A Comparative Analysis of Syntactic Complexity in the Use of Relativization in Soyinka’s Season of Anomy and Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah

Edmund Bamiro


This paper employs the framework of Keenan-Comrie Case Hierarchy to compare syntactic complexity in the use of relativization in Soyinka’s and Achebe’s novels.  The Keenan-Comrie Case Hierarchy suggests that an evaluation of the role of the relative pronoun with respect to the other elements in the clause in which it occurs could reveal aspects of syntactic complexity.  Given the claims of literary critics that Soyinka is syntactically more complex than Achebe, the study hypothesizes that Soyinka would show a greater use of the more complex oblique relatives than Achebe.  Data for the analysis are the first 50 clause-complexes in the novels.  The finding shows that there is no significant difference in syntactic complexity between Soyinka and Achebe on this measurement of syntactic complexity.

Keywords: Keenan-Comrie Case Hierarchy, syntactic complexity, relativization, Soyinka, Achebe


This paper is concerned with a comparative analysis of relativization, as a measurement of syntactic complexity, in Wole Soyinka’s and Chinua Achebe’s texts.  The focus is on Soyinka’s Season of Anomy (1973; hereafter, SOA) and Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987; hereafter, AS), respectively.

Soyinka and Achebe are, without a doubt, the two most prominent Nigerian creative writers, if not on the entire continent of Africa.  For example, Soyinka was the Nobel laureate for Literature in 1986, while Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), has been hailed as a classic, has sold millions of copies worldwide, has been translated into over 60 languages, and is acknowledged to have put African Literature on the map of world literatures written in English.  In the United States alone, according to a recent report by Doubleday, publishers of the reprints of the novel, Things Fall Apart has sold more than five million copies.

Especially in relation to critical views on their prose styles, critics of African literature agree that Achebe’s prose style is simple and unaffected, while Soyinka’s lexis and syntax are generally complex and obscure, although prior to Bamiro’s (2020) study, there was no detailed analysis comparing the styles of these two great writers to adduce linguistic evidence for the otherwise assumed simplicity of Achebe’s prose and the inscrutability of Soyinka’s style.1

Bamiro (2020) thus employed the theoretical framework of systemic-functional grammar, by specific reference to interdependencies and logico-semantic relations, to analyze the first 20 clause-complexes in SOA and AS, respectively.  The study discovered that, at the level of the clause (strictly considered as a non-embedded constituent), the hypothesis that Soyinka is more syntactically complex than Achebe is confirmed, although the margin of complexity between the two writers in this respect is insignificant.

Consequently, deriving from Halliday’s (1985, 1987) caveat that the complexity of written discourse is best explicable in terms of lexical density (i.e. lexical words per ranking clause), nominalization, and grammatical metaphor, Bamiro (2020) recommended that future research should take cognizance of further metrics in measuring syntactic complexity in Soyinka’s and Achebe’s (and, indeed, other postcolonial writers’) prose styles.  

The aim of this paper is to carry the analysis a step further by looking at a model which suggests that an evaluation of the role of the relative pronoun with respect to the other elements in the clause in which it occurs could reveal aspects of syntactic complexity.  So, further to Halliday (1985, 1987), syntactic complexity relates to the domains of relativization mentioned earlier.

Theoretical Framework

Relative clauses are subordinate propositions which provide more detailed information about a constituent of the superordinate clause, e.g., “the man who helped me”.  The relative clause “who helped me” provides more information about “the man”.  “Who” refers to “the man” and is the head of the relative clause (de Melo, 2007). 

The Keenan-Comrie Case Hierarchy uses the positioning of the relative pronoun in the sentence to measure syntactic complexity between two different texts.  Keenan (1975) explains that the Case Hierarchy forms an implicational scale, as follows: Subject > Direct Object > Indirect Object > Oblique > Genitive > Object of Comparison.  Examples of these scales are as follows (from Kaplan, 2002: 3-4):

(1) Subject: The lawyer that praised the doctor climbed the mountain.

(2) Direct Object: The lawyer that the doctor praised climbed the mountain.

(3) Indirect Object: The lawyer that the doctor glared at climbed the mountain.

(4) Oblique: The police officer that the lawyer was questioned by climbed the mountain.

(5) Genitive: The lawyer whose secretary attended the party climbed the mountain.

(6) Object of Comparison: The lawyer that the doctor is taller than climbed the mountain.

