The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English [ja], the latest book by Japanese novelist and essayist Minae Mizumura [水村美苗] [en], roused debate among many Japanese bloggers recently over the fate of their national language. In this book, the writer, who had the opportunity to live and receive an education both in Japan and in the U.S., examines the role and future of the Japanese language. Mizumura contextualizes her discussion of this language, used for centuries by many literates and intellectuals to produce works of great literary value, in a modern age in which English is invading all fields of knowledge, to the point of becoming a universal written language used by everyone across the world to communicate.

Further Reading:

Japanese Language in the Age of English (Global Voices)
Ikeda on the Fall of Japanese (Global Voices)

Yukari-sensei worship

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16 thoughts on “The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English

  1. Guess it’s different from the French who are into linguistic preservation…maybe the Japanese can get rid of katakana (won’t ever happen)?

    Maybe the first step is to de-Engrish-ify the language.

  2. I also don’t see much usefulness in katakana.

    I think English language and Western culture in general will keep exerting a strong influence on Japan in the coming years.

  3. This reminds me of the different dialects in China. Schools push for mandrin, so kids, while all understanding their dialects, doesn’t have much of a chance to speak it, a large number even refuse to speak it. Many people are talking about preserving the language, but I think it’s all going to die out within the next 5 generations and all dialects will be gone. I personally still understand my dialect, but I’ve been away from China for so long that I can only pronounce some basic words now. Still fluent in Mandrin though.

  4. Choux,

    Yes, China has many dialects, and it is not easy to keep the language in good shape once you move out of the country. It is unlikely that all the dialects will die in five years though.

    – – –

    Sakura,

    haha That one? 😛 (see it till the end for Macross Frontier and Gundam stuff)

  5. I don’t know how I missed this article! Funny stuff. I don’t see Japanese disappearing anytime soon, but I can see English becoming a second official language. Starting next year, there is an education mandate that all elementary school 5th and 6th grade students must study English at least once per week. Personally, I see it as a good thing – as there needs to be a worldwide standard as far as language goes. That being said, I would prefer the world’s linguists come together and create an entirely new language to be implemented as the world’s standard “second language” as using English as the world’s standard seems a bit imposing and unfair. Perhaps that is something I can research in the future…

    Katakana is useful because Japanese doesn’t have things like ALL CAPS. It isn’t just for foreign words, but also to stress Japanese words.

    1. One person tried to do create such a language with Esperanto.

      Oh, katakana is used to stress words?! Thank you for mentioning it 🙂 However, I don’t like all caps, and other methods such as italics can be used to stress words.

  6. >other methods such as italics can be used to stress words.

    Funny you said that…because, as “Okami-sensei” said katakana isn’t just for foreign words…but I was gonna say—it’s also used like italics are used in English.

    For example: The car company Toyota writes their name as 「トヨタ」 because 「とよた」 doesn’t look like a company name.
    And 「ゴミ」 (gomi) is a Japanese word (for garbage) but it’s seldom written as 「ごみ」.

    Why would you think Japan would (or should) eliminate カタカナ (Katakana)?
    It makes it easier to pronounce difficult foreign words (for example: middle Eastern or German, etc) and is an important part of the Japanese writing system.

    1. Heh, 「とよた」 does not look like a company name, but 「トヨタ」 does? That’s an interesting perspective… I wonder what makes you think so?

      Also I don’t see why Katakana would make pronunciation of the difficult foreign words easier.

      Probably, it is too late to change anything now because Katakana is a part of the current system that people are so accustomed to. I just think it is a redundant part of the writing system.

  7. >Heh, 「とよた」 does not look like a company name, but 「トヨタ」 does? That’s an interesting perspective… I wonder what makes you think so?

    I’m not the only one who thinks that. It’s the reason katakana is used in their name.
    It stands out when written in katakana, so it’s easier to see that it’s a name. Of course, they coul use kanji (豊田)…like Hitachi does (they’re 「日立」).

    >Also I don’t see why Katakana would make pronunciation of the difficult foreign words easier.

    A quick example: Americans mispronounce “petite”. It’s a French word…pronounced 「プチ」.
    “Paris” is another French word mispronounced…it’s 「パリ」.

    >I just think it is a redundant part of the writing system.

    To me, that’s like saying lower-case alphabet letters are redundant.

    1. Katakana was developed as a shorthand for man’yōgana characters. Developing a replica of hiragana just for emphasis purposes is not necessary. Other logographic languages do just fine without such systems (dots are used below or above characters or the characters are slanted like in italics).

      Transliteration will always have some problems. The examples you gave demonstrated the cases where written English version of the word does not correspond to the pronunciation. I am sure there are cases where the Japanese transliteration does not match proper pronunciation.

      Your capitalization analogy does not map well. Majuscules are useful for sentence separation, but most writing systems don’t distinguish between upper and lower cases, including the Japanese writing system: you don’t write the beginning of the sentences with katakana. Of course, you can argue that writing in capitals is useful for emphasis, but readability of such text is very poor. For example, British road signs no longer use all capital letters.

      Anyway, Happy New Year 🙂

  8. Katakana isn’t used to pronounce foreign words, its used to adopt them. For example the English word library is from the french libraire (bookshop). The meaning is changed as is the spelling. Various English, French, Danish and German words have been adopted by the Japanese, some with their meanings intact and others with quite dramatic changes in meaning. The phonemes of Japanese are limited in comparison with English so the result is an approximation, but this is true in all languages adopting foreign words, including English which also mangles the pronunciation of many French (petite) Hindi (buggy) and even Japanese words (Karaoke).

    Interestingly パリ is much closer to the French pronunciation than the English, appropriate considering its a French city. Its a kind of imperialism that says that everything comes from English and anything that deviates is stupid. The point is that language is universally borrowed, adapted and used in an organic manner..

    That said I hate the prevalence of English and French, used because it looks cool, when there is a completely reasonable Japanese word that covers that meaning…

    1. Thank you for mentioning this 🙂

      The point is that language is universally borrowed, adapted and used in an organic manner..

      Indeed 🙂

      Yes, it is best to use one language at a time because the mix just does not sound well.

  9. ‘english becoming a universal written language…’-becoming? it has become already. bad or good, I know one thing: if communication is achieved ,nothing else matters.
    the ‘weaker’ languages won’t disappear. perhaps some dialects will be forgotten, but since there are big language domains hence areas where a certain language is used the language won’t die.
    as for foreign words…well, some countries produce certain things and so find names for them. the exchange between the languages it’s not sth that can be prevented nor is it bad. and it happens since ancient times. for example the word ‘hrisos'(=gold in greek) was egyptian-we didn’t have gold in greek grounds, it was imported- but with the passage of time it became sth belonging to greek vocabulary. in many languages in medicine there are greek words used. if they are to be erased medicine would have a hard time…
    getting more words from other languages might be sth that enriches them. english itself has taken in so many foreign words. and that’s why she got widespread among other reasons

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