Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Art of Language

Language is a revered form of art in the Igbo culture. Those who speak and express themselves with the art of language are regarded highly, as “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (7). There are senses of formality, earthy imagery, and musicality in Achebe’s translations, showing the reader the complexities and dimensions of Igbo language—especially apparent in the oral tradition of telling stories like the tale of the Tortoise.

The Igbo culture also celebrates their ceremonies and traditions through and with the art of music, which in many ways, is its own language. When a member of the clan dies, the ekwe is mournfully played throughout the silent distance. “One of the things every man learned was the language of the hollowed out wooden instrument” (120). Achebe’s own novel is an expression of Igbo culture. He writes with the intricacies of the native language and song, with seemingly effortless natural imagery. In this regard, Okonkwo does not seem to fit into his society—he is not an honored speaker who has mastered the craft of Igbo language. While music is a revered and vital instrument in sustaining Igbo society, Okwonkwo disregards and rejects his father’s passion for music. He is not open to many perspectives outside of his own views.

A main problem that seems to cause many things to fall apart is the lack of understanding between cultures. Okonkwo says, “We cannot leave the matter in his [Mr. Smith] hands because he does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say it is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his. Let him go away” (191). The villagers and the colonizers must break their own insuperable barrier that blocks vital human connections that are necessary to reach bonds of understanding and relationships. This is not an easy task.

Chinua Achebe shows his readers that their language is not easily translated into English because it is steeped with the inherent intimations of a culture steeped in traditions and beliefs. It is important to note that Things Fall Apart was originally written in English—for an English audience (although it has been widely translated)—most likely to expose the falsities in barbaric stereotypes, showing the Igbo culture as a community of people who have their own values and enriched language. Achebe begins to diminish the walls that have arisen between cultures of human beings.

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