Americahah By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Interrelation Of Language And Culture
Language is omnipresent, it is used in every moment, and it is central to all our lives, since it is the tool that sets us as humans and differences us from any other species. Without it, religion, arts, literature and science, would not occur. It is the key aspect of human intelligence and human behavior. According to Noam Chomsky, a language is a set of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements. This set of elements or symbols is being used mainly for communication. They may be spoken or written. In written form, it is a long-term record of knowledge from one generation to the next while in spoken form it is a means of communication. When communicating, people interact and this form of interaction is the main factor that characterizes a culture. A culture is a system of shared values, behaviors, practices, norms and history that can influence both language and thought. It can be innate or taught?
To be human means to give meaning to the things around us and it is central to our lives. How we create meaning is one of the most fascinating, challenging, and complex ways, in the contemporary science of language and mind. Ngugi, an African writer, says that “language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world”. Language thought is the basis of a culture, followed by other aspects like wealth and politics. Ngugi says that “Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. Control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world is the most important area of domination.”
As we will see in the next chapter, language in this sense is an important factor in creating identity. This chapter discusses how through language Ifemelu will construct her personality and how language influences her views about society. Even if Adichie doesn’t write her novels in Igbo language and then translates them in English like Ngugi does, that doesn’t mean that her use of the English language is not a particular one. Her mother tongue is English, yet there are differences between the American English and the Nigerian English. Not only, her awareness moves from cultural differences on how to braid her hair to language. The question of the language for the African authors it is not new. Ngugi, as mentioned before, decides to write in his own language and then translate his works into English. Achebe’s choice, on the other hand, is to write only in English, because English is the language with a major public. Even though he creates his own English. So, Adichie’s linguistic choice is reasonable. Every language has its own peculiarities and she is trying to stress them, for example by using words in Igbo, like, biko, ceiling. Therefore, the language used in Americahah is in strong connection with ideology. Language is ideology and their interconnection shapes author’s world view. If the author and the reader share the same world view then it is likely that the book will be a successful book. This is the case of the novel Americanah. “Ideology is the way people think about their world, is produced and altered in and through language.” Bennet and Royle argue that “in capitalist society, literature itself is an ‘ideological form’, both produced by and producing ideology.”
The critic should be able to look beyond. Americanah had a specific function ad effect, it could change in time because of the different perceptions. The aim to openly talk about believes and prejudices is to open the road to transformation: “The way you think what you think – about society, ethics, politics, justice, about poverty and wealth, about education and the health and welfare systems, about crime and punishment, about human rights, race, religion and ethnicity, unemployment and the minimum wage, sexuality and gender, the environment, the ecosystem and global warming, about war and revolution, about terrorists and freedom fighters – is a matter of language. You make up your mind about these and a host of other questions in and through the words you and others use to describe them. […] Ideology, the way that people think about their world is produced and altered in and through language. Ideology in that sense is language.” “This is simply the kind of immigration that is familiar to me. The people I grew up with dreamed of leaving because they felt they wanted more. We did not die of hunger. We had the chance to find a job. But we wanted more – and that more, that glittering place where we hope to end up, is generally America. I think that art, especially the realistic one, is always political.”
Ifemelu doesn’t feel comfortable to speak American English, it seems for her false and unnatural, so when she decides to switch back to Nigerian she meets Blaine: “He [Blaine] spoke the kind of American English that she had just given up, the kind that made race pollsters on the telephone assume that you were white and educated”.
Language and accents
Adichie has grown up in Nigeria, where over 520 languages are spoken. There are 19 institutional languages, but the most commonly spoken language is English, the former language of colonial British Nigeria. The existence of different cultural groups and languages, made her childhood a rich and easy one, but she, just like Ifemelu, has discovered what language differences bring to, only when she came to the U.S. Language and accents are markers of one’s cultural identity and the first factors that come into play when migrating. I will analyze here how these two factors are represented in the novel. Language and accents play a very important role in the novel as a marker of nationality, social class, and assimilation. The reader may first recognize that Ifemelu’s father speaks very differently than other Nigerians in the book, peppering his speech liberally with academic words. Ifemelu says he does this because of his shame that he didn’t obtain higher education. The other Nigerians in the story, on the other hand, speak a mix of Nigerian Standard English and Nigerian Pidgin, languages based on English but distinctly Nigerian in their grammar and vocabulary. Once Ifemelu is in America, she must choose whether to speak with an American accent or not, which she does at first until she is embarrassed that she takes sounding assimilated as a compliment and switches back to speaking with the accent she learned in school. With whom Ifemelu is able to speak Igbo is also quite important. For example, she notes that Aunty Uju does not allow her to speak Igbo with Dike, something he ends up regretting as a teen. Also, she and Obinze swapping proverbs in Igbo was an important part of their early relationship.
When people interact, immediately after looking at the physical aspect, they instantly evaluate the use of language of their interlocutors and they can form themselves an opinion about interlocutor’s background: where they are from, their educational level or class. These judgments are often unconscious, it depends on everyone’s background. In U.S., for example, when speaking about language, there is a strong differentiation between native and non-native English speakers, who often are seen as different, even if English is their first language. From considering different a person by using language differently, it can be linked to discrimination and racism.
Language is not only a communication tool, it reveals our world vision, our life style, it shapes the world around us and it changes perspectives. With language, we define values and meanings. So, it is important to understand and take into consideration cultural differences and their impact on users and make an effort to accommodate people in new environments. Language then can be considered as a tool for constructing identity. Considering that before leaving Nigeria, Ifemelu was not aware of her sense of belonging to a community, I can deduce that this sense can be acquired with moving in a different country. The language analysis here focuses on accent, the cultural shock in this case it is not as radical as for different language backgrounds. Ifemelu’s English differ from American English from some different aspects but it is still the same language.
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