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The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter

At the Jaipur Festival a year ago, Chinese novelist Guo Xiaolu decried the predominance of “Anglo-Saxon mainstream” in literature:

The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and  Juliet Winters Carpenter
Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura, Mari Yoshihara & Juliet Winters Carpenter(trans) (Columbia University Press, January 2015)

 

If you write in Japanese or Vietnamese or Portuguese you have to wait to be translated, and translated literature never really works immediately as English literature unless it wins the Nobel or some big prize... In a way the easiest and laziest way is to write in English. What a struggle to write in any other language than English.

 

Minae Mizumura is an award-winning Japanese novelist who explored the issue as it relates to Japanese literature in a best-selling book, Nihongo ga horobiru toki eigo no seiki no naka de, published in 2008. Perhaps proving the point, it has only just now been released in an English translation by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter as The Fall of Language in the Age of English.

 

The Fall of Language is not, as it might first appear, of mere specialist interest. Although Mizumura discusses Japanese literature in some detail, her analytical framework is rigorous and wide-ranging, covering everything from Latin to Chinese. Anyone with an interest in language, linguistics, language politics (the English/Cantonese/Mandarin debate in Hong Kong, for example), literature, translation or education will find it well-worth the investment of a few hours; the book isn’t very long.

The larger point of English’s global linguistic dominance has been made elsewhere—by for example Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel. Mizumura points out, as have others, that English’s dominance is no longer merely the result of the Anglo-Saxon dominance of economic and geopolitical affairs, something that might evaporate once China retakes its position as the world’s largest economy. English is—and seems certain to remain—dominant because it is the language that non-English speakers use to communicate with each other. Even Chinese use English for this purpose.

English, says Mizumura, is today’s “universal language”.

The Fall of Language stands out not least because Mizumura approaches the issue from the perspective of a non-English speaker, albeit a multilingual one: Mizumura is literate in French as well as English. Her treatise, furthermore, is on the whole tightly reasoned and analytical yet remains entirely accessible to non-specialists.

Mizumura lays out a three-part model consisting of universal, national and local languages, each of which has a specific definition. She begins by noting that reading and writing in one’s own language is relatively recent: 

 

... during most of the six thousand-odd years since human race discovered writing, people usually have not read and written the language they spoke. More often they read and wrote an “external language”—that is, the language of an older and greater civilization that exerted its influence in the region... These are what I call universal languages.

 

Europeans spoke any number of vernaculars but—until a few hundred years ago—those able to read and write for the most part did so in Latin. This situation still pertains today for the great many Chinese who may speak Cantonese or another variant of Chinese, but nevertheless read and write in the “external language” of Mandarin.

Mizumura’s use of the term “universal” is not entirely felicitous. Latin was only “universal” in a relatively small part of the globe. She also notes that around the 18th century, French, German and English shared the role of “universal languages” in Europe. She means, instead, a sort of intellectual lingua franca.

A “local language” is what people actually speak, as opposed to what they read and write. These will for the most part be a dialect, although Mizumura does not make great use of the term. Prior to the early modern period, that is pretty much all there was: local languages and universal languages.

What one normally thinks of as “languages”—English, French, Chinese, etc.—Mizumura calls “national languages”, for which she has a specific meaning. She links national languages to the rise of the nation-state on the one hand and the advent of commercial printing on the other.

Nation states begat national languages which in turn begat national literatures not least because these allowed a market to develop. Mizumura’s main interest is prose. She notes that local languages had long been written down but mostly for poetry and drama. Prose, on the other hand, was usually reserved for a universal language until national languages came along. Russian, in her formulation, developed as a “national language” relatively late: Russian prose only really began with  Pushkin in the 19th century.

The lines between national languages, as a function of the nation state, do not always (or even often) correspond to linguistic ones. Minae cites Chinese and Danish/Norwegian and touches on Ukranian, of particular topicality these days. When I was learning linguistics, an illustrative example was Hindi/Urdu, a common language divided by differing alphabets.

Mizumura’s objective is not so much general theory as Japanese in particular; she includes a fascinating account of the development of written Japanese and its development from Chinese characters, the introduction of katakana and hiragana and the stylistic differences between one and the other, and the interaction between these and the post-War reforms to restrict the number of Chinese characters used in writing Japanese.

* * *

The foregoing summary perhaps presents the question as more matter-of-fact than it is. One of the more interesting aspects of The Fall of Language is that the “language” in the title refers to “written language”. Teasing out the significance of this takes some effort.

Mizumura takes issue with what she claims is the assumption that “written language is a mere representation of the sounds of a spoken language.” Quoting Jacques Derrida, she calls this “phonocentrism”:

 

Phonocentrism places higher value on spoken language as being more primary and thus superior to written language...

 

Whether “phonocentric” or not, it was a tenet of the linguistics I studied in the late 1970s that what mattered was the spoken language. Writing seemed a bit of an embarrassment, a sort of cultural artifact that trailed the “real” spoken form, best ignored if possible (something difficult in historical linguistics, of course). There was some grudging realization that feedback went both ways and the written form could also affect what people spoke.

But from the perspective of a theoretical understanding of language, I would still accept that view as largely correct: after all, language works perfectly well without writing.

