The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura, however, does believe that her countrymen labor under “the feeling that they ought to know English,” an “irrational obsession, a paranoia that has spread across the nation like a plague.” As in Korea, it happens because “most people, despite years of suffering from mandatory English courses in junior high, high school, and college, end up with little or no grasp of the language,” and so, “feeling defeated, and blaming themselves for the defeat, ordinary people have succumbed to a kind of mass hysteria, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that they can and must master the language.” Mizumura makes this diagnosis in her treatise The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a surprise hit upon its original publication in Japan in 2008 and recently translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.
The Japan title is somewhat different, translating to “When the Japanese Language Falls: In the Age of English.” Although Mizumura assures us straightaway that we have “no need to fear for the future of Japanese literature,” she adds this contradictory caveat: “not unless the Japanese language is falling, not unless Japanese people keep on letting it fall or, even worse, keep on doing everything in their power to accelerate its fall (which I’m afraid may be the case) now that we have already entered the age of English.”
On one thing, at least, most agree: though animals communicate, only humans have true language, with the power to organise complex thoughts into a string of words, often about absent or abstract things. And most scholars also reckon that Homo sapiens is the only species ever to have had such language. They think it must have emerged somewhere between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.
Now Daniel Everett, of Bentley University in Massachusetts, has, in “How Language Began”, published a broadside against that idea. He thinks that Homo erectus, Homo sapiens’s predecessor, had something that could be called language—and not just grunting proto-speech. This would make language not 200,000 years old, but something like 1.9m.
When my father took my six-year-old sister on a trip to kill a deer, the deer killed him. They were still winding their way Up North, driving the four-hour trip from suburban Detroit to the country. In the pre-dawn fog, a buck ran in the middle of the road, the soft-top Jeep crashed, turned upside down, and crushed my father. My sister survived, and my mother was left to care for three small, bewildered children on her own. My brother was nine, I was seven. My father was 32, my mother 29. The year was 1974. This is our family story.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion famously said. I’ve wrapped myself up in this story’s shelter, the comfort of its familiarity which, after many repetitions, starts to feel the same as its truth.
What Solomon achieves with this debut — the sharpness, the depth, the precision — puts me in mind of a syringe full of stars. I want to say about this book, its only imperfection is that it ended. But that might give the wrong impression: that it is a happy book, a book that makes a body feel good. It is not a happy book. I love it like I love food, I love it for what it did to me, I love it for having made me feel stronger and more sure in a nightmare world, but it is not a happy book. It is an antidote to poison. It is inoculation against pervasive, enduring disease. Like a vaccine, it is briefly painful, leaves a lingering soreness, but armors you from the inside out.