A note on Colonial Language(s)

November 12, 2009 by baukinyan · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

Fanon’s central argument, in my opinion, is quite ubiquitously accepted: that “language is power because words construct reality” (Bill Ashcroft). As he puts it, “the Negro wants to speak French because it is the key that can open doors which were still barred to him fifty years ago” (38).

What I do not agree with, however, is this: To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. (38) There is an ambiguity in the words “take on” and the subject to which this verb-phrase refers to.

To me, speaking a language does not necessarily assimilate / acculturate its speaker into the world or culture in which it belongs. In fact, I would argue that one can become even more distanced from that ‘world’ by the awareness of the power imbued in a colonial language that was (is?) used to subjugate its colonized subjects.

We can surely see this in Portrait, where Stephen realizes that the word ‘tundish’ he thought belonged to his native language is actually English: “The language in which we are speaking is his (the English dean’s) before it is mine” (146). Arguably, therefore, this might be the reason why Fanon immediately qualifies the subject in the second sentence – it is those who “wants to be white” who “will be the whiter”, and not just any one who “gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is”.

Mastery of a language need not (only) be aggrandizing it, surely?

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One Comment so far ↓

  • adelinekoh

    This is a really interesting point you’re raising, KY.

    Read Peiyi’s point on the subject–I think how she reads Fanon directly relates to your argument.