Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English, reviewed.

What Gets Lost When English Becomes the Lingua Franca of the World?

What Gets Lost When English Becomes the Lingua Franca of the World?

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 9 2015 11:41 AM

Beautiful Day!

What gets lost when English becomes the lingua franca of the Internet, and the world?

Illustration by Jon Chadurjian.

Illustration by Jon Chadurjian.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by the Japanese novelist and scholar Minae Mizumura, has all the ingredients of a rage-read. Indeed, when it was published in Japan in 2008, it infuriated commentators, who dismissed Mizumura as “reactionary,” “jingoistic,” or “elitist” and swarmed across Amazon deleting positive reviews. More than 65,000 copies have sold since then—which suggests the slender work’s declinist soothsaying continues to touch a nerve. The book appears this month in English (enemy territory!), where—if we Yanks could be trusted to read something first penned in a non-Western tongue—it would likely inspire more umbrage, more name-calling, more amorphous unease. The book’s basic premise, developed in a sinuous line through seven chapters, is that every language creates and nourishes untranslatable truths. Dominant languages infuse their verities into the wider world, crowding out alternative visions from more minor tongues. Linguistic asymmetry isn’t new—over the past two centuries, Latin, classical Chinese, and French each took a turn in the sun—but never has one language so completely eclipsed the rest, Mizumura says, as today, in the age of the Internet, with English.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent.

And have you heard? English is a tuneless, careless juggernaut! English has a tendency to favor science over art, sound over image, market value over intrinsic cultural worth. (For Chrissake, English spawned Harry Potter, which Mizumura clearly wants to assign to everlasting torment in its own circle of hell.) Her disdain—mostly implied, but sometimes explicit, as when she describes Americans as “grown tall and stout on too many hamburgers and French fries”—might lose Mizumura some Anglophone readers. But it shouldn’t. Every writer need not love English, or English speakers. And we might benefit from attending to the critiques of someone who refuses to kiss the ring.

You can find reasons to jump on the angry bandwagon: Mizumura’s tone can sound disagreeably peevish, bitter, or despairing; she doesn’t bother disguising her scorn for the United States; nor does she shrink from dismissing the entire contemporary fiction scene in Japan as “just juvenile.” (That last is what set off the initial batch of protests.) But these critiques come to feel superficial in the face of the book’s lucidity, erudition, and force.

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Mizumura’s first shrewd move is to start with a personal essay, which puts the book’s center of gravity in a lyrical, literary space somewhere above all the consequent salvos of angry scholarship. (Since The Fall of Language will go on to tease apart “academic” and “novelistic” truths, reserving more love and reverence for the latter, this is a wise call.) In “Under the Blue Sky of Iowa,” she hangs a wreath of personal details on a monthlong international writers’ conference. We learn of her addiction to Agatha Christie audiobooks and her poor health—Mizumura suffers from “autonomic dystonia,” and envisioned her Iowa stay as a “resort idyll” where “I could … spend my days reading and walking … letting my mind and body unwind in the tranquil flow of time.” Most importantly, she arrives at the conference “with a hidden vow to keep my participation to a minimum.” Isolating herself proves easier than expected, as few of the writers speak comfortable English (and none have fluent Japanese). The ghost of an allegory begins to emerge from Mizumura’s careful descriptions of the blue sky, the yellowing leaves, the authors passing each other wordlessly in the halls at night, unable to communicate. She imagines them hunched over their computers, scoring thoughts to the faint music of their own language. “I grew more and more haunted by the idea that we might be a group of people headed for a downfall,” she writes. The participants represent a prism of different tongues, but “in the sense that we might be headed for a downfall, we were all the same.”

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Languages have materiality, Mizumura insists, and her personal essay-cum-allegory lets the landscape of English letters hover like a mirage above physical America. In Iowa “the view was not particularly beautiful. There was none of the poetry one sees in scenes of the countryside in American films.” Yet “turning to Chris [the program director], I roused myself and said exactly what an American might say at such a moment: ‘Beautiful day!’ ” Such are the dangers of a universal language: Being in America, speaking “American,” Mizumura can utter only “what an American might say,” even if that means lying about the blighted prospect around her. In contrast, here is the author’s memory of touching down in France: “Once I set foot in Paris, I was greeted with boulevards shimmering with new leaves and skies gloriously liberated from the dark of winter.”

I mention France because the French language—all liberté and illumination—is one of Mizumura’s sanctuaries, a spiritual alternative to English. (It is also a scholarly alternative: Though she doesn’t mention him outright, Mizumura, who studied French literature at Yale during its Structuralist heyday, is clearly indebted to Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the first to propose that meaning arises from closed linguistic systems. Saussure wrote in French.) Her family moved from Japan to New York when she was 12, and she “stubbornly resisted getting along either with the United States or the English language,” instead soaking in French audiobooks on repeat in her room. What draws Mizumura to the lingua franca of the Enlightenment is its beauty, but also its predicament: Once the embodiment of the “soul of Europe,” a standard-bearer for the humanities, the expressive Play-Doh for writers like Voltaire and Diderot is now in the same lamentable position as Japanese. Which is to say, French and Japanese speakers are confined to the particular, while English speakers live in the universal.

