language and were in that manner creating a form of national consciousness which helped them survive. The importance of African literature was not seen only in the writer being an African, but also in the literature itself being written in genuine African languages. Such literature meant that its authors were not conforming to the colonialist movements and wanted to retain the importance of African languages through African literature. 

“In their home sphere, they retained traditional African customs and language and were in that manner creating a form of national consciousness which helped them survive.”

The problem at that time was that the black people (or generally the colonized people) who travelled to the countries of their colonizers usually forgot about their own mother tongue and culture. This was due to the fact that they wanted to become more like the white people inhabiting those countries and hence tried to adopt not only the general language but also proper pronunciation and mannerisms. The personality of the colonized people living in the colonizing countries changed immensely and the language made a black person feel that they belong to the white society. The problem was, however, that white people had a very bad attitude when it came to talking to a black person. The tone in which they spoke to them can easily be compared to the tone in which a human being speaks to an animal whereas the tone which white people used while talking to each other remained polite and respectful. Therefore, the desire of a black person to become more similar to a white person was even greater. The extent to which the colonized people adopted the language and culture of their colonizers was seen only when those people returned to their home communities. The use of the elevated language style (which was the consequence of living with the colonizers) was completely redundant in their home environment, yet they still used it. The two dimensions to which the colonized person is subjected become clearly visible. However, the relationship to their family and the relationship to the white community in which the colonized lived should remain separated. Fanon gives us the following example.

After several months of living in France, a country boy returns to his family. Noticing a farm implement, he asks his father, an old don’t-pull-that-kind-of-thing-on-me-peasant, “Tell me, what does one call that apparatus?” His father replies by dropping the tool on the boy’s feet and the amnesia vanishes (Fanon 1967, p. 13). The truth is that the language and the culture of the colonizers become a part of the everyday life of the colonized. Not only spoken language, also newspapers, magazines, and other forms of media which broadcast the language of the colonizer insult the colonized, but are on the other hand “broadly regarded as a link with the civilized world” (Fanon 1994, p. 72) for the settlers. One such example is the presence of the radio. Listening to the programme of the colonizers means imposing their culture onto the very soul of the society – a family. In fear of colonizers destroying the faint possibility of them preserving their own culture and language, the Algerian families long resisted to buy a radio, although they were anything but poor. Radio was a symbol of the colonizer and thus carried a negative connotation. Ngugi in one of his interviews clearly shows that the problem with the languages has always been with oppression and hierarchy because some countries always considered their languages better than the languages of other countries, or the countries they have colonized (Ngugi 2013).

“The truth is that the language and the culture of the colonizers become a part of the everyday life of the colonized.”

One important and still unanswered question remains: What is considered a true literature of the colonized people? The fact is that most of the authors from the colonized countries do not write in their own mother tongue but rather in the adopted language, the language of the colonizers. Authors are producing literature of their home colonized country in the language of the colonizer because the latter (be it English, French, or any other) is known worldwide and therefore such literature has a higher potential to succeed. Until a person is a respected and a well-known author the decision which language to use is obvious. Ngugi gives the reader a nice example of how A Conference of African Writers in English Expression – where he was invited – proved to be biased against the African writers who were writing in their mother tongue. Even some of the most acknowledged writers of this type (such as Shabaan Robert) were not invited to the conference just because their literature was in their home language. Ngugi on the other hand, who at that time was only a student of English and an author of a few papers in the English language, was invited to participate in the conference (Ngugi 1986, p. 5–7). The bias was obvious. African literature written in English was considered proper, whereas African literature written in Gikuyu or any other native African language was not. Some of the authors abandoned their mother tongue in order to become known in the world and to be able to write about the situation in Africa and other colonized countries. As Chinua Achebe stated in his speech with the title “The African Writer and the English Language”: “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” (Ibid., p. 7). Even the authors themselves knew that abandoning their mother tongue would mean abandoning their own culture and for that matter forsaking their national identity. However, the use of the language of the colonizer was necessary for them to be able to write and to be allowed to publish their works. Although they felt guilty about it, there was nothing they could do. European languages did present a unifying force.

The point Ngugi is trying to make is that language definitely changes according to the location where it is spoken – English spoken in Africa is definitely enriched with expressions of the African languages spoken in that location. Therefore, a distinction must be made between African, Afro-European, and European languages. Afro-European languages are the ones brought by the colonizers, but enriched with domestic African expressions (Afro-English, Afro-French, and others). Thus, the literature written in those languages is “literature written by African in European languages. Their work belongs to the Afro-European literary tradition. /…/ Afro-European literature can be defined as literature written by Africans in European languages in the era of imperialism” (Ibid., p. 27). An Afro-European author can, after they become well-read and known, start using their own mother tongue and produce the culture which was almost lost. As Ngugi states, such authors did hit some walls and were subjected to some harsh words. However, the importance of continuing the development of their domestic culture is enormous so the transition from writing in the language of the colonizer to writing in their own language is justified and completely reasonable. 

“An Afro-European author can, after they become well-read and known, start using their own mother tongue and produce the culture which was almost lost.”

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture” (Fanon 1967, p. 25). Language is definitely one of the most important human abilities and privileges. Language creates a culture and reflects the society in which it is spoken. It belongs to a group of people, identifies them and connects them into a collective consciousness. The ability to speak and to be able to speak in one’s own language should be considered one of the basic human rights. Many times, however, the language of a certain nation was subjected to various injustices and therefore often became extinct and forgotten. Because of the impact of colonization and the oppressors, language and culture in the colonized countries were treated as unequal, backward, and even undeveloped, while the language of the colonizers was seen as superior. I wanted to show just that in my paper – languages should be considered as equal and a certain language should never be seen as subordinate to another.

REFERENCES

Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin White Masks. United States: Grove Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 1994. A Dying Colonialism. United States: Grove Press.
Inweriebor, Ethiedu E. G. 2007. The Colonization of Africa. Available at: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-colonization-of-af- rica.html [accessed March 2019].
Mannoni, Octave. 1990. Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
NgugiwaThiong ́O. 1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Oxford: James Currey Ltd.
Ngugi wa Thiong ́O. 2013. English is not an African Language. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LndN3PvzCjs [accessed March 2019].

Originally published in Issue XVIII in May 2019.