Traditional Language And Literature

I came across a very good article recently that has to do with the nature of the African languages and the bastardization of the cultures due to cultural genocide.  How does literary colonization affect a culture?  Very much it would seem – written works can become the lifeblood of a culture over time.


Akinwumi Isola We spend all our money sending them to school, but when they become capable they stop talking to us. Isn’t that a big loss? (A village head’s complaint at a community meeting where an address was being read in English)

Each time someone asks me why I write in Yoruba, restricting myself to the local audience instead of writing in English to reach the whole world, I wonder anew whether my or their conceptions about the role of literature and the responsibilities of the artist are at fault. Normally the society that structures the physical and cultural surroundings of children also provides them with their first language, which is the seminal foundation for literature. Sadly, however, the debate over the most appropriate language for African writers suggests that some disaster has befallen African society–a disaster that has either rendered it incapable of supplying its citizens with their first language or made it impossible for that language to support the production of written literature.

Literature in Africa has suffered the same bastardizing fate as politics and the economy. During colonial times, a few familiar ideas about traditional political governance (e.g., the legal system) were chosen, redefined beyond recognition, forced into the western model and imposed upon the people with disastrous social effects. In the economic sector, food and cash crops are sold cheaply, exported, processed into bland garbage devoid of nutritional value, packaged neatly, imported, and sold at prices that are unaffordable for the farmers who originally grew the crops. So it is with literature. The rich resources of African languages, literature, religion, culture, and philosophy are being tapped only to be hurriedly translated and given literary form in a foreign language, where they remain forever inaccessible to the original producers of these materials. Under such circumstances, the traditional purpose of literature is being bastardized in contemporary Africa.

Literature thrives in society the same way that species prosper in an ecosystem, and it is just as dependent upon the health of that society as any given species is upon its physical environment. Every society has a literature, which is linked to the people by means of a two-way umbilical cord–the language that makes possible a mutual nurturing that ensures the emotional and philosophical health of the people and their literature, just as the ecosystem, when properly nurtured and preserved, provides that which is necessary to satisfy the physical needs of a people. When an ecosystem is destroyed, the loss is multidimensional and ultimately incalculable. The same is true of the African literary “ecosystem,” which is confronting real and redoubtable threats from the very people who have been raised and educated in it.

The psychological and cultural loss suffered as a consequence of linguistic colonization pales in comparison with the void created by literary colonization. When the so-called leaders of Africans quote exclusively from European-language texts to reinforce their points, ignoring the rich treasury of oral and written African literature, they are seriously undermining their own sense of individual and collective identity. When African nursery school pupils are instructed to chant “Bah, bah, black sheep, Have you any wool?,” in a region where sheep have scarcely enough hair to cover their skin, the principle of irrelevance has clearly been carried to an absurd extreme. If these children are ever to enjoy a relevant information and an acute sense of their own identity, they need to be exposed to a literature that has been written in their own mother tongue.

Isola, Akinwumi. “The African writer’s tongue.” Research in African Literatures 23.1 (1992): 17+.


What do you think?  How does literature and language influence the culture from which it springs forth from?

If you want to read more about linguistic anthropology then check out Your Language Place, where there are several articles that deal with this phenomenon which is more interesting than you may think.  There are also several reviews of top language learning software that can help you to learn a new language.

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