A writer writing in English can count on her words reaching people all over the world, whether in translation or the original, but there’s no guarantee English-speaking readers will ever encounter experiences first framed in Japanese. Nor can bilingual writers just switch to English: Even if the West does not seem “too far, psychologically as well as geographically,” a sense of romance surrounds novels written in the novelist’s mother tongue, making fiction formulated from a second language less palatable. So, Mizumura concludes, non-English speakers “can only participate passively in the universal temporality … they cannot make their own voices heard.” Discouraged by the deafness of the world—even as Internet fans sing about our increasing connectedness—they might decide to stop writing altogether.

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When writers stop writing in a language, that language decays. People lose faith in its ability to bear the burden of their fine feeling and entrust their most important thoughts elsewhere. Raging against the decline of “lesser” lexicons, Mizumura is stressing more than the loss of cultural artifacts, or the value of diversity for its own sake. Non-dominant tongues must live on, she warns, because “those of us … living in asymmetry are the only ones condemned to perpetually reflect upon language, the only ones forced to know that the English language cannot dictate ‘truths’ and that there are other ‘truths’ in this world.” Buried in that argument is an oddly touching one about the nature of literature: “The writer must see the language not as a transparent medium for self-expression or the representation of reality, but as a medium one must struggle with to make it do one’s bidding.”

I’m not sure if I share Mizumura’s pessimism regarding the transfer of meaning between tongues—I’m no Saussurean, and while maybe our “rice” can’t capture the mythical freight of the Japanese “ine,” I tend to think sensitive and knowledgeable workarounds can go a long way. (For example, Mizumura seems to underestimate the power of a good translator, which is a shame given the lovely translation given her by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.) But I do believe that writers should be wrestling with words, rather than deploying them thoughtlessly. And I’m ready to stand behind any author who is (rudely, furiously) urging us all to the mat.

Minae Mizumura.
Minae Mizumura.

Some of the deepest pleasures in The Fall of Language lie in Mizumura’s historical analysis. She attacks the (Western) premise that written language merely represents spoken language, pointing out that most people into modernity yelled at their kids in local dialect while reading and writing (if they were literate) in an “external” tongue. This “universal” language usually belonged to an older, grander civilization, like Rome or classical China; to it were entrusted the texts that embodied intellectual, aesthetic, or ethical excellence. Yet as mass printing transformed books into commodities, the market for works in the elite language was soon saturated. A cadre of bilinguals began to translate them into the vernacular, devising grammar rules as they went. With the glories of the “universal” libraries being gradually emptied into these fledging tongues, the tongues themselves were elevated. They began to circulate as something more—national languages—suited not just to huge themes but to the fleeting dreams and textures of everyday life. Mizumura traces how the myth of the “national language,” a pure upwelling of political character, coincided with the flowering of the nation-state—and, even more fascinatingly, of the novel itself. To her, it is no coincidence that literature began to aim at new forms of self-expression just as common people were developing an argot that could swing from God to the gutter, and the written mediums for scientific learning were growing more receptive to questions of humanistic truth.

At some point in all this, you realize: “Language” may be in the book’s title, but Mizumura has really crafted a conservationist’s plea for literature. Discussing the golden age of Japanese modernist fiction, she introduces us to Natsume Soseki, who penned the novel Sanshiro in 1909, 41 years after the Meiji Restoration opened Japan to the West. In an early scene, the naïve student Sanshiro meets a shabby man on a university-bound train; he is Professor Hirota, a liberal arts scholar specializing in English, and he informs Sanshiro that their homeland “is headed for a fall.” Hirota, steeped in lettered arcana, knows all there is to know about the Western canon. But his learning lies fallow—he writes nothing, publishes nothing—and his houseboy calls him “the Great Darkness” for his ability to absorb the splendors of English literature without emitting any light of his own. The professor has failed the Japanese language, of course, in ways that are painfully relevant to Mizumura’s argument. But the author also weaves in a stray detail: that, over the course of their conversation on the train, Hirota unfolds for Sanshiro “the curious story of Leonardo da Vinci injecting arsenic into the trunk of a peach tree experimentally, to see if the poison would circulate to the fruit.”  

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I have no idea why Mizumura airdrops this quoted anecdote into her book—the sentence ends and she never remarks on it again. Still, it’s striking. As a description of a scientific investigation, the story means one thing. As a capsule of literary truth—the kind of spectral allegory Mizumura conjures with her opening essay—it feels almost unbearably alive with import. Even without the Western interplay of trees, wisdom, and death, Hirota’s “curious” tale—flowing here from Europe to Japan to the United States—captures something real about ambition, curiosity, courage, and cruelty; about alluring goals and bitter aftertastes; about connection, circulation, and disjuncture. It rewards a literary way of thinking one hundredfold. And I felt that, if Mizumura is right that literature demands us to be conscious of the particular language we’re manipulating, and that such consciousness cannot exist without linguistic diversity, we should perhaps be devoting more of our lives to protecting linguistic diversity. (Or 言語の多様性の保護に私たちの生活を捧げる.) As she writes, the same polyphonic jostle of tongues that “condemns” us to “reflect perpetually upon language,” and upon literature, has a singular power to leave us “humble, and mature, and wise.”

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The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura. Translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter. Columbia University Press.