Alisha R. Walters © 2007



The English Language and Nigerian Prose Fiction.. 2


Theoretical and Methodological Approach to Study. 2


Historical Consideration of English in Nigeria and Surrounding Region. 2

Pre-Colonial, Colonial, and Post-Colonial Statuses of English in Nigeria and the West African Region  2

Pre-Colonial Period. 3

Early African Writing in English – A Case Study: Olaudah Equiano. 3

Colonial Period. 4

Present Status of English within larger Language Ecology in Nigeria. 4


Structure and Phonology of Nigerian English. 5

Phonology of NSE. 5

Grammar and Vocabulary of NSE.. 5

Vocabulary of NSE.. 6


English use in Nigerian Prose Fiction: Traditional Theoretical Perspectives. 6

English as the Language of National Literature. 6

English as an African “Dead End”. 7

Literature and Colonial Education. 8

Achebe Revisited and Deconstructed – a Post-Structuralist Approach to Colonial Linguistic Critique  9

21st Century Considerations of English Use in Nigerian/West-African Prose. 10


Use and Deployment of English in West African Prose: The Aesthetical Divorced from the Political?  11

Soyinka, Code Switching, Code Mixing, Register. 11

Achebe and the Igbo Linguistic Tradition. 12

Translatability?. 13


Towards a Speech Act Approach? The New Tenets of Linguistic Debate regarding Nigerian Fiction. 14


Concluding Remarks. 15


Works Cited.. 16

The English Language and Nigerian Prose Fiction


In his oeuvre of 1964, “The African Writer and the English Language,” Chinua Achebe famously, and not uncontroversially, opined: “you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition […].  If you take Nigeria as an example, the national literature, as I see it, is the literature written in English.”  Years since Achebe’s (in)famous proclamation, Nigerian (and Pan-African) scholars have assessed and reassessed the desired role of English—a primarily colonial language that Achebe also claims was “forced down our throats”—within Nigerian literature. 


Theoretical and Methodological Approach to Study

The following essay considers the shifting attitudes towards the use of the English Language in Nigerian prose fiction, placing particular emphasis upon the Nigerian novel.  Because of its long history of British and European contact, and because of its large concentration of canonical and well-read Anglophone authors, Nigeria has been selected for specific consideration.  During the discussion below, however, examples have been drawn from other West-African and sub-Saharan African countries, when pertinent. 

In the following, the varying historical positions that have been assumed within Nigeria (and, more broadly, by those of Nigerian descent) regarding English use in indigenous fiction will be diachronically, or historically, considered, one the one hand.  On the other, the varying and varied theoretical stances that have been adopted on this issue will be synchronically considered in order to conduct a comprehensive examination of this vexed subject, which is both historically rooted in imperialism and colonialism, and very much alive in contemporary theoretical debate.  In so doing, this article will return to, and perhaps challenge, the notion that English is a somehow “foreign” language in Nigeria, as intellectuals such as Chinua Achebe and J.O Ekpenyong, discussed below, have also suggested.



Historical Consideration of English in Nigeria and Surrounding Region

Pre-Colonial, Colonial, and Post-Colonial Statuses of English in Nigeria and the West African Region

The spread of English in Nigeria and the English speaking West African region (ESWA), which consists of Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, is said to have occurred in three distinct phases: (1) the development of English-based pidgins, which occurring during the pre-colonial period; (2) the introduction of Western education by English missionaries in the 1880’s; and (3) the post independence adoption of English as an official language (Bokamba 496).  Primarily as a result of its historical implementation, West African (Vernacular) English (WAVE), described below, is the form of English linked to formal education, and it currently forms the accroletal part of a continuum of Englishes in West Africa. 


Pre-Colonial Period

While English became an official language during the era of nineteenth century colonialism in Nigeria and the ESWA, the British had been trading in the region as early as the fifteenth century, during the pre-colonial period, primarily for slaves, ivory, and gold (McArthur 700).  In fact, by the eighteenth century, British contact had been so firmly established within the Nigerian region that an Efik chief in Calabar (a city in north-eastern Nigeria) kept a diary in a form of Nigerian Pidgin English (NPE): “… I walk up to see Esim and Egbo Young so I see Jimmy Henshaw come to see wee and wee tell him to go to on bord” (qtd. in McArthur 700-701).  Both oral and written forms of English thus have a fairly long historical presence within Nigeria and the surrounding ESWA region, which, one might argue, gives weight to the assertion that English ought to be considered as an historical language, both orally and literarily, within Nigeria.


