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Abstract

In the 1960s, much diatribe was exchanged by African literary artists within their caucus, and outside with different scholars interested in African literature. Wali demonstrates this disagreement. He comments, “… until these writers and their western midwives accept the fact that true African literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncertainty, and frustration.” In reply to Wali, Achebe expresses, “…you cannot cram African literature in a small, neat definition. I do not see African literature as one unit but as associated units – in fact, the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa”. The disagreement is no longer conspicuous. However, the question that demands an answer is, “Have African languages become productive in African literature?” This paper argues that they have not, maybe, yet. It assesses this situation, providing factors responsible. One of such factors is the nondevelopment and underdevelopment of the African languages. Besides, the paper makes recommendations that can salvage the situation; one of which is instituting awards for literary works in African languages.
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African Languages and African Literature
Cecilia A. Eme & Davidson U. Mbagwu
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/ujah.v12i1.7
Abstract
In the 1960s, much diatribe was exchanged by African
literary artists within their caucus, and outside with different
scholars interested in African literature. Wali demonstrates
this disagreement. He comments, “… until these writers and
their western midwives accept the fact that true African
literature must be written in African languages, they would
be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to
sterility, uncertainty, and frustration.” In reply to Wali,
Achebe expresses, “…you cannot cram African literature in a
small, neat definition. I do not see African literature as one
unit but as associated units – in fact, the sum total of all the
national and ethnic literatures of Africa”. The disagreement
is no longer conspicuous. However, the question that
demands an answer is, “Have African languages become
productive in African literature?” This paper argues that
they have not, maybe, yet. It assesses this situation, providing
factors responsible. One of such factors is the non-
development and underdevelopment of the African languages.
Besides, the paper makes recommendations that can salvage
the situation; one of which is instituting awards for literary
works in African languages.
Introduction
Language is a medium of communication of ideas or feelings
via conventional signs, sounds or marks with distinguishable
denotations and connotations. The views of Sapir, Hall and
Trager cited in Crystal (396) corroborate this: Sapir
comments that language is a purely human and non-
UJAH: Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities Vol. 12 No. 1, 2011
115
instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and
desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols; Trager
views it as a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of
which the members of a society interact in terms of their total
culture; and Hall argues that it is the institution whereby
humans communicate and interact with each other by means
of habitually used oral-auditory symbols. The roles of
language in communication as suggested above make Essien
to see it as the “quintessence of humanity”.
The use of language in communication illustrates its
relationship with the mind. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar
Theory (UG) evidences this relationship. According to Cook
(2), the importance of UG is its attempt to integrate grammar,
mind and acquisition at every moment. The mind here
suggests creativity. Hence, Emenanjo argues that language
cuts through artifacts, socio-facts, and menti-facts. Artifacts
form from the flora and fauna of a cultural area; socio-facts
come from political, social, legal and economic structures,
while menti-facts yield from language in its multifaceted and
multidimensional realizations which are represented in ideas,
beliefs, and oral and literary creativity. Literature is clearly
one of the menti-facts resulting from its employment of the
decoding and encoding and constructing and deconstructing
capabilities of language in the course of establishing reality,
which is its object. In other words, literature depends on
language.
Language is instantiated in various forms. Here, it is
externalized language (e-language). What a speaker knows
about language is internalized language (i-language). This is
represented in the mind/brain, Chomsky (3). More
elaborately, Carnie (4) explains:
… when linguists talk about Language (or i-
language), they are generally talking about the
ability of humans to speak any (particular)
Eme & Mbagwu: African Languages and African Literature
116
language. Some people (most notably Noam
Chomsky) also call this the Human Language
Capacity. Language (written with a capital L) is
the part of the mind or brain that allows you to
speak, whereas language (with a lower case l)
(also known as e-language) is an instantiation of
this ability (like French or English).
