Closer Readings Commentary

Crafting a “New” English in “Things Fall Apart”

There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

—Chinua Achebe

A CCSS Exemplar text for grades 9–10 (Appendix B), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart deals with the clash of cultures and the violent transitions brought about by British colonialism in Nigeria at the end of the 19th century.

Published in 1958, just before Nigerian independence, Achebe’s novel recounts the life of the village hero Okonkwo and describes the arrival of white missionaries in Nigeria during the late 1800s and their impact on traditional Igbo society. Achebe tried to achieve a “new” English that would capture and preserve the African experience of an Igbo village. Things Fall Apart made Achebe “the father of African literature.” Over the last decade, his novel has become a staple on high school reading lists worldwide.

EDSITEment offers a new World Literature lesson, A “New English” in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Common Core Exemplar. This lesson provides an opportunity to see how Achebe integrates elements from the Igbo oral tradition into his narrative: figurative language that draws on every-day village life; the ubiquitous proverbs of African conversation; and the folktales that both entertain and instruct. Students will undertake a close reading of passages in Things Fall Apart to evaluate the impact of Achebe’s linguistic and literary techniques on the narrative. This expands their cultural understanding and broadens their base of world literature.

Achebe’s New English

With a childhood in the Igbo town of Ogidi and an education in English at the University of Ibadan, Achebe was conversant with both Igbo and English language and culture. In a famous essay called “The African Writer and the English Language,” Achebe pointed out the difference between ethnic language and national language, which originated in the artificial drawing of national boundaries by the colonizing powers without regard to ethnic fault lines. Thus, the people of Nigeria speak numerous ethnic languages—Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani, and 500 additional languages. Achebe states that if he were to write for the people of Nigeria, he had to write in the one language they all understood: English.

Upon the author’s death in March 2013, NPR complied a number of interviews and broadcasts that had been conducted over the years to feature Achebe and speak to the legacy of Things Fall Apart.

Applications for the Common Core

A “New English” in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Common Core Exemplar offers an application for the Reading Literature Anchor standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Lesson activities guide students in an examination of the elements of Igbo oral tradition as they appear in Things Fall Apart. Activity 1 launches students into an interpretation of Igbo words and phrases Achebe molds into literary devices. They see firsthand how Achebe shaped the English of his novel to the African experience. Worksheet 1 provides a vehicle for students to identify the author’s figurative language and record the meaning of each Igbo simile. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Students move on to an examination of Igbo proverbs that Achebe peppers over his narrative to evoke a sense of time and place; set tone; convey mood; and provide local color. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

Finally students observe how Achebe plants several Igbo folktales at strategic points in the narrative. A close reading of these traditional African stories offers the American student a unique perspective into the Igbo people’s values and culture. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6 Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

The summative assessment has students consider how successful Achebe was in his stated intention to use the “English language to carry the weight of the African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”