Early African Writing in English – A Case Study: Olaudah Equiano

            During the eighteenth century, during the period of Trans-Atlantic slavery in the British Empire, Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745-1797), a former slave also known by the name Gustavus Vassa, published The Very Interesting Narrative of the Lie of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African: Written by Himself (1789).  While the accuracy of some of the details of his biography have since been questioned, Equiano is, nonetheless, said to have been born in Essaka, which lies in present day Nigeria.  Equiano’s Narrative, which relates his capture from an Igbo village, his endurance of the middle passage, his arrival in Barbados, his journey to North American, his sale to a British captain, and his eventual life as a free man living in England, was an instant success in Britain, as was even reviewed by Mary Wollstonecraft.  Equiano, along with fellow West-African (Ghanaian) freed-slave writer, Ottobah Cugoano (born c. 1757), wrote in English in order to make poignant and pointed attacks against the institutional system of slavery.   Alan Richardson and Debbie Lee, editors of Early Black British Writing, note that people of African descent who wrote during this early period were not “content with being represented (and misrepresented) by others, […and] actively intervened in the literary culture and political debates of their time” (1).  And indeed, the preface to Equiano’s Narrative, addressed to the House of Lords, unabashedly declares the polemical, Abolitionist, intent of his work:


            My Lords and Gentlemen,

Permit me, with the greatest deference and respect, to lay at your feet the following genuine Narrative; the chief design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen.  By the horrors of that trade was I first torn away from all the tender connexions that were naturally dear to my heart […].

I am sensible I ought to entreat your pardon for addressing to you a work so wholly devoid of literary merit; but, as the production of an unlettered African, who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering country men […].

May the God of heaven inspire your hearts with peculiar benevolence on that important day when the question of Abolition is to be discussed, when thousands, in consequence of your Determination, are to look for Happiness or Misery! (116).


The act of writing in this early period for the African was thus, due to historical circumstance, an inherently political one.  Equiano’s Narrative, written in English using contemporary stylistic conventions and the prominent discourse of sentiment[1], adopts the linguistic apparatus of British imperialists in order to level damning charges at the system of “miseries” that provided much of their material wealth.  As discussed in more detail below, attempts that have since made to divorce West-African Anglophone writing from the arena of political debate continue to face opposition, even in our current historical moment.  This is undoubtedly due in part to the intensely polemical aims that galvanized, and in turn ideologically shaped, early African Anglophone writing.  From its inception, English West-African writing in particular has arguably been “hardwired” to be both construed and deployed as an instrument of political intervention.


Colonial Period

English instruction in Nigeria began in the former half of the nineteenth century, as British missionaries began teaching in the region.  It was not until 1861, however, when the Lagos settlement was first declared an official colony, when relations between Britain and Nigeria were officially cemented.  It was during the 1885 Berlin Conference, in which the European colonial powers divided control of Africa between themselves, when Britain’s claim to the Oil Rivers Protectorate, created in 1882, was recognised.  1900 marked the inception of The Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria; both were created from territories formerly controlled by the Royal Niger Company.  The Protectorates were amalgamated in 1914 into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria.  As a result of this colonial history, English became, and remains, the language of formal education in Nigeria, and forms of Nigerian Pidgin English are widely used as link languages in the country. 


Present Status of English within larger Language Ecology in Nigeria

English is now the official language of Nigeria.  However, it exists in relation to major national languages, such as Huasa, Igbo, and Yoruba, and numerous others, as Nigeria is currently one of the most linguistically diverse nations in English Speaking West Africa, as approximately 400 languages are spoken within the country, according to recent estimates (Faraclas 509).  In Nigeria, English exists in a continuum, with Nigerian Pidgin English (NPE) forming the most basilectal form of the language, and Nigerian Standard English (NSE) representing the acrolectal standard.  As mentioned above, both NPE and NSE are spoken in Nigeria, and both form part of a larger spectrum of Englishes within the country.  NPE, part of the larger West African Pidgin English continuum, is used throughout Nigeria as a lingua franca, and Nigerian Pidgin is increasingly being spoken as a first language by many people in the South of the country, and in many urban centres in both the northern and southern parts of Nigeria, usually in addition to other local languages (McArthur 701). 

Because of the great linguistic diversity in Nigeria, both NPE and NSE enjoy great success as link languages, and as Bokamba and others have noted, it facilitates linguistic “code-switching” and “code-mixing” in the region.  That is to say that typically, four options are available for one Nigerian wishing to interact with another: (a) local languages; (b) national languages (such as Yoruba or Huasa); (c) Nigerian Pidgin English; and (d) Nigerian Standard English (adapted from Bokamba 499).  In the absence of options a or b, NPE or NSE would typically be chosen, and this choice, in turn, would depend upon the educational level of both speakers. 


Structure and Phonology of Nigerian English

The unique oral cadences and structural characteristics of Nigerian English are often evoked in written form by Nigerian authors in order to represent a form of linguistic expression that is at once distinctly Nigerian, yet also intelligible to the international reader.  While the differences between RP (British English) and Nigerian English are not always salient in written form, it is, nonetheless, necessary to understand the grammatical structure and phonology of NSE, as it is often self-consciously deployed by Nigerian writers.  The following characteristics of Nigerian English are primarily adapted from McArthur 700-01.


