The Art of Conversation Proverbs in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was published in 1958. Although Achebe published several other literary works after this novel (including No Longer At Ease, The Arrow of God, and Anthills of The Savannah), Things Fall Apart is generally acclaimed as the most popular and the most celebrated of all his works. The novel has been adapted for production on the stage, on radio and on television. It has been translated into 50 different languages with over ten million copies sold around the world. This is an unparalleled accomplishment by any other literary work from Africa.

Several factors are responsible for the overwhelming success of Things Fall Apart. Prominent among these is Achebe’s capacity to recreate and project African worldviews and socio-cultural values by means of the English Language. According to David Lodge (quoted in Roger Fowler’s Languages of Literature), the novelist’s medium is language. Whatever one does as a novelist is done in and through language. A novelist employs language to create a literary world, project characters and situations, give credibility to the narrative and sustain the attention and readership of the audience. The success of any work of literary art is largely dependent on the capacity of the author to creatively manipulate language to achieve their purpose.

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe adopts and adapts the English Language as a means of access to Igbo indigenous culture, aesthetics and cosmology. This, he does in creating an authentic African story that effectively bridges the cultural and linguistic gap between Igbo and non-Igbo readers by using Igbo speech patterns and linguistic features. One of such features is Achebe’s use of proverbs. Proverbs are essential elements of traditional rhetorical strategies of the Igbo people. The more effective a person is in the use of proverbs, the more proficient they are said to be in the art of conversation.

According to S.A. Alimi in his 2012 essay, ‘A Study on the Use of Proverbs as a Device in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God’, ‘Language is a tool which any author uses to describe his characters’ appearances, actions, habits and inner feelings and thought’. In Things Fall Apart, proverbs contribute to the linguistic competence of the characters and their overall level of proficiency in the art of conversation within the Igbo socio-cultural context.

Proverbs: The ‘Quintessence of People’s Collective Wisdom’

The word proverb has been defined in so many ways that in his book, A Collection of African Proverbs, Michael J.K. Bokor asserts that ‘the exact definition of a proverb is no easy matter’. According to The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary, a proverb is ‘a pithy saying, especially one condensing the wisdom of experience; adage, saying, maxim’. For Bokor, a proverb is ‘a saying in more or less fixed form marked by shortness, sense and salt’. The term ‘sense and salt’ as used by Bokor implies wisdom and beauty. The implication is that proverbs are not only words of wisdom, they are also couched in aesthetics. Bokor argues further that in addition to terseness and relative fixity, most sayings classified as proverbs are also marked by some kind of poetic quality in style and sense, and are, in this way, set apart from more straightforward maxims.

In A Stylistic Analysis of Proverbs in Selected Yoruba Written Literature, Esther Titilayo Ojo defines proverbs as ‘brief statements showing condensed form of the accumulated life experience of the community and serving as conventional practical symbols of abstract ideas’. To Adeyemi Lawal ‘Politics and Proverbs in Olu Owolabi’s Ote Nibo’ and Jibola Biodun’s Adiye ba lokun in Language, Gender and Politics’ (2009) proverbs ‘represent the quintessence of people’s collective wisdom, sustained and transmitted from generation to generation’.

It can be generally agreed that proverbs are words of wisdom.  They are couched in concise statements. They are also a product of the cumulative knowledge and experience of the society. That is why proverbs are often identified with the elderly members of the society. Thus, Ojo submits that ‘they are repository words of wisdom, and elders are the custodians of them’.

Proverbs are an essential ingredient of communication in Africa and literary works by African authors are laced in proverbs. Proverbs among the Yoruba are likened to a horse, which according to Bernth Lindfors, in his study of Yoruba proverbs ‘can be employed not only to retrieve communication gone astray but to speed it up, slow it down, convey weighty messages, deliver light-hearted jests, sharpen arguments, blunt criticism, clarify difficult ideas and disguise simple ones beyond easy recognition’. Expressing the place of proverbs as a rich communication resource in Ghana, Joseph Nketia has noted that ‘the value of proverb in modern Ghana does not lie in what it reveals of the thoughts of the past’. He submits further that for the poet, and indeed the speaker and the creative writer, ‘proverb is a model of compressed or forceful language’.

In Things Fall Apart Achebe writes that among the Ibo, ‘the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten’. As palm oil serves as a natural sauce for boiled yam, so are proverbs used in rendering oral speech among the Igbo.

Proverbs find critical relevance in African literature in that they are a rich source of imagery used to express abstract ideas through compressed, pungent and poetic phraseology. The figurative quality of proverbs, their sharp, vivid and deeply penetrating imagery and their capacity to convey weighty messages usually in metaphorical form are especially striking and provide a rich linguistic resource for the creative writer.

