The Question of a Post-Colonial Culture:
Language, Ideology and Cultural Essentialism


Shina Afolayan

University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria

Copyright © 2002 by Shina Afolayan, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. In an article titled "What is African Literature? Ethnography and Criticism," Kadiatu Kanneh gives an inkling of what the essay is about by prefacing it with a quotation from Nuruddin Farah's book, Gifts. For Farah. "To know how I am and how I have fared, you must understand why I resist all kinds of domination including that of being given something" (qtd. Kanneh 69). The gift in this context is the European languages given to African societies at colonization. Kanneh's article maps out the issue of how the rubric 'African literature' relates to or reflects national boundaries, cultural definitions or racial histories. Should the reading and criticism of African literature be defined by a specific cultural, philosophical or literary theory or by a 'universal' anthropology of literature? In other words, how do 'Africa' and literature coincide in discourse analysis?

  2. Kwaku Korang and Stephen Slemon have a similar concern about 'Africa'. In their essay, "Post-colonialism and Language," they contend that the ambiguity of the term 'post-colonialism' (and other political terms: imperialism, colonialism, decolonisation, anti-colonialism, neo-colonialism, etc.) hides a significant and rigorous debate about the cultural politics of language and its uses. The theoretical insistence on language has occurred, they believe, for two main reasons: "Partly this is because almost every theory of culture puts language at the centre of debates about power, ideology, subjectivity, and agency; partly this is because the question of language, in the cultures formerly colonised by Europe, is of necessity overdetermined and bound to tensions between traditionalism and modernity, or between freedom and social determination, in their many guises and articulations" (Korang and Slemon 249).

  3. This essay is also a contribution to the ongoing critical inquiry and debate about the language of 'Africa' after European colonialism and about the proper place of language and literature in a post-colonial Africa struggling to find its place within the modern context of cultural globalism. This debate also interrogates African cultural nationalism, which arose from the Eurocentric tragic trilogy of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. For some African scholars -- i.e., Wiredu, Bodunrin, Irele -- quite contrary to the euphoria that followed the dismantling of colonial structures at independence, it is not yet uhuru for African cultures. In as much as language is necessary for thought, and the latter is of import in concretising cultural identities, then Africa has neglected a more crucial deconstruction, the decolonisation of the mind seen as the disestablishment of the European languages that have contributed immensely to the colonial conquest.

  4. For some of this is enough justification for a virulent bolekaja ('come down let's fight') criticism that brings European egocentric assessment of 'Africa' down into a 'corrective tussle.' Apart from Chinweizu, Jemie Onwuchekwa and Ihechukwu Madubuike, who employed the term bolekaja in their book, Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, among the "outraged touts for the passenger lorries of African literature" (Chinweizu et al. xiv) must be included Mazisi Kunene, Obiajunwa Wali, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. For them, language brings to bear the issues of political hegemony, domination and power on the issue of self-determination. Conceding to an uncritical employment of European language in the evolution of the African literary corpus presupposes a tacit agreement with the view of African literature as 'a minor appendage in the mainstream of European literature.' The dangerous implication of this view is that Africa's freedom can only be truly original when bounded within the limits imposed by their colonial past (see Korang and Slemon 253).

  5. More broadly, they contend that working within the confines of a 'world language' could only be a capitulation to European cultural standards crudely disguised as 'universalism.' This is only a short step to the political use of language in shaping the sociopolitical consciousness of the users. For instance, Ngugi's critique centres on the political nature of language and the role it plays in the process of cultural alienation. European languages played a formidable part in exiling Africans from their languages and in the denial of their collective self -- more especially, in binding them as a continent to a cultural and cognitive structure of dependence which neo-colonialism and imperialism perpetuate. The English language, as Ngugi sees it, cannot lay any claim to a cultural or political innocence; every part of it is shot through with the imperialistic ethos. Decolonisation can only be meaningful if European languages are overthrown in our attempt to shift the centre away from the West. He writes:
    Although present in all areas, economic and political and so on, the Eurocentric basis of looking at the world is particularly manifest in the field of languages, literature, cultural studies and in the general organisation of Literature departments in universities in many parts of the globe. . . . Eurocentrism is most dangerous to the self-confidence of third World peoples when it becomes internalized in their intellectual conception of the universe. (Moving the Centre xvii)

