Language in Post Colonial Worlds. An Intellectual and Cultural Decolonization

Academic Paper, 2021

12 Pages, Grade: 95


The Question of Language, intellectual and cultural decolonization in Post-colonial world.

The concern with cultural decolonization hails from different academic spheres, and as well as different geographical settings that either experienced European colonialism like in Africa, Asia or, from geographies with masses who were subjected to a forceful removal and enslavement and subsequently ferried from their indigenous homelands to Europe or America. To decolonize culture in this context primarily means, to liberate language, identity, and the intellectual constellation of the colonized communities from the colonial experience that some/many believe to have suppressed and subjugated their cultural identities. The desire for originality and authenticity was the driving force behind the minds of the writers whose concerns were to advocate for, or against, the foreign language in articulating the authenticity, originality, and the colonial experience of the colonized.

Over the years, a growing number of critics and writers have been divided between the need to maintain the colonizers' language- the language of slavery, and the need for a return to the local indigenous languages. Others, also responding to the challenges of cultural identities and intellectual liberation, have utilized a hybridized creole language crafted from a blending mixture of both the local and the foreign. The former, those in favor of foreign languages in cultural liberation purposes, Toni Morrison, speaking from within the context of the “New World”, in ‘ Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination’ writes “Iam interested in what prompts and makes possible of entering what one is estranged from.”1 Morison urges that English, the language of the master, can indeed be utilized by the colonized for liberation purposes. She suggests that English can be wrestled and deconstructed from its imperial past to suit the oppressor’s agenda.

Concurring with Morison, bell Hooks, also writing from the so-called “New World”, urges in ‘Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom’, that “In the mouth of black Africans in so-called New world, English was altered, transformed, and became a different approach.”2 She further urges that “learning English, learning to speak the alien tongue, was one way enslaved Africans began to reclaim their power within a context of domination.”3 To that effect, English language can be used by the oppressor as a tool for agency and self-realization.

Among the latter group, critics with a skeptical view of foreign language, Audre Lorde in her influential essay dealing with issues of racism and feminism, ‘The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House’ urges that it is impossible to solve problems of oppression working with the tools of a system of oppression. Lorde stresses the English language prioritizes white feminism against the black one. The enslaved she suggests will never be able to articulate their freedom in the Master’s language. As such, Lorde stresses, “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house”, (the tittle of her essay).

The third group of writers within this debate are those who approach the issue of cultural liberation from a hybridized perspective. What I refer to, borrowing Babha’s word the, “third space” of eclecticism and universality for both the local and the foreign as a resource for cultural strength and redemption. Derick Walcott, in ‘A far cry from Africa’ states, “Between this Africa and the English tongue I love” to implicitly express his acceptance for a hybridized creole language, emanating from a cocktail of the local languages and the English language for purposes of inscribing a unique Caribbean identity and, by extension encouraging a local cultural and intellectual liberation. To Walcott, the absence of historical authentic culture and language in the Caribbean calls for an acceptance of a hybridized language, the creole- even though Walcot himself never used this language in his writings. However, in other places in the New World, a hybridized form of English was altered, reinvented, and made to speak beyond the boundaries of resistance, as bell hooks tells us; the “enslaved black people took broken bits of English and made of them a counter-language. They put together their words in such a way that the colonizer had to rethink the meaning of the English language.”4 As such, the African Americans created a hybridized form of language with ruptured syntax, grammar, and style, which was subsequently used in writing, speech, music, etc. as a counter-hegemonic language of resistance.

Analogously, in Post-colonial Africa, the question at the center of debate on cultural liberation, and postcolonial writings, revolves around whether European languages – given the colonial and slave traces associated with the language – can be used to express the African experience and African identities correctly. In other words, can the colonized people in Africa use the languages of the colonizers without losing their indigenous identities/ or without enslaving and re-inscribing colonization on themselves? Is it possible to liberate in totality all the colonial traces of European languages incorporated within the colonized indigenous identities. Simultaneously can colonial languages be liberated from their ‘biased’ or ‘authoritative’ discourses and serve or promote the African authenticity and reality? Attempting to answer the grains of these questions shall be the main emphasis of discussion in the following pages.

Whereas some African writers criticize the usage of foreign languages and brand it as tools of colonial domination unfit to advocate an authentic African reality, others perceive it as a permanent feature of the colonized world, which, if utilized correctly can be turned into an advantage of the oppressor. Among the former category is Ngugi Wa Thiong’o who after decades of using English as a medium of intellectual resonance took a critical stance towards it. His position was that, he “lost interest in the use of English Language”5 and, subsequently bid “farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings”6 for the sake of pan – African linguistic liberation.

To begin with, it should be pointed out that, for Ngugi, the idea or the notion of an intellectual, more so an African intellectual as an exemplar of the masses seems polemic and disturbing. To him, such an idea if scrutinized properly propagates a nuanced proposition that renders superiority to western educated, mostly English-speaking intellectuals as a unique category that shapes the consciousness of the society than the intellectuals who speak French, Spanish, Arabic or the African local languages. Thus in one way or the other, this idea entails inferiority which particularly subdues the contribution produced in the indigenous languages. For that purpose, “Ngũgĩ has resisted the African public intellectual’s role as leader or exemplar in favor of a model of the intellectual as a grassroot member of the masses”7 to authentically articulate their African reality and experiences using- not limited to- their indigenous vocabulary and languages.

To Ngugi, the real problem surrounding foreign languages- of which himself as an intellectual was very cautious about, for fear of it alienating him from the masses- rests upon the argument that the languages are tools of foreign culture and dominance, that ,“alienates [Ngugi] from [expressing] the values of his mother tongue, or from the language of the masses.”8 To put it in simple words, detaches him from reconstituting the authenticity and purity of his culture, language, and the people which subsequently isolates his ‘thought-process’. Because of that, Ngugi calls for the rejection of foreign languages on grounds that they are unable to redeem, liberate and as well as reconstitute African cultures. However, Ngugi’s assertion here begs a fundamental question of whether culture can necessarily be transmitted or carried by language and if, for that matter, the negation of foreign languages from the African context entails/shall lead to the reconstitution of an African cultural purity based on a purely African ‘thought process'. From the onset, what seems obvious is “that any language is capable of carrying any culture just as any culture can carry any language.”9 That is, languages have the ability to borrow, assimilate new words, values from other cultures and incorporate them within their lexicon vocabulary. It is a normative way of how cultures and languages inter-relate- English language borrowed from Latin, Arabic, Indian, etc. and the visa versa. For instance, the medical terms that we encounter today in English are mostly Latin in origin, which also have roots from Ibn Sinna’s book “The canon of medicine’. In North Africa, many African Cultures assimilated the Arabic language, cultures, and the vice versa.

BBC focus on Africa vividly elaborates Ngugi’s stance and position in his recent interview after accepting the prestigious Catalonia International Prize in Gikuyu 2020. He stresses

“I'm a believer of the equality of languages even if spoken by five people. I am opposed to the hierarchy of languages. Gikuyu my language is no less or higher than any language. [The same applies to English, French, and Portuguese] It has all the potentialities that other languages have. What we are proposing is the democracy of language.” 10

The keywords that call for attention from the above excerpt are ‘equality of languages’ and democracy of languages’. And this also begs another question. Could this in any way infer that Ngugi is retracting from his earlier stance against foreign languages, particularly English, to a position of acceptance and universality of all languages? After all, a democracy of languages entails the acceptance of linguistic differences, or does this proposition actually supports Ngugi’s earlier stance?

Certainly, I believe the ‘democracy of language’ Ngugi proposes re-emphasizes his earlier stance but with a slight shift from an obsession of the local languages to a recognition of an equal language system, and a need to be cognizant with formation of language hierarchical systems in the world. Central to this, and within the context of his writings, I believe that his message was to reiterate nuancedly to the African writer, that his role, or the role of African literature, must be inscribed on solid principles of African linguistic medium expressing African reality. Because, according to him, African local languages, specifically Kiguyu, “has all the potentialities that other languages have”. By doing that, the African writer would have liberated both the linguistic and the literary imagination constructed by the colonial languages.

