Thursday, September 21, 2006

Language of the City

Throughout No Longer at Ease, Chinua Achebe places an emphasis on language. Achebe begins by discussing how one’s native tongue is more real because of a person’s ability to truly own that language. Achebe perfectly describes the difference between a person’s native language and foreign language by writing, “He could say any English word, no matter how dirty, but some Ibo words simply would not proceed from his mouth. It was no doubt his early training that operated this censorship, English words filtering through because they were learnt later in life” (52). This description forces the reader to recall his or her youth and the simple scolding of a mother- ‘Don’t say that word.” Although these words translate into pretty much every language, the offense is never felt the same without knowledge of the cultural background.
Achebe then addresses foreigners’ perceptions of a culture being directly related to language. He writes, “It was humiliating to have to speak to one’s countryman in a foreign language, especially in the presence of the proud owners of that language. They would naturally assume that one had no language of one’s own” (57). Achebe reinforces the earlier sentiment of owning a language, while expanding the point to show the damage of having no language at all. If even Africans are speaking English, the foreigners would believe that the English-speaking world, with its commerce and worldly power, had eroded the area of its culture. Obi is obviously uncomfortable with conceding that sort of power; however, considering that he had to learn English to become a senior officer, it is clear that issue is always looming in the background.
The references to language are not as pointed towards the very end of the novel, but there is a final parting warning to those people who would follow Obi. The President of the Umuofia Progressive Union says, “A man may go to England, become a lawyer or a doctor, but it does not change his blood” (182). The message seems to warn of succumbing to the greed that can come with the opportunities presented with education and learning a foreign language. While education is undeniably a gift, a person must be careful to not forget his roots. Obi did well to learn English and receive a high-paying job, but he soon found his concerns to be related to money, instead of to the family and community that raised him. Achebe shows that language is a powerful thing- it binds people together and can also easily tear people apart.