LINGUISTIC LIFE in South Korea once moved me to write a short essay in Korean called “영어에 대한 네 가지 거짓말” or “Four Lies About English.” The first lie, to translate it back into that native language of mine, holds that English speakers can live comfortably in every country in the world; the second, that all those countries have agreed to communicate in English with each other; the third, that because the people of countries like Sweden or Germany speak English well in addition to their native languages, Koreans can and should do the same; and the fourth, that anyone unable to master English is a fool. These particular misconceptions, though I could have included others, have taken root in Korean society to the extent that many Koreans grow flabbergasted when I try to disabuse them.
Not that I alone can do much to mend Korea’s deeply unhealthy relationship with English, a language now slathered liberally on every surface of its cityscapes — except the advertisements for cram schools and practice apps, which shame their readers for having spent years and years studying English without any speaking ability to show for it. Japan, a country I visit often, hasn’t caught as virulent an “English fever,” as Koreans call it (or as I called it on LARB’s Korea Blog last year, “English cancer”), and so, despite my far weaker command of Japanese than Korean, I always feel a weight lift from my mind when I go there, taking comfort in the unambiguous fact that the language of Japan is Japanese: those I address in it will never, ever reply in English — and were I to speak in English, most of them would reply, often at length, in Japanese anyway.
The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura, however, does believe that her countrymen labor under “the feeling that they ought to know English,” an “irrational obsession, a paranoia that has spread across the nation like a plague.” As in Korea, it happens because “most people, despite years of suffering from mandatory English courses in junior high, high school, and college, end up with little or no grasp of the language,” and so, “feeling defeated, and blaming themselves for the defeat, ordinary people have succumbed to a kind of mass hysteria, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that they can and must master the language.” Mizumura makes this diagnosis in her treatise The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a surprise hit upon its original publication in Japan in 2008 and recently translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.
The Japan title is somewhat different, translating to “When the Japanese Language Falls: In the Age of English.” Although Mizumura assures us straightaway that we have “no need to fear for the future of Japanese literature,” she adds this contradictory caveat: “not unless the Japanese language is falling, not unless Japanese people keep on letting it fall or, even worse, keep on doing everything in their power to accelerate its fall (which I’m afraid may be the case) now that we have already entered the age of English.”
By the “age of English,” Mizumura means a time — our time — when English has assumed the role of a “universal language,” one played before, for example, by Latin in medieval Europe. But “[t]here has never before been a universal language of this scale, a language that is not confined to any one geographical location, however vast, but sits atop all other languages and circulates throughout the entire world.” None have ever “ruled the world the way English does today. No language has ever been as completely and absolutely dominant.” Esperantists and proponents of other languages as candidates for universality may argue that English has too few native, or even native-level speakers to be truly suitable for global use, but Mizumura heads off their well-rehearsed objections, underscoring that “[w]hat makes a language ‘universal’ has nothing to do with how many native speakers there are, and everything to do with how many people use it” — or guiltily believe that they should use it — “as their second language.”
This has given rise to something called “global English,” sometimes referred to as “Globish,” an ugly name for an ugly phenomenon. Native English-speaking writers, Mizumura acknowledges, “will argue that most of the English language now circulating globally — in academia, journalism, commerce, Hollywood, the Internet — is impoverished, degenerate, and uprooted.” She replies that “waging war against inane language that circulates almost automatically is a writer’s eternal mission,” but also declares that “English is no longer a national language, and texts written in English are no longer national literature.” Indeed, her book could just as well have been tiled The Fall of English in the Age of English.
“Englishmen of education, and more competent judges than I can be of the nicer shades of expression, have frequently assured me that the language of the educated classes in the United States is notably different from that of the educated classes in Great Britain,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 study Democracy in America (translated from the French by Henry Reeve). They complained to him “not only that the Americans have brought into use a number of new words,” but that “these new words are more especially taken from the jargon of parties, the mechanical arts, or the language of trade,” that “old English words are often used by the Americans in new acceptations,” and that “the inhabitants of the United States frequently intermingle phraseology in the strangest manner.”