  6. The bolekaja critics see the solution to this problem as a fairly easy one. A truly African literature firstly has to be disentangled from within the framework of 'euromodernist criticism.' Secondly, there is the need for African languages to make the African literary corpus true to its 'African-ness.'
    African literature is an autonomous entity separate and apart from all other literatures. It has its own traditions, models and norms. Its constituency is separate and radically different from that of the European or other literatures. And its historical and cultural imperatives impose upon it concerns and constraints quite different, sometimes altogether antithetical to the European. These facts hold true even for those portions of African literature which continue to be written in European languages. (Chenweizu et al. 4 note 6)
    The strategy is one that therefore points in the direction of cultural particularism which opposes European 'universalism.' This attitude invokes a traditionalism that assumes a notion of an organic (cultural) unity of Africans who, in the face of European culture-centredness, can always retreat into their own past of 'pure coherence.' One begins to see the politics of otherness as a consequence of the colonial encounter between the West and the Third World.

  7. Having long conceded the European binary construct of 'the same' and the non- European 'other,' Afrocentrism became a similar ideological construct that reversed this racial oppositional consciousness à la Diop and Senghor; in its context, Europe became the 'other' that must be defined relative to Africa. In other words, Afrocentrism became 'an anti-racial racialism.' In the spirit of cultural difference and the struggle within the contested space of 'the traditional' and 'the modern,' 'Africa' (a term which became unwittingly caught up in a fallacious argument which takes 'African' or 'African culture' as the rubric for a collective philosophical, spiritual and traditional consciousness) is defined in terms of a traditional representation that is essentially separate from the West and its modernity.

  8. One argument that would seem to dent the bolekaja critics' contention is the fact that cultural plurality and interdependence characterize the modern world. The implication is then that while the world is progressively becoming homogenous technologically, economically and culturally, African cultures are on the verge of retrogression, an irrelevant insularity that could only end in the asphyxiation of these cultures. This, to be sure, is not what these critics hope for. In Kanneh's interpretation, Ngugi's cultural essentialism is amenable to the imperative of the cultural flux and dynamism that mark the global world. For her, Ngugi disallows the reading that sees his essentialism as embarking on an inexorable retreat into, and a longing for, an African past, a mystique of pure coherence. Rather, his argument insists "instead that Africa take its place alongside (rather than behind) Europe in a fair exchange of cultural gifts" (Kanneh 72). And this can only become achievable when it is on the basis of significant, discrete identities. Cultural essentialism is the theoretical architectonic framework for an African identity, and, Ngugi argues, its starting point must be the adoption of African languages. African cultures are in a 'quest for relevance' which begins only through the effective utilisation of African languages in "the search for a liberating perspective within which to see ourselves clearly in relation to ourselves and to other selves in the universe" (Decolonizing the Mind 87).

  9. I have argued elsewhere that Ngugi (and indeed the bolekaja critics) placed too much emphasis on the significance and trajectory of language in arriving at his linguistic traditionalism (Alofayan 240-57). I will stretch this argument by contending that in bolekaja criticism there is a conflation of two important senses of 'language' which gave it its thesis of a cultural difference from the West and hence blurs some important features of language. If those two senses are separated, then it would be shown that Ngugi's abandonment of the English language is needless (I'm not sure if 'abandonment' is the right word since Ngugi was reported to be at the City University of New York where English would be a must for him), and significantly that the domestication or appropriation of European languages can be a fruitful venture for Africa if its incorporation into the conversation of cultures is to be meaningful.

  10. In the writing of the cultural essentialists, language has a very close and intimate relationship with culture. This association turns on the language/culture interchangeability in Ngugi's work. He asserts that "language as culture is the collective memory bank of a people's experience in history" (Decolonising the Mind 15); in other words, it carries the burden of a particular, evolving culture and becomes the people's expression of their accumulated experience to the point that it becomes almost indistinguishable from the culture that defines its growth, articulation and transmission to other generations. This interchangeability betrays Ngugi's longing for an ideal: the isomorphism between a particular language and a certain (cultural) reality. This attitude is contained in the Whorfian 'expressive theory of language.'[1]
    [P]articular languages embody distinctive ways of experiencing the world, of defining what we are. That is, we not only speak in particular languages, but more fundamentally become the person we become because of the particular language community in which we grew up -- language, above all else, shapes our distinctive ways of being in the world. Language, then, is the carrier of a people's identity, the vehicle of a certain way of seeing things, experiencing and feeling, determinant of particular outlooks on life. (Bell 158-59)

