I recently read two articles and a book about language and its relationship with African literature. Though I am focusing on music and not literature, the articles offered some important points in regards to how language and culture are related and how English spread through colonialism.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes that English is often considered “the Empire’s gift to the world”; the British forced English upon their colonies since they considered African languages uncivilized.
Language is both a communication system and a carrier of culture. Language can also be a means of memory. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o explains that while people in a certain country may be bilingual, their second language typically does not contain their culture, the second language is only a language for communicating with outsiders. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o uses the example of Sweden and Denmark in comparison to England. In England, English is the main language and has cultural significance for the country. Sweden and Denmark speak Swedish and Danish respectively, which carries the cultures of their countries. The people also learn English at a young age, but, unlike in England, English is only used for communicating with non-Scandinavians and does not have a role in their cultures. Yet, if we look at countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili has become a language for communication with other neighboring African languages but it also has cultural significance for those who speak it as their mother tongue.
These concepts can be tied back to the rise of English in music. Countries that speak English due to colonialism (i.e. United States, Australia, Canada, Kenya) sing in English and their songs have a cultural connection to the language. While some countries who were colonized sing in both English and their native or local languages, the English songs are more likely to be well known. English songs are more likely to become popular worldwide; the more popular you are the more money and fame you will get, so there is an incentive for singing in English. This leads to artists who do not speak English as their first language or live in a country where English is not the predominant language to sing in English. In this case, English is more of a means of communication rather than a carrier of culture, especially when songs are sung in a style of music that comes from another country or region. This can be tricky if this genre becomes a part of the culture of the country since it is a cultural blending and is not “pure culture” anymore.
Articles and Book:
“The Language of African Literature”- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
“Something Torn and Something New: An African Renaissance”- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
“The African Writer and the English Language”- Chinua Achebe