The invasive species of English

In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Mizumura, a leading contemporary Japanese novelist who was educated (from high school through graduate school) in the United States and returned to Japan to become a writer, asks a fundamental question: what is the position of non-English-language writers (particularly non-European writers) in a global world so thoroughly dominated by English that no writer can escape its weighty impact? In the opening chapter, which describes her experience at an International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she points to a hierarchy among literary languages, in which languages at the bottom are dying at an unprecedented rate, like animals and plants affected by severe environmental change, with English overrunning and homogenizing what had been a highly diversified linguistic landscape.

What Mizumura calls a “universal language” is not determined by the number of its speakers of that language but by the number who depend on it for their survival. Outside of the Anglo-European sphere, a linguistic and cultural hierarchy has emerged in which English, with its access to the latest knowledge and technology, stands at the top, while national and other local languages stand below; most nonnative English writers strive to be bilingual, but it is a severely asymmetrical relationship. Historically, in Mizumura’s words, “the universal [now English], which society places above the local, is assigned the heavy responsibility of aspiring to the highest excellence, not only aesthetically but also intellectually and ethically. In contrast, even if it has a writing system, the lower-ranking local language is primarily intended for only uneducated men and women.”

–Haruo Shirane, “What Global English Means for World Literature




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