Language in African Literature

On New Year's Day 2009, I stood in a Borders Bookstore on Fair Oaks Blvd, Sacramento, for thirty minutes, reading an interview the Paris Review did with Chinua Achebe in 1994. It's a brilliant interview, dealing with the usual arguments we have come to expect from Achebe: what prompted him to write, racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the birth and importance of the Africa Writers' Series, the issues of writers and audience, advice to budding writers, and how creative writing should not be taught, etc. It was a good Achebe refresher, which one needs once in a while, but I realized that Achebe's works had not been translated into his native language. When asked if he would consider doing so, he answered (then) that what was labelled his native language would not be able to carry the experience of his fiction because its standard version was not a representation of the full potential of the language. His argument was that the standardized version of the language was put together for his people by an Anglican missionary, who helped impose one dialect to be the standard of all the others.

This got me thinking again about the state of what we call standard written Shona as an invention by missionaries who were not native speakers of the language. I realize that some of these people who did this language did mean well, the work was their love, they were linguists building careers and ptting their skills to good use. I studied Shona to the university level, and I was nervous, starting at A - Level, about how we had to use English to analyze Shona literature. Then all the Shona grammar I learned was explained in English. So if you were good in English, learning Shona literature and grammar became easier. I remember one essay I wrote in Form 6 in which I was analyzing a Shona poem. The teacher used it as an model to the whole class, but I remember one student commenting that the analysis wasn't that great but the English analytical terms were "well-executed". I appreciated his critique then, and we had a talk about how I could perhaps try to do the same analysis in Shona (There was an option of using Shona too), but he said that wasn't necessary.

Then when I went to the University of Zimbabwe I studied Shona, English, and Linguistics. Initially, I had been offered the option to study Romance Languages with Eng/Linguistics/Afrikaans, but I was allowed to substitute the Romance Languages with Shona, which had well-known professors like Solomon Mutswairo, Emmanuel Chiwome and others I wanted to work with. It was easy dumping Afrikaans then, the language of Apartheid. (Of course, later, I would discover that as budding linguist, any exposure I could get to any language would benefit me). The Shona curriculum was great, but the use of English intensified. One professor, I think it was Mberi, amazed us with his command of Shona as he explained Shona grammar concepts, but most of us appreciated the ability to continue using English. Of course, I decided not to major in Shona and focused on English and Linquistics, but the two years I studied Shona left me with mixed feelings about this approach of using English to do literary and grammatical analyses. I was happier analyzing the language through Linguistics, where we were also looking at phonological, syntactical, lexical, and semantic patterns of different languages, including Esperanto, that made-up language of linguists.

So now, looking back, I often wonder if one day  we as Shona scholars will come up with a new alphabet for Shona, or if that's an extreme proposal, at least an approach to the study of the language that utilizes its different dialects, perhaps designing a better standardized version of the language.

As a teacher of English in the United States, I have developed an appreciation of the value of my own language, and I have continued to write poetry and fiction in Shona. I have noticed that my Shona has moved away from the fake standard imposed in secondary school; it is now predominantly Karanga (I grew up in Zvishavane), with traces of Manyika (my brother married a Munyika woman), some words of Ndau (I lived in Chimanimani for four months), sizable phrases of Zezuru (all those years in Harare), and five words of Korekore (three of my friends are from Mount Darwin and I once dated a woman from Madziwa).
I don't know how publishers would react to my cocktail of Shona phraseology, but the works make me happy. This, of course, is not a call to run away from English for a preference for mother tongue; I am suggesting here that we need to appreciate our languages on their terms, or, more importantly, on terms we have put in place. It's important realize that English remains part of these African language, decorated with the local color of each African community: that's something to celebrate, and one great way in which a language expands. We kill the other languages if we teach them in English, whereas we should enrich them by finding ways to make them accomodate, even steal, structures from other languages (as English has done successfully).
I applaud those who have already begun to write their blogs and emails in Shona or other African languages. Now, more needs to be done to make our languages more desirable in Africa and beyond. One day there can be a Things Fall Apart in Shona, and I have a title: Pakaondomoka Zvinhu. Imagine House of Hunger in Shona, or Bones, or An Elegy for Easterly, or Harare North, etc.

It's time we think again about what we mean when we say we are arguing about language in African literature. Granted, each writer is free to writer in any language that inspires them, the one in which they feel comfortable with, the one they prefer as the tool of their trade. But it is important to understand that some of the most prevalent obstacles in African literature have to do with language, where either the English some writers use, for instance, may never seem up to par with the expectation of readers, so that much what could be judged on the writing dwells to long on the command of language alone, as if that was the only important passport for the success of African writing; on the other extreme, a work's merit may be attributed only to language use, as opposed to other key elements that help a story reach its full potential. In other words, excessive time might be spent on "proving" that we too can use English well, a stance that always presents us as the other, as opposed to the fact that we can produce art that anchors on language just as it anchors on other craft elements. It might seem that the only thing we craft is language, but we also craft dialogue, characterization, voice, plot, narrative drive, and a number of other tools with which our writing can be rendered and judged.


