Tag Archives: words

The Power of Vocabulary in Post-Colonial Discourse

1 Feb

Throughout the text for class, Said stresses the importance of considering the discourse that surrounds post-imperialism. One point that I find particularly interesting within this discussion is about vocabulary and words themselves. He writes in his chapter “Overlapping Territories” that “Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination: the vocabulary of class nineteenth-century imperial culture is plentiful with words and concepts like “inferior” or “subject races,” “subordinate peoples,” “dependency,” “expansion,” and “authority” (9).  The idea that words alone can become a powerful tool not just for thought but for actions, impelling and moving forward something as large and global as imperialism is worth serious consideration – especially in this course, as it is  a point carried implicitly throughout many of the other texts that we have read thus far this semester.

 For example, Brantlinger addresses the use of the word “native,” on page 193 of his Geneology of the “Dark Continent” where he writes “Ian Watt identifies nine possible models for Kurtz, and the very number suggests how common it was to go native.” He treats this phrase almost flippantly, equating it with the idea of the “savage” and yet at the same time revealing the way in which a seemingly neutral word (in this case meaning literally native to the land in which one lives) can develop a nuanced and decidedly negative connotation in the context of post-colonial studies.

 However, I think that this notion of Said’s is complicated particularly by something that Achebe writes at the beginning of his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.” He writes of a high school student, “one of them was particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe.”  In this case, I think Achebe intends for the “customs” and “superstitions” to carry those implications that Said claims are implicit in the words he mentions above. However, this is problematic, because we are also supposed to understand that on some level, this student “doesn’t know any better.” This is not so much a case of words being used to dominate or control, but rather words carrying a sense of domination (perhaps) without the intention behind them. Without going so far as to delve into Stanley Fish (at least in this short post), I do still propose that this is an issue worth thinking about. What does it mean when the weight a word carries becomes implicit in the word itself rather than its use? Can we “reclaim” words like “expansion,” or “native,” or is Said correct in thinking that there is a power to them that has spiraled out of our control?