Phonology of NSE.

Grammar and Vocabulary of NSE


Vocabulary of NSE

Oral and written forms of Nigerian English are the most distinguishable from Standard varieties of English with respect to vocabulary.  There are three distinctive groups of words that are found in NSE:

·        Borrowings from Pidgin and local languages: “She thought of that night long ago, when she had seen Ogbu-agali-odu, one of those evil essences loosed upon the world by the potent ‘medicines’ which the tribe had made in the distant past against its enemies but now had forgotten how to control(from Things Fall Apart, 104).

·        Loan-translations from local languages: throw water = to offer a bribe

·        Words coined for local purposes, given local meaning: decampee = one who moves to another political party


            As the above linguistic examples have illustrated, Nigerian English is an undoubtedly vibrant and rich language which, arguably, in both oral and written forms, addresses one of Achebe’s injunctions, urged in his abovementioned 1964 work, “The African Writer and the English Language.”  Achebe suggested that while English should not lose its “value as a medium of international exchange,” it should be used by the African writer in order to “carry his peculiar experience,” especially by the author wishing to say “something new, something different” (18).   And indeed, Nigerian English, in all of its material forms, is both widely intelligible, yet is also “something different,” a unique language that represents one of the many diverse forms of English spoken—and written—today. 



English use in Nigerian Prose Fiction: Traditional Theoretical Perspectives

The uniqueness of Nigerian English notwithstanding, Achebe’s assertion that the National language of Nigerian literature was English, issued only five years after Nigeria declared its independence from Britain, has continued to spark ideological debate regarding what ought to characterize and constitute Nigerian literature(s) in the post-colonial era.   Differing points of view have emerged over the decades, as scholars within the Nigerian and pan-African community at large have debated the role of former colonial languages in National literatures.  The Nigerian context of this debate thus must be considered within the larger, black-African context of academics, authors, and scholars, who, historically, have simultaneously staged the language debate in both national and continental arenas. 


          English as the Language of National Literature

            In Achebe’s touchstone article, excerpted above, he makes a clear distinction between ethnic literatures and what he envisions as National Nigerian literature.  “I hope,” he says, “that there always will be men, like the late Chief Fagunwa, who will choose to write in their native tongue and ensure that our ethnic literatures will flourish side by side with the national ones” (18).  For Achebe, ethnic and national literatures can coexist, occupying different ideological niches, respectively.  It is, however, undoubtedly English that must serve as a unifying, national language of literature, despite its primarily colonial inception in Nigeria, a historical fact that Achebe does not hesitate to acknowledge:

            [w]hat are the factors which have conspired to place English in the position of national

language in many parts of African?  Quite simply the reason is that these nations were created in the first place by the intervention of the British” (28).

While Achebe here acknowledges the imperial implications of English language use, he cannot ignore its function and status as a national Nigerian—and largely pan-African—lingua franca:

[…] there are scores of languages I would want to learn if it were possible.  Where am I to find the time to learn the half-a-dozen or so Nigerian languages each of which can sustain a literature?  […].  These languages will just have to develop as tributaries to feed the one central language enjoying nation-wide currency.  Today, for good or ill, that language is English.  Tomorrow it may be something else, although I very much doubt it (28).


Achebe here recognises English’s function as an effective link-language in the rich linguistic economy of Nigeria, described above.  It is notable that while Achebe imbues English with the capability of sustaining and nourishing a truly national language of literature, a language of “mutual communication” between African writers and the reading populace at large, Achebe is also careful not to attribute to English any inherent ideological value.  While he acknowledges its colonial, imperial past, Achebe asserts that at his present historical moment, English has primarily utilitarian purposes; it is a useful “world language.”  Achebe, moreover, even goes so far to assert that the African writer should not attempt to write English as a native speaker might; it is “neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so” (18).  The English language, and not the African writer, should be the one to bend, asserts Achebe, and made to serve the unique needs of the African author—but without sacrificing the language’s mutual intelligibility.  While English provides many possible modes of artistic expression and is a language medium that Achebe feels capable of holding the “weight of [his] African experience,” English remains a tool, a relatively apolitical artistic medium, nonetheless.

            In a conference on Commonwealth Literature held in Leeds in September of 1964, just after the initial publication of Achebe’s famous article, which first appeared in Spear: Nigeria’s National Magazine, and Moderna Sprak  in 1964, before its 1965 publication in the journal Transition, J.O. Ekpenyong enthusiastically—arguably even more so than Achebe—opined that “the introduction of English as the Official language is one of the greatest benefits of colonialism in Nigeria” (144).  Ekpenyong explicitly cites Achebe’s recently published article and argues that to

level-headed people, English does not seem to have a stiff competition with any indigenous language for election into chair of official language, for strictly speaking, it is not a foreign language in Nigeria.  By the peculiar circumstance of her birth, Nigeria was born into English as the mother tongue (149).