The point here is that there is a difference between language
and a language. English, Igbo, Hausa, Spanish, Russian,
Chinese, Kiswahili, Urhobo, Ewe etc are instantiations of
language and when we state that literature depends on
language, we mean any one of the languages or any one of
the languages of the world. This is why it is possible to talk
about literature in English, literature in Igbo, literature in
Urhobo, literature in Ibibio, literature in Ewe etc or more
broadly literature in African languages, literature in European
languages etc.
However, literature in a language is a shallow
representation of what literature is. This is because the life of
a people is embedded in their literature (Ukpai and Orji).
May we note that life as used by Ukpai and Orji refers to the
cultural values of the people. This and more is indicated by
Obi, “Literature has become an important means of
understanding and interpreting human beings and aspects of
society such as politics, religion, economics, social conflicts,
class struggle and human condition”. In other words, in
talking about literature two factors are essential, a language
and a human society that speaks the language, where the
language is the medium of expression and the society, the
provider of beliefs and manners which are expressed. In this,
it is possible to talk about English literature, Ewe literature,
Kiswahili literature, Tamil literature, Igbo literature or
UJAH: Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities Vol. 12 No. 1, 2011
117
broadly African literature, European literature, Asian
literature, American literature etc.
This paper focuses on African literature. Particularly,
it attempts at assessing the extent to which African languages
are involved in African literature. Indices of the assessment
are more of Nigerian. In the sections below, the assessment is
presented. Also, the importance of African languages in
African literature is discussed and factors responsible for
inadequate utilization of the languages in African literature
are given and discussed. Recommendations to change the
situation are proffered. They are followed by conclusion.
African Literature and the Language Issue
African literature had been predominantly oral up to the 19th
Century when attempts to put some African languages into
written forms began considerably (Ukpai and Orji). The
attempts became more productive in the 20th Century. For
instance, the earliest Igbo novels, Omenk and Ala Bingo
were published within 1905 1909 (Nwadike). The attempts
however dwindled towards the mid-20th Century. The reason
for this stemmed from the acceptance of foreign languages by
Africans in attending to almost all their affairs. This is
evident in Bamgbose (78). He comments, “Nigerians have
learnt to adore, and perhaps overestimate the value of a
foreign tongue”.
The overestimation of the value of foreign tongues is
rather overwhelming in Africa today. Mbagwu and Obiorah
point out that there is hardly any African country in which an
indigenous language plays an official role completely. In
their words, “What exist are African countries that have
indigenous languages standing with exoglossic languages as
official languages. Kenya and Tanzania are evidence.
Nigeria is another.” With this situation, African languages
have not striven well in literature. In fact, in the 1960s there
Eme & Mbagwu: African Languages and African Literature
118
was heated argument over the appropriate language of
African literature. While a few argued that African languages
were suitable for African literature, many argued in the
contrary. The 1962 Conference of African writers was a
demonstration of this.
Wali was the voice of those who were pro-African
literature in African languages while Achebe was understood
to be anti-African languages in African literature. Wali, in his
criticism of the 1962 Conference of African writers, explains,
He is not to discredit those writers who have
achieved much in their individual rights within
an extremely difficult and illogical situation. It is
to point out that the whole uncritical acceptance
of English and French as the inevitable medium
for educated African writing is misdirected.
Wali’s position, as his words show, is that African
languages should not be underestimated and relegated to an
irrelevant status to the exaltation of exoglossic linguistic
norms. Hence, he comments, “ ... until these writers and their
western midwives accept the fact that true African literature
must be written in African languages, they would be merely
pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility,
uncreativity, and frustration”.
Achebe’s essay, The African writer and the English
Language, in every respect is pro-African literature in foreign
languages. Ezenwa-Ohaeto (102), in reviewing the essay
explains,
Achebe points to the issue of the confusion of
values … He touches on the linguistic question,
submitting that ‘those who can do the work of
extending the frontiers of English so as to
accommodate African thought patterns must do
UJAH: Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities Vol. 12 No. 1, 2011
119
it through their mastery of English and not out
of innocence’.
