Arrow of God

Arrow of God Achebe and the English Language

In 1965, Achebe published an essay in the journal Transitions in which he discusses English as the predominant language of Nigerian—and much other African—literature. Achebe concedes that such a claim might seem controversial—why capitulate to a colonial tongue when, within Nigeria and across the continent, tribal groups speak many different languages with different dialects?—but he goes on to enumerate the benefits of this reality. Like Nigeria itself, that “arbitrary creation” of the British, English has the capacity to bridge different ethnic groups, enabling them to develop a shared consciousness. English also helps bring African literature to an international audience. Yet Achebe also describes the particular way the African author should use this non-native tongue. He argues that the African author must fashion an English that “is at once universal and capable of carrying his peculiar experience.” In a remarkable exercise, he rewrites a segment of Arrow of God in Anglicized English, juxtaposing it with the symbol-rich prose of the novel that is so shot through with Ibgo logic and aphorism, asking the reader to note the difference:

“I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.”

“I am sending you as my representative among these people—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight” (Achebe, "The African Writer and the English Language").