The Fall of Language in the Age of English (英語) ペーパーバック – 2017/2/21
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Winner of the Kobayashi Hideo Award, The Fall of Language in the Age of English lays bare the struggle to retain the brilliance of one's own language in this period of English-language dominance. Born in Tokyo but also raised and educated in the United States, Minae Mizumura acknowledges the value of a universal language in the pursuit of knowledge, yet also embraces the different ways of understanding offered by multiple tongues. She warns against losing this precious diversity.
Universal languages have always played a pivotal role in advancing human societies, Mizumura shows, but in the globalized world of the Internet, English is fast becoming the sole common language of humanity. The process is unstoppable, and striving for total language equality is delusionaland yet, particular kinds of knowledge can be gained only through writings in specific languages.
Mizumura calls these writings "texts" and their ultimate form "literature." Only through literature, and more fundamentally through the diverse languages that give birth to a variety of literatures, can we nurture and enrich humanity. Incorporating her own experiences as a writer and a lover of language, and embedding a parallel history of Japanese, Mizumura offers an intimate look at the phenomena of individual and national expression.
A dazzling rumination on the decline of local languages, most particularly Japanese, in a world overshadowed by English. Moving effortlessly between theory and personal reflection, Minae Mizumura's lament--linguistic and social in equal measure--is broadly informed, closely reasoned, and--in a manner that recalls her beloved Jane Austen--at once earnest and full of mischief.--John Nathan, translator of Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Soseki
A call to arms for everyone: for all non-native English speakers to embrace and champion literature in their own languages, and for English speakers to be that little less arrogant in their use of their mother tongue, which just happens to have become the world's universal language.--Sophie Knight "The Japan Times "
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.... 'Language' may be in the book's title, but Mizumura has really crafted a conservationist's plea for literature.--Katy Waldman "Slate "
Rigorous and wide-ranging.... This book is a cracker.--Peter Gordon "Asian Review of Books "
There is incredibly smart stuff in here... Mizumura's ability to weave together so many strands of history (lingual, academic, economic, geopolitical) paints a clear picture of the evolution of Japanese literature, with commentary on the rest of the globe being a pleasant byproduct.--Graham Oliver "The Rumpus "
[A] highly charged book.--Eric Banks "The Chronicle Of Higher Education "
Persuasive, elegantly written.... [The Fall of Language in the Age of English] is highly deserving of attention, from English and Japanese speakers alike, as well as from anyone concerned about literature's past and future.--Rebecca Hussey "The Quarterly Conversation "
Mizumura has crafted a book that stimulates thought, excites passions, and encourages debate. For these alone, it is well worth a read.--Erik R. Lofgren "World Literature Today "
In The Fall Of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura shows, better than anyone ever has, how English is wrecking other languages -- reducing even great literary languages, including Japanese and French, to local dialects -- and makes a vigorous case for the superiority of the written over the spoken word.--Benjamin Moser "New York Times Book Review "
[Mizumura's] book is a 'text to read' in the 'universal library, ' to use her terms.--Selma K. Sonntag "Journal of Asian Studies "
All my life I have been drawn to books about books, about language. From refusing to relinquish a grammar textbook at my first public book sale (I think I was 8) to my recent enjoyment of Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange (which still gives me chills), I have been interested in how language develops and the role of great literature in a human life. Thus, I was very excited to read Minae Mizumura's nonfiction work, The Fall of Language in the Age of English.
Mizumura's thesis is a simple one: through an accident of history, English has become the world's "universal language," i.e., an external language, read or written by someone who speaks another language, through which knowledge is best pursued. This ubiquity, Mizumura argues, threatens the very existence of literature written in other languages, particularly non-Western languages like Japanese. Her first two chapters introduce the issue through her own personal experiences and, not surprisingly, were the most enjoyable to read, but the academic tone of the remainder of the book was still easy to understand and follow. I particularly appreciated the way in which she builds upon the "imagined communities" described by Benedict Anderson, perhaps because his work played a significant role in another book I recently enjoyed (Alessandro Perissinotto's novel For They Have Sown the Wind; I love such unexpected congruences). Mizumura also manages to offer cogent observations on two literary phenomena, polar opposites, which have puzzled me in the last few months: the global success of 50 Shades of Grey and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Patrick Modiano, a French author not well-known in the United States even among voracious readers of literary fiction.
As Mizumura acknowledges, her book was originally intended as a call to arms to the Japanese, the quality of whose national literature has fallen precipitously in her opinion. While she has clearly made substantial revisions to suit a native English-speaking audience, a great deal of the book still focuses on Japanese, a language with which I have no familiarity; I must admit that my attention during these chapters did tend to wander. Nevertheless, as a whole, The Fall of Language in the Age of English did accomplish Mizumura's stated goal of making English speakers not only aware of our "privileged position," but also conscious that, because the works translated into English are usually those which are linguistically and thematically easiest to translate, such works may not reveal the world's diversity but may, in fact, reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language. For those of us trying to diversify our reading, this is a sobering thought.
I think it's time for me to go find my Rosetta Stone CDs.
I received a free copy of The Fall of Language in the Age of English through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Impressed as I am with this book, I can't accept its thesis for two reasons. First, a counter-example: Mizumura wants us to believe that serious novelists have been compelled to flee Japanese for English, and that Japanese must abandon the crippling self-doubt they harbor toward their language and come to its defense. But consider Haruki Murakami. By any measure he's a talent and a mind to be reckoned with, and wildly popular around the world. His style mixes pop culture and weightier themes -- but it's surely no rejection of Japanese. Murakami's success shows that Mizumura has carried her argument too far.
Second, and more speculatively, I suggest that Mizumura's account of the waning influence of Japanese (if that's what it is) is precisely backwards. The vitality of Japanese literature may have stalled not because Japan accepted the rise of English, but rather because it didn't. If Japan were more open, if its language instruction were better and more fully conducive to exchange between Japanese and foreigners, interest in Japanese literature outside Japan would be greater. In the second half of the 20th century Japan missed its opportunity to put its language on a more secure worldwide footing, just as Japan's failed to fulfill its potential to become a worldwide financial center (and for many of the same reasons). The point is that receptiveness to English could have been a path to strength, not weakness. We'll never know what this path would have looked like, but to me it's more convincing than Mizumura's account.
Anyone with an interest in Japanese should read this book! Great fun to wrestle with (and an excellent job of translation).