Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English is an eye-opening call to consciousness about the role of language: what it means for the fate of national languages at a time when English has become the world’s dominant “universal” language.
When I was a girl, my mother once told me the story of a Japanese soldier stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II. Perhaps he was allowed to take a book or two with him when his ship first sailed from Japan, but the war dragged on, and eventually the only thing left for him to read was a folded sheet of paper that came with his medication—a package insert—which he kept like a talisman. On the rare occasions when he had a moment to himself, he would take out the package insert and read it. The paper began to wear out and the letters blurred, but still he would squint his eyes and read.
The heat of the tropical sun burned his skin; the cries of giant tropical birds pierced his ears. He was exhausted, famished, and parched. Yet the moment his eyes fell on the Japanese words and phrases written on the paper, everything around him disappeared and he was transported back to his native soil.
I no longer recall what prompted my mother to tell me this story. I only remember thinking as I listened to her, “Oh, poor soldier, he’s just like me…,” but I didn’t dare say so aloud, knowing that it would sound ludicrous. How could I compare myself, a girl born after the war and lucky enough to be brought to America at a time when that country owned half the world’s wealth, to a starving soldier at the front?
A couple of years earlier, after my father was transferred to the New York branch of a Japanese company, my family had moved to the U.S., whereupon my sister and I suddenly were showered with the sort of goodies normal for middle-class American girls: thick slices of steak and ham, mounds of Hershey’s Kisses, bottles of Coca-Cola. What had been rare delicacies in Japan magically became readily available for our everyday consumption. We even had a car.
But no amount of material comforts could alleviate my homesickness. I missed my country, and I missed my language. During the whole of my teen years, I would hurry back from the local school—where I felt terribly out of place—plant myself on the sofa, and open an old Japanese novel, one of many that I read and reread. The moment my eyes fell on the Japanese words and phrases on the page, I too, just like the soldier, was mentally transported back home, though my body remained stranded on foreign soil.
The story of the Japanese soldier with the package insert never left me. After an extended stay in the States—twenty years, longer than I had dreamed—I finally returned home to begin writing novels in Japanese myself, and followed my first novel with a short essay about the soldier’s predicament. I was happy with my understanding of what the two of us had in common: a craving for the Japanese language. Yet now that I look back, how muddled my thinking was! Not until decades later, when I started working on The Fall of Language in the Age of English, did I begin to see more clearly what he and I really had in common: a craving for written Japanese.
The distinction between a written language and a spoken one does not come naturally to us. When we talk of “English” or “Japanese,” we usually are not sure even ourselves which of the two we may mean. Not only do we constantly confuse them, but we also tend to consider written language to be a mere representation of the spoken—which it is not. Written language must be examined separately as something that stands on its own. Every written language has its own complicated yet glorious history; it provides its readers with its own unique pleasures.
I also realized that the Japanese soldier would have been speaking Japanese with his fellow soldiers in barracks. And yet it was in the act of reading that he found solace. Likewise, while I was living in the States, I constantly spoke Japanese with my family and friends. But speaking the language never filled me with the bliss that reading Japanese did.
Lovers of the written word find pleasure in the act of reading even if all they have to read is the back of a cereal box—or a package insert. Lucky are those exiles who, like the soldier and me, can read in their own language and thereby be instantly transported home across thousands of miles. Luckier still are those who—like me—can not only read in their own language but also through it access great literature. For just as not every spoken language has a written language, not every written language has a strong literary tradition.
The imperative need to separate written language from spoken became clear as I worked on The Fall of Language in the Age of English and tried to envision what the growing dominance of English would actually mean for humankind. What would the world look like in fifty years? A hundred? No matter how I exercised my imagination, it was impossible for me to picture a world where everyone spoke English. The number of languages would continue to decline, to be sure, but people would always speak different languages in different corners of the earth. The critical question was this: which language(s) would we, or rather our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, be reading? And even more critically, assuming people were still reading in their own language, what kind of writing would they be reading?
As English dominance grows, inevitably more scholars around the world will be reading (and writing) in English: knowledge is most economically pursued and accumulated if everyone uses a single universal language. But what about other kinds of writing? As society’s most intelligent and best educated members become increasingly bilingual, I wonder what kind of writings they will read in their own languages. Only the sort of silly scribbles that are read one day and forgotten the next? Or will they still open books in their own languages, expecting to be nourished by an emotional, intellectual and spiritual feast?
These questions are unanswerable. Each written language will follow its own course; some will fall while others thrive. Yet a diversity of vibrant written languages is essential in enriching humanity, for it has always been through exchanges of different commodities, services and ideas that humans have developed. What I came to feel lies at stake as I wrote The Fall of Languages in the Age of English was this very diversity, a diversity we must hold dear.