English as an African “Dead End”

            In 1964, Achebe was in fact directly responding to those like Obiajunwa Wali, who, in his article “The Dead End of African Literature,” which appeared in Transition magazine in 1963, argued that “African languages will face inevitable extinction if they do not embody some kind of intelligent literature” (335).  He lamented that the student of African languages, such as Yoruba, had “no play available to him in that language, for Wole Soyinka, the most gifted Nigerian playwright at the moment, does not consider Yoruba suitable” (335).  One of Wali’s chief anxieties in this article was the fear that, because African writers were increasingly writing in the English language, their creative endeavours were being collectively understood only as a “minor appendance in the mainstream of European literature” (332).  Wali continues to assert that

[b]oth [African] creative writers and literary critics read and devour European literature and critical methods.  The new drama of J.P. Clark[2] is seen in terms not only of the classical past of Aristotle and the Greeks, but of the current Tennessee Williams and the Absurdists […].  In this kind of literary analysis, one just parrots Aristotle and the current clichés of the American new Critics.

            The consequence of this kind of literature is that it lacks any blood and stamina, and has no means of self-enrichment. […] The overwhelming majority of the local audience, with little or no education in the conventional European manner, has no chance of participating in this kind of literature.  Less than one percent of the Nigerian population have the ability to understand Wole Soyinka’s Dance of the Forest.  Yet this play was staged to celebrate their national independence (332).

For Wali, a literature that is truly African simply cannot be written in English; he views this as an irreconcilable contradiction.  Wali, moreover, suggests reforms in the Nigerian and black-African educational system in which young people are, he feels, not taught to “devote their tremendous gifts and abilities to their own languages” (334). 


Literature and Colonial Education

            Other scholars, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who is from Kenya in East Africa, have also vociferously argued that English is absolutely antithetical to the indigenous writer’s expression of imperial resistance.  Sentiments such as these are, of course, based upon the assumption that writing for the African scholar or author of serious literature is always already a political act.  While Achebe does not ignore the political ramifications of writing in English vs. traditionally indigenous languages, such as Hausa or Yoruba, he is heavily invested in a politics of aesthetics, which informs his claim that English is a language that can and must be used as a form of primarily artistic national expression.  Notably, however, arguments for and against the use of English in Nigerian and black-African literature have not always followed a clear historical trajectory; rather, both sides have been engaged in an ongoing dialectical debate over the past several decades.  Ngũgĩ , writing two decades after Wali’s charged Transition article, argues in his book, Decolonising the mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), that there are (still) two forces at play in contemporary Africa: the imperialist tradition, on the one hand, and resistance to this tradition, on the other.  The act of writing for the African writer for Ngũgĩ cannot be divorced from a deeply rooted imperialistic and colonially based tradition of education, in which English “became more than a language, it was the language, and all the others had to bow before it in deference” (172).  Ngũgĩ describes the system of education in Kenya during the colonial period, and recalls the literary education course that was necessary for young school boys to take in order to enter university in the 1950’s:

            Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance.  Orature (oral literature) in Kenyan languages stopped.  In primary school I now read simplified Dickens and Stevenson alongside Rider Haggard.  Jim Hawkins, Oliver Twist, Tom Brown – not Hare, Leopold and Lion – were now my daily companions in the world of imagination.  In secondary school, Scott and G.B. Shaw viewd with more Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Alan Paton […].  At Makerere I read English: from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot with a touch of Graham Greene (173).


            Ngũgĩ’s particular focus upon the institutional instruction of the English language and British literature underline the relationship between colonial linguistic instruction and the institutional cultivation of literary, aesthetic sensibilities, also rooted in colonial power structures.  The acts of both reading and writing in English cannot be divorced from colonial power in this view, and the production of aesthetic value can never be separated from the inculcation of imperial value systems.   Acts of literary resistance for Ngũgĩ must, therefore, be staged in indigenous languages; writing in English should not and cannot be classified as an act of effective imperial resistance.  Ngũgĩ, like other African writers weighing in on the language and literature debate, returns to Achebe, to whom he (perhaps unfairly) imputes a sense of gratitude to the English, and asserts that “those of us [and Achebe is certainly one of the Africans that must be counted here for Ngũgĩ] who have abandoned our mother-tongues” embody the fulfilment of the “final triumph of a system of [colonial] domination when the dominated start singing its virtues” (176).  In this view, through the act of writing, the African author or intellectual is invariably positioned on one or the other side of an ideological, imperial binary.  Writing is always an act of political intervention, and the political is inseparable from the aesthetic.  In this standpoint, the modern African writer is, arguably, construed much like his or her historical antecedents, such as Olaudah Equiano, for whom the act of writing was invariably politically charged.



