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Artificial Intelligence, Neocolonialism, and the Politics of the English Language

Artificial Intelligence, Neocolonialism, and the Politics of the English Language

Artificial Intelligence, Neocolonialism, and the Politics of the English Language - Afrocritik

[AI] has the advantage of even making us better readers now that there is this desire to root out AI writing from the literary and academic scene. Yet, it is threatening to magnify the politics of the use of language, especially one in a global language like the English Language, which is used in different ways by people with different realities.

By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera 

Since the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) programmes in the world of writing, a new dynamic of artificial thinking from which robotic AI-generated writing stems has been introduced to the world of letters. And over time, a new paranoia to detect it has arisen, because of the threats it poses to the creative and scholarly worlds, and how it has been detected that some writers have tried to work on their stories using AI. For every writer and editor, to be able to differentiate between what they suspect as AI from what they believe fully to be human writing, there are supposedly different qualities they look out for in the writing. And until last week at least, many of us thought it was a uniform metric until the English essayist Paul Graham took to X (Twitter) to narrate how he had flagged a story idea sent to him because it was written by AI, which would have been no problem, except that according to him the evidence that the piece was AI-generated was because it used the word, “delve”.

Not long ago, I began to see people earmark certain words as pointers that a writer is guilty of using AI in their writing. And some of those words, to the best of my knowledge, are not uncommon in people’s vocabulary at all. Having grown up in a country where for almost every class through primary and secondary school, at least a week is dedicated to teaching vocabularies, and having been a reader for most of my life, as one who writes primarily in English, and as an occasional poet, I understand language to the extent that words are often about how you use it. As someone who has read many novels, I’ve encountered writers so good that they can introduce a new word to you in such a way you don’t need a dictionary to understand what they mean. As a writer, I’ve encountered that wonderful process of the subconscious which happens when writing, when you are poised to use a certain word whose meaning you do not totally know, to describe something. And when you check it in the dictionary, you find that it is correct. Words like “delve”, “tapestry”, and “loquacious”, are words that can easily fall into this category. And so until last week, I hadn’t remotely considered that a piece of writing could be branded AI because it used any of that word, or a word alien to an editor for that matter.

As one familiar with the kind of writing done by AI, I have always considered that it is a programme good for research purposes but a bad writer because its sentences are often robotic and monotonous in their rhythm. The piece of writing by an AI programme often lacks human feeling; the sensibilities present in writing that could well be present in the conversation between two humans, the personalities that are inevitably part of a writer’s work by virtue of who they are. 

These qualities are present in writing by humans at all levels. Good writers have mastered techniques better than amateurs, but whatever is written by humans has the human feeling of passion, love, introspection, enthusiasm, or whatever prevailing emotions with which the writer writes. A writer could write, “When I first travelled to Enugu! Oh my God, the city blew my mind! I never realised that the city could be so fantastic. As a person who has only known Lagos and Ogun states all my life, it left me flabbergasted!” It is melodramatic writing and could be edited. But it doesn’t come across as AI writing because the human emotions in the writing are easy to spot. Neither does the word “flabbergasted” make one suspect the use of AI even though a simpler word could be used.

One of the things AI has taught us, even though we already knew it, is how much of a perceptive activity reading can be. In reading, one learns observation, perception, and how to gauge emotions and intellect, and the list goes on. In the robotic writing done by AI programmes, we can perceive the lack of these things even though the writing contains all the needed information. It has the advantage of even making us better readers now that there is this desire to root out AI writing from the literary and academic scene. Yet, it is threatening to magnify the politics of the use of language, especially one in a global language like the English Language, which is used in different ways by people with different realities.

Artificial Intelligence, Neocolonialism, and the Politics of the English Language - Afrocritik
There’s been a newfound paranoia to detect AI in writing, because of a perceived threat it poses to the creative and scholarly worlds|UX Content Collective

Every language has its native speakers, and native proficiency in a language is often assumed to be the highest level of proficiency one can attain in a language. This is interesting, but among the native speakers of a language, simplicity is the highest level that can be attained in communication. But then, this is because people who are natives own the language and think in it are generally born in a civilisation inspired by the language they speak, and can communicate the most complex things in the simplest words in their language. For colonised people, such as in Africa and other parts of the world, many for whom English is a second language, or are at least raised in civilisations only influenced in part but not constructed by the English sensibility, the English language takes a different reality. 