Proverbs constitute a profound linguistic feature founded on the experience of the author, observations from their social environment or even the spiritual world. Therefore, it is clear, as Boko has submitted, that proverbs encapsulate important aspects of the diverse socio-cultural values of their users. An understanding of their meaning, usage and effect can only be possible, then, when they are situated within their socio-cultural milieu. The study of the effects of proverbs in Things Fall Apart can be best done if we situate the novel within its socio-cultural context.

Therefore, a sociolinguistic approach is adopted as the theoretical framework for this study. This is to enable us to find a social explanation for the meaning and the effects of proverbs in the novel within the context of Igbo culture, the social background of the author.

‘Literature as Social Discourse’

Sociolinguistics is that branch of Linguistic Studies that studies language in relation to society. While Descriptive Linguistics studies the structures and the formal features of the language, Sociolinguistics accounts for the social circumstances of language use.

Basic to Sociolinguistics is the concept of language variation. Stressing the centrality of language variation to the concern of sociolinguistics, in The Sociolinguistic Analysis of Natural Language, Michael Stubbs states: ‘Sociolinguistics covers a wide range of studies of how language is used in its social context, but all these studies have one thing in common: they deal with language variation’.

Sociolinguistics’ approach is particularly very relevant as a critical model because there is an intricate relationship between language and society on the one hand and literature and society on the other. In every society, there are different kinds of people and different social structures. There are the elderly people and the young, the educated, semi-educated and the illiterate. There are also people of different religions, economic and political backgrounds and leanings, among others. All these categories of people make use of language in their own specific ways to fulfil different communication objectives. Therefore, for every society, you have different varieties of language, reflecting its social diversity.

Just as there are varieties of language in the society, the language of literature is also varied and stratified. When the literary author writes, they create an illusion of reality and invite readers to decode their message by inference, using knowledge of the real world. In the words of Roger Fowler (Literature As Social Discourse), the novelist creates the world, an analysis or representation of the world in the normal way in which a journalist, historian or regular writer does.

Arising from the above, a sociolinguistic approach to the analysis of the language of literature sees the empirical world and the literary world as similar, the difference being that one is real while the other is imaginary. In fact, Mikhail Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, has proposed that the only linguistic model that can give full account of the social structures and motivations for the use of language in literature is Sociolinguistic criticism.

Sociolinguistics as a theoretical model, was used by James Omole in his 1985 PhD dissertation to analyse the use of language in Wole Soyinka’s novel, The Interpreters. I also used it in my 2004 PhD dissertation to analyse the Lexico-Grammatical Devices in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Omole and I also adopted the model in our 2015 sample analysis of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. In our article titled ‘Towards A Sociolinguistic Study of African Literature’, we illustrated copiously, how the use of Standard English on the one hand and the use of pidgin, African Speech Initiators, proverbs, bits and pieces of Igbo words and other nativized rhetorical strategies have served as sociolinguistic tools for projecting and differentiating the African and European worldviews in contact in the novels. As shown in our sample analysis, language variation in the novels is a critical tool for characterisation, class relation, socio-cultural background among others. In Things Fall Apart, for example, Achebe creates two broad societies in conflict – the Igbo traditional society and the society of the white intruders. Within these societies, we have different structures and institutions. On the one hand, we have the council of elders Ndichie, the spiritual leaders like the priestess of Agbala and Ezeulu, age grade and kingship systems within the Igbo society. On the other hand, we have administrative and missionary leaders in the white man’s community. All these classes of people are projected and clearly differentiated in the novel by means of language. For example, while the speeches of the native elders are laced by idioms, proverbs, speech initiators, local address forms etc, all these linguistics features are totally absent in the speeches of the white man.

The Effects of Proverbs in the Novel

A work of literary arts consists of several heterogeneous stylistic features located at different linguistic levels. By using language creatively, the literary artist brings their perception, philosophy, worldviews and sensation to bear in a literary work, with a view to accomplishing specific artistic and aesthetic purposes.

A linguistic feature has an effect if its pattern of occurrence is such that it displays some striking uniqueness in its contribution to the content and form of the text. And proverbs had major effects on Things Fall Apart.

At the beginning of Things Fall Apart, when Achebe, in the mouth of his omniscient narrator writes that ‘among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten’, he is inviting his readers to pay special attention to the use of proverbs in the novel. His emphasis, therefore, is that proverbs are an essential ingredient of the art of conversation among Igbo people; a veritable component of their linguistic repertoire. He was also alluding to the fact that proverbs are essentially a reflection of the users’ mastery of the use of language as it adds beauty and flavour to the art of conversation. Just as the roasted or boiled yams taste better or sweeter when eaten with palm oil, so is conversation sweeter and more edifying when laced with proverbs.

