Having read a great review of Minae Mizumura’s book, The Fall of Language in the Age of English over on the Slate (thanks to the miseCiara blog), I couldn’t help but dedicate a post to what promises to be a fascinating read. The review points to several fascinating points and questions raised in the work on the nature of languages in the global age of English, their positions, the relevancy of literature and the validity of world views in the new global lingual context.
One such issue, as pointed out in the review, 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.
Now we must remember that this statement is made in the context of Japanese and other very large languages, and it’s almost a moan that those languages are being crowded out by English. Interestingly, those of us who have studied minorised languages and the processes of language shift and or death have been dealing with this situation for a long time. Indeed that a language contains and conveys a particular world view is an argument itself for language preservation but what is startling is that such powerful languages like Japanese, with well over 120 million speakers, are now undergoing the very same language processes that led to language shift and death around the globe, indeed the very same process that saw Irish begin a huge decline in the 17th century.
On a different note though, the idea that every language intrinsically contains an untranslatable world view, or truths, is one that has been in dispute for centuries if not millennia. For example, in Irish a black man is actually a fear gorm or ‘blue man’. Of course people of African descent are neither black or blue but one can’t help speculate on how these denominations colour (excuse the pun) our perception of people of African descent. Black in English is subconsciously associated with dirty, negativity, danger or evil (look at how the ‘baddies’ are dressed in Hollywood films) for example, and there is an argument that on a subconscious level that calling someone black, from a ‘white’ perspective, may lead to prejudice. Blue on the other hand is certainly more culturally neutral, even if it is just as ridiculous in terms of the real skin-colour of African descended people.
Coming back to Minae’s book, she argues that in this new age…
A writer writing in English can count on her words reaching people all over the world, whether in translation or the original, but there’s no guarantee English-speaking readers will ever encounter experiences first framed in Japanese.
Thus English extends it’s world view upon others but not vice-versa, making Globalisation a very one-way process, linguistically and culturally.
This universality of English is not complimented by universality of other languages, languages that in theory are equally important in speaker numbers and literary production and thus cultural importance. Again, it occurs to me that this process has already taken place on a smaller level as ‘national’ languages were imposed on what they deemed ‘regional’ languages, making those national languages ubiquitous in the nation-state and as such, confining the other languages to their ever shrinking geographical realm. Spain with Castillian and France with French being two examples from Europe.
Once again we come back to the idea of imposition of intrinsic values, truths and world views and just as Castillian was elevated to occupy a national language role, pushing back other Spanish languages and thus inherently dictating cultural norms, so English is doing the same on a universal level in the 21st century.
I think it would be interesting to tease out the neutrality or validity of these processes, but that is not for me to do here and maybe remind the lamenting author of those other Japanese languages that were marginalised by what we know as ‘Japanese’ nowadays.
In any case, the author does make a case for multilingualism as a defence mechanism to this cultural hegemony because at the end of the day, only a deep knowledge of different languages will allow people to discover the hidden truths in those languages and their own language(s) and as such decipher the inherent prejudices of a language and, importantly, be able to truly use a language to better understand and interpret the world around us.