Ngugi and language as human relations

In his essay “The Language of African Literature,” Ngugi posits that language originates in, as he puts it,“the relations people enter into with one another in the labor process” (440). In other words, language is first the organizational structure of cooperation for communal production. From here this language of relation becomes spoken language, and finally a written imitation of its spoken form. The forced assimilation into a foreign language can therefore be thought of as a tool for nullifying the first form of language–the language of human relation and organization. By divorcing the people from their own languages, colonists attempt to eradicate the indigenous forms of social relation. In its place, Europhonic languages impose their own social relationships within which the African is positioned as alien and inferior. Ngugi, in advocating a return to a truly African-language literature, seems to be arguing for a return to an African means of social organization and communal production. It seems unlikely, however, that he’s calling for a simple return to static tradition, but rather a new starting place for envisioning an African future, one which grows out of the anti-imperialist sentiments of the peasantry as explored through African language literature. He points to the absurdity of the presence of Europhonic African peasantry in what he deems the Afro-European novels of the petty bourgeois. These authors, he argues, invest their representations of the peasantry with the existential crises of the petty bourgeois, and in doing so doubly nullify what Ngugi views as an important generative force. Ngugi echoes Fanon in the need to turn to the revolutionary peasantry and calls for investment in an African literature which not only is written in African language but which takes its content from the anti-imperialist struggle. Ngugi argues that reactionary and imperialist forces, the “comprador ruling cliques” as he puts it, make use of African languages as a means of reinforcing their hold on the peasantry, while the those with “alternative visions” limit themselves to English language and thus exclude the peasantry. More than just exclude, however, they quite literally rewrite them, stripping them of their revolutionary potential both in the content of their representation and the form of the language in which they are represented. For Ngugi, this amounts to a failure to properly explore African people and the potentials which they may contain for envisioning a new future.

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