According to Keenan (1975), simple relatives occur on the subject, then the direct object, then the indirect object, and so on, with the most complex relatives being objects of comparison.  Keenan collapses the indirect object and oblique positions (i.e. objects of prepositions) in English because they behave the same way.  He thus provides data showing how authors who are judged to use syntactically simple sentences, such as George Orwell, relativize more often on the subject and progressively less often on the other positions in the Case Hierarchy, than authors who are considered to use syntactically complex sentences, such as P.F. Strawson.  Figure 1.0 below is an idealized scheme for typical complex and simple authors, as presented by Keenan (1975).

Figure 1.0 shows that ‘simple’ authors relativize more frequently on the subject position and less frequently on the lower end of the scale than more ‘complex’ authors; ‘complex’ authors, however, show a much greater use of the more complex oblique relatives than ‘simple’ authors.

                                                                                                                                                                Simple Author

Keenan (1975)                                                                                                                                  Complex Author



                                     Subj.          D. O.      I.O.        Gen.         Obj. Comp.

                Figure 1.0:           Idealized Predications for the Typical Simple and respect to the

                                                Keenan-Comrie Case Hierarchy (based on Keenan’s (1975:146)

Consequently, I extended this measure of syntactic complexity to SOA and AS to determine whether significant differences exist between their use of relativization.

Data Presentation

The data for the analysis are the first 50 clause-complexes in SOA and AS where relativizations occur.2


It is hypothesized that, following the claims of literary critics that Soyinka is syntactically more complex than Achebe, then:

(1)        Achebe would relativize more frequently on the subject position and less frequently          on the lower end of the scale than Soyinka;

(2)        Soyinka would show a much greater use of the more complex oblique relatives than           Achebe.

Data Analysis

In the analyses that follow, the relative pronouns are underlined, while the domains of relativization are given in capital letters after the examples.

Soyinka’s Season of Anomy:

1.         To the governments that came and went . . . (p . 3) >  SUBJECT

2.         And this was the unusual feature which intrigued the cocoa promotions man. (p. 3)            > SUBJECT

3.         . . . he again . . . demanded of Ahime who played the role of Chief Minister . . . (p. 3).       > SUBJECT

4.         He began to wonder which provided him a cause for his long hours of unrest (p. 3)            > OBLIQUE

5.         Aiyero, or simply this woman who seemed to change under his touch (p. 3) >         SUBJECT

6.         He was a very old wizened man with eyes that seemed permanently hooded. . . . (P. 3)      > SUBJECT

7.         He gave himself to it, grateful for Ahime who took charge of Iriyise (p. 7). >          SUBJECT

8.         Ahime . . . sent women of cunning kindness from his own household who grew so             close to her that he saw little of her from day to day (p. 7). > SUBJECT

9.         . . . he found her locked deep in talk with strange old women whom he did not wish to     know (p. 7). > DIRECT OBJECT

10.       They gave way to a fleet of canoes which came over the water . . . (p. 12). >           SUBJECT

11.       Ofeyi watched the body levitate towards the four golden ostrich eggs which crowned       the bedposts (p. 13). > SUBJECT

12.       He turned to Iriyise whose fingers had sought his . . . (p. 14). > GENITIVE

13.       He rose . . . dark and sensitive against a white wrapper which looped his shoulder (pp.       14-15). > SUBJECT

14.       An occasional bellow came from the beasts themselves, who otherwise submitted to          the drill with a mild questioning interest (p. 15). > SUBJECT

15.       . . . with earth-shaking thuds that brought tremor to the feet of the farthest in the   congregation . . . (p. 15). > SUBJECT

16.       . . . taut lines of veins and tendons which curved and plunged into throbbing heart             chambers (p 15). > SUBJECT

17.       Distended eyes betrayed a now present fear which strangely was not given voice (pp.        15-16). > SUBJECT

18.       . . . his hand poured back the drapes which fell away from his shoulder . . . (p. 16). >         SUBJECT           

19.       . . . a thousand eyes followed the actions of the priest whose flutist blade was laid             again . . . (p. 16). > GENITIVE

20.       But the depleted hulks over which a miasma now lay . . . (p. 17). > OBLIQUE

21.       Potsherds of blood, pocked by entrails slowly, congealed in the afternoon whose   shadows had begun to lengthen (p. 17). > GENITIVE