Achebe Revisited and Deconstructed – a Post-Structuralist Approach to Colonial Linguistic Critique

While Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind marks his self proclaimed “farewell to English as a vehicle for any of [his] writings” (177), other African writers and academics have not so readily relinquished English as a medium of communication and debate.  The feasibility of the English boycotts suggested by Wali, Ngũgĩ and others has been questioned and re-questioned as other pan-African scholars weigh in on this debate.  The reality of English’s lingua franca status, its imperial origins notwithstanding, has sparked many to revisit and reassess the proclamations initially made by Achebe in 1964. 

Gaurav Desei, in “English as an African Language” (1993) for instance, reconsiders the fraught question of whether the language used by an African writer for textual composition ought to affect the work’s status for eligibility into the African canon of literature.  While he carefully considers the views of those, such as Ngũgĩ and Wali, who argue that literature written in a European language cannot, by definition, be African literature, ultimately Desei argues, in the vein of Achebe and South African writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele[3], that English is “not a purely Western language” (Desei 6).  In this view, English is, therefore, capable of being appropriated and successfully Africanised.  Desei adopts a deconstructionist approach to language systems on the whole, and accordingly debunks the possibility of “pure” languages that contain coherent meaning.   Desei overtly invokes theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who suggests that despite the fact that “the world in language is half someone else’s” (qtd in Desei 6), an utterance may become “one’s own” (Bakhtin qtd. in Desei 6) when one “populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention” (Bakhtin qtd. in Desei 6). 

Desei goes on to cite examples of primarily Nigerian literature and Nigerian authors whose writing embodies this deconstructionist view of language.  Amos Tutuola, the Nigerian author of The Palm Wine Drinkard, is cited as an author who employs what Desei calls “African English” (6), for instance.  Desei argues that Tutuola’s writing is heavily influenced by the Yoruba oral tradition, in that his plots are similar to “traditional folk narratives [and] his English is a Yorubised language” (6).  Desei’s article considers yet another Nigerian author, Gabriel Okara.   Desei cites literary critic, Oladele Taiwo, who also argues that Okara’s language is essentially hybrid, it belongs “by its grammatical (syntactic) compositional markers, to a single speaker, but […] actually contains mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, two ‘languages,’ two semantical and axiological belief systems” (7).   This described hybrid, Africanised English, which is implicitly lauded by both Desei and Oladele, in many ways rearticulates Achebe’s argument for an English that is both “universal” and “peculiar” using deconstructionist vocabulary.  Desei ultimately claims that “essentialist” arguments that reject English as not sufficiently African are both “romanticised treatises” and, in many cases, a-historical ones.  In this view, the particularized use of the English language deployed by Nigerian authors such as Soyinka, Achebe, and Okara, exemplifies the Bakhtinian claim that destabilizing “centrifugal forces” (Desei 10) are always at play within all seemingly unitary languages. 


21st Century Considerations of English Use in Nigerian/West-African Prose

Despite the above mentioned deconstructionist defences of English use in African prose, the question of whether and when to use English vs. vernacular languages, such as Yoruba and Hausa, has, by no means, vanished altogether.  Nevertheless, the terms of this debate have certainly been complicated since they were first articulated during the newly post-colonial era.  Moradewun Adejunmobi’s 2004 volume entitled Vernacular Palaver: Imaginations of the Local and Non-native Languages of West Africa revisits the issue of language use in West-African fiction, but Adejunmobi acts upon the premise that the post-colonial artist who writes in a language other than her non-English mother tongue is not necessarily identifying with western imperialistic ideals, as others like Wali and Ngũgĩ had previously asserted.  Adejunmobi explores other motivations that induce the West African writer to deploy forms of English as a means of artistic expression, and argues that historically—and indeed, to some degree presently—Africans writing in European languages “provided a means whereby [they] could establish themselves as valid interlocutors, implanted in the same temporal location as the European Africanists” (26).  And indeed, early Nigerian authors, such as Equiano, must be (re)considered in this interventionist light.  While Adejunmobi overtly acknowledges the colonial and imperial history of English in Nigeria and West Africa, he challenges the claim that African literatures written in European languages should be read as “a sign of the surrender of the culturally alienated elite to the culture of the colonizers” (36), and suggests that the movement of indigenous authors writing in English represented a larger, continental move to “counteract the efforts of colonial administrators […] to strip educated Africans of any claim to make political demands [and to] deny cultural validity to any African anti-colonial texts being produced in European languages” (36).


Use and Deployment of English in West African Prose: The Aesthetical Divorced from the Political?

The boundary lines of the English language debate have thus clearly been redrawn and redefined since Achebe’s touchstone proclamation of 1964.  It would seem that that the act of writing—or not writing—in English has traditionally been construed as a political one.  But this politicising impulse notwithstanding, there has been tremendous consideration of how Nigerian authors, writing primarily in English, aesthetically deploy the language within their works.  Not surprisingly, however, these aesthetic considerations are often imbued with political, ethical consequences.   In order to examine how academics have discussed the ways in which Nigerian authors deploy English in their prose works, in the following I shall primarily focus my discussion on canonical authors, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. 


          Soyinka, Code Switching, Code Mixing, Register

Wole Soyinka, one of Nigeria’s most renowned authors and playwrights, was born in 1934 in Abeokuta, in Western Nigeria, and was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1986.  Soyinka, arguably because of his widely recognised talents, is one of the authors critiqued in Obiajunwa Wali’s invective for not writing his literature in Yoruba.  These critiques notwithstanding, many scholars have discussed the linguistic diversity present in many of Wole Soyinka’s fictional works.  For instance, his highly anthologized play, The Trials of Brother Jero (published 1963), not only exemplifies Soyinka’s linguistic and dialectical heterogeneity, but, moreover, provides several instances of the author’s deployment of code-switching, the moving back and forth between English and another language, or dialect.  Soyinka’s fiction is said to use a wide “spectrum of linguistic varieties such as English, Yoruba, West African pidgin English, [and] non-standard English” (OMole 385), which, James OMole argues, reflects Nigeria’s diverse linguistic society, and arguably reveals Soyinka’s linguistic realism (OMole).  However, discussions of Soyinka’s aesthetics are rarely left unpoliticized, and in The Trials of Brother Jero, speech, and more specifically, the use of acrolectal versus basilectal forms of Nigerian English, have more pointed functions.  The deployment of various forms of English is overtly linked to one’s social status, wealth, and alacrity in the play.  For instance, Jero, the prophet-confidence man who orchestrates much of the farcical action of The Trials of Brother Jero, speaks what is primarily a form of acrolectal Nigerian English.  Much like African Esu-Elegbara, the trickster figure written of by Henry Louis Gates[4] and others, Jero’s utterances are always doubled, forked, imbued with additional meanings; in this way Soyinka’s fiction may be read in a deconstructionist light, a critical approach that has been applied to other Nigerian literatures written in English  (see above). 

Chume, Jero’s hapless assistant in the play, in contrast to Jero, speaks a mix of NSE and NPE.  Soyinka marks the contrast between Jero’s and Chume’s linguistic statuses in a scene of pointed code-switching between the two in Act 3, where Jero’s acrolectal “Apostate. Have I not told you the will of god” is contrasted with Chumes’ basilectal ” “I n’go beat am too hard.  Jus’ once small small” (422).  James OMole, in his discussion of Soyinka’s novel The Interpreters (1965), observes regarding Soyinka’s characters who approximate acrolectal pronunciation: “if […] performance in a second language is as perfect as or very close to that of […] native speakers of that second language, such a person becomes culturally suspicious in his society” (OMole 394).  In this vein, Jero, an expert at approximating acrolectal linguistic codes, can perhaps read as Soyinka’s satirical response to the palpable relationship between prestigious language acquisition and class aspiration in modern Nigeria.  As such, despite the earlier chastisement of Soyinka by critics such as Wali, Soyinka’s actual deployment of language is rather complex.  While Standard English is his primary medium, Soyinka simultaneously undermines the assumed coherence of this language through its deployment.


          Achebe and the Igbo Linguistic Tradition

Achebe, undoubtedly Nigeria’s—and Africa’s—most widely read author, is frequently analysed using the apparatus of western literary critique.  His well known novel, Things Fall Apart (1959), the story of the downfall of an Igbo village—and an Igbo man, Okonkwo—at the inception of nineteenth century colonialism, is, moreover, often compared to fundamental, archetypical narratives of struggle and tragedy, such as the biblical story of Job (see Richard K. Priebe’s Myth, Realism, and the West African Writer).   Despite this tendency to universalize, and some would say westernize, Achebe’s writing, some critics, such as James Booth, have taken a culturally specific approach to his work.  While Soyinka is often considered with respect to the ways in which language and dialect are deployed in his prose, Achebe is evaluated by Booth with respect to his representation, or cultural translation, of indigenous Igbo ideological paradigms and linguistic patterns into English.  In his volume, Writers and Politics in Nigeria (1981), Booth attempts to counter the belief that African writing should be held to strictly western aesthetic standards; yet he also states that given the world dominance of the “developed nations,” the African writer must define national identity “within the arbitrary boundaries left by the colonist” (6).  Nevertheless, Booth examines the ways in which Achebe’s famous novel challenges these “arbitrary boundaries.”  Booth cites the following passage from Things Fall Apart, which, despite the heightened emotion that it describes, is called “relatively colourless”:       


As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, Okonkwo looked away.  He heard the blow.  The pot fell and broke in the sand.  He heard Ikemefuna cry, ‘My father, they have killed me!’ as he ran towards him.  Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down.  He was afraid of being thought weak (qtd. in Booth 78).