  11. This theory carves out a metaphysical space for language and its use in a particular community. Ordinary languages, from this perspective, become loaded with worldviews and metaphysics and, more significantly, a person's language determines at least in part the way he perceives and conceives the world (Bunge 189). Two claims inherent in the expressive theory, however, would turn out to be wrong. Firstly, one can deduce from it the early Wittgensteinian view that "The limits of my language mean the limit of my world" (Tractatus 5.6) The view is not only that language influences our conception of the world, as Ngugi would certainly agree, but that "Language alone determines our particular way of seeing things, experiencing and feeling" (Davidson 18). This strange claim is the consequence of Ngugi's belief in the interchangeability of language and culture. It is strange because, on the one hand, it gives experience -- our experience of reality -- only one constitutive factor -- language -- to the exclusion of other non-linguistic factors. Since reality is many-sided and aleatory, its boundary can not determined or captured solely by language. In other worlds, we experience the world in innumerable ways too varied and complex to be captured by language. If this is correct, then language cannot delineate the limits of my world. We'll return later to this contention.

  12. The claim also, and somewhat paradoxically, subscribes to a representational model that sees language as an intermediary between us and the world. This raises serious problems, among which is the problem of how the world is perceived and constructed. That is, the view would become plausible if one can identify an unconceptualised given which language shapes to define a people's world. If the pragmatists' argument is correct, language is only analogous to certain organs in the body (e.g., eyes), which we use in a direct contact with the environment. Thus, language is not a medium or an intermediary; it is only a tool, which helps in coping with sensory inputs. Donald Davidson puts it aptly:
    We forget there is no such thing as language apart from the sounds and marks people make, and the habit and expectations that go with them. 'Sharing a language' with someone else consists in understanding what they say, and talking pretty much the way they do. There is no additional entity we possess in common any more than there is an ear we share when I lend you an ear. (qtd. Doyal and Harris 59)

  13. The second claim inherent in the expressive theory is that it is language, above all else, that determines a people's distinctive cultural identity. That is, for the linguistic expressivist, one is only introduced to a certain community or form of life by means of language learning. The resemblance of this to Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of radical translation is rather obvious. But it rather discountenances the marxian theory which grounds 'praxis' or labour over language and holds that "it is from labour, and not from language or thought, that the category of meaning arises" (Doyal and Harris 59). Labour possesses the property of being intelligible prior to the intelligibility of language and thought (Lektorsky 194). Thus, on the basis of what has been called the 'constitutive activities,' a subject -- an alien -- need not retreat from understanding another culture due to the difficulty in radical translation; objects of the external world can be meaningfully singled out to facilitate an understanding of the community before one can begin to master the language. This last statement has been reinforced by an experiment carried out on 3- to 4-month old pre-linguistic babies and the influence of their communal form of life. Daniel Bell cites this experiment to disprove the assumption that one is introduced to a community only through language learning. If it is true, then pre-linguistic children don't partake of the form of life of the community in which they were born. But the study proved that contrasting child-rearing practices bring about a way of socializing babies "into a structure of shared social practices, a way of relating to others" (Bell 164 note 17). Language-learning thus does not alone determine one's entry into a community.

  14. It is to these claims as manifested in cultural essentialism that we now turn. The thesis is that the European languages carried some political residuum, that is, certain ideologies of domination, into the post-colonial period in Africa. This view should be understood to the extent that ideology enlists some measure of metaphysics. For the bolekaja critics, this socio-political nature of language explains why most African nations which have adopted European languages have not been able to break loose from the grasp of neo-colonialism and imperialism. Because of this, "present-day African nations comprise peoples speaking different languages, and this immediately raises the question of which group, which language, within a national society initiates and controls the means and media for representing a people to itself" (Korang and Slemon 250-51). The social contradiction which agitation for African independence generated -- that is, employing the colonial languages and their ideological residuum to assert the right to self determination -- could be eliminated by adopting wholly the African languages. In this view, indigenous languages are of more significance than European languages to those inovlved in the Liberation struggle, and in post-colonial times, involved in domesticating developmental initiatives into the idioms and customs of the people.[2]

  15. The counter-thesis I will develop here is that language is a neutral category, and it is neutral not only as regarding metaphysical systems, but also as regarding any sociopolitical residuum. In other words, the relationship between a particular language and any ideology is only a contingent one. The analysis will lean on the Chomskian conception of language and how it bears on ideology (or how it does not). The lesson deducible from the Chomskian view is that language is reducible to a certain universal element that finds replication in particular languages. According to Chomsky, what is ordinarily taken as "the commonsense notion of languages" is defective because it possesses "a crucial sociopolitical dimension," the view that language is "a dialect with an army and a navy" (qtd. in Botha 81). In its place, he prefers what he sees as being truly commonsensical about language: when a person knows a language, he is taken to know "what makes a sound and meaning relate to one another in a specific way, what makes them 'hang together'" (qtd. in Botha 172).