Achebe’s position here predicates on his view, “you
cannot cram African literature in a small, neat definition. I do
not see African literature as one unit but as associated units –
in fact, the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures
of Africa”.
The foregoing reveals the extent to which African
languages are involved in African literature, even though it
seems the disagreement has disappeared. Indeed, the number
of novels, plays, and poems turned out by Africans in English
and French on a yearly basis is far more than the number of
such works turned out in African languages. In Nigeria for
instance, while there is a commendable production of literary
works in Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, particularly, because of
their regional official status, there is absence or negligible
presence of such works in the myriad of other languages in
Nigeria.
The Importance of African Literature in her Languages
Literature is a reflection of the past of a people and a
projection of their aspiration for the future (Duvignand, 67).
In other words, its task is keeping the collective imagination
of a society alive such that its members will be able to
channel their energies to communal social construction
(Caudwell, 145).
The people who are pro-African literature in foreign
languages will find some support in the above. This is
because the African novels, plays and poems in English or
French in particular entail the reflection of the life of African
people and their collective imagination. However, they miss
the point expressed earlier concerning the difference
between, say, English literature and literature in English.
Eme & Mbagwu: African Languages and African Literature
120
English literature is about the English people in their
language while literature in English is about any people, say,
Yoruba or Hausa people in the English language. In other
words, the people’s identity is incomplete.
According to Dathome (1),
Literature in the written vernacular languages of
Africa provides an imaginative and essential link
with unwritten indigenous literature; this
literature indicates the adaptability of oral
tradition in that through the written vernacular
literature the oral tradition expresses its
versatility and diversity.
Dathome is talking about a veritable means of the
preservation of oral tradition and this is writing in
vernaculars. African oral tradition cannot be preserved if
foreign languages are adopted for African literature. In fact,
as African oral traditions die, African languages and culture
follow (Nwadike, 18).
Wali comments that literature is the exploitation of
language. Obi supports this. In her words, “Literature
encourages the use of language not only for oral
communication, but also for discourse within the community
the creative writers have the very important duty of
promoting the use of languages through creating imaginative
literature unit”. The point here is that the fear of cramming
African literature in a small neat definition as expressed by
Achebe has led most Africans to exploit foreign languages,
promoting their use. The effect of this is non-development
and underdevelopment of African languages: a situation that
classifies them into the different levels of language
endangerment as identified by Wurm. That is, some of them
are potentially endangered; some, endangered; some,
UJAH: Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities Vol. 12 No. 1, 2011
121
seriously endangered; some, terminally endangered; some
others, dead or extinct.
Overall, the importance of African literature in her
languages includes defining the complete identity of African
people and upholding and preserving it. Again, it will provide
the facility that will allow the expression of the versatility
and diversity of African oral tradition. By this, the African
oral tradition will be preserved. The preservation will affect
the life span of African languages and culture. Lastly, it will
serve as a locus for the development of African languages
and the promotion of their use.
Factors Responsible for the Underutilization of African
Languages in Literature
A serious factor emerging from the previous section is
undeveloped and underdeveloped African languages. Writers
cannot write in languages that have not been developed to
have a written form, or languages that have not been
developed to the level at which they could be used in
literature.
Government policies that could encourage the use of
African languages in African literature are absent. For
instance, no African language is the only official language in
any African country. African languages that are official are
regional. This is the case of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba in
Nigeria. Truly, Kiswahili is a functional national language in
Tanzania. However, its role is limited to trade (Mbagwu and
Obiorah). Moreover, there is no African country where a
credit pass in an African language is a criterion for promotion
in the civil service, admission to a university or employment.
With this situation, African languages will not be maximally
utilized in literature.
Complex linguistic situation is a very serious factor.
Heine and Nurse cite Grimes as putting the number of
Eme & Mbagwu: African Languages and African Literature
122
African languages at 2035. It is claimed that this number is
not fixed since some African languages are still being
discovered and others with few speakers are disregarded.