22.       . . . the healing and reproductive promise of the earth-bull union which they had    witnessed they exhorted . . . (p. 18). > SUBJECT

23.       . . . the firm dank earth that commenced only a short distance from the coastline was         visibly cocoa earth . . . (p. 19). > SUBJECT

24.       The idea that came from his first encounter . . . (p. 19). > SUBJECT

25.       . . . with the commune was only one of many that sought to retrieve his occupation . . .      (p. 19). > SUBJECT

26.       At the root of his new sense of urgency was the airport encounter with the lone wolf         whom he had mentally begun to refer to as ‘The Dentist’ (p. 22). > DIRECT OBJECT

27.       Uncertain even now what strategies the new confrontation demanded, he trusted to          that inspiration which he constantly derived from Aiyero’s calm sufficiency . . . (p.       23). > SUBJECT

28.       . . . the Dentist, whose single-mindedness had resuscitated his own wavering         commitment (p. 22). > GENITIVE

29.       Ofeyi began to search for a blunted language which would best describe the Dentist to     Ahime . . . (p. 22). > SUBJECT

30.       . . .even without the light which still shone from a window in Ahime’s house . . . (p.          26). > SUBJECT

31.       It’s not who begins it . . . (p. 32). > OBLIQUE

32.       . . . but who ends it (p. 32). > OBLIQUE

33.       . . . a half-smile on his face beamed on the sector which was politely dedicated to his         wife’s circle (p. 37). > SUBJECT

34.       A tarpaulin-covered mound rose in the middle of the garden, concealing the glories of       the fountain whose fame monopolized all thought . . . (p. 38). > GENITIVE

35.       . . . Skyros with his grand boutique that gleamed full of smuggled gold . . . (p. 38). >         SUBJECT

36.       . . . she landed centre of the small platform that still held the thin canoes wedge . . . (p.      41). > SUBJECT

37.       They closed to a loud sigh from the engineer that was audible to the farthest reaches         of the amphitheatre (p. 41). > SUBJECT

38.       Ofeyi gave his attention to the men who had delayed the Chairman . . . (p. 42). >   SUBJECT

39.       From the centre of the pod rose a noble plinth, a marble arm from the enchanted lake,        which for Excalibur upheld a blue marble platform . . . (p. 44). > OBLIQUE

40.       . . . a blue marble platform upon which sat an armoured knight, equestrian (p. 44). >           OBLIQUE

41.       St. George fixed his gaze beyond the scene, intent upon a mission which did not   involve the present company (p. 45). > SUBJECT

42.       . . . he sat symbolical upon his leaden steed, oblivious to the important gathering that         had come to honour his full-sprung birth (p. 45). > SUBJECT

43.       . . . this was lost in the vociferous approval that greeted the display (p. 45). >         SUBJECT

44.       Four familiar faces . . . faces whose identities none, not even of those present . . . (p.          46). > GENITIVE

45.       . . . the drippy scaly microbious shapes that hovered lazily over the garden . . . (p. 46).       > SUBJECT

46.       The music which had been kept at skeleton strength by a few pieces in the orchestra          faded also (p. 47). > SUBJECT

47.       But the chill that had begun to set on the garden had not been caused by the          appearance of the bogey-men alone (p. 47). > SUBJECT

48.       . . . as much at ease as the waiters who, regulated simply by clear-cut duties . . . (p.            47). > SUBJECT

49.       . . . the armed men . . . were first to notice and to be affected by a phenomenon that          had commenced in the sky . . . (p. 47). > SUBJECT

50.       Other eyes which had followed the marionettes found themselves face to face with a        spectacle which began by astounding . . . (p. 47). > SUBJECT

Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah

1.         I have thought of all this as a game that began innocently enough . . . (p. 2). >        SUBJECT

2.         But the real question which I have often asked myself is . . . (p. 2). > SUBJECT

3.         I am not thinking so much about him as about my colleagues, eleven intelligent,     educated men who let this happen to them . . . (p. 2). > SUBJECT

4.         Actually it is His Excellency’s well-chosen words that signalled the brave interruption       . . . (p. 4). > SUBJECT

5.         The peals of laughter that broke out engulfed everybody . . . (p. 6). > SUBJECT

6.         His Excellency sits down again and leans back calmly on his swivel chair in order to          search under the table for the court shoes he always kicks off at the beginning of our      meetings and which the Chief Secretary as always and quite unobtrusively arranges            side by side . . . (p. 7). > DIRECT OHJECT

