An Analysis of Language in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart

An Analysis of Language in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart

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     Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on November 16, 1930 to Isaiah Okafo and Janet Achebe in the very unstable country of Ogidi, Nigeria. He was exposed to missionaries early in his childhood because Ogidi was one of the first missionary centers established in Eastern Nigeria and his father was an evangelist. Yet it was not until he began to study at the University of Ibadan that Achebe discovered what he himself wanted to do. He had grown apalled to the "superficial picture" of Nigeria that many non-Nigerian authors were providing. That is when Achebe resolved to write something that viewed his country from "the inside".  (Gallagher, Susan, The Christian Century, v114, 260)   His first novel, Things Fall Apart, achieved exactly this.  Things Fall Apart is based on Nigeria's early experiences with the British. It is the story of an Ibo village and one of it's great men, Okonkwo, who is a very high achiever being a champion wrestler, a wealthy farmer, a husband to three wives, and a man with titles. Okonkwo's world is disrupted with the appearance of the first white man who tries to inflict his religion on the Umuofia natives. Okonkwo, a high tempered man, later kills a British employed man and eventually takes his own life.

            Achebe himself once said, "Language is a weapon and we use it, and there's no point in  fighting it." ( Gallagher, The Christian Century, v114, 260)  These are words that Achebe lives by. He stood by this statement throughout his entire career with a language style that would change African literature. was no exception. He accomplished his goal by writing about his own culture and his own family in a poetic, proverbic style. < qtd. in >   The unique language style of Things Fall Apart not only changed Achebe's career, but it also changed his country. Achebe himself once said, " Art is, and always was, at the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories for a human purpose. Any good story, any good novel, should have a message, should have a purpose." <> Achebe used the "weapon" of language to convince "outsiders" that Nigeria is a nation with great potential.

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     One prominent  method that Achebe uses for convincing the Europeans of Nigeria's potential was writing his novel in English and then using the African language within passages.He uses his English knowledge for " infiltrating the ranks of the enemy and destroying him from within," while his native language forces readers to" look outside of their constraints and identify more with the African culture. "   He was quoted as saying that " It doesn't matter what language you write in, as long as you write it good," and that is what he did.  ( Gallagher, The Christian Century, March 12, V114, 260)

      When Achebe writes about Okonkwo's father, he writes, " Even as a little boy he had resented his father's failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala."(Achebe, 13)  A reader may not know what agbala means first hand, but then Achebe goes on to say that agbala is a word for " a man who had taken no title."

     Another example is when he writes, " I don't know why such a trifle should come before the egwugwu", using the African dialect in conversation. (Achebe 94)  By doing this, he uses his language to first draw the reader in with one's own language and then show them an "inside" view like no writer ever had before. The "enemy,", the Europeans could easily see from the mere intelligence of the author that Nigeria had potential.  The story is set in Umuofia, which in Nigeria is translated into "Bush Children," bush meaning uneducated and uncivilized. " The Igbo were to be civilised by British standards, under British rule, using the British language, and the Anglican religion," said Achebe of the standards that Nigeria was supposed  to meet. Achebe chose Umuofia to represent the opinion Europeans held that the natives of Nigeria are a "tribe of  "uncivilzed savages ."   Achebe proves that this theory is purely ignorant with his use of Igbo proverbs.

       The novel contains several native sayings that represents the strong religion, morals, and culture of the country. An example is seen early on in the novel when Achebe writes, "If a child washed his hands he could eat with kings," referring to Okonkwo, who "washed his hands" of his bad reputation which came because of his father's lifestyle. (Achebe,8)  This is parallel to Nigeria's circumstances, and implies that if Nigeria " washed their hands" the country could be just as important as Britain. A second example of Achebe's proverbic language is Okonkwo is asking Nwakibie for yam seeds and he says, " The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did." ( Achebe,21)  These few words show that the Umuofians had a great sense of pride, and if used properly if could result in great accomplishments.

     The strong religious beliefs of the tribe are clearly seen when Achebe writes, " Those whose palm kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble," showing that they try to be thankful for everything that they have. (Achebe, 26)   Also, Achebe goes on to write, " when a person says yes, his Chi( personal God) says yes to him," this implying that the natives believed that if you humble yourself to your God he will not say no to you. ( Achebe, 27)  Finally, he also uses the proverb "A man that makes trouble for others also makes trouble for himself," this being similar to the Golden Rule that the British knew and were very familiar with.  These proverbs say the exact opposite of the European opinion, providing evidence that this highly religous , moral culture is civlized.  A third method that Achebe puts to use is having his characters tell traditional folk tales. This shows Europeans that the natives have a great amount of pride for their country, and it draws the readers in by using something that they are familiar with doing themselves. The most apparent example is when Ekwefi told Enzima a story about a selfish, greedy tortoise. She begins the same way as the Europeans might begin a story to a child, saying " Once upon a time." She goes on to tell the story of a tortoise who overheard that there was a great feast for birds approaching, and he wanted to go. After begging for wings from a bird, the tortoise goes to the feast and tricks the birds, getting all of their food. The consequences are high, as the birds get revenge and the tortoise's shell is scarred forever, as the story provides the lesson to not be greedy and selfish. ( Achebe, 99 )  Here, the European's theory is once again proved wrong.

     "Chinua Achebe was the first to truly develop an African style of writing."   < D. Carroll qtd. in _novels_ nd_nigeria.html   This statement has proved true in each of Achebe's novels and Things Fall Apart is no exception. He has even been called the father of African literature. He used this tool to achieve something that he wanted to do since his college days, and show the Europeans that they were wrong. Achebe once said, " One big message of the many that I try to put across is that Africa was not a vacuum before the coming of Europe, that culture was not unknown in Africa, and that culture was not brought to Africa by the white world."  < qtd. in http:www.upres /books/c/html/ conache.html>   He did exactly this by drawing readers in with the familiarness of the English language and traditional folk tales and then showing them his own culture by writing with an advanced African vocabulary and knowledge of Ibo proverbs. He achieved something  that no other writer had done before him. It not only changed his career but it also changed the careers of many writers to come. Chinua Achebe set out with a purpose and in accomplishing it he changed the entire literary world. Today he is paralyzed from a car crash and only makes seldom appearances, but for Nigerians and Europeans he will not be forgotten any time soon.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua.   Things Fall Apart. New York, New York Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1959

"Achebe Novels and Nigeria." . Online. Internet.

"Achebe's Representation of the Native"


Culross, Melissa. "Chinua Achebe and Things Fall Apart." Postimperial and

Postcolonial Literature in English. Internet. things.htm l.

Gallagher, Susan. "Linguistic Power: Encounter with Chinua Achebe." The Christian

Century New York State Writers Institute. "Chinua Achebe."


Online. Internet.
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