Booth opines that the “starkness” and “undemonstrativeness” of this passage is not entirely due to Achebe’s aesthetic of restraint, but is more indebted to the “distinctive colour” of Ibo proverbs which construct the complex picture of Ibo tradition and philosophy for which the novel is famous” (78).  Booth argues that this passage reflects, moreover, “the very nature of English as used in Nigeria. […] a distinct kind of English has developed which lacks nuances of class and social register” (79).  While Booth’s assertions here regarding the relative invariability of Nigerian English are certainly debatable, he is speaking specifically of standard, acrolectal NSE, which, he characterises as a “clean,” “correct” dialect, and most do agree that this dialect has less variation than varieties of English spoken in North America, and England, for example.  

Achebe’s aesthetic, like Soyinka’s, has been politicized, and critics like David Caroll have even suggested that this “clean,” restrained style is the Nigerian writer’s “perfect antidote to the melodramatic ‘dark continent’ view of Africa.  Where Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness (1902), misled by external appearances, sees a ‘terrible frankness’, a primeval chaos in the native dances he witnesses, Achebe reveals an orderly, even ordinary social life, with a quiet formality of manners” (qtd. in Booth 80).  Achebe’s aesthetics are here interpolated into a perhaps unexpected discourse of resistance.



            The above discussions of Soyinka and Achebe represent a small, but fairly representative, example of critical approaches to Nigerian fiction.  In recent years Nigerian criticism has increasingly enmeshed the deployment of English in a text with an assumed political mandate of the work or the author.  From these critical approaches, larger issues of translatability arise: that is, how do Nigerian and other African writers approach the problem of how to convey idiom, folklore, and even the cadences of African languages into English prose?  Edmund Epstein’s volume, The Languages of African Literature (1998), is one of many works that continues to examine the significance of English morphology within African literature.  Herbert Igboanusi’s article, “Varieties of Nigerian English:  Igbo English in Nigerian Literature,” also examines the ways in which what he calls “Igbo” English—English influenced by Igbo patterns of speech—affect the Nigerian writer’s “environment,” “source of creativity,” “speech habits,” and, “linguistic processes of transfer and translation” (22).  Igboanusi, who states that Igbo English is deployed through the use of borrowings, coinages, loan-blends, translation equivalents, and semantic extension, states that while there may be semantical difficulty encountered by non-native readers of works written in Igbo English, this alienation is, to some degree, necessary, as it underscores the difficulties present in “cross cultural understanding” (22), and translation on the whole.  For Igboanusi, literature, such as that written in Igbo English, ultimately reflects its cultural site of production.  A good example of literature written in Nigerian English that still shows evidence of its cultural, and specifically Yoruban origins, is found in Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard.  As OMole notes, the phrase “whereabouts my palmwine tapster was,” is used in the novel instead of the expected “the whereabouts of my palmwine tapster” (qtd in OMole 387).  OMole cites this as an example of almost literal translation of Yoruba into English as the English, as

Wherabouts      my     palmwine tapster    was


in Yoruba is


Ibiti                    Mi         elemu                wa.


The result of this transliteration is both an example of what OMole dubs Nigerian “linguistic realism,” and a prose writing that is subtly alienating to the English reader without prior knowledge of Yoruba.  This example drawn from Tutuola’s prose neatly encapsulates Igboanusi’s critical view, in which cultural distinctiveness is presumed to characterize the language of most, if not all, Nigerian prose fiction to some degree.  Many recent critics have hailed this Africanizing of traditionally Standard English genres, such as the novel, as a productive and politicized act.


Towards a Speech Act Approach? The New Tenets of Linguistic Debate regarding Nigerian Fiction.

As discussed earlier, the most recent scholarship considering Anglophone Nigerian fiction, by and large, has tended to abandon the debate as to whether or not English is a viable language of expression for the Nigerian writer who is not interested in reinforcing imperialistic discourse.  Larger issues of cultural translatability (which do echo the terms of the earlier English language debate) tend to be more heavily foregrounded in contemporary discussion.  That is, scholars do not only consider how Nigerian and West African writers translate word patters or symbolism of indigenous languages into English language prose; they also ask whether translatability is at all possible.  At heart is the question of whether African art forms and English ones are entirely incommensurate.