7.         . . . like the attention of the invisible bell-boy who shines your shoes overnight in an           expensive hotel (p. 7). > SUBJECT

8.         . . . the continuous whining of the air-conditioners which have risen to attention . . .           (p. 7). > SUBJECT

9.         . . . I thought the air-conditioners had become just frantically louder which would be         perfectly consistent with the generating vagaries of the National Electric Power        Authority (p. 8). > OBLIQUE

10.       The Chief Secretary whose presence of mind . . . (p. 8). > GENITIVE

11.       . . . he has no sense of political morality which is a double tragedy for a man . . . (p.           9). > SUBJECT

12.       . . . who began his career as an American Baptist Minister . . . (p. 9). > SUBJECT

13.       . . . Reginald Okong had attracted the attention of American Baptist Missionaries from     Ohio who were engaged in belated but obdurate evangelism in his district (p. 10). >   SUBJECT

14.       . . . the young Reverend . . . was working secretly on schemes of his own, one of   which was to take him away altogether from the missionary vineyard . . . (p. 10). >      OBLIQUE

15.       . . . to the dismay of his Ohio patrons who did not stop at accusations of ingratitude          (p. 10). > SUBJECT

16.       I had enough contributors like Ikem to do all the upsetting that was needed . . . (p. 11).     > SUBJECT

17.       . . . I found myself advising “a whole Head of State” who was . . . terrified of his job        (p. 12). > SUBJECT

18.       . . . Major Johnson Ossai had been his own personal choice whom he had gone ahead        to appoint . . . (p. 13). > DIRECT OBJECT

19.       . . . he stood for a while trying to regain full control of his legs which were suddenly         heavy like limbs of mahogany (p. 19). > SUBJECT

20.       . . . his neck craning forward to catch His Excellency’s words which he had chosen to       speak with unusual softness . . . (p. 20). > SUBJECT

21.       . . . he felt again that glow of quiet jubilation that had become a frequent companion         (p. 20). > SUBJECT

22.       Stupid cleverness, barren smartness that defeats ordinary, solid, sensible people (p.            26). > SUBJECT

23.       The noise . . . began to infect some of the cars ahead which could not possibly know         what the matter was . . . (p. 26). > SUBJECT

24.       . . . the problem of space in which to turn would kill the proposition on the spot . . .           (pp. 26-27). > OBLIQUE

25.       He cranked his ignition which . . . responded to the first attempt . . . (p. 27). >        SUBJECT      

26.       . . . thanks to the cooperation of the bronze medallist who halted for him . . . (p. 27) >       SUBJECT           

27.       Stray dogs . . . devoured the corpse of the madman they found at last coiled up one          morning in the stall over which he had assumed unbroken tenancy . . . (pp. 28-29). >    OBLIQUE

28.       The dogs growled as they tore him apart and snapped at the vultures who struck back       fearlessly . . . (p. 29). > SUBJECT

29.       . . . the voice of legend adds that man who deserts his town and shrine-house . . . (pp.       29-30). > SUBJECT

30.       . . . who turns his face resolutely away . . . (p. 30). > SUBJECT

31.       Such was the man and such his remnant fellows who one night set upon the sleeping         inhabitants of the tiny village . . . (p. 30). > SUBJECT

32.       . . . they said instead a deputation of elders to the government who hold the yam today     . . . (p. 30). > SUBJECT

33.       . . . keep a look-out for the taxi which is taking much too long to appear (p. 32). > SUBJECT

34.       . . . I remember the goat owned in common that dies of hunger (p. 33). > SUBJECT

35.       But many women take it as a personal affront, which I find very odd indeed (p. 34). >      DIRECT OBJECT

36.       . . . we don’t know the geniuses who invented the shower . . . (p. 35). > SUBJECT

37.       Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us (p. 35). > SUBJECT

38.       Our last weapon against them is not to marshal facts, of which they are truly managers      . . . (p. 35). > OBLIQUE

39.       . . . they enjoyed the spectacle that so turned my stomach (p. 36). > SUBJECT

40.       . . . only suicidal maniacs climbed those giant rocks that halted the galloping waves . .       (p. 36). > SUBJECT

41.       It was a day on which ordinarily sane people went berserk (p. 36). > OBLIQUE

42.       . . . one of those . . . numbered seats, that now seems so desirably cool (p. 36). >    SUBJECT

