Themes in Elizabeth L. A. Kamara’s “New Tongue”

The themes in Elizabeth Kamara’s “New Tongue” are cultural shift, generational conflict, loss, and individualism.

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Themes in New Tongue
Themes in New Tongue
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In our previous post, we carried out a content analysis of Elizabeth L. A. Kamara’s poem, “New Tongue.” Therein, we took a cursory look into who Elizabeth Kamara is. Then, we briefly discussed what the poem is all about before we delved into the stanza-by-stanza analysis of the poem. We looked into the figures of speech in the poem and ended our analysis with the mood and tone of the poem.

In this post, we are going to look into the themes explored in Elizabeth Kamara’s poem. Let’s go right into it.

“New Tongue” by Elizabeth L. A. Kamara depicts a new generation that adopts a different language and culture while breaking ties with the past. This generation is indifferent to traditional values. They have disregard for old ways and distance themselves from family and heritage. Besides, they are also portrayed as embracing individualism in rejection of the influence of elders.

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Therefore, it is safe to say that the themes in Elizabeth Kamara’s “New Tongue” are the themes of cultural shift, generational conflict, loss, and individualism. We also witness the erosion of tradition in the face of cultural shifts in the poem.

Theme of Cultural Shift

The theme of cultural shift is the primary theme in Elizabeth Kamara’s “New Tongue.” The theme is depicted by the new generation’s adoption of the “new tongue” and their embrace of a different culture, which results in a complete transformation in the way they think, speak, and interact.

The poem captures the strong and unbreakable attachment (or, as the poet puts it, “impregnable chains”) of younger Africans to the new culture, which has a profound impact on their identities.

The cultural shift manifests in a number of ways in the poem. To start with, the phrase “new tongue” in the title is indicative of a linguistic shift. It suggests the adoption of a new language by this new generation.

Then, reading further, we realise that the cultural shift transcends the adoption of a new language. We witness a complete departure from the established traditions by the new generation. They adopt “new dances” and dismiss “old songs as disregarded dreams.” Their adoption of “new dances” in the poem is symbolic of a generational change in social and cultural changes.

Besides, the poem also portrays a cultural shift in the understanding of what family and interpersonal relationships are. There is a break in ties within family and friendship. This constitutes a rupture in the continuity of cultural and interpersonal relationships. In place of family bonds, the new generation has the understanding that the way they live is no one’s concern; after all, it is their lives anyway, and they owe no one any explanation for any way they choose to live it. In other words, there is a discernible shift from collectivism to individualism.

As to how they carry on with the cultural shift, the poet perfectly captures this in line 4 of the poem. She describes their eyes as “revel[ing] in the wonder of the new.” This can be interpreted to mean that they are excited and enthusiastic about the adopted culture. They embrace and celebrate the cultural shift.

Themes in New Tongue
Themes in New Tongue

Theme of Generational Conflict

The theme of generational conflict is another important theme in Elizabeth Kamara’s “New Tongue.” The poem touches upon the strained relationship between generations. There is no room for elders in the minds of the new generation, whose ears are also metaphorically blocked to the “old tongue” and traditional ways of doing things.

“New Tongue” draws a distinct line between the younger generation—who speak a “new tongue” and dance “new dances” with little to no respect for tradition—and the older generation, who are symbolised by the “ashes strewn into the bottomless sea” and “disregarded dreams.”

The new generation is characterised by its rejection of the old ways, indifference to the wisdom of elders, and deliberate distancing from traditional values and practices. Elders are relegated to the “edge of their [the new generation’s] minds.” This underscores the diminished influence and relevance of the older generation in the new world their children inhabit.

The rejection of familial ties and disdain for friendship by the younger generation highlights the generational divide even more. This evidently causes a rupture in the intergenerational relationships that were once considered fundamental in Africa (l. 8–7, 14–16, and 38–41).

While “New Tongue” is critical of the prevailing conflict or divide between the two generations of Africans in the poem, it remains to be seen if the new generation can be “an amalgam of traditional wisdom and modern knowledge,” which, by the way, can erase the disconnect between the new and the old generations.

Image credit: Beautiful Nubia on Facebook.

Theme of Loss

The theme of loss is palpable throughout the poem. The most apparent aspect of loss in the poem is the loss of cultural heritage. The old songs and ties of family and friendship are described as “disregarded dreams” and “loosened, broken, burnt.” This signifies a deliberate departure from established cultural norms and values. Expressions like “ashes strewn into the sea” and “hang the last lock on their culture” emphasise the finality and irreversibility of this loss.

The scattering of ashes into the bottomless sea symbolises the loss of cultural roots. The sea, vast and bottomless, signifies the enormity of the cultural shift and the irreversibility of the changes. Fish swimming by, indifferent to the loss, accentuates the idea that the new generation does not fully grasp the depth of what has been discarded.

Besides, the new generation severs ties not only with traditions but also with the accumulated knowledge and guidance passed down by previous generations. The rejection of elders and the blocking of ears to the old tongue by the new generation are suggestive of a loss of intergenerational wisdom.

Theme of Individualism

The theme of individualism is written all over “New Tongue.”. The poem emphasises the shift towards individualism in the new generation. Minds are turned inward. There is an apparent lack of concern for external influences. There is a sense of isolation as they break away from the collective values and connections associated with family, tradition, and heritage. The poem thus paints a picture of a new generation turning inward and becoming self-centred.

The individualistic mindset of the new generation is portrayed in lines 31 to 34: “Every man/For himself/By himself/Of himself.” This contributes to a sense of isolation and a loss of collective identity in the new generation. The idea is almost alien to the older generation and stands in contrast to the communal living the older generation was known for.

Again, the import of fostering the flag of individualism over that of the community is that no one is accountable to the other or answers for the other. In other words, everyone is made to believe they are islands of knowledge and human existence.

Another theme in “New Tongue” is the neglect of culture and tradition. Discussing this further here would amount to repeating all that had been said in the discussion of other themes.

If there is any theme you feel we have omitted, do let us know in the comment box. We might include it here or make a post about it in our Q&A series.

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