Restructuring the African Identity through Language – An Analysis of Achebe’s Linguistic Tools in Things Fall Apart


Kunal Pattnaik1, Bhabani S. Baral2

1Assistant Professor of English, Department of Basic Science and Humanities, Gandhi Institute for Technological Advancement, Bhubaneswar, Odisha.

1Research Scholar of Humanities and Social Sciences, ITER, S ‘O’ A Deemed to be University.

2Retired Professor of English, VSSUT Burla, Sambalpur, Odisha.

*Corresponding Author Email:,



The article discusses Achebe's intentions while writing his novel Things Fall Apart, his choice of language and vocabulary in the novel and essentially, the linguistic choices he makes while writing his African narrative in the English language. Growing up in pre and post-colonial Africa, Achebe had a first-hand experience of the turmoil that his people went through at the hands of the Europeans and how there was a gradual but continuous subjugation of the native at the hands of the colonizer. This experience shaped his African narrative and gave him a better insight into the mind-set of the African individual. He recognised the growing importance of English in his Nigerian community and saw the changes that it brought about in Africa; and wanted to use it as a realistic concept for his novel.  Achebe’s use of English language is refashioned by a blending with the indigenous languages. He brought in a wide range of Igbo vocabulary and loan words to his writing style as well as a third person narrative voice to give his readers a realistic perception of Nigerian life. The plot construction of Achebe is the extrinsic structure by which he showcases the different responses to the influence of English and European colonialism in Africa.


KEYWORDS: Diglossia, Post-colonialism, Nativity, Linguistic Identity, Eurocentrism.




“Until the lions produce their own historians, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.”

            Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile

The reality that it apparently took only about a hundred years i.e. from the year 1857 to 1960 for the British colonisers to actually break up a society that had taken hundreds of thousands of years to develop clearly proves that European imperialism and colonialism was a prominent and powerful agent of change in the Igbo societies. Christianity and Western education alike, swept the Igbo people off their feet with an unprecedented pace never experienced earlier.


Imperialism refers to exploitation of a community and their land both culturally and economically. Imperialism in Africa had far reaching consequences and it financially, geographically, politically, socially and culturally impacted people's lives, and we tend to find how post-colonial authors attempt to reverse these impacts of eurocentrism. In those periods the literature written about Africa supported colonialism, primarily endorsed British policies against African populations, and enabled colonizers to reinforce colonial rule as an agent of knowledge, education, and refinement, introduced to the primitive people who lacked any proper civilisation of their own. Such literary works portrayed Africa as a dark world comprised of insane, undefinable, and infantile populations dominated by religious dogma rather than rationality, a country too ready to accept and receive the colonizers ' and too happy to worship the white man. One fine example of such kind of writing can be found in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where he leaves the audience with the impression that all Africans are savage or naive.


Postcolonial studies didn’t take a concrete shape until the 1970’s and it’s only in the 1980’s that we find postcolonial writers coming to the forefront. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in 1961 can be considered as a precursor to postcolonial writings. His works have inspired many people around the world to fight for freedom from racism. Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Nadine Gordimer felt a need to represent their cultural identity and hence took up the cause and wrote against the socio-cultural and economic domination of their people by Europeans. Edward Said saw colonialism as rooted in the epistemological enquiry and project constructing the Orient. “Orientalism is the European construction of the East as primitive, savage, pagan, undeveloped, and criminal. Such a construction then enabled the European to justify his presence: The poor, weak native needed to be governed and developed, and it was the task of the European to do so.” (p.159)


The goal of European colonizers was to demean native societies and to suppress "indigenous" opinions, but inevitably colonized intellectuals opposed such colonial agendas and among the finest examples of such defiance were those penned by Chinua Achebe in his auto-biographical novel Things Fall Apart and by Aime Cesaire in his Discourse on Colonialism. Chinua Achebe is one writer who writes with intentionality and deliberateness. His upbringing is marked by a complex fusion of Igbo tradition and colonial legacy. Nigeria gained independence in 1960. Prior to it Nigeria remained a British colony. The literary response of Achebe towards the colonial experience first got shaped in the plot of his first novel Things Fall Apart. This novel documents the way of the Igbo people prior to the advent of the missionaries and the Colonial government. The main stay of the novel being its critical examining of the African experience, the turmoil, social as well as psychological, which had a tremendous effect on how people behaved and existed in that society. The disruptive effects of European colonization and traditional Africa have been honestly delineated in the novel. Achebe sketches a world in which war and suffering exist as the inevitable result of the colonizing process, but they are balanced by a strong sense of tradition, ritual and social cohesion. Achebe wrote two other novels, Arrow of God (1968) and No Longer at Ease (1987) in order to showcase the transformation of the Igbo land into a modern state. He also wrote A Man of the People (1966) and The Anthills of the Savannah (1987), but it is the African trilogy which established him as one of the major voices of African postcolonial movement. He was central to the literary movement which drew from the oral traditions of African folklore. Achebe’s use of English language is refashioned by a blending with the indigenous languages. The style and mode in which he incorporated Igbo vocabulary into English narrative helps in creating a new genre of writing. In reference to his novel entitled A Man of the People Achebe clearly states that in the sixties I wanted the novel to condemn the kind of freedom that we witnessed in post-colonial Nigeria and many other countries and I want to threaten my compatriots into good conduct with an egregious precautionary tale. Achebe admits that his novels are a deliberate attempt to engage his culture and his international audience. Instead of showcasing in his novels an anti-African milieu, Achebe keeps a wholly African perspective, retaining the recurrent theme of African tribalism and utilizing his own multilingual abilities through an extensive vocabulary of the Igbo language.