43.       And the fool who oppresses him will make a particular point of that enjoyment . . . (p.       37). > SUBJECT

44.       It wasn’t the four who were mangled (p. 37). > SUBJECT

45.       It was the thousands who laughed as blatantly at their own humiliation . . . (p. 37) >          SUBJECT

46.       But an ovation to whom for Christ’s sake? (p. 38). > INDIRECT OBJECT

47.       Leaders . . . openly looted our treasury, whose effrontery soiled our national soil (p.           39). > GENITIVE

48.       . . . the lady in front of me who vomited copiously . . . (p. 39).> SUBJECT

49.       There were many who fainted . . . (p. 39). > SUBJECT

50.       The next day I wrote my first crusading editorial calling on the President to           promulgate forthwith a decree abrogating the law that permitted the outrageous and     revolting performance (p. 39). > SUBJECT

Table 1.0 below is a summary of the distribution of the relative clauses according to domains of relativization, while figure 2.0 is the scheme of the Case Hierarchy.

Table 1.0: Distribution of Relative Clauses according to Domains of Relativization

    Wole Soyinka: Season of Anomy Chinua Achebe: Anthills
SUBJECTDIRECT OBJECTINDIRECT OBJECTOBLIQUEGENITIVE   36(72%) 2 (4%) — 6 (12%) 6 (12%) 38 (76%) 3 (6%) 1 (2%) 6 (12%) 2 (4%)
TOTAL 50 50

  % of Total

                    90                                                                                                                                       Chinua Achebe

                    75                                                                                                                                       Wole Soyinka





                            0                  Subject                                 Direct Obj.                          Oblique                                     Genitive

Figure 2.0: The Case Hierarchy for Relative Clauses in Soyinka’s Season of Anomy and Achebe’s

                        Anthills of the Savannah.


Applying the Case Hierarchy analysis to the data in Soyinka and Achebe, respectively, the hierarchy is only confirmed to the extent that most relatives occur on the subject position with both authors short-circuiting the direct object to relativize more on the oblique position.  Comparatively, Soyinka relativizes more on the genitive position, while Achebe relativizes more on the direct and indirect object positions

However, in relation to the hypothesis formulated earlier, there seems to be no difference in syntactic complexity between Soyinka and Achebe as Keenan (1975) found between simple and complex authors.  The percentages of occurrence of each type of relativizer are not significantly different between the data analyzed in SOA and AS.  Thus, the hypothesis is not confirmed since it seems that the use of relative clauses by both authors do not exhibit any functional differences on this measurement of syntactic complexity.


1. For a detailed review of the attitudes and views of prominent African writers, critics, and linguistic scholars on the prose styles of Soyinka and Achebe, see Bamiro (2020).

2. These views derive from my discussions with Professor Terry Threadgold (University of Sydney, Australia) during her lectures on “Systemic Linguistics” at the Language Sciences Summer Institute, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan, July 24-28, 1989; and Professor Michael Halliday (University of Sydney, Australia) at the “Special Lecture Series on Systemic-Functional Grammar”, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan, September 5, 1989.             


Achebe, Chinua (1987) Anthills of the Savannah.  London: Doubleday.

Bamiro, Edmund (2020) The clause-complex in written discourse: a comparative syntactic measurement of interdependencies and logico-semantic relations in Soyinka’s and Achebe’s Novels”.  Forthcoming in Functional Approaches to Language and Literary Studies: Essays in Honour of Prof. Segun Awonusi.  Adeyemi Daramola, Carol Anyagwa and Tunji Adepoju (Eds.)  

de Melo, Wolfgang (2007) Linguistic typology: relative clauses. In   wolfgang.demelo.de/typology/lecture 5.pdf.  Retrived 23rd May, 2016.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1985) An Introduction to Functional Grammar.  London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1987) Language and the order of nature.  In The Linguistics of Writing: Arguments between Language and Literature.  Nigel Fabb, Derek Attridge, Alan Durant, and Colin MacCabe (Eds.).  Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 135-154.

Kaplan, Austin F. (2002) Patterns of Relativization and Recent Formulations of Markedness.  Honors Thesis.  The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Keenan, Edward L. (1975) Variation in universal grammar.  In Analyzing Variation in Language. Ralph Fasold and Roger Shuy (Eds.)  Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, pp. 136-148.

Soyinka, Wole (1973) Season of Anomy.  London: Rex Collings.