What this means is that African languages exceed the given
number. This situation is possibly responsible for the lack of
government policies that could encourage the use of African
languages in literature. Mbagwu and Obiorah capture the
situation thus, “Perhaps, because every African country is
multilingual
1
, there is a convenient resort to exoglossic
languages to douse the flame of overt or covert disagreement
from the choice of one indigenous language over another”.
Besides, this factor has an implication for the non-
development or underdevelopment of African languages.
To develop a language is capital intensive. It is
therefore difficult to develop all the languages of Africa. In
Nigeria alone, there are 505 indigenous languages (Udoh,
18). Out of this number, only the major languages, Hausa,
Igbo and Yoruba; and the main languages, Edo, Urhobo,
Izon, Fulfude, Igala, Ogoni, Ibibio, Efik etc have received
positive attention of varied degrees for development. More
than four hundred and fifty others are undeveloped or
underdeveloped. Literature in them is therefore impossible.
Commercial value of novels, plays and poetry books
written in African languages is infinitesimal compared to
such works written in English or French. Solarin cited in
Ezenwa-Ohaeto (119) reveals this in contending against the
support of Achebe for African literature in English, “It is
sickening reading Chinua Achebe defending English as our
lingua franca. I do not blame Achebe or any other Nigerian
novelist, taking the same stand. Their books are,
commercially speaking, necessarily written in English”.
May we note that the very low commercial value of
African literary works in African languages could have
something to do with African languages not being fully
UJAH: Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities Vol. 12 No. 1, 2011
123
official or national in African countries: definitely, the works
have small areas of distribution.
Illiteracy in the African languages is a major factor
that affects the commercial value of the literary works written
in the languages. Records have it that most African people
are illiterate in their own languages. Mbagwu corroborates
this using Igbo. With this situation, literary works written in
the languages will have negligible commercial value: people
will hardly buy them to read as they will not be able to read
them.
Recommendations for Optimal Utilization of African
Languages in Literature
The section above suggests certain recommendations.
However, recommendations not directly deductible from it
have been made.
i. Undeveloped African languages should be
developed and underdeveloped ones should be
fully developed to encourage writers to employ
them in creative writing.
ii. Literacy in the developed languages should be
pursued with vigour. This will enhance the
commercial value of literary works written in
them: a situation that will make more writers to
delve into the area.
iii. Policies that could encourage writing African
literature in African languages should be
formulated and implemented by government of
African countries. In fact, there is no harm in
making any developed African language an
official language in its domain of dominance in
any African country, making sure that people who
speak the language do not get government
employment or admission to institutions of higher
Eme & Mbagwu: African Languages and African Literature
124
learning etc if they are not literate in their
language.
iv. Million dollar prize awards should be instituted
for literary works in African languages. It is
unfortunate that there is the Nobel Prize and other
prizes awarded by foreign institutions for, of
course, literature in foreign languages and
Africans have won some of the prizes and are
encouraged to write more in the languages.
Indeed, if similar awards are instituted for African
literary works in African languages, people will
be encouraged to write in the languages.
v. African literary artists should be sensitized to see
the foreign languages as secondary languages.
Their works should appear first in African
languages and afterwards in the foreign
languages; not the other way round. Some African
writers attempted this. Unfortunately, they could
not continue. If they continued, African literature,
we believe, would have had a better definition.
vi. Publishing of literary works in African languages
should be subsidized by public and private
organizations. This will increase the number of
the works in the languages produced yearly. It will
also improve their standards. Particularly, writers
would stop producing novelettes as novels with
the reason that the cost of financing the publishing
is high and rests solely upon them.
Conclusion
African languages have been underutilized in African
literature. What exists more is African literature in foreign
languages. The argument in the 1960s over the appropriate
language for African literature achieved little or nothing.
UJAH: Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities Vol. 12 No. 1, 2011
125
Even more, the glaring importance of literature in the
language of its owners as we pointed out here has not
engendered any radical change. This paper has highlighted a
few of the factors responsible for the worrisome situation.