The distinctive combination of linguistic elements of Achebe’s writings enables the reader to see the evolution of a simultaneous structure. In order to restore an inherently broken African perception, he uses a framework of literary and linguistic elements. However, before Achebe’s reaction can be fully understood, it is the state of brokenness of the African society that has to be recognized. In the growth of the Western mentality about Africa in the 20th century, several European writers played a significant role. Joseph Conrad is one such author who has enthralled readers and has triggered debates on his portrayal of the African continent. Many historians see the Heart of Darkness of Joseph Conrad as a scathing satire of Africa and its people, and others see it as a true portrayal of Africa. Achebe on the other hand disagrees with Conrad's depiction of Africa because it leaves the audience with the impression that all Africans are savage or naive and they should live in their position and not tarnish the Western imagination. Achebe prefers to write his novels as an antithesis to the world view advocated by Joseph Conrad which cost the African people an opportunity to prove themselves in pre-and post-colonial society and literature.



The works of Achebe have ignited a renaissance in African literature that continues till date. He gave voice to those previously unheard of. Achebe has inspired writers to tell stories in both Africa and beyond, especially Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison. Oprah Winfrey once declared on her show that Things Fall Apart is one of the "Five Books Everyone Must Read At Least Once." In her article on Achebe’s Impact - Author Gave Africa its ‘First Authentic Voice' , Donna Urschel quotes R. Victoria Arana, a professor of English at Howard University. According to R. Victoria “Things Fall Apart was a transformational novel”. “It had a profound re-ordering of the imaginative consciousness for people in Africa,” she said “The book was a part of the re-storying of people who had been knocked silent.” ( Though the current generation of African writers have done away with the rural settings for urban ones yet the growth of the African novel continues to this day.



1.     The use of proverbs:

A subtle image of Africa is noticeable not only in the narrative aspects but also in the conceptual and linguistic manoeuvrings of Chinua Achebe in his first book Things Fall Apart. To express his African ideology he manipulates the English language. This language appropriation is a major factor in postcolonial literature, especially in English and French works. Proverbs are widely used in the book. Proverbs are used among African people to further express and illustrate ideas, and the intelligence of individuals is also measured by their appropriate use of proverbs and maxims. For Achebe proverbs are “the palm oil with which words are eaten”(p.6). We can find that Achebe’s writings are inspired by different linguistic features such as neologism, lexical innovation, proverbs, and transliteration. It is common practice for Igbo English writers to translate Igbo proverbs into English, and we find phrases that follow Igbo's thought pattern and style translated into English. In Things Fall Apart when Achebe writes: “He who brings kola brings life”. (p.5) This proverb aptly describes the friendly attitude of the Igbo people who always welcome their guests with the kola nut. To the Igbo, kola nut represents life and it gives life to anyone who offers it. Kola nut is a fruit in Igbo culture that signifies tranquillity and coexistence. It infers peace and harmony, when offered at any gathering. Another proverb that sums up the very essence of African thought is: “A baby on its mother’s back does not know that the way is long” (p.92) The person deriving pleasure from the wealth of another person does not know how hard it might have been to earn that wealth. This proverb warns that African communalism can be exploited for selfish purposes.


Achebe rightfully gives his audience a view of the Igbo world when he remarks:

“Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string.” (p.9)


The imagery of the overshadowing darkness, of evil spirits, of sinister dangerous animals and of the eerie silence of the night, project the feeling of an impending doom. Achebe seems to have drawn a beautiful sketch of the night that was about to set in. One can connect to the stories that we also heard as kids, stories of not using the word snake in the night and so on and so forth. Folklore is intrinsically woven into the art of art of storytelling and the writer keeps his audience glued by giving them vivid glimpses of the Nigerian society.


