Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Worldview Colonizes Every Language

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

On the flight to Nairobi I read Ngugi wa Thiong'o's  Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. His challenge to African peoples was to abandon, in practice and experience, the languages of the cultures that colonized them and return to a full adoption of their native languages. This is because: in a language there is an embodied worldview.

From my linguistic studies background (doctoral dissertation on metaphor theory) wa Thiong'o's ideas connected me with "the Whorfian hypothesis," which is: a worldview colonizes every language. So I did a little research this morning to see if others have discovered the connection, and wa Thiong'o's indebtedness to Whorf.

Samuel Gyasi Obeng (African Studies, and Linguistics - U.of Indiana) connects Whorfian linguistics to wa Thiong'o's African appeal. Obeng writes: "According to Whorf, the structure of human language influences the manner in which human beings understand reality and behave with respect to it."  (In Samuel Gyasi Obeng, Political Independence With Linguistic Servitude: The Politics About Languages in the Developing World, 98-99)

Obeng cites Abiola Irele's powerful argument in favor of African languages. Irele writes:

"For even if it is true that all languages are systems whose reference to reality is arbitrary, there is a naturalization of particular languages to specific environments which plays an important role in the process by which they not only come to signify but to achieve a correspondence with the total configuration of the perceived and experienced reality within the environment." (In Ib.)

I was thinking of wa Thiong'o today, and googled him in the news. I found this: "Foreign tongues: Today's slave drivers" (11/23/13). In a recent lecture at the University of Dar es Salaam wa Thiong'o said that "African leaders and scholars have become captives of their foreign languages, and so maintain colonial ideals to the detriment of fellow citizens."

The African continent continues to suffer from "language slavery." Wa Thiong'o "proposed that our local universities should translate the knowledge from foreign languages to local dialects for the benefits of all communities." (Ib.)

How deep, how radical (latin radix; "root"), should this go? Wa Thiong'o "
warned Africans against wasting their time and skills trying to change their accents to English; instead, they should spend their time and skills to protect African resources and language."

We wage war with language. To overpower and defeat someone is to also indoctrinate the captives with the victor's language. It is to force them to convert to the enemy's worldview. 

Reject the oppressor's language. Cast off the enemy's accent.