In many ways, the current debate regarding the commensurability between European and African art forms revisits one of the main questions posed earlier in this essay: namely, can English ever be an African language, or is it always already othered from the colonial African?  Many modern African academics now ask, rather, whether English and “Western” genres of artistic expression are always already othered from the African writer.  Directly addressing this question of commensurability, some scholars, such as Efurosibina Adegbija, argue that Nigerian literature ought to be evaluated not in terms of its form, but rather, according to its linguistic properties; a linguistic, rather than structuralist critical methodology is accordingly proposed.  Adegbija, for instance, encourages what is called a “speech-act” approach to Nigerian literature, as he argues that literary texts cannot exist outside of their language, and that the status of deployed language in Nigerian texts ought to be the primary, if not the sole, consideration used by critics who analyse such writings:


[t]he core principle of speech-act theory is that in uttering a sentence a speaker, besides making a proposition about a state of affairs in the world […] also performs an action such as requesting, stating, commanding, or informing. […] Every utterance performs a speech act with may be direct or indirect.


            A speech-act approach would […] possess greater explanatory power than current

approaches.  It would illuminate literary texts from the perspective of actual language use and “increase attention to interpersonal and discursive, rather than merely formal, aspects of literature” (Fowler qtd.).  (44-45).


Such proposed speech-act approaches, also echoed in the writings of critics like Herbert Igboanusi, have re-foreground the issue of language use in Nigerian fiction in very interesting ways; while English is the tacitly understood language of literary expression here, the basic tension between  African particularization and western “universal” intelligibility, returns.  Scholars such as Adegbija adopt a speech act approach, which is a methodology that proposes that African texts should be evaluated according to the particular quality and nature of deployed Africanised language, and not according to their supposedly universal structures or themes.  A speech act approach argues that English must be even further particularized, or Africanized, than may have been desirable to past scholars, as critics increasingly read Nigerian and West African literature in terms of its particular, oral, appeal, and not because of its allegedly fundamental themes or forms. 

In this way, we might reconsider the linguistic responses of James Booth and David Caroll to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, cited above, as responses underwritten by a speech-act methodology.  Booth, Caroll, and Herbert Igboanusi, who discusses the deployment of Igbo English in literature, all argue for the reconsideration of Nigerian literature according to its distinctly African linguistic properties, and each critic elides the significance of so-called universal forms or themes.  Similarly, in this vein, the above reading of Soyinka’s Brother Jero also employs a speech-act methodology, as it argues that Soyinka’s specific deployment of Nigerian English(es) is integral to deciphering the primary targets of his cultural satire.

Publications such as Onwuchekwa Jemie Chinweizu’s Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (1983) have also argued for a more particularist critical approach to African literature, as the authors of this volume state their “unabashedly polemical” mandate to defend African prose literature from what they perceive as Eurocentric critique, rooted in the ideologies of Western imperialism and hegemony.  Chinweizu, like Adegbija, Igboanusi, and many others, argue that African literature is an entirely autonomous entity that cannot be evaluated with the same criteria used to measure European literature.  As such, current speech-act responses to Nigerian and African literatures appear to self-consciously re-address Achebe’s earlier directive that the African writer should not aim to “learn to use [English] as a native speaker” (18).  Speech-act theory not only assents to this request, but argues that the African writer must also be critically and linguistically evaluated differently than the “native speaker” of English. 


Concluding Remarks

Recent writing thus engages quite complexly with the pronouncements and concerns of the previous generation of Nigerian and black-African scholars.  On the one hand, English is accepted as a fruitful means of literary expression for the Nigerian writer.  Yet, on the other, it is generally not accepted as the “world language” that Achebe once dubbed it.  Instead, the critical voices of particularism have gained ascendancy, and they argue that Anglophone Nigerian literature ought to be considered in terms of its distinctly African features, such as its orality.  This particularist approach to Nigerian English literature may also be said to underscore a claim made by earlier critics, and mentioned above: namely that English, because of its longstanding historical origins in Nigeria and its present day richness, should be considered a language that is, and has long been, African.





Works Cited


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Bokamba, Eyamba G.  “West Africa.”  English Around the World: Sociolinguistic

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Booth, James.  Writers and Politics in Nigeria.  London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.


Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuike.  Toward the Decolonization of

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[1] Sentiment, in the eighteenth century, was closely linked to term sensibility; the latter is defined as an important 18th-century term designating a kind of sensitivity or responsiveness that is both aesthetic and moral, showing a capacity to feel both for others' sorrows and for beauty” (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms).

[2] John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (b. 1935), a Nigerian poet and playwright. 

[3] Ezekiel Mphahlele (b. 1919), African academic and writer.

[4] In his novel The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), Gates discusses the “divine trickster figure of Yoruba mythology, Esu-Elegbara” (5), whom he identifies with similar trickster figures found throughout the African diaspora.  He considers all of the various ‘Esus’ throughout the diaspora and argues that “all aspects or topoi of Esu, are fundamental, divine terms of mediation […] Esu is the guardian of the crossroads” (6).  Esu’s salient characteristics include “satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure, encasement and rupture” (6).