The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura. Translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter. Columbia University Press.
By Katy Waldman
Reading between the lines.
Jan. 9 2015 11:41 AM
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.[…] At some point in all this, you realize: “Language” may be in the book’s title, but Mizumura has really crafted a conservationist’s plea for literature. Discussing the golden age of Japanese modernist fiction, she introduces us to Natsume Soseki, who penned the novel Sanshiro in 1909, 41 years after the Meiji Restoration opened Japan to the West. […]