A sumary of the book entitled 日本語が亡びるとき―英語の世紀の中で "The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English"

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Sep 10, 2012 06:33 Japanese
"The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English" (日本語が亡びるとき―英語の世紀の中で) is the title of a award-winning book written in Japanese by Minae Mizumura (水村 美苗). It was published in 2008. The title is shocking to Japanese people. Apparently, some people hated it.

The author is a female Japanese novelist who was born in Japan, moved to the US at the age of 12 and had education in English there since then. She is bilingual. Although she studied graduate school in Yale and taught in Princeton, Michigan and Stanford Universities, she admits that she had a lot of troubles with regard to English comprehension during her education in the US.

As a bilingual Japanese expat myself, I was interested in the title of the book and the author's background as well. Then, do I hate her book?

I actually enjoyed this book very much. Perhaps, 'enjoy' may not be the right word, because the message of the book is rather depressing. However, the book was quite enjoyable intellectually. The following is a summary of the book.

What she means by saying "The fall of the Japanese language" is not complete extinction of the Japanese language. She is deeply worried about the future of Japanese language as a "national language" (国語), i.e. a language that is used by people in one country and holds enough vocabulary and sophistication to flourish scientific studies and literature alike.

In her terminology, primitive languages are shared by only local people and can be called "local languages'" (現地語). Then, there appeared "universal languages" (普遍語) such as Latin, Arabic, and Old Chinese. These languages are shared by highly educated people across many countries and used to convey the most valuable knowledge to next generations. Inevitably, these 'universal languages' are deeply related to religions. Sacred words of Christ, Muhammad, or Buddha, had to be recorded in "universal languages." However, the sacred knowledge was only accessible to those who had the best education, while ordinary people still kept using their "local languages" for daily conversations. Later on, the same "universal languages" were used to record other valuable knowledge such as science and technology.

When the modern concept of "nation" emerged in Europe in a competitive situation, each country tried to encourage their culture and industry within by developing "national languages", which were based on "local languages." The first step was the translation of the Bible from Latin into their "local languages." Through the process of the translation, they had to invent new words, or new use of existing words to represent high-level concepts. Thus they managed to increase their vocabulary and establish their "national languages", which were understandable by everybody in a country and were also capable of handling sophisticated concepts. This movement resulted in flourishing science and technology in those countries. At the same time, they saw prosperity of literature in their "national languages."

In Japan, the establishment of the "national language," the Japanese language, was urged by the startling encounter with the Western countries at the end of the Edo era at the middle of 19th century. During the subsequent Meiji period, the modern Japanese language was established chiefly by the efforts of Professors at universities in translating Western concepts into Japanese. The translation was done by using Chinese characters, which had been already part of Japanese language. It worked well and Japanese industry grew fast. At the same time literature in the "national language" was also flourished as represented by Soseki Natsume (夏目 漱石), who is often seen as one of the greatest Japanese novelists of all the time.

However, now the situation has been changed. The emergence of personal computers and internet at the end of the 20th century made English language stronger than ever. You can call English as the "universal language" of the world in the 21st century, just as Latin and Arabic were for Christian and Islamic worlds in the history. Given the arrival of internet is irreversible, this time the reign of English as an "universal language" may last forever.

English language stands as the strong "universal language." This means that any important inventions, and scientific breakthroughs must be written in English. What's wrong with that? Native English speakers would ask. This matters to non-English speakers including Japanese people.

If any important information is written and shared in English, what's the point of using the Japanese language? This is the key question the author is asking in the book.

Intellectual people in Japan want to know cutting-edge knowledge. Inevitably, they use English to get new information. When they achieved something, they want to publish it in English. If this tendency goes on and on, eventually those intellectual people would not bother writing anything important in Japanese. They would have been skipping translation. Even when they want to write something in Japanese, the key concepts and terms might not have been translated into Japanese yet. Then they can't convey the information at ease.

As a novelist, she's extremely anxious about the future of Japanese literature. When intellectual people stop using Japanese language for science and technology, they may also stop reading Japanese literature, because now they can access to the library of English literature. If there are no keen readers, writing novels in Japanese would become difficult.

All these turn the Japanese language back into a "local language," a language which is shared by local people for daily use but cannot be used to handle high-level concepts. This, the author says, is "The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English."

Today I'll stop here by just providing a summary of the book. See you soon, hopefully.