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Literature is a verbal art. This means that it communicates through language. We know that language is used for communication generally in form of speech, conversation, gossips, admonitions, preaching, and teaching and in several other means of verbal communication. We are emphasizing verbal here because there are other forms of communication like signs, facial expression and others. This communication entails the use of words. Language in

literature is unique and expressive because it reveals the writer’s mind, his personal experience and perspective on the theme and subject matter of a particular work. In this article we will discuss the use of language in prose fiction which to a large extent determines the style of the writer.

Language in literature is unique because the writer uses words in their denotative and connotative senses. This is very important for the conveyance of not just the message of a particular work but also the desired emotion. He/she therefore employs the use of symbols and imagery to create the right emotion, atmosphere and tone in the works as the case may be. The writer also has the liberty of not using words in their conventional sense but to even invent words to suit a particular purpose. This is called poetic licence.


Language is the vehicle or channel of communication in all genres of literature but each genre has its own use of language that makes it unique or that is appropriate for its mode of presentation. In prose fiction the writer has an abundant time and space. You will recall our discussion on time and space in Module 1. The writer tells not just the story as it concerns events, incidents and situations but in the omniscient narration, probes the inner workings/feelings of a character. All these are presented in a particular language. The writer chooses the best words that would convey his message appropriately. He also chooses the particular language of communication. For instance, he may decide to write in his vernacular or a generallanguage like English. The way he presents his story through language is what we regard as the writer’s style.

Style is therefore not so much as what is written, but how it is written and interpreted. In prose fiction, style refers to language conventions used to construct the story. A fiction writer may manipulate diction, sentence structure, phrasing, dialogue, and other aspects of language to create his or her style. The communicative effect created by the author’s style is sometimes referred to as the story’s voice and every writer has his or her own unique style, or voice.

Style is sometimes listed as one of the fundamental elements of fiction. You may have heard people say that a particular writer’s style is accessible and that of the other one is obscure. Two Nigerian renowned writers, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka fall into this category. Achebe’s style is said to be accessible because of the simplicity of his language. Any average literate reader can read, understand and enjoy his novels at first reading. On the other hand, it is very difficult for the same reader to understand most of Soyinka’s novels at first reading. That reader needs a dictionary by his/her side and may have to read the novel several times to understand what it is the writer is trying to communicate.

Atmosphere and Tone

Atmosphere is defined as “the mood which is established by the totality of the literary work”(Harmsworth 12). AkachiEzeigbo defines it simply as the “the emotion which pervades…” any novel or story(24). It is the general feeling we get when we are reading a particular story. It could be an atmosphere of violence, harmony, peace, horror and so on. Atmosphere is evoked in a work through the writer’s manipulation of language. The writeruses his descriptive ability to convey or heighten the intensity of atmosphere in work.

Tone is closely related to atmosphere. It refers to the writer’s attitude to the idea/subject presented in the work. The writer’s tone to a large extent influences the perception of the ideas and events explored in the work. In real life, we say that it is not necessarily what is said but how it is said – the tone in which it is said. The tone of a writer could be any of the following: contempt, condemnation, hostility, admiration, censure, commendation, or exhortation. The tone in a particular novel could be one or a combination of two or more and is discernable, most of the times, in the attitude of the writer to particular characters.


Symbolism is the representation of one thing with another one that may not have a direct relationship with the original one. Symbol is a sign, shape, or object that represents a person, idea or value. AkachiEzeigbo explains that symbolism is a literary technique that allows the artist to attach symbolic meanings to particular objects, words and sounds … to generate meanings which are universally intelligible” (25) and acceptable. The commonest universally accepted symbol is the cross which is a representation of Christianity as it signifies Christ’s redemptive sacrifice for mankind. You may be wondering why we are discussing this under language. It is part of the writer’s use of language as his or her ability to use symbolism appropriately contributes to the beauty of his/her style.


Allegory is a literary style whereby the writer manipulates characters, actions and setting to convey a double meaning. The double meaning shows that the thing used conveys its literalmeaning as well as an underlying or deeper meaning. It is the writer’s use of language that could enable him/her to use animals as characters and make them speak and act as humans. The writer is able to discuss one subject under the guise of another. It is used mostly in satires as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm which is a satirical attack on the Russian communist system. In the novel, Orwell uses animals to portray the injustice and double standard which reflect the insincerity of the communist system of government.

Standard and Non- Standard Language

Standard language as the name implies is the formal and accepted form of any language. Writers write in any language of their choice but each language has the structure that is accepted as correct. This correct version is what we call standard language and writers are expected to use that correct version in their works since one of the functions of literature is to teach, so the reader learns more on the usage of English language by reading well-written


However, a writer may deviate from this norm but usually for special effect. What did we call this deviation in the last unit? I hope you remember…Poetic licence. This is where nonstandard language comes in. Non-standard language comes in the form of slangs, transliterations, colloquialisms, pidgin, infusion of vernacular and other ungrammatical expressions that may be adopted in prose works for specific reasons. For example, it could be used to depict what region or ethnic group a character belongs to, or his social class orliteracy level. For instance, a Nigerian houseboy may be made to speak pidgin. Even physiological defects like stammering may be depicted in the language as we notice in this passage from Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (9):

Ththat is why wwe must acc-c-cept the universal d-d-dome, b-bbecause

ththere is no d-d-d-direction. The b-b-bridge is d-d-dome

of rreligion and b-b-bridges d-d-don’t jjjust g-g-go from hhere to

ththere; a bridge also faces backwards.

These are intended to bring realism into the work (Teilanyo 32). So when you are reading any prose fictional work and you come across some forms of language that are not grammatically correct, you know that it is for a specific purpose. Note that this is different from a poorly written work. We find such poor works in the contemporary Nigeria where many people have been forced by hard times to write and publish themselves without proper editorial input.

Use of Language

Apart from conveying the message, language is also used to delineate characters, infuse humour (comic relief), signify setting and social, religious or cultural background or status/class of some or all the characters. For instance, language will often signal comedy and many writers use minor character as comical characters, because it is believed that seriousmatters is usually handled by the major characters.

Language is also used to infuse cultural background in what some scholars refer to as local colour. Many African writers use “literal translation of vernacular words or expressions directly into his language of creation, say English” (Teilanyo 33). For instance in Achebe’sArrow of God (55), we see Ezeulu the Chief Priest saying: “I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eye there”. The word eye is translated to reflect the Igbo cultural background. He would have simply said that he wanted his son to represent him or to be his representative there.


Language is the tool of the writer as it is his or her medium of communication. The writer uses language to convey message as well as create desired effects in the work. He uses language symbolically and allegorically to convey surface and deeper meanings in the work. Language helps the writer to distinguish one character from the other or depict the status of a particular character. Language is also used to denote setting, create atmosphere and tone. Literary artists have the liberty to use both standard and non-standard and this is called poetic license.


In this article, we have discussed the use of language in prose fiction. It is the means of communication for the writer as he or she uses it to convey his or her message. We tried to discuss different ways in which language could be used in prose fiction. Apart from conveyingthe message, language is used to create special effects and it determines the style of the writer.


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