Language is a vital part of Umuofia society. Strong orators like Ogbuefi Ezeugo are celebrated and given honorable burials. Because clan meetings are so important for organization and decision-making, these speakers play an important role for society. Storytelling is also a form of education for the clan—whether they're masculine war stories or feminine fables, storytelling defines different roles for clan members and moves them to action. Even western religion takes hold because of story and song: when Nwoye first hears a hymn, it marks the beginning of his transition from clan member to Christian.
The white District Commissioner also notes the importance of language to the Umuofia, but in a less generous light. When speaking with Obierika, he thinks: “One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words,” suggesting both the white men's condescension towards the Umuofia and how white language and culture will come to overtake that of Umuofia. At the end of the novel, the District Commissioner mentions the title of the book he plans to write about his experiences in Nigeria: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. The District Commissioner's proposed title here is itself wordy and grandiose—i.e. superfluous. But what distinguishes it from the Umuofia language is that it's book-learned—and it will be written down. The ability to read and write in English begins to represent power, as the white men provide more financial incentives for learning their language and more clan members choose to enroll in their schools.
Achebe's decision to transcribe several words from the Igbo language throughout the novel takes back some of this power, however, by suggesting that there are African ideas that cannot be adequately described in English. Achebe also uses repetition and idioms to create a more African style while writing in English. To add to this, what colonial rule and education unwittingly gave Nigerians was a common language with which to communicate with one another—by writing in English, Achebe is telling a story that people across Nigeria can comprehend, and by shaping it to his purposes, Achebe is claiming what was originally imposed.
Language Quotes in Things Fall Apart
Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.
Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.
Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string.
Even as a little boy he had resented his father's failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.
But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.
Okonkwo did as the priest said. He also took with him a pot of palm-wine. Inwardly, he was repentant. But he was not the man to go about telling his neighbors that he was in error. And so people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan.
Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell…
A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true—that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.
But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo's first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him…It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed.
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words, he thought.