Any modern English watcher will feel the relevance of Tocqueville’s commentary on “how American democracy has modified the English language,” especially when in the habit its people have of “giving an unwonted meaning to an expression already in use.” In his view, each writer in a democratic society, and even each speaker, arrogates to himself the right to modify an expression to suit his particular meaning. “A second writer twists the sense of the expression in another way; a third takes possession of it for another purpose; and as there is no common appeal to the sentence of a permanent tribunal that may definitively settle the meaning of the word, it remains in an unsettled condition.” The result, he concludes, “is that writers hardly ever appear to dwell upon a single thought, but they always seem to aim at a group of ideas, leaving the reader to judge which of them has been hit.” He condemns this creeping vagueness as “a deplorable consequence of democracy.”
Tocqueville has in mind the linguistic homogenization that occurs in a society where “men, being no longer restrained by ranks, meet on terms of constant intercourse, when castes are destroyed and the classes of society are recruited from and intermixed with each other,” and “all the words of a language are mingled.” Eventually, words unused by the masses disappear, and “the remainder form a common store, whence everyone chooses pretty nearly at random.” This in contrast to language in aristocratic societies, where “several communities which have a common origin become nevertheless strangers to each other; so that, without ceasing to understand the same language, they no longer all speak it in the same manner,” producing “a language of the poor and a language of the rich, a language of the commoner and a language of the nobility, a learned language and a colloquial one.”
“I would lay a wager,” Tocqueville speculates, “that among the castes of India there are amazing variations of language, and that there is almost as much difference between the language of a pariah and that of a Brahmin as there is in their dress.” This example, as well as his indictment of the state of language in the United States, kept coming to mind as I read last year’s Forget English!: Orientalisms and World Literatures by Aamir R. Mufti. Ostensibly covering similar intellectual ground to The Fall of Language in the Age of English but with a focus on India and Pakistan, the book critiques the concept of “world literature,” arguing that it “has functioned from the very beginning as a border regime, a system for the regulation of movement, rather than as a set of literary relations beyond or without borders.” If world literature has introduced any freedom, in other words, it has done even more to constrain.
“We might say,” Mufti elaborates, “that the cultural sphere now generally identified as world literature, far from being a seamless and traversable space, has in fact been from the beginning a regime of enforced mobility and therefore of immobility as well.” Prose of this kind, though possibly transparent to a bona fide literary academic, strikes me as the natural, sad progression of the disease Tocqueville diagnosed when he described writers in democratic nations as “passionately addicted to generic terms and abstract expressions,” apt to “speak of capacities in the abstract for men of capacity” or of “actualities to designate in one word the things passing before his eyes at the moment.” These abstractions, abundant in the languages of ever-changing democratic societies, “enlarge and obscure the thoughts they are intended to convey,” functioning like “a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.”
And so we have academic books, of which Mufti’s hardly ranks as the most bothersome example, full of meditations on “the globalizing cultural logics of the late-capitalist postcolonial world,” “the division of colonial space into ‘elite’ and ‘subaltern’ domains,” and “the ways in which diversity itself is a colonial and Orientalist problematic.” (The word problematic, the textbook current example of Tocqueville’s existing expression refashioned with an unwonted and to an extent deliberately unsettled meaning, appears 12 times in the next, 10 of them as a noun.) But Mufti’s underlying lament ultimately sounds not so different from the one Mizumura expresses when she writes that “the fall of a language is set in motion when […] people begin to take more seriously what they read in English” than in their native languages, when a non-English-language national literature becomes “nothing more than a local literature that no discriminating person takes seriously.”