They include undeveloped and underdeveloped African
languages; absence of government policies that could
encourage writing African literature in African languages;
complex linguistic situation; commercial value of literary
works in African languages; and illiteracy in the languages.
Recommendations to handle the factors have been made. A
good number of them are clearly suggested by the factors.
The ones not clearly suggested by them are: million dollar
prize awards should be set up for literary works in African
languages; African literary artists should be sensitized to
write in their own languages before their works are translated
into foreign languages; and publishing of literary works in
African languages should be subsidized by public and private
organizations.
Indeed, African literature in foreign languages does
not define African literature adequately. Attempts should be
made to change the situation. Our recommendations could go
a long way in ensuring this.
Note
1. Mbagwu, D. U. ‘Complex linguistic situation and its
implications’ in Emejulu, Ify and Umezinwa,
Chukwuemenam (eds.) ‘Humanities for tertiary institutions’
(2009) argues that the complex linguistic situation describes
the existence of many languages in an area. This applies to
Nigeria and has so been used here. He restricts
multilingualism to its conventional meaning, the ability to
speak more than two languages, and identifies it as an
implication of complex linguistic situation. However,
Mbagwu and Obiorah have used multilingualism in the sense
Eme & Mbagwu: African Languages and African Literature
126
of complex linguistic situation and it is retained in direct
comments from them.
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... Some factors are responsible for this. Eme and Mbagwu (2011: 121) observe government policies that could encourage the use of African languages in African literature are absent. For instance, no African language is the only official language in any African country. ...
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Ufodu ndi Bekee anaghi ahuta emume odinaala Afrika, karisia nke ndi Igbo dika ejije niihina ha kwenyere na o gbasoghi usoro nke ndi ocha. Edemede a lebara anya iziputa mmereeme di n’ejije Igbo putara ihe na nke ndi Bekee iji karuo echiche a na-akpa nkata megide ejije Igbo ma nke odinaala ma nke edereede. Emume odinaala Igbo bu ntoala ejije Igbo, site n’agumagu ejije umu Igbo deere nd[ Igbo n’asusu Igbo emume odinaala niile d[ n’ime ha ziputara ejije n’ozuzu oke. Ebe emume odinaala ndi Igbo metutara obibi ndu ha, nkwenye na ekpemekpe ha, ndi odee n’ejije Igbo webatara odinaala ndi ahu n’ejije ha derela. OdInaala ndi ahu gunyere iti mmonwu, ichu nta, ikpoputa nwa, ikwa ozu, ichi ozo, igba ibe, alumdi, igba egwu na ndi ozoga. A choputara na odee denye ha n’agumagu ejije, kowaa etu e si eme ha n’ime ejije o dere, e jijee ya n’elu obom maobu nkwago ugboro ugboro wee hazie ya nke oma, ha aburula ejije zuru oke. Ejije bu mgbe obula e jijere ihe na-eme na ndu mmadu maobu nke nwereike mee n’uwa, n’ala mmuo maobu n’ala umuanumanu, ziputa ha n’elu nkwago maobu obom iji kpaa ndi mmadu obi uto maobu ndi mmadu e were noro oge. Ejije bu ijije ndu n’elu nkwago. N’ezie mmereeme ndi a, a turu anya putachara ihe n’agumagu a hooro dika: Njije, Nhazi, Mkparitauka, Agwa, Ndi nkiri, Isiokwu, Odidi, Akparamaagwa na Ejiji/Ekike. A tulere ejije mba uwa niile wee choputa na ha niile hiwechara isi n’odinaala ha. A na-atu alo ka ohanaeze mata na ejije Igbo niile e dere nke oma ziputara odinaala nd[ Igbo. Emume odinaala ndi Igbo bu ejije nwere nhazi na usoro e si emeputa ha ma buru ihe kacha mkpa gbasara ejije n’udi obula e si legara ya anya n’izu oke dika ejije.