As one who grew up among parents who only ever speak Igbo to themselves, and in a city where we speak more Pidgin than English, there is quite a different reality to how the English language can work for me. As a novelist and essayist, I have realised that my thought process is neither fully mediated by the English language nor the Igbo language, but a middle point between them. And there are certain expressions which when I am in oral communication, for the sake of urgency, I have to say in Igbo. If I were writing in English, I have to find an English expression to capture that emotion in my native sense in which I feel it, or else, I wouldn’t get the satisfaction that I am passing that message well. This is me making the English language do my bidding. 

Some of the greatest novelists who wrote in English in the past century knew this. Before Toni Morrison could write, she had to master how to use the English language to capture her imagination, having come from a different reality from the owners of the language or even white Americans, and she could only do that by reading African writers who used the English language for their purposes without recourse to what the owners of the language thought. Her counterpart, James Baldwin, is famous for saying, too, that his quarrel with the English Language was that it failed to capture his own experiences. And in order to write, he had to invent that brand of English with which he wrote, something that has continued to inspire writers to this day.

The problem of the politics of language as a neocolonial tool has been around for a long time, and AI is only just making it more visible. The root of the problem is the tunnel vision of the Western world, the willful ignorance of its stakeholders, and their penchant for seeing their reality as the only existing reality. As the colonised, we are painfully aware of our reality, and since it has been shaped by that of the colonialists, and our worldview inevitably influenced by theirs, we are poised to do certain things as they would. The reason for colonialists giving their languages to their colonies was to influence their thought process. But the reality of a people rooted in thousands of years of indigenous civilisation has on their approach to language which has not been entirely wiped off by a colonial contact which only happened over some decades is different. Language itself is malleable, and is influenced by experience. The colonialists may have succeeded in passing down their language to us, but our experiences, history, and where we live have remained relatively unchanged, and this is often reflected in our use of their language. Giving your language to others to own it as their own may be privy to soft power, but it comes with its own price.

This reality is what many in the West have been unaware of. Many Africans have often narrated how people in America are surprised that as new immigrants they can speak such good English, it is hence not surprising if such people looked at the writing of a non-native as done by AI because of the use of complex vocabulary, or of a word they do not find favourable. The ignorance here is in not realising that as one who has spoken English all their lives and has lived an English reality, English in its simplest terms can express their reality, but for others who have another language playing a big role in their experience, the language has to be made to do some complex expression.

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In his essay, “The African Writer and the English Language”, Chinua Achebe writes, “So my answer to Can an African writer ever learn or speak English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is definitely yes. If on the other hand you ask, Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so.” This is because Achebe understood the politics of language and what using it as a native speaker implied. Language, like a tool, ought to be used for one’s purposes, and not as one is required by certain native speakers like Paul Graham. This is the reason there is another kind of English language out there, because those who have borrowed the language are actively involved in reinventing it. They do not have the responsibility to dumb it down so the “English natives” can catch up, or continue to feel they are still in full control of the language. This is where the outrage by Nigerians on Graham’s thread gets its validity; in the defence of their right to use the language how best they like. Further in his essay, Achebe writes, “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost.” 

One could also argue that Graham’s viral post had more to do with his expectations of how the language should be used than it is about AI. In a now-deleted tweet, he expressed happiness that his post had made people more conscious of using complex words, even if they tweeted about it jokingly. The aim, according to him, was that people should think of the easiest way whenever writing to express their thoughts. Many have branded Paul Graham racist. Perhaps that is going too far. Graham is a typical white English native trying to employ his influence to adapt the world to himself, in this case, according to his understanding of language. He may not qualify for all the metrics of being a racist, even though he might be a product of institutionalised racism, however, a better word for him is a neocolonialist. Neocolonialism is the herald of the new school of racism and colonialism. One of my best understandings of neocolonialism is that it is the attempted or successful continual dominance of one culture over another, through socioeconomic and political activities. In this case, attempted dominance of the understanding and use of language over others — the internet and AI being used as a flag tool.

Unfortunately, AI will be an excuse to flag the works of many like us in the academia and creative worlds where we seek American and British agents to help us take our works to the global domain. It would help if we were less paranoid about AI and became better readers of each other’s creative and academic works, and if we realised that while it may be the work of robots to detect what other robots have written, it is certainly not in its stead to recognise what humans have written. We can do that work best by ourselves. But in truth, it is often more about the politics of language than perhaps the rhetoric of artificial intelligence.

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera writes on culture for Afrocritik. He is the Co-founder of Eagle Nest Literary movement and the director of the Umuofia Arts and Books Festival. His novel, “Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories” will be published in May by Mmuta Books. Follow him on Twitter @Chukwuderaedozi

Cover Photo by PDPics from Pixabay.

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