Perhaps we could head off this dispiriting fate by simply forgetting English, per Mufti’s title, although he exposes that bold imperative as something of a bait-and-switch in his prologue: “It is of course hardly possible (let alone desirable) to literally ‘forget English’ in our present conjuncture, but in this book, I insist on the necessity and possibility of thinking past, around, and about it.” This project involves asking questions about how “the cultural system of English” has “played the role of absorbing and appropriating distant and diverse modes of life into the expanding bourgeois world,” how it becomes “available as a literary language for the first time to a society in which it does not originate,” and how it determines “which forms of writing ‘make it’ — and which do not — into world literature.” What does it mean for books written in other languages, in other words, when they themselves, as well as the discussions about them, must first pass through the filter of English, whether in translation or initial composition?
Mizumura sees herself and other novelists who write in non-English languages as “condemned,” albeit advantageously, to confront such questions. English-language novelists “are not condemned to know, for instance, that the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism. They are not condemned to know that there is thus a perpetual hermeneutic circle” — a rare foray into academese — “that in interpreting the world, only ‘truths’ that can be perceived in English exist as ‘truths.’ They are not condemned to know that this hermeneutic circle is further consolidated by the honorable Nobel Prize in Literature, which inevitably suppresses all the problems inherent in the act of translation.”
“Despite its questionable selection procedures and often bizarre choices, the Nobel is seen as more important than any national prize,” the Italy-based English novelist Tim Parks complained in The New York Review of Books years before the publication of Mufti’s book or of Mizumura’s in English. “Thus the arbiters of taste are no longer one’s own compatriots — they are less easily knowable, not a group the author himself is part of.” He labels the kind of book geared to these conditions “the dull new global novel,” deliberately written with “a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension” such as “culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity.” Other compositional strategies then come to the fore, especially “the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as ‘literary’ and ‘imaginative,’ analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema.”
Parks makes exasperated reference to “the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie” so often retreaded in these books, and Mufti puts the author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses (whom he calls one of “the exemplary types of non-Western writer”) on trial more than once for his attitude toward the literature of his homeland of India. First, in an introduction to an anthology of post-Independence Indian fiction, Rushdie asserts that prose by Indian writers working in English “is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the sixteen ‘official languages’ of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages.’” Then he dismisses on Twitter the Marathi-language writer Bhalchandra Nemade, who had called for a ban on English and accused Rushdie and his English-writing kind of “pandering to the West,” as a “grumpy old bastard.”
Mutfi’s objections to Rushdie’s novels seem to have less to do with aesthetics, much less virtuosity, than with cultural misrepresentation. He highlights a passage from Midnight’s Children featuring such English-rendered but culturally Indian lines of dialogue as “Eat, na, food is spoiling” and “What is so precious to need all this writing-shiting?” as evidence that Rushdie’s famously “chutney-fied” non-upper-class Indian English prose (here, “the attribution of an urban middle-class idiom to an illiterate subaltern,” the narrator’s homely, superstitious lover, who “should typically not be able to speak any kind of English at all”) amounts not to a proper literary representation of an Indian character’s voice but “nothing more (but also nothing less) than a staking of a claim to autonomy within international Anglophone literary culture,” abandoning authenticity in the process.
If we can’t forget English, but if its dominance has nevertheless made for bland and distorted literature, what should we do about it? In the manner of many an academic writer dealing with culture, Mufti has more of an investment in complicating existing perceptions than arriving at concrete answers. But Mizumura, working under a very different set of expectations, ends her book with a series of unambiguous prescriptions for her homeland. These more than anything turned her book into such a hot topic in Japan, and they come as the latest in a tradition of Japanese calls for linguistic reform, chronicled by Mizumura herself, featuring figures like Japan’s first education minister who campaigned for the wholesale adoption of English, an acclaimed postwar novelist who called “for the defeated nation to abandon Japanese in favor of French,” and even one “ultranationalist thinker” who “urged the nation to take up Esperanto.”
