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Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Fall of Language in an Age of English

I arrived at the Worst Airport in the World  Friday night.  The bored official at French immigration took my passport, casually flipped it open for all of two seconds, and then handed it back to me.  He must have wanted to go home as badly as I did after a 12 hour flight from Kansai International to Charles De Gaulle.

It's nice and not so nice to be home.  The nice parts are:  listening to a language I understand and speak, being able to read street signs without mental effort, and seeing my house and garden in all their summer glory.  The latter will keep me busy the two weeks I am here because there is a lot of pruning and weeding and cleaning up to do.

The not so nice part is the reason I'm here:  tests all next week at the cancer clinic René Huguenin.  PET scans, bone scans, blood tests all culminating in a visit with my oncologist where we read the results together and I either get another 6-month reprieve, or I don't.  Inshallah.

My two antidotes for stress are gardening and reading.  Over the past month or so there were one or two books I read that really got the grey matter stirring. Books with ideas that keep coming back to me at odd moments - when I'm digging weeds or hacking away at an out of control fruit tree.

Minae Mizumura is a Japanese novelist with a fascinating personal history and a glittering resume.  Born in the 1950's in Japan, she moved to New York, USA with her family when she was 12 years old.  After surviving American high school she went on to study French at Yale University.  She returned to Japan when she was in her early 30's and embarked on a very successful writing career writing in her native language, Japanese. She has won many awards, taught at both Stanford and Princeton, and was the resident novelist at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

The Fall of Language in an Age of English is a deeply personal book.  Using her own life experience she describes what it is like to be a reluctant speaker of what she calls the Universal Language (English).  "There has never before been," she says, "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."  The consequences of this for her personally and for other writers around the world who write in their native languages are many and not always positive.  If nothing else, her book makes this point with crystal clarity,  and her words cut like a knife through the insouciance (and sometimes outright smugness) of the privileged native speakers of English in an ever more globalized world. 

Mizumura is one who resisted English for many years.  She chose to learn French, she admits, because it was the anti-English, and because she could not see herself as a Spanish or Russian speaker.  That admission encapsulates a mental world where languages are ranked in a global hierarchy, and where blood and place of origin link an individual to the language or languages that one "should" or "should not" speak.  To be French means being a francophone; to be Japanese means to speak Japanese.  Out of this supposedly comes the national literature - the literary canon which defines a nation and makes for a shared conversation among its members.

It is really as simple and tidy as all that?   To accept the above as gospel truth a lot of things have to be ignored or forgotten: that until relatively recently many French in France did not speak French, that today one can be a French citizen with a French passport and not speak a word of the language of Molière, that some of the most competent French speakers come from other countries like North Africa, and that a few years ago a novel, Les Bienveillantes, written in French by an American won the grand prix du roman de l'Académie française and the prix Goncourt.

And in Japan there are many foreigners who have lived there long-term who speak, read and write exquisite Japanese in spite of the difficulty of learning that language and its multiple scripts. Most are not Japanese citizens but there are some exceptions.   Donald Keene, a veteran of the US Navy and Shincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University is a Person of Cultural Merit in Japan and has been recognized for his outstanding skill in and knowledge of Japanese and his promotion of that language with many awards and Japanese citizenship,

So if English supposedly sits at the top of the global language hierarchy (a hubristic notion worthy of wince or two) because it is both universal and exceptional - it has become completely disconnected from any one place or one people - it does not necessarily follow that all other languages are in the process of "falling" and becoming merely local languages with no prestige or attraction or usefulness. This is not to deny her arguments which are well-made, and her perspective which is as true as any other personal story told from where one sits and projects oneself out into the world.  

But they are not the whole story as any migrant or second-language learner knows.  And from my perspective as both of those things I find that I simply cannot agree with  Mizumura when she says:  "One's identity derives not from one's nation or blood but from the language one uses."  To that I would counter with the more subtle and wiser words of the eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz:
“For any speaker of it, a given language is at once either more or less his own or more or less someone else’s, and either more or less cosmopolitan or more or less parochial - a borrowing or a heritage; a passport or a citadel. The question of whether, when, and for what purposes to use it is thus also a question of how far a people should form itself by the bent of its genius and how far by the demand of its times.”


DL NELSON said...

Wishing you health on your tests. Always scarey because your imagination is active.

Tim said...

My understanding is that the unification of France in speaking the French language really came only after the construction of the railroad network than linked the "regions" to Paris. I think once heard that their were more French speakers in St Petersburg Russia in the early 1800s than in Limoges.

Interestingly enough too was the railroad network in France was largely designed and built by English capital thus the trains drive on the left side like in England. This excludes the Paris Metro whom Parisians did want at all to interconnect with the national rail system. In fact Parisians really didn't the idea of a national rail network at and forced all the railway stations in Paris to be built relatively far from the city center(compared to London). As a compromise though the French railway was forced to embrace electrified trains early on the 20th century as a way of winning public acceptance in Paris which one could argue ended up leading to French dominance in railways in the later half of the 20th century.

**French railway engineers played an important part in rebuilding Japan's railways after World War II in the 1950s and 1960s something not well known.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I've always considered English to be the language of the invader, despite being a native speaker of it, being of Irish, Scottish, French, and Italian heritage. I also love England and had a very enjoyable experience in school there. So it's complicated -- much as Mizumura's experience must have been (being educated in the language of the conqueror).

Other users of the language and/or script of the Roman or Chinese empires must have had the same ambivalent feelings in the past.

But I'm all for the preservation of linguistic diversity. I have my problems with Sapir-Whorf, but to the extent that they are right, I feel I must fight against the domination of one language uber alles. (Even if that language is the most bastardized and hybridized of them all.)

On the flip side, I remember a non-native English speaker complaining to me that English has no poetry, no feeling, that it is all bureaucratic jargon. I got offended, and insisted that they should read some Shakespeare, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, and James Joyce, before coming to that conclusion.

Like I said, it's complicated.