A recent Slate article by Katy Waldmann pointed me towards Minae Mizumura‘s 2008 book The Fall of Language in the Age of English. She seems to make some interesting arguments about the position of the English language and the potential threat to the position of non-English languages.
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.
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.”
She says some interesting things. Going by this sympathetic review in The Japan Times, it seems as if her argument is based at least as much on a need for better education in non-English languages. Is fluency in Japanese incompatible with fluenct in English?