Mizumura, by contrast, dares to argue that not everyone needs a second language. “The only realistic way to develop a cadre of skilled bilinguals is to head in exactly the opposite direction — that is, to give up on the notion of universal bilingualism,” she writes, which entails “abandoning once and for all a principle held inviolable (at least on the surface) by the Ministry of Education and the Japanese populace ever since World War II: the principle of egalitarianism.” Instead it should acknowledge the fact that “not every child is eager to learn English (in fact, English is the most abhorred subject in Japanese schools)” and that “it makes no sense to spend the nation’s limited resources equally on those who do want to learn English and those who do not” — truths Korea, a country in a similar state of resource-squandering linguistic denial, might also take to heart.
Rectifying the situation, Mizumura explains, will require devoting educational resources “to a limited pool of talent, the government leading the way,” in order to correct the market’s tendency toward “creating people who speak English like Americans — a meaningless ability in and of itself.” But in order to avoid turning these elite bilinguals — and not just English-speaking bilinguals, she adds — into “mere government puppets,” Japan must cultivate minds “capable of defending or criticizing their own country as informed citizens,” which first requires “thorough grounding in Japan and the Japanese language,” instilling through the instruction of classic literature an appreciation of their native language that, so The Onion recently had it, is now more commonly spoken by 23-year-old white American males than by the Japanese themselves.
A bilingual herself, Mizumura had what she calls an upbringing “not typical for a Japanese.” Her father’s business having brought the family to New York when she was 12, she remained in the United States for the next two decades, but
[t]oo proud and too cowardly to restart life as an Asian girl in America — for we were not immigrants — I stubbornly resisted getting along either with the United States or with the English language. I kept writing Par Avion on the envelopes that I now was sending to Japan. And every time I did so, I felt as if I were battling against the English language, which surrounded me and invaded me from every corner.
She spent these formative years immersed instead in classic Japanese literature, and in college and graduate school majored in French literature “as a way to continue avoiding English.”
Despite her best efforts, Mizumura ended up not just forgetting the language of Tocqueville but mastering English, almost inadvertently, to the extent that she regularly receives requests to speak and participate in conferences in the West. “More than likely I am invited not because the host read and liked my novels,” she grumbles, “but because I conveniently speak English. I feel a bit like I am being cheaply used.” The first chapter of The Fall of Language in the Age of English recounts her time at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, where she encounters, among other humorously sketched writerly types whose names she struggles to remember, the prominent Korean novelist Kim Young-ha (whose work I profiled in LARB in 2013), who “later kindly played a role in getting my inordinately long novel translated into Korean.”
That book was probably 2002’s A True Novel, a reimagined Japanese version of Wuthering Heights that opens with a 165-page prologue narrated by a character named Minae Mizumura. But even it poses fewer challenges to translation than 1995’s much shorter Shishōsetsu from Left to Right, which Mizumura wrote not just horizontally instead of vertically, as Japanese text is normally written, but partially in English, exploiting the fact that many Japanese readers understand some English (whereas few English readers understand any Japanese). “It would therefore be possible to replicate the bilingual form of Shishōsetsu from left to right in any language in the world,” she writes, “by translating the Japanese and leaving the English parts as they are. The only language in which this wouldn’t work would be English” — and so Mizumura scores a small revenge against the colossus.
Our ever more densely interconnected and culturally hybridized world (as one so often hears it described) would seem to promise the ideal conditions — audience, distribution channels, source material — for such multilingual works of literature, in a sense the truest “global novels,” but the few that have appeared so far haven’t gained much traction with the reading public. Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, perhaps the best-known example (primarily) in English, incorporates a variety of languages into its text, including German, Greek, Icelandic, and even Japanese. DeWitt’s great reward for this high estimation of her readership was more than a decade in the publishing wilderness.
