Postcolonial literary theoreticians have spent a good amount of energy exploring the many roles of language in literature and the arts: language use as symbolic of cultural and political imposition, multilingual texts as resistant to dominant narrative forms and structures, language use as symbolic of tapping into oral traditions that nurture the text, bending and ripping apart a dominant language to express oneself or to claim a space within that language/cultural system, and the fascinating methods of “writing back”; of using the language of the oppressor or a colonial tongue to express a “native” reality, a “foreign” land that the imposing language cannot possibly communicate, cultural practices not possibly “transmitable” through the imposed language. Questions such as, “how does one use the language of a given (‘former’) empire to subvert the patterns of colonialism, to reclaim space and tradition?”, and “how does one use a language while trying to reject the particular way of structuring the world it [that language] seems to offer?” (“The Empire Writes Back” 47) continue to arise and new answers continue to appear despite the amount of theory and criticism that has developed around them.
In the end, most critics agree that to subvert an imposed language, a colonial language, or a dominant language is to also subvert “the entire system of cultural assumptions on which the texts of the English [or any other imperial language/literature] canon are based and the whole discourse of metropolitan control within which they were able to be imposed.” (47) Language, then, must be a central focus when looking at texts that engage in resistant, subversive, re-constructive dialogues with imperial and former imperial language/cultural systems. With that in mind, the central objective of this article is to look carefully at several ways in which even the most radical of Postcolonial theorists and critics are mis-understanding the roles of language in “Postcolonial” texts. The objective: to reconsider our critical approaches to language in works of literature that does not generate a new wave of colonialist readings.
Underlying many critical readings and theories that explore the role and nature of “language in Postcolonial texts” is the idea that a range of authors are using language to show difference from a given canon, from a “standard” language, or difference from the colonial language that was/is imposed. In other words, the function of Brathwaite’s language use in “Middle Passage” is to express difference from the more “Standard” variety/varieties of English spoken and written in throughout England, North America, etc. Likewise, behind Nalo Hopkinson’s use of “dialect” (multiple “dialects”, actually) is the intent to express difference from the norm, difference from the standard. Ashcroft and company emphasize this point throughout their Postcolonial classic, “The Empire Writes Back”: “Post-colonial writing abrogates the privileged centrality of ‘English’ by using language to signify difference while employing a sameness which allows it to be understood” (50)
But is “signifying difference” the only thing that Brathwaite and Hopkinson’s use of language does? Is difference the only thing that they are communicating? Is it such a crucial aspect in terms of the way they are using language?
The above statement, one that is echoed throughout Postcolonial criticism and theory, implies that “Postcolonial” authors are writing for an audience that will perceive/receive the “non-Standard” language variety/ the “dialect” as “different.” In other words, it implies that the “postcolonial writer” is not writing for his/her community, that the “real” audience is one that will receive the language as “other”, as “deviant from the norm”, and as something “different” than what they are used to. Perhaps more importantly, the quoted passage insinuates that the “postcolonial writer” who writes in “dialect” or “sociolect” (or whatever new “-lect” that aquires lecthood) uses language as a mere symbol of resistance through difference. In this way, the critic overlooks the vast richness of the language of the text and the author’s exploration of that language.
Authors who write in Nation Language (Brathwaite’s term) — often called “dialect” or “sociolect” or “non-Stadard varieties” by linguists and literary critics alike — may consciously or unconsciusly seek to subvert a dominant language/culture. In that way, “language variance” in so-called Postcolonial texts may be at one level “profoundly metonymic of cultural difference.” But it is equally representative of the author’s decision to write in his/her “native” language, to reach out to his/her community, to explore his/her reality, to reference the history of the “dialect” (words that are often rooted in philosophies and aesthetics that link entire continents), to engage in an intertextual dialogue with other writers who also choose to write in “other” language varieties. The reasons are endless and only a few of them hang from the need/desire to express “difference” from the “standard” language.
To approach literary texts with the idea that the use of “dialect, multiple varieties of English, and unstranslated words” merely “inscribes difference” is an easy way out that far too many critics are taking. To stop at the level of difference marks the critics inability to access the meaning and content of both the language of the text and its symbols, themes, motifs; the plot, substance, and content of the work. Further, that inability to move beyond what to the European/Euro-American critic registers as “different” represents a fundamental flaw in Postcolonial studies. The Postcolonial author is allowed to become “different” on a surface glance that can somehow be the very essence of his language, and noting that can be the conclusion of a seemingly rigorous study. The critics’ inability to fathom the creative world of the “Postcolonial” texts’ language — the inability and lack of critical tools to write about that world of language innovation as he/she would write about any other author — clearly shows us that the “root” of the Postcolonial text, its language, cannot be understood under Western presuppositions of “dialect”, “sociolect”, “pidgin.” It is not enough to recognize the presence of multiple language varieties of a text and then conclude that that presence signifies difference. It is not enough to explore the text on levels of class, race, and gender difference; levels of resistance and subversion to the European/North American norm. That is only one small part of the brilliance of many “Postcolonial” texts.
I’d like to conclude with three video clips. “My Favorite Things” from the classic play, The Sound of Music; “My Favorite Things,” as performed by John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones; and “My Favorite Things” as performed by Bobby McFerrin.
The Sound of Music ( from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical)
John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, 1961 (Germany)
Bobby McFerrin (live in Copehagen)
To merely conceive of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Bobby McFerrin’s performances as “different” from the classic play is to do the same kind of injustice that many critics and theorists working from dominant perspectives are doing to literary texts.