Language as Culture: A Critique of Ngugi wa Thion’go

Picture of Ngugi wa Thion’go holding a book from Business Today
Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Decolonizing the mind

Ngugi wa Thion’go is probably one of the few African writers to grant more attention to language and its impacts to people and societies. In “Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature” he explores the issue further and asks critical questions regarding literature in Africa and the role language plays in it: “What is African literature?” He asked.

Language as culture

To make his case, Ngugi argued that language was more than a medium of communication and that it entailed three parts. The language of real life is the language spoken to facilitate the completion of tasks that require teamwork. This use of language is essential in the labor process since people who work together need communication to achieve desired results. The second use of language was language as speech, which is the use of language as we know it. The third is language as written signs which is the way language is expressed in written form and in most cases it follows the structure of language as speech. In Kiswahili, a word is written as it is spoken.

Language and the self-concept

Since culture was indistinguishable from language according to Ngugi, then it was also logical to argue that language itself was culture. This claim is true since we also consider languages to be the inseparable aspects of those cultures that speak it. The Kikuyu language is a cultural artifact of the Kikuyu people and so is the English language to the British. To cement this postulation, Ngugi provides a three tier dialectic necessary for this relationship.

  1. Culture is the product of history which it in turn reflects.
  2. Language is an image-forming agent in the mind of a child.
  3. Culture transmits or imparts those images of the world and reality through the spoken and the written language, that is through a specific language.

Image formation and concepts

Ngugi was not entirely right in his belief that culture fashioned us with the images of who we are, our relationships, and our specific realities. His second postulate is erroneous in its entirety since language is not the only image-forming agent in the mind of a child and this process, arguably does not happen in children alone. Children are born with knowledge of certain concepts. Even before a baby can speak or understand language, he is capable of telling the difference between the mother and the father. The baby can also recognize a stranger and will cry if one attempts to hold it. What does this mean? It means children do not need to learn through language the concepts of mother, father, and stranger.

Evolution of culture and language

Richard Dawkins originally observed in the “Selfish Gene” that culture evolved through a memetic process similar to natural selection, where successful memes (rhymes with genes) were adopted and replicated faster and more easily than less successful ones. The birth, growth, and death of cultures can be attributed to this memetic process where cultural values and artifacts are adopted or shunned by their hosts depending on their fitness. Human beings are hosts of culture just like we are hosts of a robust microbiome in our guts. We pick or discard what we believe is important to our needs as humans. A cultural meme evolves further if it can beat the natural selection in this memetic world. Female genital mutilation is a cultural meme akin to bad genes and with time, efforts have been put forth to expunge it from the meme pool.

Safari into the African wilderness. Image by Roxanne Shewchuk
Safaris in the African wilderness

The fear of English

Ngugi wa Thion’go summed his claims stating that “Language is inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.” The foundation he had laid allowed him to further his thesis where language plays a central role. He had argued that anybody who controls a people’s language could colonize their minds. However, as I have shown, images and concepts exist in different realms from language. A colonial power can control language, but he cannot control concepts and images because they exist outside language. A colonist who bans the use of the word Safari does not take away the concept of journey from us or the images it evokes.

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Zinah Issa

Zinah Issa

Reflecting on the cognitive and sociocultural nature of our societies.