Friday, January 09, 2015

Hating on English

Katy Waldman has a nice piece on Minae Mizumura and her screed against the English language, just recently translated into English: The Fall of Language in the Age of English. Minura moved to New York with her parents at age 12, and though educated in English, still resents it.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English, 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, 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.

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, 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.

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.

No doubt Mizumura's complaint will find plenty of sympathy from others whose first language is not English. English remains the cutting edge of Euro-American cultural imperialism, threatening to sweep all other cultures away before it. Of course monolingual Anglophones, like your humble correspondent, will disagree, but do please read Katy's take on it.