Maureen Moore said…
Thanks for the post. If you haven't already read it, Momaday's _House Made of Dawn_ is really good too. It captures the tensions for 20th century native Americans in realistic terms. My favorite is the way in which Momaday uses traditional ceremonies like the Blessingway Chant to "heal" the protagonist.
Maureen Moore said…
Thanks for the post. If you haven't already read it, Momaday's _House Made of Dawn_ is really good too. It captures the tensions for 20th century native Americans in realistic terms. My favorite is the way in which Momaday uses traditional ceremonies like the Blessingway Chant to "heal" the protagonist.
Thanks, Maureen.

I know your comment goes with the previous post which refers to Marmon Silko and native American literature. You mentioned Momaday at Mathilde's house in June 2008 and a few weeks later I found a copy at the Goodwill. It's sitting somewhere on my shelf and will be read sometime this year.
Anonymous said…
Nhai VaSigauke

I am sorry it has taken me this long to find this site. You are certainly quite prolific with your ideas and thank you for that.

You are not alone in your comments responding to the encounter with Chinua Achebe. I sense that we have to take our languages by the scruff of the neck and take them on. It is not sufficient to hope that they will develop. The unconscious evolutionary part has happened [a written script, some written material for study, some degree of standardisation, a literate and educated language public ], now the conscious must take over. This involved expanding the vocabulary and the domains of language use. Vocabulary will expand with translations and new modern writing. Domain-use will expand through making it possible to be eloquent and acceptable for everyone to speak in their African language.

I believe at Masvingo State University they experimented with teaching Shona in Shona and Ndebele in Ndebele. However, a debate broke out about whether such graduates would be able to find a role.

I believe part of what is lacking is a medium, such as a journal, in Shona / Ndebele etc [in the case of Zimbabwe] where intellectual material can be published and debated. Such a forum would allow a range of people [journalists, educationists, scientists etc ]to publish and debate and develop those words and sentence structures for the modern era.

I had a dialogue with Prof Chimhundu following the publication of his 'Duramazwi reUrapi neUtano' two or so years ago. As a medical doctor myself I was very interested in finding a way of making medicine accessible in Shona to ordinary people. During my Presidency of he Zimbabwe Anaesthetic Association we had tried, in 2001-2, to develop information material for patients in Shona , Ndebele and Nyanja. The process was slow and cumbersome because people disagreed on the word-use but it was a good learning exercise. With the political crisis people dispersed out of the country and the momentum was lost. I have collected some anatomical terms in Shona and tried to analyse them to see how they can be used in a different way to make them useful in a scientific way. For examnple, the words that refer to 'skeleton' in Shona are : mupapata, murangwanda, muzongozo.
To the best of my knowledge these words do not get more specific than skeleton. However, anatomical science requires that the skeleton [vertebral column], be disagregated into individual bones of the spine [vertebra]. We could take the word 'muzongozo' out of the general terms for skeleton and use it for vertebral column only, each vertebra becomes a 'zongozo' and plural for 'muzongozo' is 'mizongozo' while several vertebrae are 'mazongozo'.
Whether or not this is a worthwhile exercise I do not know but if our languages are not going to pass away we need to do something. I started something I called 'Durazivo' [encyclopaedia] to try and explore some of these ideas. You will find at my blog Faraitose's Blog

Finally, you may know about something called the 'translation movement' in history. Essentially, the King of Bhagdad [yes Bhagdad in Iraq] in ~700 AD hired people to translate all books of knowledge they could find from anywhere in the world into Arabic. The consequences of that action we still live with today : the number system we have today 0 to 10 and algebra [from India] was studied together with geometry [from the Greeks], the decimal point in counting resulted from this fusion, the Arabic script itself was permanently modified and many other benefits for all humanity in science and arts.

Sorry this has turned out as long as it has....but hey....thought rush !

Farai Madzimbamuto
Maita VaMadzimbamuto, chiremba.

Your suggestions of a Durazivo are powerful, especially in reference to that resource as a storage system from which we can draw words for use in all occasions. Perhaps the internet can be used to reach out to people (speakers of the language) with knowledge of words that may be disappearing. I would be interested in fusing concepts and words from different languages with those in Shona, to enrich further.
Unknown said…
Your essay is well written and captivating.I do agree to your call for change of African literatures,what do you think about those children that are brought up in urban areas and they do not understand the local languages.How will the literature benefit them?Africans are used to European languages,some have made them their local languages;I think we should pursue teaching the literature even though in European languages and persist.I am not sure of the benefit of the translation and use of our native languages,I wonder how we shall share our ideas with the outside word if we cling to our native languages.A literature student.

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