From Things Fall Apart, it is not only evident that proverbs are a component of Igbo linguistic features. Achebe suggests proverbs are also used as a device with specific effects: they help in defining characters, clarifying issues not overtly stated and enriching the process of conversation. For example, when Okonkwo went to Nwakibie to beg for seed yams through the share-cropping arrangement and was presenting a gift of kola nut and palm wine to Nwakibie, Okonkwo said: ‘I have brought you this little kola. As our people say, a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness’.

This quote is an indication of Okonkwo’s recognition of Nwakibie as a great man in the land and his desire to be like him. It not only shows an act of deep respect of Okonkwo for Nwakibie, but also reveals Okonkwo’s inner desire to be a great man himself. Although these are not overtly stated, we can infer Okonkwo’s reverence for Nwakibie and his personal ambition from the proverb.

While praying earlier, Nwakibie had said:

We shall all live. We pray for life, children, good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and let the egret perch too. If one says no to another, let its wing break.

Here, Nwakibie is praying for good things for all. In the proverb, he is saying that the sky is wide enough to accommodate all birds, both the weak and the strong, adding that anyone who says the other should not perch or rest, shall be incapacitated. The image of the kite and egret above are a reflection of the strong and the weak in the society, while the allusion to ‘no’ is the spirit of jealousy and oppression. This brings to mind the popular saying that whosoever digs a pit of death for his fellow man shall die in it. Clearly Nwakibie believes in the spirit of communal living and every citizen has the freedom to aspire to any position in the society. Anybody who does not want the progress of his kinsman is regarded as evil who must not be allowed to live. This is what has been clearly indicated in Nwakibie’s prayer.

Still discussing in Nwakibie’s house, Ogbuefi Idigbo, another elder, raises the issue of the palm wine tapper, Obiako’s sudden death:

There must be something wrong with it; he said wiping the foam of wine from his moustache with the back of his hand. There must be a reason for it. A toad does not run in the day time for nothing.

The proverb relating to the toad emphasizes that Obiako’s death is not natural but caused by some mysterious forces. This properly aligns with the repetition ‘there must be something wrong with it… there must be a reason for it’ made earlier in the passage by Ogbuefi Idigbo.

Describing Obiako as a strange man, Nwakibie says that at one time, Obiako had gone to consult the oracle who told him that his dead father wanted him to sacrifice a goat for him. In response, Obiako had said to the diviner:

ask my father if he ever had a fowl while he was alive. Everybody laughed heartily except Okonkwo who laughed uneasily, because as the saying goes, an old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb. Okonkwo remembered his own father.

Although we are simply told that Okonkwo laughed uneasily, the expression ‘Okonkwo remembered his own father’ after the proverb is an invitation of the readers to see Obiako and Okonkwo’s father as birds of the same feathers. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, was a loafer, a poor, lazy man who died miserably in the evil forest and was not better than Obiako’s father. Therefore, Okonkwo had no moral justification to laugh heartily over the poverty of another man’s father—a very weighty message rendered by means of a proverb.

With all the discussions and jokes over, Okonkwo explained the purpose of his visit to Nwakibie:

I have come to you for help; he said. Perhaps you can already guess what it is. I have cleared a farm but have no yams to sow. I know what it is to ask a man to trust another with his yams, especially these days when young men are afraid of hard work. The lizard who jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did. I began to fend for myself at an age when most people suck at their mother’s breast. If you give me some yam seeds, I shall not fail you.

The proverb about the lizard not only coveys a message for Okonkwo, it also evinces his character and personality. Through the proverb, Okonkwosays that he would praise himself having, despite all odds, accomplished fame and fortune. Indeed, Achebe had at the beginning of the novel stated that:

Okonkwo was well known through out the nine villages and beyond. His fame had rested on his solid personal achievement. As a young man, he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the cat… and during this time, Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush fire at harmattan.

By talking about his achievements before elders who know the circumstance of his birth and rise to fortune, Okonkwo was merely stating the obvious and presenting himself as a proud man.

Moreover, the lizard proverb serves to further buttress the point that Okonkwo had the requisite capacity to deliver to Nwakibie on his promise if entrusted with seed yams.

In turn, Nwakibie expresses his reason for being selfish with his seed yams and also openly acknowledges Okonkwo’s outstanding competence with the following proverb:

Eneke the bird says that since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching. I have learnt to be stingy with my yams. But I can trust you. I know it as I look at you. As our fathers said, you can tell a ripe corn by its look. I shall give you twice Four hundred yams.

