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Wole Soyinka’s literary works have received a lot of critical attention in Literary Circles particularly with regards to his obscure use of the English Language. Also associated with this is his apparent sytaxtic complexities which make most of his works incompressible. However  the  sociolinguistic  study of  his  dramatic  art  has  ignored  the  aspect  of  the playwright’s dialectal variational aesthetics. This study, therefore, explores the dialectical variational elements in selected play texts of the writer and examines their relevance to the thematic preoccupation of the writer. The study attempts various definitions of the concept Language  as well as its supposed  origin and  goes on to discuss  the controversy  that surrounds  Language  especially  the problem of meaning and meaning making and also whether  thought  comes  before utterance  and vice-versa.  The thesis tries to show that African Literature is an archetype of African Orature and this has to bear semblance to the mother   archetype.  Theoretically  the  study  utilizes  sociolinguistic  concepts  such  as Acrolects, Mesolects and Basolects as applied in the chosen texts. The Road, Beatification of Area Boy, From Zia with Love and Requiem for a Futurologist. The deployment of the three major dialectal concepts in the analysis of Soyinka’s drama  has yielded a socio- linguistic theoretical model that is applicable not only to the works of Soyinka but other Nigerian and indeed, African Playwrights.



The language of Wole Soyinka’s texts has generated a fair amount of controversy. In the views of Chinweizu, Soyinka’s “syntax is Shakespearean” (79), by which he means archaic. Such views like that of Chinweizu have given birth to the myth that Soyinka’s language  makes  his  text  incomprehensible.  Thus  one  can  comfortably  conclude  that Soyinka’s  literary language  constitutes a problem both  for the scholar  and the general reader of his texts.  If many readers give up after the first few pages of his texts, it could be summarized that few understand Soyinka’s works in any depths.

A writer’s language and the style he employs depict the image of his personality and the particular circumstances of his society. It is through the use of language and style that he reflects his individual awareness of a given situation.   Several questions can be asked in this regard: What particular values does Soyinka uphold or oppose in each of the chosen plays? What is his attitude to them? What variety of English does he work within each play? In what occasions and for what purposes does he employ a particular language and style?

This study will pay considerable attention to the problem of appropriateness in the chosen plays of Soyinka. Gumpers and Hymes define appropriateness as “a specification of what kinds of things to say in what message forms to what kinds of people and in what kinds of situations”. (64)

The  point  of  view  that  is  now  fairly  accepted  is  that  for  English  to  express adequately the way of life of a people with a different culture, it must ensure some internal structural changes. Nigerian playwrights who use English as their creative medium do so consciousness  of the fact that they are representing  a  Nigerian experience.  It is in an attempt to apply English to a wide variety of local  situations that we have varieties of English in Nigerian plays.

Oladele Taiwo has identified “five varieties of English that are commonly used by Nigerian  writers”  (96  –  101).  The  first  variety  of  English  occurs  where  the  writer’s language is closely tied to that of his mother tongue and transliterates into English. The Palm-wine  Drunkard  by Amos Tutuola  is a very good  example  of  this  variety which Taiwo brands as ‘variety one’.

The second  variety,  or ‘variety two’, is the variety of English that imitates  the language of the character speaking the lines. This is to be found in texts that stand closest to the roots of oral tradition. This is the language of folktales.

Variety three is said to be that which merely benefits from the resources of  the mother tongue. Characters created in this group speak in proverbs and get to the roots of the local culture in their conversation. Good examples can be cited in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman and Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to  Blame,  to mention these two. Although the original speech may be in Yoruba like in the case of Soyinka, the English version is made to retain the flavour of the original Yoruba language.

The fourth variety of English  tends  to be extremely  formal  and  difficult.  The content remains African, but for the most part, there is nothing particularly African in the expressions. According to Taiwo, “The degree of stylization and sophistication which this variety of English requires is both questionable from the point of view of appropriateness and appeal. This variety is sometimes characterized by empty sloganizing and journalistic English (100).

The fifth variety, Pidgin English, is a more hopeful medium of expression which has great creative potential. However, this potential has not been fully utilized. Soyinka especially in his later plays, which will be treated in this thesis, has used Pidgin English effectively.

Pidgin English has been accepted  as a distinct variety which can be  effectively used to achieve a correlation between theme, character and situation. There might arise a

problem when the medium is employed in a manner which is unconvincing and therefore destroys the basis of effective characterization. In a second language literature, the use of language is affected by many factors. Oladele Taiwo opines that:

The  artistic  linguistic  competence,  the  kind  of  material  the  writer  is handling, what he intends to make of this material and the kind or type of audience he has in mind (11).

Although, many of the writers of modern African literature use English as the language of expression,  they do so, conscious of the fact that they wish to convey  typical African experiences.  Because  Soyinka  is looking at a Nigerian  audience,  he  employs  multiple linguistic resources like the inclusion of Yoruba songs and the introduction of characters speaking pidgin.

In Africa,  even  in modern  Africa,  the  spoken  word  still  has  an  extraordinary power. It is not considered time wasted for a character to spin out a thought in a string of proverbs. This is because the word could be a very good substitute for action. Soyinka’s plays reflect the elevated position, the almost magical status of words in oral tradition.