  16. From Chomskian linguistic nativism, the theory that there is a genetically determined language faculty innate in the mind, we can derive a structural notion of language that is essential to all natural languages. This structural notion is expressed by the statement: a language must have sentences and words (including grammatical forms, syntactic constructions, etc.). Let us call this grammaticality. My claim then is that grammaticality expresses the essential property of language; ideology, which is only accidental, does not. From this point of view, every language can only be treated as an output of grammaticality; from this essential structure every language can then become what it wants to be. It can be moulded to suit a culture's purpose.

  17. In favouring the 'memory-bank' model of language over the 'transactive' model, the bolekaja essentialists unwittingly conflate two important senses of language. They fail to distinguish properly between the ordinary (Chomskian) language, with its communicative imperative contained in grammaticality, and ideological 'language.' The flaw is that in associating language with ideology, cultural essentialism fails to see the link precisely as that, a mere association of one with the other without there being any logically necessary connection. In its ordinary sense, a language in its grammaticality becomes, metaphorically, a blank piece of paper which in itself is meaningful enough for communication, but on which the burden of a society's ideological or expressive intention can be placed. As Terry Eagleton rather succinctly explains:
    A way of putting this point is to suggest that ideology is a matter of 'discourse' rather than 'language'. it concerns the actual uses of language between particular human subjects for the production of specific effects. You could not decide whether a statement was ideological or not by inspecting it in isolation from its discursive context. . . .Ideology is less a matter of the inherent linguistic properties of a pronouncement than a question of who is saying what to who for what purposes. (9)

  18. This does not invalidate our earlier point that there are indeed 'particular ideological idioms,' e.g., the language of imperialism. But what makes these idioms ideological is the imputation of a certain dominant power-interests on their grammaticality. This view overcomes two problems that cultural essentialism cannot adequately resolve. Firstly, we can begin to understand how contending ideologies, and even metaphysical systems, may articulate themselves in one national language; that is, how the English language can adequately incorporate both colonial discourse and anti-colonialism. Secondly, it explains why a knowledge of, say, the German language is possible without a corresponding knowledge or understanding of the German culture or of even Nazism, for instance.

  19. The pertinent point is that the 'memory-bank' model of language is not sufficient to sustain a post-colonial African culture. It has the sole disadvantage of stagnating the experience of the people and weakening their cultures' dynamism. To see the English language as being inherently and necessarily ideological is to construct blockages to effective communication. Certainly, ideology can bend language out of communicative shape due to the power-interest invested in it; it distorts the communicative structure of grammaticality (Eagleton 129). What is being suggested here is that since there is only contingent association between language, ideology or metaphysics, it is possible to divest a language of its metaphysical or socio-political residuum without any remainder; that is, we can have an idea of what an authentic 'communicative grammaticality' would look like: a language shorn of any inhibiting presuppositions. This is where we are going.

  20. But have we not discarded an important claim of the cultural essentialists along the way in or haste to prove this point? Have we not rather covered up what seems to be essentiality true, that language is the primary vehicle of culture? Do we not imply that linguistic particularities do not have any bearing on a people's experience of reality? On the contrary, what we imply is that that view imputes too much to language; language does not so much determine or limit a people's experience as reflect and reinforce it (Bell 163 note 17). This makes it possible, contra Ngugi, to separate language from culture and make the former reflect and reinforce what is already in culture. It is absurd, I think, to insist that one's experience of the world stems only from the linguistic particularity of say, English, French, Kiswahili, Yoruba or Zulu. But even where these particularities reflect a community's particular ideological concerns, it is still an imputation on the ordinary conception of language.

  21. How does this bear on post-colonialism? For Ngugi and other bolekaja critics, the colonialists intended by imposing the colonial languages on African societies to atomise and dissolve the self-identities of African history. This would facilitate an effective control over their post-colonial experience. But can a people be made to renounce their collective identity by merely speaking the language of the colonisers alone? The fact of colonisation and the present self-alienation of Africans from their cultures would seem to vindicate the cultural essentialists. Yet this vindication could only be obtained at the cost of discountenancing the idea that language is not the primary vehicle of culture. The imposition of another language on a (conquered) people, all other factors considered, need not destroy their self-identity.