Mizumura’s work, which holds its readers in equal esteem, also takes a stand against the main current of Japanese literature. In Japan, as anywhere else, “literature that circulates widely is seldom deserving of the name,” but there “the status of literature itself has fallen in people’s minds. If the word ‘literature’ still evokes some respect, it is only because it is associated with the works of earlier writers who made Japanese literature a ‘major literature.’” Where once “the national reverence for literature perhaps bordered on the extreme,” now, in a country where students are never assigned an entire book of Japanese fiction “from primary school through college,” it is “the national indifference to literature that borders on the extreme.”
If this indifference persists, “[l]ittle by little, before anyone knows it, fine prose writing will meet its demise as people take their own language less seriously in a vain attempt to ‘globalize,’” demanding more and more contemporary works of fiction produced as “global cultural goods, which, like Hollywood blockbuster films, do not require language — or translation — in the truest sense of the word.” As Mufti criticizes the constraints of world literature and Parks bemoans the conventions of the global novel, Mizumura fears the extinction of Japanese writers to compare with Natsume Sōseki, “modern Japan’s greatest novelist,” whose works (including his final, unfinished novel, which Mizumura took it upon herself to complete in her debut) “have an uncanny ability to transport readers back to the Japan of the Meiji and Taishō periods” through which he lived, and whose “idiosyncratic and inventive style” renders translation staggeringly difficult.
The Fall of Language in the Age of English, especially in its original Japanese version, comes at times close to Nihonjinron, the tradition of writings that attempt to define the qualities of the Japanese people and culture. In recommending that the Japanese government “make it its mission to defend the Japanese language by giving it priority over English,” Mizumura claims that “one’s identity derives not from one’s nation or blood but from the language one uses.” And what most deeply connects native speakers of the same language, in her view, “is simply that they read and are in dialogue with the same classics, however tangentially. And in order for the transmission of cultural heritage to occupy an important place in compulsory education, the entire nation must share that basic understanding. Sadly, the Japanese nation does not.”
But what makes the written Japanese language itself worth preserving? Its three different character sets, two phonetic alphabets (or three, counting the English thrown in, often haphazardly, one or two words at a time) and a vast set of modified Chinese ideograms (of which it takes knowledge of a few thousand to comfortably read novels), cause headaches for foreign learners and occasionally even native speakers. Yet at the same time, no other written language uses “different sets of signs to affect the production of meaning” in this way, and those shades of meaning
occur whether the writing is done by brush in beautiful calligraphy or by ballpoint pen in a deplorably clumsy hand, whether it is set in Ming or sans-serif typeface. The semantic difference comes from something unrelated to such visual effects. It comes from writing the very same words, pronounced the very same way, but using completely different letters that belong to different systems.
Japanese, in other words, accesses a dimension beyond other written languages, and one that gives the lie to phoneticism, the conception that “gives primacy to spoken language as a spontaneous expression of the human mind, thus reducing written language to the status of mere representation of spoken sounds.” Mizumura described this more concretely in an interview around the time of The Fall of Language in the Age of English’s English publication. The use of both ideograms and phonograms, she said, results in “an embarrassment of riches impossible to replicate in other languages.” On a page describing a flower garden, for example, the “names of flowers jump out at you,” embedded as they are “in phonograms much simpler in form. And since flower names in ideograms usually have poetic connotations, looking at the page, it really seems as if you are looking at a garden filled with clusters of fragrant and beautiful flowers.”
My own study of the Japanese language has only gone so far, and I certainly can’t read a novel written in it with any ease. But on my trips to Japan I occasionally get a glimpse of the unique multidimensionality of Japanese writing, this “striking capability that demonstrates the irreducible and fundamental difference between spoken language and written” for which Mizumura advocates. On my last ride on Tokyo’s text-laden subway, for example, I noticed among its countless advertisements one for a contact-lens manufacturer bearing the message “いい目, いい日” — not just the literal promise of “good eyes, good day,” but, with “good” written in phonograms and the rest written in ideograms, a kind of visual pun as well. Though a simple linguistic pleasure, it reminded me of how much, for all its globe-dominating reach and influence, English can never do.