Soyinka’s dream for Nigerian theatre is to produce a theatre which has its roots in the Nigerian tradition and speaks to Nigeria through that tradition. For long periods in The Road,  for instance,  the  story does  not move.  The  appeal  is mainly  to  the  ear  (other Nigerian examples are The Raft and Ozidi by J.P. Clark). Because of the importance of the ear in Soyinka’s drama, he pays careful attention to the language of his characters.

One problem that African writers encounter is how to produce the right register in English for characters who are presumed to be speaking an African language.  Soyinka deals with this problem very well. A fair impression of his range of registers is seen in The Trials of Brother Jero. The burden of the dialogue is carried by a colloquial form which varies according to character and situation. Amope, a housewife and trader, uses this kind of language, as can be noticed in the play. She is always either complaining or quarrelling

201. However, Brother Jero also uses this form for ordinary dialogue but his professional register is a highly rhetorical one, with references to biblical idioms 230.

The  problem  for  a  writer  creating  in  a  second  language  is  that  he  or  she  is invariably trying in his work to present a multilingual society in which the  standard or variety of the language is spoken only by an infinitesimal proportion of the population. How  often does he present  his characters  in drama  and  which part  or section  of the population are represented by his work?

Generally speaking, some Nigerian dramatists of English expression speak in their own voices. There is enough evidence linguistically,  to suggest that most  characters in Soyinka’s play for example are Soyinka himself. We can reach this conclusion simply by examining the lexis and structure of the language of his plays which point to a man of his education and command of the English language.

It is certainly to be expected that a second language does bear the marks of the user’s first language and this is all the more so when the user is a creative artist using the language with a high degree of consciousness. Even an artist creating in his mother tongue has enough difficulty using that medium to fully express his meaning. In such a situation, the metaphorical use of language may come to his aid.

When the writer  is creating  in a second  language,  however,  he  has  the  added problem which is that he is using that medium to explore a territory that is unfamiliar with his mother tongue. But this diffic

ulty is compensated for by the fact that he has the resources, not of one language but two or more, to help him to cope with the task. It is therefore not surprising that, for example, much of African literature of English expression reveals figurative expressions derived not only from English but from African languages as well.

Particularly   difficult   for   any   bilingual   African   writer   in   English   is   the representation of the African world view. The main problem here is that each language has both universal and local semantic rules. This is why Adejare opines that:

In using a foreign language to transmit the experiences normally coded by an  indigenous   language,   ambiguities   may  arise  from  the   divergence between the local semantic of the inter acting language (193).

Nudity in public for instance, is mostly universally translated as a sign of madness in the semiotics of most languages of the world. On the other hand, a clean-shaven head in the semiotics of the languages of most Nigerians means ‘bereavement’, in contrast with the semiotics of British English where it means ‘social rebel’.

Thus, without intending it, texts produced  by bilinguals,  whose mother  tongues have different local semiotics from that of the English language may be misinterpreted. A writer,  therefore,  has to  maintain  the delicate   balance  between  representing  the local semiotic of his language in his works and ensuring that the semiotic does not lead to a misreading of his work. Soyinka tackles this problem  by  employing the use of “code- switching, use of duplicative metaphorical equivalents, collocational peculiarities and, at the extreme, code-mixing” (193).

When a concept  or idea has no satisfactory  English equivalent,  Soyinka  code- switches, retaining the Yoruba lexical item in the text. For instance, “To search for leaves and make ETUTU on the spot” (Death and The King’s Horseman. 12). When this occurs, the reader is reminded not to interpret the passage within English semiotics.

Collocational  peculiarities  are  often  used  to  indicate  Yoruba  semiotics.  The collocation of “husband and father”, as an appositional structure, in “tonight our husband and  father  will prove  himself”  (Death  and  The King’s  Horseman.  36).  This  violates English kinship terms where husband and father would suggest an incestuous relationship.

But  it  is  perfectly  in  order  in  the  semiotic  of  most  African  languages  where  both

“husband” and “father” have different semiotic values in this context.


Many   years   ago,   renowned   writer,   Chinua   Achebe,   made   the   following proclamation;

You cannot cram African literature into a small neat definition. If you take Nigeria as an example, the national literature as I see it, is the  literature written in English 27 – 50

Many  years  after  this  proclamation,  Nigeria  (and  Pan-African)  scholars  have assessed and reassessed the desired role of English – a primarily colonial language that Achebe claims was “forced down our throats” – within Nigerian literature. The ideological debate regarding what ought to characterize  and constitute  Nigerian literature(s)  in the post-colonial  era has raged on so far. Differing points  of  view have emerged over the decades,  as  scholars  have  debated  the  role  of  formal  colonial  languages  in  National Literatures. The Nigerian context of this debate thus must be considered within  the larger. Black  –  African  context  of  academics,  authors  and  scholars,  who  historically,  have simultaneously staged the language debate in both national and continental arena.