Toni Morrison, subtly concurring with Ngugi on the issue of constructed colonial literary imagination, but speaking from another geography, the so-called “New World”, contends that writes are the most sensitive, most intellectually archaic, most representative among the artist thus their power rests in their ability to imagine what is not the self and to familiarize the strange through their languages. Therefore in her ‘Playing in the Dark’ her purpose as she states is “to look for the clarifications about the invention, and effects of Africanism’ in American literature”,11 that has through subtext created a “racial language rather than a racist language.”12 By racial language, Morrison means the indirect, inferred, imagined, and the subtext meaning inferred from the text to the reader embedded within the literary discourse. Morrison urges that within the context of American literature, the representation of African Americans in Literature has shaped American national identity. That is, the racist conception of black Americans serves as the “foil against which white America defines itself.”13 Again, this means that within the lines of American Literature there is a tendency that allows white American identity to define itself against its supposed opposite, the Africanism. Thus, her work was an “investigation” into how the literary “imaginative uses this fabricated presence serve”14 in constructing a racial inequality in the present American literary imagination and psyche. Morrison’s work resonates with Fanon’s stance in Black skin white masks, where he deals with the psychology of colonialism. To Fanon, through the usage of hegemonic discourse, the white-dominated society managed to establish and maintain patterns of subjugation through an all-encompassing propagation of negative racial stereotypes that created subjugated inferior Africans who gradually internalized the negative stereotypes of their skin color subsequently forcing them to emulate the powerful whites. In doing that, the colonized embarked on, self-hating one another based on skin color.15 Such an “epidermalization” as Fanon coins it, is “evident in African American community” and constructed within the hegemonic literary discourse and language.16 To that effect, Morrison’s Playing in dark intends to explore such a racial language within the literacy imagination for both the white and Black America. She proposes to the creators of American literature that, the content of academic courses should be reformed, and the teaching process should be designed to include the perspectives of ethnic minorities against racial languages, which, ‘internalizes inferiority’ within the ethnic minorities.

Morrison’s position subtly concurs with Ngugi as I mentioned earlier. That is, both address and call upon literary critics to liberate language from racial nuances of hegemonic discourse or colonial hierarchical systems of representation either by a means of a ‘reform’ as Morrison states or a ‘democracy of languages’ within languages as Ngugi contends. On a similar note, even Ngugi was concerned with curriculum reform at African universities.


1. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: ‘whiteness and the literary imagination( Vintage Books: New York, 1993), 32

2. bell Hooks, Teaching to Transgress: ‘Education as the practice of freedom’ (Routledge: New York, 1994), 170.

3. Ibid.

4. bell Hooks, Teaching to Transgress: ‘Education as the practice of freedom’ (Routledge: New York, 1994), 171.

5. Ngugi Wa Thiongo, ‘Interviews with Writers of the Post-colonial World’, edit, Feroza Jusawalla and Reed (Dasenbrock, 2006), 25.

6. Thomas, J, Lynn. Chinua Achebe and the Politics of narration: Envisioning Language, (Palgrave Macmillan: United States, the 2017), 79.

7. Oliver Lovesey. The post-colonial Intellectual: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in Context, (Routledge: New York, 2016), 09.

8. Kwaku Darko, ‘Language and culture in African Postcolonial Literature’ CLCWeb: comparative literature and culture’ 2.1(2000):

9. Ibid.

10. Audio-video ‘BBC Focus on Africa’ last modified December 5, 2020.

11. Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, (United States: Vintage Books, 1993), 15.

12. Karina Jakubowicz and Adam Perchar. An Analysis of Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, (Macat International Ltd: London, 2017), 29.

13. Ibid.25.

14. Ibid.

15. Mahshid Mirmasoomi and Farshid Nowrouzi, Blackness, Colorism, and Epidermalization of Inferiority in Zora Neale Hurston’s Color Struck: A Fanonian Reading of the Play, Khazar Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Volume 17, Number 4, 2014

16. Ibid.

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Language in Post Colonial Worlds. An Intellectual and Cultural Decolonization
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language, post, colonial, worlds, intellectual, cultural, decolonization
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Ahmed Musa (Author), 2021, Language in Post Colonial Worlds. An Intellectual and Cultural Decolonization, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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