Study Guide

The Poisonwood Bible Language and Communication

By Barbara Kingsolver

Language and Communication

Book 2, Prologue

Fufu nsala, Mama Tatabla called us. [...] A forest-dwelling, red-headed rat that runs from sunlight. (2.Prologue.21)

Boy, the Congolese sure have a colorful language, huh? They of course have words for things they encounter on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there's another red-headed rat they have to deal with daily: Nathan Price.

Book 2, Chapter 1
Orleanna Price

"You know how to speak English and they don't." (2.1.11)

If the situation were reversed, and the villagers of Kilanga were in America, this might actually matter. As it is, with the Prices being the only English speakers in the village, this "advantage" amounts to nothing more than a pile of fufu.

Book 2, Chapter 8

[Nzolo] means "most dearly beloved." [...] Or it is a type of tiny potato that turns up in the market. [...] I think it must be the god of small potatoes. (2.8.6 — 2.8.7)

Many Congolese words have multiple meanings, which makes you wonder how Anatole interprets Nathan Price's sermons. Which meaning does he use when talking to the villagers? And how might this relate to questions of Biblical translation? Food for thought.

So much depends on the tone of voice. (2.8.16)

Getting the right tone of voice requires careful attention to the way people speak. Nathan Price pays no attention to the way people speak, and so the varying cadences of his preacher-speak end up causing more harm than good.

Book 3, Chapter 5
Leah Price

You wouldn't even get as far as breakfast before running out of paper. You'd have to explain the words, and then the words for the words. (3.5.130)

Leah talks about the impossibility of explaining Africa in a letter home. Hey, Barbara Kingsolver had to write an almost-600-page book about the Congo, and she's just scratched the surface! There's a lot more to communication than just translating the words.

Book 3, Chapter 8

To get one good connection made, you have to understand the Kituba, the Lingala, the Bembe, Kunyi, Vili, Ndingi, and the bleeding talking drums. (3.8.85)

It might seem like the Congo, at just a fraction of the size of the U.S., should be able to get its political eggs into one basket. However, imagine if every state in the U.S. had its own language. (And we're not just talking about the great "pop" vs. "soda" debate.) Communication and cooperation would be next to impossible.

Are they really speaking real words, or do little kids just start out naturally understanding each other before the prime of life sets in? (3.8.86)

Ooh, good question. Can what Ruth May does with the children of Congo be called "communication" or is it just playing?

Book 3, Chapter 14

"Tata Jesus is bangala!" declares the Reverend every Sunday. […] Bangala means something precious and dear. But the way he pronounces it, it means the poisonwood tree. Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends! for Jesus will make you itch like nobody's business. (3.14.1)

Pronunciation is key in Congolese. Once again, Nathan Price doesn't pay a lick of attention to proper pronunciation. And he wonders why people stay far away from him?

Book 3, Chapter 15
Anatole Ngemba

This word béene-béene, you want to know what it means, then? […] It means, as true as the truth can be." (3.15.103, 3.15.104)

Why does Congolese have a word for the "truest truth" when English does not? Do the words a language contains tell you anything about the people who speak it—and is English just better for lying with?

Book 4, Chapter 3

A drum gives nommo in Congo, where drums have language. (4.3.2)

Communication and language (and not just human verbal language) is so important in the Congo that things don't get life until they get names. But Christianity seems to have a similar belief—like the story of Adam in Genesis, where Adam gets to name all of God's creatures.