This theoretical viewpoint has some curious counterparts in the real world of English, however. Written English—its bizarre spelling apart—is probably a language in which the written forms are the closest, and increasingly close, to actual speech. The French have to contend with the passé simple, a verb form restricted to writing, and speakers of Cantonese have to read and write what is in effect a foreign language. English is also devoid of the accents and special characters—to say nothing of ideograms—that bedevilled the development of mechanical and digital devices to produce, communicate and display written language.

Perhaps as a result, when most commentators discuss the global use of English, they do not usually draw much of a distinction between writing and speaking, treating them as different manifestations of pretty much the same thing. The idea that written languages can and do have a separate life from spoken languages is something that need hardly impinge on discussions about English.

 

Because written language tended not to correspond well—if at all—with what people actually spoke, it therefore involved translation and some degree of bi- or even multi-linguality. The development of national languages and national literatures however meant that one could be literate in one’s own language and that would suffice:

 

... seekers of knowledge not only wrote texts in their own languages but also read them... It was a time of the celebration of national languages of every stripe, golden years for those languages as well as for the writers and readers of national literature.

 

The emergence of English as not just a new universal language but as the universal language overturned the apple cart. One’s own language was no longer enough.

 

Mizumura is of the view that “phonocentrism” is not just obliviousness, but rather a “Western ideology” and that led to the attempts to simplify and phoneticize and even, although ultimately unsuccessfully, to romanize written Japanese.

 

... the introduction of Western ideology into a non-Western context often does unimagined harm... The damage inflicted on the Japanese language by postwar revisions arose because belief in the superiority of phonetic notation was in fact a mark of utopianism imported from the West... [These] mindless actions ... produced a generation increasingly estranged from its rightful literary heritage.

        This is hardly unique to Japan. When Ataturk ditched the Arabic alphabet for the Latin one, “estrangement” was his objective. Uzbek switched from an Arabic script to Latin in 1928, then to Cyrillic in 1940 with Latin re-introduced upon independence in the 1990s. The arguments about the merits of traditional and simplified Chinese still rumble on and one still sees the occasional claim that the use of electronic input devices will result in the decline of Chinese characters.

* * *

The Fall of Language is structured as several interlocking essays, allowing Mizumura to develop a topic—the three-part language model, the development of Japanese writing and Japanese literature, the relationship between national languages and the novel, the global dominance of English in depth—while exploring the links between them. This very effective structure does however render the book difficult to summarize.

Mizumura includes a devastating analysis of what it means to be a writer in a language other than English—and how clueless most English-language commentators are about the issue. Works in English are automatically accessible to huge numbers of literate people worldwide, a number probably larger and certainly more widely dispersed than any other language. English-speaking scientists and economists, for example, do not need to be bilingual, something practically de rigueur for everyone else.

This trend is, she argues, deleterious to literature as well:

 

... in the age of English we face the possibility that, depending on how people treat their national languages, some countries’ literatures may witness a gradual fall. What was once a national language may be reduced to nothing more than a local language; a national literature to nothing more than a local literature that no discriminating person takes seriously.

 

It is not difficult to identify writers that have abandoned writing in their original language for English; very few go the other way, so few that practitioners are often treated as exotic. One is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s remark about an activity being “like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Mizumura claims that Japanese literature has declined. I am not competent to judge, but this is the sort of thing that is said with considerable regularity about every national literature and literature in general. Mizumura at least provides some concrete analysis and explanations. And what goes for Japanese goes for French, she says, and in spades, therefore, for everyone else whose literatures circulate even less.

Is she convincing? Her analysis and descriptions of the processes underway are rigorous and enlightening; English-language readers rarely get well-articulated views on this subject from those whose perspective derives from other languages. Will the result be a decline in literature and—by extension—intellectual diversity? This sort of thing is very hard to measure at the time; it may be several decades before one really knows. However, if maximizing circulation were the driving goal of all writers, we wouldn’t have poets. The literary quality of writing doesn’t seem particularly well correlated to outside factors.

Along the way to this perhaps and hopefully disputable conclusion, Mizumura journeys down some fascinating byways. Here is a succinct discussion of literary translation:

 

As the novel continued to evolve, works became more difficult to translate... Writers began to quote from, allude to, and parody the “texts to read” written in the same national language ... and play them off against one another; they also exploited the peculiarities of their own language through dialects and wordplay. The untranslatability that had been more or less characteristic of poetry all along began to extend to novels as well...

* * *

Among the plethora of reactions to her book when it first came out in Japanese, note the translators in their Introduction, were those that called Mizumura “privileged”, “an elitist” and “reactionary”, epithets that in some contexts might be worn as badges of honor. But one might be forgiven for suspecting that Mizumura might be a bit of a snob. “I myself cannot imagine,” she writes

 

reading Pride and Prejudice in French with the same pleasure that I find when reading it in English, or reading Le Rouge et le noir in English with the same pleasure I find when reading it in French.

 

The Fall of Language is best when Mizumura sticks to an impersonal development of her thesis. The book opens with an account of her sojourn at the International Writing Program in Iowa and a subsequent chapter (entitled “From Par Avion to Via Air Mail: The Fall of French”, leaving the reader in no doubt of the point she’s making) about a lecture she gave in Paris. The purpose is to set up the discussion of national languages, and above all, writing in national languages, but instead one learns more than one needs to about her personal peeves and medical history. Mizumura’s treatise stands on its own; the personal anecdotes are unnecessary.

One should not be put off by the first two chapters: from the third chapter on, this book is a cracker.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.