The hope that language offers

Fanon’s article “The Negro and Language” mentions how white men have a tendency to ‘talk down’ to natives, citing the example of the priest who spoke pidgin-nigger to Achille. Fanon then asserts that white men “talking to Negroes in this way gets down to their level, it puts them at ease, it is an effort to make them understand us, it reassures them” (32).

Upon reading this, I was strongly reminded of what Ellis said to his servant in Burmese Days:

“Don’t talk like that, damn you – ‘I find it very difficult!’ Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can’t keeping ice cool’ – that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick servants who talk English” (Orwell 26).

These few sentences perfectly encapsulate what Fanon is getting at; Ellis demonstrating exactly how the servant “ought to talk” reflects how the “European has a fixed concept of the Negro” (35) as linguistically inferior, and thus “nothing is more astonishing than to hear a black man express himself properly, for then in truth he is putting on the white world” (36). By speaking in proper English, the servant is demonstrating not just his mastery of the colonizer’s language, but also implies assimilation in the colonizer’s world (think about how the Negro ‘newcomer’ speaking only in French demonstrates “the extent of his assimilation” (36)). This is why Ellis says he will have to sack the servant if he speaks English too well, as that would break down the distinctions between colonizer and colonized, master and servant.

Speaking the colonizer’s language is therefore equivalent to taking on a world, a culture (Fanon 38). However, ‘talking down’ to the native is not merely about taking on a language that the colonized can understand. Rather, it is a means of reassuring the colonizer that he ‘talks down’ to the colonized because he KNOWS the limits of their comprehension, the impossibility of their understanding perfect English. It thus reinforces his superiority and justifies white rule. Knowledge is power, and the people who have the power to ‘know’ and to speak, are those who write history – think about Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, where he ‘knows’ the natives and thus has the power to write about them.

Therefore, “mastery of [the colonizer’s] language affords remarkable power” (Fanon 18) for the colonized, for it means the hope of being on the same level as the whites. However, in mastering and choosing to speak the colonizer’s language in his native land, the Negro newcomer is now seen as a “joke” (25) to his own people, an ‘Other’, as he is neither completely black nor white. It thus appears that mastery of the colonizer’s language is never a real solution, as not only does it compromise the Negro newcomer’s position among his people, he is never treated on equal grounds as the whites either. The issue of mastering the colonizer’s language is fraught with complexities. While it may not offer an infallible solution to raising the status of the colonized, seeming even like a delusion, it is perhaps all we have, and if we embrace it, we are in the very least offered the hope of reconciliation.

One thought on “The hope that language offers

  1. this is an excellent reading charlene, but the last paragraph left me a little confused. what do you mean by “the hope of reconciliation”? reconciled to whom/what?