In the above passage, there are two proverbs. The first has to do with Eneke the bird. This proverb is used to justify Nwakibie’s resolve to be selfish with his yams. He likened himself to a bird who can only be shot when it perches and gives the hunter an opportunity for a careful aim. The hunter here refers to young farmers who obtain seed yams on loan without fulfilling their obligation. Arising from several instances of such disappointment, Nwakibie has resolved to be selfish with his seed yams and not give younger men the opportunity to disappoint him.

The second proverb gives a twist to the first. While Nwakibie is now selfish with his seed yams, he is, however, ready to give Okonkwo twice the number he has requested for because ‘As our fathers said, you can tell a ripe corn from its look’.

In other words, Nwakibie is saying that from Okonkwo’s record of accomplishments, he can trust that Okonkwo is not the kind of man that disappoints. This serves to show the implicit confidence Nwakibie has for Okonkwo.

Another instance where Okonkwo’s personality has been so clearly projected by means of proverbs is when he was preparing to return to Umuofia from Mbanta after his seven years of exile in his motherland. Achebe writes: ‘Okonkwo never did things by halves’. When his wife Ekwefi protested that two goats were sufficient for the feast, he told her that it was not her issue to worry about.

I am calling the feast because I have the wherewithal. I cannot live at the bank of a river and wash my hand with spittle. My mother’s people have been good to me and I must show them gratitude.

The allusion to ‘living at the bank of the river’ above points to the prosperity of Okonkwo while washing hands with spittle refers to penury, want or stinginess. What Okonkwo is saying here is that he cannot be a wealthy man and do things like a pauper. While the message is clear that Okonkwo is generous, selfless and open-handed, it also shows the trait of pride in him.

Addressing his kinsmen at the venue of the feast, Okonkwo said:

A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gathered together in the Moonlight village ground, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.

The above goes to underscore Okonkwo’s understanding of the spirit of communalism in Umofia’s society, a philosophy several non-fictional African societies share.

Proverbs are also a means by which Okonkwo defines his son, Nwoye, and bares his inner feelings about him. Expressing his concern for Nwoye’s laziness to his friend, Obierika, Okonkwo says ‘But I can tell you Obierika, that my children do not resemble me. Where are the young suckers that will grow when the old banana tree dies?’ Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son does not show any prospect of stepping into his father’s shoes, hence the proverb. While Obierika tries to convince Okonkwo that Nwoye is still very young, Okonkwo responds: ‘No my friend, he is not too young. A chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted the very day it hatches’.

To Okonkwo, Nwoye does not have the potential of a man because he is not exhibiting such qualities. Nwoye is already manifesting at his youth, the qualities of a weakling like Unoka, his lazy, heavily indebted and title-less grandfather. Maduka, Obierika’s son had taken after him and was learning very fast. Of Maduka, Obierika’s elder brother says: ‘When mother cow is chewing grass, the young one watches its mouth. Maduka has been watching your mouth’.

By means of the foregoing proverbs, we can clearly see the differences between Nwoye and Maduka. While the former is lazy and lacks the capacity to take after his father as a viable ‘young sucker’ waiting to blossom into a flourishing banana tree, the latter is a strong and hardworking young man who is learning fast from his father just the same way the young cow learns how to chew the grass from its mother.

Another proverb in the novel that provides a glimpse into the Igbo social setting says, ‘when the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk’. This proverb is used to depict the social life of Igbo communities at night. At such nights, children would troop out according to their age grades to regale themselves with hilarious songs, stories and jokes in a convivial atmosphere. So fascinating, warm and lively were such nights that even the ‘crippled’ desired to be part of the fun-filled activities that characterized the nights.

Justifying his involvement in the killing of Ikemefuna, Okonkwo, in reaction to Obierika’s opinion that it was wrong, said ‘A child’s finger is not scaled by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palms’. Essentially, Okonkwo was arguing that the decision that Ikemefuna should die was one the gods had taken and that, as such, the gods would not hold him responsible for taking part in the killing Ikemefuna. Among the Igbo of Umuofia, the gods are sacred, and their decision cannot be questioned.

Mastering the Art of Conversation

Achebe used many other proverbs to create specific effects in the novel. What is clear is that Achebe was aware that proverbs are a strong rhetorical tool with striking aesthetic and thematic effects. They contribute significantly to the content and form of the novel. Proverbs not only advance the plot and the theme of the novel, they also add flavour to the art of conversation, aid characterization and project the character’s capacity to manipulate language.

Proverbs are an essential linguistic feature in Achebe’s literary works and are not uncommon in African literature. Achebe carefully deployed this feature as a device to both thematic and aesthetic ends. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe demonstrates a remarkable mastery of the art of conversation. Not only does he use provers to define characters, clarify situations, convey weighty messages, and differentiate African elders from the intruding European missionaries—as a social device; he also employs proverbs as a literary device, a way of adding flavour to the narrative. This makes the story concrete, pungent, vivid, real and authentic

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