The Undeniable Power of Words


As a lover of English, literature, and writing, I find beauty in words. As an avid writer, I find strength and power in words. However, as a lover of words, I truly understand how words and language can also possess a darker power—the power to hurt, maim, or destroy.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o depicts the power of language in his essay “The Language of African Literature.” Ngugi eloquently and aptly connects language and culture. He explains how critical language is in identity when he states, “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment. Indeed in relation to the entire universe” (Desai and Nair 143). In truth, language can tell us a lot about who we are–as individuals, as a community, as a society, as a world.

Specifically, Ngugi focuses on the language of African literature by inviting us, the reader, into stories of his past, including stories from his childhood, when he witnessed firsthand the changes that colonialism created in language. Ever so beautifully, Ngugi writes about his native language, Gikuyu (I apologize—I have no idea how to alter the letters), and how this language produced stories that served as lessons. He states the power of the words as follows, “We therefore learnt to value words for their meaning and nuances. Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning” (Desai and Nair 149). *Swoon* I don’t think I could have explained language any better myself. Language and spoken word was an essential part in Ngugi’s education. He states how language helped give him and his community a view of the world and how it created a sense of being one. Language and stories represented their identity as a community, as one, and it defined their culture. Of course, all of this drastically changed when colonialism plunged its grimy hands in Kenya’s pockets. Ngugi states, “The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture” (Desai and Nair 149). Colonialism sought to change the language, and in turn, the culture and identify of the Kenyan individuals. Kenyan children no longer received an education rich in their own culture, history, and identity, but instead were being force fed English. Colonialism instilled the ideas in these children that their native language and customs were bad and barbaric and that they should be humiliated to even speak their native language Gikuyu. Everything changed; “Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance” (Desai and Nair 150). As this was happening, the Kenyan children were being pulled further and further away from their culture, their language, and ultimately, their identity. This imposition was part of colonizers control over Kenyans, especially the youth. Colonization, here, sought to dominate the “metal universe of the colonized.” This affected “how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world” and ultimately controlled how the indigenous people defined themselves (Desai and Nair 153). The colonizers thrust the English language upon the Kenyans, seeking to create a “better” language, culture, and society.

Similarly, Derek Walcott expresses the colonial impact on his home, St. Lucia, and how a language attempted to overpower the native language and culture in his poem “A Latin Primer.” “A Latin Primer” follows the narrator from childhood to adulthood. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker of the poem reflects on the imposition of “imperial palms” that are over his Latin exams. As a boy, the speaker expresses the imposition of the Latin literature and methods of poetry, yet, ironically enough, he grows up to become a Latin teacher “in tweed and tie.” Here, Walcott expresses this beautiful realization in the speaker as he writes, “I watched the old words dry like seaweed on the page.” This likely represents the “drying up” and disappearing of the native, St. Lucian language, as Latin is overtaking. The speaker realizes the he is a hypocrite, watching his pupils “plunged in paper softly as porpoises.” He hated this oppressive teaching of Latin when he was a boy, and now that is exactly what he is doing to his young pupils. He describes his pupils as they “would die in dialect”, as if the imposition of Latin is killing the pupils and their voices (just as the speaker felt in the beginning of the poem!). So again, there is an indication of how an outside language, such as Latin or English, when imposed upon native people, chips away at their identity and culture.

Sir Salman Rushdie also discusses language and its associated issues in “’Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist” and “The Courter.” Rushdie argues that language can isolate, especially in the discussion and grouping of a ‘commonwealth literature.’ When discussing this, he shares that this creation of a subset of English literature, named Commonwealth literature, does more harm than good. Rather than creating a distinct category, he states that it creates a ‘ghetto.’ He further argues that “the creation of a false category [commonwealth lit] can and does lead to excessively narrow, and sometimes misleading readings of some of the artists it is held to include.” This is understandable and could happen to any category of literature, but it is harmful in that it does not allow for a full reading and dissection of a text, a full look into a literary genius, simply because of the misconceptions that are to be associated with a specific subcategory or category. The language of ‘Commonwealth literature’ and the categorizing by such terms is used to divide, Rushdie argues. HE states that it allows for what is considered to be Commonwealth literature to be swept under a rug and ignored as the focus shifts mainly on English literature.

In Rushdie’s “The Courter,” it becomes clear that the main family, from India, is in a culturally different place than their roots. The reader sees this through Abba’s confusion and lack of knowledge of the dominant language when he goes to the pharmacy to get baby supplies. Here, the reader sees how language differs across cultures, as some cultures may describe the end of the baby bottles as “nipples” while others describe them as “teats”(or something else). Certainly-Mary also presents a disconnect in language as she comes to be acquainted with The Courter. The Courter helps Mary discover a link between the two cultures she now possesses- that of where she now lives and that of where she came from- through teaching her chess. The Courter allows her to see the endless possibilities in chess, allowing her to essentially cross into his culture as well and be a bicultural being, saying, “It’s like going with him to his country, you know?” (Rushdie 195). Certainly-Mary is describing the cultural link that The Courter has helped her gain through chess. She is finally more free and happy, until the Courter is shot. It is at this moment that she realizes she needs to be back in her homeland of India. She has essentially lost faith, as the Courter, who once was able to culturally connect her to both of her cultures, is wounded and changes. Certainly-Mary feels alienated.

I think a driving point from these essays is the truth that a mixing of cultures can help enrich, as long as it is not a forceful imposition of culture, as it was during colonization. For example, Certainly-Mary is enriched by the culture she learns through The Courter and his lessons of chess. They do not ruin her, but instead help improve her as a human being. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o shares the (often unknown by the outer world) truth, “Africa actually enriches Europe” (Desai and Nair 163). Quite obviously, colonialism has buried these truths as they ruthlessly made indigenous people believe that they needed Europe to rescue them. It is interesting how powerful language can be in persuasion, in mental control, and in culture and identity.

As I reflect on this week’s reading, I am still in awe at the eloquent beauty of the writing and the thoughts they provoke. I absolutely loved Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s piece and the stories he share, as his stories are the epitome of who he is—both culturally and as a human being. Likewise, Derek Walcott’s brilliant use of metaphor opens up my eyes to the harmful effects of colonial education (which is something which I am gaining interest in due to my love for education!). Lastly, Rushdie’s writings have captured me. I want to end this week with a few lines from Rushdie’s “’Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist.”

He states,

“I think that if all English literature could be studied together, a shape would emerge which would truly reflect the new shape of the language in the world, and we could see that English Literature has never been in better shape, because the world language now also possesses a world literature, which is proliferating in every conceivable direction.”

The power of words has left me speechless.



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