Tag Archives: English

The Fall of Language in the Age of English – Minae Mizumura

Image from the Slate.com
Image from the Slate.com

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.



Language Resistance 2 – Ambivalence (Québec)


What happens in a situation whereby there is no real official overt prejudice against a smaller language, but at the same time there is little or no official effort to promote the smaller language? Well this situation could be described as the state having an ambivalent attitude to the smaller language.

It’s a bit of a misnomer though as language laws will always assign roles to each language, either favouring one or more or legislating for equality. Sometimes, though, language laws do strive for equality between two or more often unequal languages but these laws are not enforced or are hampered by interpretations of them in the courts. In this situation, one could say that the state has an ambivalent attitude to a minorised language, neither hindering it officially, nor actively working for its preservation or survival. Indeed, action is the key word here, for it is the very lack of action by official organs of the state that leads to an ambivalent situation.

An example of this ambivalence, historically, can been seen in many countries who went through the process of repressing a language, then to an ambivalent attitude towards it and sometimes then onto a more active role in aiding the maintenance and/or promotion of a minorised language. Often this third stage was the product of a changed political structure, leaving local or provincial governments in charge of language policy. This is referred to as ‘territoriality’ in language management terms.

Before the Quiet Revolution and Bill 101 in Quebec, French in Canada could be argued to have existed in an ambivalent context. It was dominant by speaker numbers in Quebec but English was the prestige language for business and indeed for many parts of the public administration, it being the majority language in Canada as a whole. Importantly, immigrants to Quebec hugely favoured English and this, along with a declining birth rate, was reducing the Francophone numbers there. Indeed, this demographic mix set off the alarm bells in the 60’s and led the Quebecois to move from an ambivalent approach to a proactive one, as defined by the founding of the Parti Québécois in the late 60’s. When they eventually got elected they brought in Bill 101 which deal explicitly with language matters, marking out the role and prominence of French in Quebec and thus creating a legal framework from which the Quebecois language was to reaffirm its primacy in all walks of life.

This law dealt with education, public and private language practises, commerce, labour relations, language landscape (signage) and immigration. Summarising, it gave French primacy over English in all matters, though without repressing English as it allowed an English framework for state service, education, health, etc. in those areas where the English speaking population were a majority, much in the same way Swedish is dealt with in Finland.

So, in essence, French was given prominence, English was provided for and compromises were reached on the language of education.

The controversy has not stopped there, however, with many cases being taking to the courts against the Charter for the French Language (Bill 101), some of which leading to changes in the law. That said, it remains the fundamental law upon which language policy has been developed in Quebec.

So how has the language situation changed over the years since its passing? Well, before, English though a minority in Quebec was the language of prestige, if not numerically dominant, in the private sector, among immigrants and indeed in the biggest city, Montreal. While some point to a flight of English speakers, no hard evidence or studies have been produced showing this to be the reason for the decline in first-language English speakers in the province. In any case, it has been shown that English is no longer the dominant language in commerce, with the presence of French among the higher echelons having now become a normal occurrence. Furthermore, while many immigrants still chose English as their acquired language, those figures have equalised with just as many deciding to choose French.

In conclusion, what happened in Quebec was a majority movement that decided to move from an ambivalent situation that was seeing the slow erosion of French, to a more active policy, achieved through politics, of making French central to all facets of Quebec society and thus, raising its prestige to a level more reflective of its speaker numbers.