Monday, June 22, 2015

Book review : The Fall of Language in the Age of English


Reviewed by JAY RUBIN

The wonder of this book is that it exists at all. The author tells us of her native language: “What a bizarre and amusing language Japanese is . . . Fast and loose in its logic . . . ” and “As unbelievable as this may sound to the users of Western languages, Japanese sentences do not require a grammatical subject”. She says that having an “orderly brain” is “a trait common among American intellectuals but rare among speakers of Japanese, a language that doesn’t even require a clear distinction between ‘and’ and ‘but’”... Fans of contemporary Japanese literature may wonder where the presumptive Nobel nominee Haruki Murakami (b. 1949) fits into Mizumura’s bleak landscape, but one can only assume that he is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. His Vonnegut-flavoured narratives are surely the worst of the “rehashes” that Mizumura so abhors.

Writing in 1931, the great British historian of Japan G. B. Sansom bemoaned the historical accident that made Chinese the first writing system with which the Japanese first attempted, in the fifth century, to record the sounds of their language.

“Those sounds, simple and few in number, are very well suited to notation by an alphabet, and it is perhaps one of the tragedies of oriental history that the Japanese genius did not a thousand years ago rise to its invention. Certainly when one considers the truly appalling system which in the course of centuries they did evolve, that immense and intricate apparatus of signs for recording a few dozen little syllables, one is inclined to think that the western alphabet is perhaps the greatest triumph of the human mind.”

Even now, after some seventy post-war years of attempts to simplify and rationalize the Japanese writing system, its “appalling” mixture of Chinese characters and two supplementary phonetic scripts remains the single greatest stumbling block to foreigners who wish to become literate users of the language (to become literate in a language, you have to know its literature). Not even those few of us who survived boot camp and went on to read a good part of Japan’s literary canon in the original have it easy. As Minae Mizumura accurately (if somewhat ungraciously) observes in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, “Foreigners, even those who teach Japanese literature at a university, cannot read novels written in Japanese with any ease”.

Of course, it should matter not at all to the Japanese that foreigners have trouble mastering their language. Imagine trying to fix the crazy spellings in English just to help foreign students. But many Japanese themselves have espoused radical reform of the traditional writing system or even wholesale abandonment of the language, most notoriously the very first minister of education, Mori Arinori (1847–89), who advocated replacing Japanese with English. Notice Mori’s dates: he was assassinated before his forty-second birthday for his supposed disrespect of the national gods, though I like to think it also had something to do with his proposal to chuck the language. Needless to say, if men like Mori had been successful, the Japanese would have been cut off for ever from their incredibly rich literary and cultural heritage. No one would have had access to it besides a few antiquarians; the modern Japanese novel would never have blossomed as it so remarkably did in the early twentieth century; and the Japanese people would no longer be Japanese.

As Mizumura sees it, however, that is exactly what is happening to Japan even now. The Japanese written language is increasingly a victim of the kind of “phonocentrism” (evident even in the Sansom quote above) that has been running amok among Japan’s post-war language reformers, with their misguided notion that written language is merely a recording of the sounds of spoken language. The time and effort devoted to teaching the literary heritage in schools keeps dwindling, and the drive to correct “Japanese people’s hopelessly poor English” has reached the state of a “hysterical obsession”. Mizumura discusses the problem in a broad cosmopolitan context, warning the world not only of the impending fall of Japanese but the likely fall of all national languages in the age of English and the internet. Japanese is just the canary in the coal mine. The book is fascinating for readers who have no special interest in Japan or its language.

The most lamentable sign of the decline of the Japanese language, as Mizumura sees it, is the current state of Japanese literature, which is written by “brainless writers of crap”. The literary scene is “like a playground where everything [is] small and clamorous – just juvenile”.

“Representative works of today’s Japanese literature often read like rehashes of American literature . . . . [W]orks of contemporary fiction tend to resemble global cultural goods, which, like Hollywood blockbuster films, do not require language – or translation – in the truest sense of the word. No wonder Japan’s best and brightest have turned their backs on literature.”

There are a few exceptions, she suggests, but the youngest writers she mentions were born in 1935 and 1943. Fans of contemporary Japanese literature may wonder where the presumptive Nobel nominee Haruki Murakami (b. 1949) fits into Mizumura’s bleak landscape, but one can only assume that he is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. His Vonnegut-flavoured narratives are surely the worst of the “rehashes” that Mizumura so abhors.

The title of the original Japanese edition of which this book is an adapted translation is Nihongo ga horobiru toki: Eigo no seiki no naka de (When the Japanese Language Falls: In the age of English), but the title of this delightfully readable English version reflects its broad applicability to the problems faced by all the world’s local and national languages when they are confronted by “universal” languages. At earlier stages in history, Latin, Chinese and French bolstered the strength of national languages among true bilinguals, whereas now, aided by the internet, English threatens to undermine the authority of languages incapable of crossing national boundaries.

The ongoing “Fall” of language bemoaned in the English title has even more dire implications in the original Japanese, where it is a verb, envisioning a time when the Japanese language finally “falls” or “perishes”…. Read more: