[lg policy] What gets lost when English becomes the lingua franca of the Internet, and the world?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Aug 24 11:52:06 EDT 2016


What gets lost when English becomes the lingua franca of the Internet, and
the world?
By Katy Waldman <http://www.slate.com/authors.katy_waldman.html>
[image: Illustration by Jon Chadurjian.]

Illustration by Jon Chadurjian.

*The Fall of Language in the Age of English*
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/0231163029/?tag=slatmaga-20>, 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
<http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/01/03/books/book-reviews/novelist-mizumura-fights-arrest-fall-japanese-literature/#.VK7cuWTF8fM>,
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.
[image: Katy Waldman] Katy Waldman
<http://www.slate.com/authors.katy_waldman.html>

Katy Waldman is *Slate*’s words correspondent.

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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
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/059035342X/?tag=slatmaga-20>*, 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.
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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.

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.”
Get *Slate* in your inbox.
[image: 150109_BOOKS_mizu16302_Front]
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/0231163029/?tag=slatmaga-20>

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
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

The French language—all liberté and illumination—is one of Mizumura’s
sanctuaries, a spiritual alternative to English.

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.
[image: 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*
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/0140455620/?tag=slatmaga-20> 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.”

Top Comment

Who says "It's a beautiful day" on a consistent basis?  Who is forced into
saying it here in the US?  More...

-DukeLaw

219 Comments
<http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/01/minae_mizumura_s_the_fall_of_language_in_the_age_of_english_reviewed.html#comments>
Join
In
<http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/01/minae_mizumura_s_the_fall_of_language_in_the_age_of_english_reviewed.html#comments>

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.”

---

*The Fall of Language in the Age of English*
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/0231163029/?tag=slatmaga-20> by Minae Mizumura.
Translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter. Columbia
University Press.
http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/01/minae_mizumura_s_the_fall_of_language_in_the_age_of_english_reviewed.html

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