The Struggle for Language

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, explains the “European Metaphysical Empires: The Struggle for Language.”


PROVO, Utah (April 3, 2014)—In a lecture hall on the campus of Brigham Young University, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, spoke to students and faculty on empirical nations conquering not only lands but also language and the struggle to preserve those native languages.

As a Kenya native, Ngũgĩ understands struggle. Born and educated in Kenya, he wrote various plays, essays and novels that questioned the inequalities of Kenyan society. With such commentaries, the Kenyan government grew uncomfortable and imprisoned Ngũgĩ. After an international campaign brought about his release, Ngũgĩ was barred from teaching, and after murder attempts on his life, Ngũgĩ went into exile in Britain, and then the U.S.

With his unique history, Ngũgĩ continues to be a powerful voice as an author and a literary critic. At a lecture sponsored by the College of Humanities, Ngũgĩ related an article he read about a small town in Ireland where a peasant was accused of murdering a young woman. The peasant spoke Gaelic so his words were translated at the trial. When asked questions, the accused peasant gave a lengthy explanation, which the interpreter translated as simply “no.” The man was sentenced to death.

“My soul frights in the power of language,” Ngũgĩ said.

He said that throughout the world there is a phenomenon of ancestral language abandonment.

As native peoples are conquered by larger empires, often “the foreign replaces the native language as the language of power.” Ngũgĩ said that there is an embrace of the language that replaced the ancestral by guise, guile or gun.

“Each colonizing empire put language as the center of imperialism. Language is both means and evidence of conquest,” Ngũgĩ said.

He gave the example of India. Standardized English became the foundational block of the metaphysical empire – an empire that would outlive the physical one. “English became the medium of education, which created a class of people that were Indian in race and color but English in mentality,” Ngũgĩ said.

“The same is true of all other places. When Kenya was put under British rule, the corporate face of the empire was longer than the actual state control on Kenya,” Ngũgĩ said. “My argument is that this corporate face is still there. The success of a metaphysical empire can still be seen.”

Ngũgĩ explained why those empirical ties are still dominant. “When you associate one language with humiliation and another with praise and power, those associations are passed on.” He said it’s similar to giving children candy for one thing and water for another. “They gravitate toward the group with the desired behavior.”

In this way, Ngũgĩ said, “The metaphysical empires have stolen the language of those they dominate.”

But, he continued, “there is and has been resistance.” Ngũgĩ spoke about the Irish author James Joyce who was interested in the language question. He also spoke of other authors who wrote in their native languages to “capture old languages.”

Ngũgĩ referenced an essay by Irish author Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, “Why I Choose to Write in Irish: The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back,” in which she explains her struggle to write in Irish, but her resolve to do so with the hopes that it might make a difference for the future of the Irish language.

“Irish is a language of beauty, historical significance, ancient truths and poetic expression,” Ngũgĩ said. “All languages, big and small have a lot to contribute to humanity.”

BYU English professor Peter Leman said, “Ngũgĩ’s influence has been felt through his literary criticism as well as his literature.” He encouraged those in the audience to seek and read more of Ngũgĩ’s works. “You’ll find moving insights about human nature, art and beauty.”

—Stephanie Bahr Bentley BA English ’14