  22. True, the aim of the imposition of a language of imperialism is to break the self-identity of the colonised culture, but language in itself qua grammaticality cannot do that. This is because it has nothing in itself to wear away the barrier constituted by the shared history of the people. More significantly, the imposition of a language is only a part of the immense array of colonial structures and processes which through their calculated impositions, refusals and denials gradually prevailed over the collective self of the people.

  23. Contrary to Kanneh's reading, then, Ngugi's call for a repatriation to the African languages cannot be seen as matching his desire for Africa's fair cultural exchange with Europe. Rather, it takes us dangerously close to an insulation of African cultures from the global experience. By jettisoning the English language, Ngugi fails to notice that the pragmatic use of language far outweighs the sentimental, socio-political argument for its 'dis-use.' The resolution of the 1962 Kampala conference of African writers becomes important here. What that conference made relevant in deciding what defines an 'African' writing in English is that what matters most is linguistic domestication and reconstruction -- in other words, the uses to which a particular language is put rather than the subordination of that language to the whims of ideology. The consensus of the conference, that "it is better for an African writer to think and feel in his own language and then look for an English transliteration approximating the original,"[3] is reinforced by Mikhail Bakhtin who notes that
    The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes 'one's own' only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language . . . but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own. (qtd. in Korang and Slemon 257)

  24. Post-colonial culture can make room for both the African writers at the Kampala conference who desired to establish an 'African' uniqueness within the framework provided by English as an international language and literature as a human discipline, and bolekaja essentialists who desired a return to the African language. While it is fundamentally important that there must be a rehabilitation of indigenous African languages, the point of compromise is not in the abdication of the English or any of the European language for the indigenous language. What is at stake is rather the evolvement of a new language: the adaptation of 'African' intention, need, aspiration on the one hand, and 'African' nuances, ideas and imageries on the other, to the functionality of the English language. The result is a 'new English' that can carry the burdens of the African experience and global interdependence. Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Njabulo Ndebele and Godfrey Tangwa recognise the expediency of this approach. In stimulating the evolution of this new English, we are saying in essence that we can invest the English language with an ideology that accords with our post-colonial desideratum!


  1. The phrase, the 'expressive theory of language,' was coined by Charles Taylor in Human Agency and Language, pages 9-10. The term 'Whorfian' rather than 'Whorf's' is used to include not only Benjamin Whorf's conception but also that of others who share a similar attitude to language i.e. Taylor, Gadamer, Winch, MacIntyre and Ngugi. Back

  2. See Kwesi Prah, "African Languages, the Key to African Development," particularly pages 69, 74, 75. Back

  3. Ezekiel Mphahlele, cited in Korang and Slemon 251 note 4. Back

Works Cited

Bell, Daniel. Communitarianism and its Critics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Botha, Rudolf P. Twentieth Century Conceptions of Language. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Bunge, Mario. Semantics II: Interpretation and Truth. Dordrecht: DiReidel Publishing Co., 1974.

Chinweizu, Jemie Onwuchekwa and Ihechukwu Madubuike. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature. Volume 1 of African Fiction and Poetry and Their Critics. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980.

Davidson, Donald. "Seeing Through Language." In Thought and Language. Ed. John Preston. Supplement to Philosophy, Vol. 42, 1997.

Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991.

Kanneh, Kadiatu. "What is African Literature? Ethnography and Criticism." In Writing and Africa. Ed. Mpalive-Hangson Msiska and Paul Hyland. London: Longman, 1997. 69-86.

Korang, Kwaku Larbi, and Stephen Slemon,. "Post-colonialism and Language." In Writing and Africa. . Ed. Mpalive-Hangson Msiska and Paul Hyland. London: Longman, 1997. 246-263.

Lektorsky, V. A. Subject/Object Cognition. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980.

Ngugi wa Thiong'O. Decolonising the Mind : The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1987.

---. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1993.

Prah, Kwesi. "African Languages, the Key to African Development." In Changing Paradigms in Development - South, East and West. Ed. Margareta von Troil. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrika Instituet, 1993.

Taylor, Charles. Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers, I. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Back to Table of Contents, Vol. 7 Issue 1
Back to Jouvert Main Page