2.     The role of the narrator:

In Things Fall Apart the narrator is one of Achebe's most effective tools for portraying African consciousness and facts. Achebe, as a writer, deals with Africa and with the realistic portrayal of Africans. Much of this issue stems out of Achebe's negative perception of the African image as portrayed in the literature of the twentieth century. Achebe not only disagreed with Conrad’s perception of Africa but also considered Conrad more of a racist, who only portrayed Africa in a dark image. The narrator starts the story as an Igbo insider with a social, omniscient perspective capturing the Nigerian lifestyle. Since, the narrator is used as a chronicler of a society that is slowly falling apart, Achebe develops the insider position of the narrator from the beginning, allowing the narrator to reveal personal opinions on Igbo affairs and behaviour. In chapter 1 when Okonkwo triumphs over “Amalinze the Cat” (p.3) we find vivid reference to his conquests and his growth as a warrior over a span of twenty years. Here we find the narrator acting as a familiar insider and as a spokesperson for the protagonist and his tribe. The narrator also provides the specifics that no outsider would be able to provide about Igbo food habits, culture and religion. The narrator defines the importance of yam eating while speaking about the Igbo traditions.


Yam foo-foo and vegetable soup was the chief food in the celebration. So much of it was cooked that, no matter how heavily the family ate or how many friends and relations they invited from neighbouring villages, there was always a huge quantity of food left over at the end of the day. The story was always told of a wealthy man who set before his guests a mound of foo-foo so high that those who sat on one side could not see what was happening on the other, and it was not until late in the evening that one of them saw for the first time his in-law who had arrived during the course of the meal and had fallen to on the opposite side. (p.33-34)


The description of Yam foo-foo helps the reader to get a realistic image of an African celebration and also helps to understand the importance of local food in Achebe's text. He also uses the expression "the story was told" as a reference to African oral traditions and the significance of folklore amongst the Igbo people. Achebe uses the narrator as the mouthpiece to showcase the African admiration for figurative language, metaphor and folklore. Africans don’t have a tradition of mixing words and ideas. To this very day, the indigenous African societies are still largely dependent on the spoken word and oral traditions that are handed down from one generation to another as part of the African heritage. Achebe portrays the value of the oral tradition as the narrator speaks, as a wise man does to his pupils, educating them about the importance of human relationships and food in their societies.


In Things Fall Apart, the narrator serves as an essential component in the interpretation of the novel and that of the African narrative. In the absence of the narrative voice, the reader would be left in a lurch. Achebe in such a scenario would either have been forced to write his novel from a personal viewpoint and would have risked his work at being understood by a selected few thereby alienating his European audience or he would have come closer to Conrad's critical perspective of Africa and her people there by losing the very essence of his endeavour. Achebe wanted to represent the African individual as someone more humane and as one who the reader can readily relate to. With his familiar position in the Igbo society and his ability to explore the characters' thoughts and actions, the narrator offers Achebe the medium he needs to construct a delicate form of writing, one that is artistic and familiar as well as objective in nature. The narrative tools shown here represent Achebe's deliberate attempt at creating a new image of Africa. The language used is adequately objective. The narrator provides a vivid imagery of the life in the Igbo society as well as shares the true intent and emotions of the characters, yet he remains aloof in the text, thereby allowing the reader to create their own perception of the African society. Achebe through his use of English doesn’t attempt to offer any solutions, rather he portrays the tumultuous state of affairs with clarity and honesty. This intense and thorough description makes it possible for European and African readers to understand his style of narration.



Considering that Africa's imperial assumptions tend to have their impact in the current time, Achebe's words regarding the responsibility of African texts for countering Western discourse with an African counter-discourse are still highly relevant. Rewriting the colonial mind-set and its representation in Western societies' culture, media and literature can play a significant part in the socio-political evaluation of colonialism and therefore lead to an understanding of present social and cultural processes.



1.      Achebe, Chinua. Home and Exile. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2000. Print.

2.      Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Coyote Canyon Press, California. 2007. Print.

3.      Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Groove Press, New York. 1963. Print.

4.      Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, New York. 1978. Print.

5.      Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Allied Publishers Limited, New Delhi. 2000. Print.

6.      Cesaire, Aime. Discourse on Colonialism. MR, New York, 1972. Print.

7.      Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. Anchor Books, New York. 1989. Print.

8.      No Longer at Ease. Heinemann Educational Publishers, London. 1987. Print.

9.      A Man of the People. Heinemann Educational Publishers, Oxford. 1988. Print.

10.   Ant Hills of the Savannah. Heinemann Educational Publishers, Oxford. 1988. Print.

11.   Urschel, Donna. Achebe’s Impact - Author Gave Africa its ‘First Authentic Voice'. Available from URL:



Received on 16.12.2019         Modified on 26.12.2019

Accepted on 13.01.2020      ©AandV Publications All right reserved

Res. J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2020; 11(1):79-82.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2020.00013.3