Thesis
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Cette thèse apporte un éclairage esthétique sur un ensemble de romans polyphoniques du canon francophone contemporain. Des formes de féminisme autour du prophète de l’islam dans Loin de Médine d'Assia Djebar aux formes de l’individualisme dans un village guadeloupéen dans Traversée de la mangrove de Maryse Condé en passant par les voix multiples de la créolité dans Solibo Magnifique de Patrick Chamoiseau, ces romans sont engagés dans des stratégies littéraires novatrices. Or les études postcoloniales ont laissé dans l'ombre le travail des formes qui est pourtant le mode opératoire de la pensée littéraire. Il faut donc remédier à ces lacunes par une analyse narratologique et stylistique des techniques de représentation du discours et de la pensée. En dégageant les formes et les enjeux de la relation fascinante qui se joue entre la parole de l’autre et les voix narratives, notre thèse apporte une contribution attendue dans les études francophones autant que dans les théories narratives.Trois pensées majeures nourrissent cette recherche : d’abord le concept de contrepoint d’Edward Saïd, envisagé dans sa dimension dialogique, ensuite la vision sociale du langage chez Voloshinov/Bakhtine qui préside aux développements sur le dialogisme, enfin l’approche politique de la littérature de Jacques Rancière, qui donne un tout nouvel éclairage aux désormais traditionnels bénéfices de l’« estrangement ». C’est ainsi sans quitter la zone ténue où se rencontrent formes esthétiques et formes sociales que ce travail traverse les débats les plus actuels des études francophones.
Thesis
This work takes a look at the attitudes of African Americans and members of the Latino community, and provides a comparison regarding certain aspects of their perceptions concerning the languages prescribed to their respective ethnic groups. It begins by considering the concept of language and identity, covering topics discussed in other works on the subject. It attempts to prove language as one of the most important tools in negotiating identity. The second chapter covers the subject of language attitudes as a whole, from what attitude is and how language attitudes are manifested, to the various methods linguists use to determine what kinds of attitudes regard different languages and varieties. This chapter then leads into a comprehensive description of African American Vernacular English and Latino Englishes, and exists for the understanding of some of the linguistic discussions that take place during the interviews of chapter four. The study itself, which is presented in the final chapter, discusses the role of each ethnolect in the lives of the speakers as concerns their identities and how they perceive it (whether they consider it to be positive or negative). The research was carried out in an open-ended question type manner in interview form. In order to elicit responses from each speaker concerning the languages they speak, questions of discrimination, attitudes, perception and linguistic crossing were touched upon in the conversations with each participant.
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Language issue has been considered as a major problem to Africa. The continent has so many distinct languages as well as distinct ethnic groups. It is the introduction of the colonial languages that enable Africans to communicate with each other intelligibly: otherwise, Africa has no one central language. Among the colonial languages are English, French, Arabic and Portuguese which today serve as lingua franca in the mix of multiple African languages. Based on that, there is a serious argument among African critics about which language(s) would be authentic in writing African literature: colonial languages which serve as lingua franca, or the native indigenous languages. While some postcolonial African creative writers like Ngugi have argued for the authenticity and a return in writing in indigenous African languages, avoiding imperialism and subjugation of the colonisers, others like Achebe are in the opinion that the issue of language should not be the main reason in defining African literature: any languagecan be adopted to portray the lifestyles and peculiarities of Africans. The paper is therefore, designed to address the language debate among African creative writers. It concludes that although it is authentic to write in one’s native language so as to meet the target audience, yet many Africans receive their higher education in one of the colonial and/or European languages; and as such, majority do not know how to write in their native languages. Rather, they write in the imposed colonial languages in order tomeet a wider audience. Not until one or two major African languages are standardised, taught in schools, acquired by more than 80 per cent of Africans and used as common languages, the colonial languages would forever continue to have a greater influence in writing African literature. The paper recommendes that Africans should have one or two major African languages standardised, serving as common languages; also African literature should be written in both colonialand African languages in order to avoid the language debate by creative African writers.
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