In  Achebe’s  article  cited  above,  he  makes  a  clear  distinction  between  ethnic literatures and what he envisions as National Nigerian Literature. “I hope” he says, “that there always will be men, like the late Chief Fagunwa, who will choose to write in their native tongue and ensure that our ethnic literatures will flourish side  by side with the national  ones (18).  For Achebe,  ethnic and national  literatures  can coexist,  occupying different  ideological  niches, respectively.  It is however  undoubtedly English that must serve as a unifying, national language of literature despite its primarily colonial inception in Nigeria, a historical fact that Achebe does not hesitate to acknowledge, thus:

What are the factors which have conspired to place English in the position of National Languages in many parts of Africa? Quite simply the reason is that those nations were created in the first place by the intervention of the British (29).

While Achebe here acknowledges the imperial implications of English language use,  he cannot ignore its functions and status as a national Nigerian – and largely Pan-African – Lingua Franca.

… There are scores of languages; I would want to learn if it were possible. Where  am  I to  find  the time to  learn the  half  a dozen or  so  Nigerian languages each of which can sustain a literature? These languages will just have to develop as tributaries to feed the one  central language enjoying nation-wide  currency.  Today,  for  good  or  ill,  that  language  is  English, tomorrow it may be something else, although I very much doubt it (28).

Achebe here recognizes English’s function as an effective link language in the rich linguistic economy of Nigeria, described above. It is notable that Achebe imbibes English with the capability of sustaining and nourishing a truly national language of literature, a language of “mutual communication” between African writers and the reading populace at large, he is also careful not to attribute to English any inherent ideological value. While he acknowledges  its  colonial,  imperial  past  Achebe  asserts  that  at  its  present  historical moment  English  has  primarily  utilitarian  purposes:  it  is  a  useful  “world  language”. Achebe, moreover, even goes as far as to assert that the African writer should not attempt to write English as a native speaker might. It is “neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so” (18). The English language, and not the African writer, should be the one to bend, asserts Achebe, and  made to serve the unique needs of the African writer but without  sacrificing  the  language’s  mutual intelligibility.  While  English provides  many possible modes of artistic expression and is a language medium that Achebe feels capable of holding  the weight  of  his African  experience,  English  remains  a tool,  a  relatively apolitical artistic medium, nonetheless.

In a conference on Commonwealth Literature held in Leeds in September of 1964, just after the initial publication of Achebe’s famous article, J.O. Ekpeyong enthusiastically

– arguably even  more so than Achebe – argued that “the introduction of English as the official language is one of the greatest benefits of colonialism in Nigeria” (144). Ekpeyong explicitly cites Achebe’s recently published article and argues that:

to level headed people, English does not seem to have a stiff competition with  any  indigenous   language  of  election  into  the   chair  of  official languages, for strictly speaking, it is not a foreign language in Nigeria. By the peculiar circumstance of her birth, Nigeria was born into English as the mother tongue (149).

It has been claimed that in 1964, Achebe was in fact directly responding to those like Obiajunwa  Wali, who, in his article “The Dead End of African Literature”, which appeared  in  Transition  in  1963,  argued  that  “African  languages  will  face  inevitable extinction if they do not embody some kind of intelligent literature” (335). He lamented that the student of African languages such as Yoruba, had “no play available to him in that language, for Wole Soyinka, the most gifted Nigerian playwright at the moment, does not consider Yoruba suitable” (335).

One of Wali’s chief anxieties  in this article  was the fact that because  African writers were increasingly writing in the English language, their creative endeavours were being collectively understood only as a union appendage in the mainstream of European literature” (332). Wali feels that both African creative writers and literary critics read and devour European literature and critical methods, thus their works are seen in terms not only  of  the  classical  past  of  Aristotle  and  the  Greeks,  but of  the  current  Tennessee

Williams and the absurdists. In this kind of literary analysis, one just parrots Aristotle and the current clichés of the American new critics.

The consequences of this kind of literature according to Wali:

is that it lacks blood and stamina, and has no mean of self enrichment. The overwhelming majority of the local audience, with little or no education in the continental  European manner,  has no chance of  participating  in this kind of literature. Less than one percent of the Nigerian population have the ability to understand Wole Soyinka’s “A Dance of the Forests”. Yet it was staged to celebrate their national independence” (322).

For Wali, a literature that is truly African should or ought not to be written in English, he sees  this  as  an  irreconcilable  contradiction.  He  ,  moreover,  suggests  reforms  in  the Nigerian and black education system in which young people are, he feels, not taught to “devote their tremendous gifts and abilities to their own languages” (334).

Other scholars, such as Ngugi Wa Thiongo, who is from Kenya in East  Africa, have also  vociferously  argued  that English  is absolutely antithetical  to the  indigenous writer’s expression of imperial resistance. Sentiments such as these are, of course, based upon the assumption that writing for the African scholar or author of serious literatures is always already a political act. While Achebe does not ignore the political ramifications of writing in English versus traditionally indigenous languages, such as Hausa or Yoruba, he is heavily invested in a politics of aesthetics, which informs his claim that English is a language that can and must be used as a form of  primarily artistic national expression. Notably,  however,  arguments  for and against  the use of English  in Nigeria  and black African literature have not always followed a clear historical trajectory; rather, both sides have been engaged in our ongoing dialectical debate over the past several decades.

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