1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the
Like every myth, this story communicates on different levels. On a literal and simplistic level, it’s a story about human pride and ambition being punished by a God who apparently feels threatened. And read this way, it’s pretty dispiriting. ‘Don’t try too hard. Don’t be ambitious.’ That’s like saying ‘Don’t be human’, isn’t it? The builders of the
aren’t evil. They’re only attempting what the space programme did – to reach the sky. tower of Babel
On another level, ‘The Tower of Babel’ is a ‘Just So’ story: it tries to explain why different languages exist; and on another it’s a glimpse of history, of Babylon’s great ziggurats and towers, its marketplaces and streets filled with merchants and foreigners, a place where many different languages could be heard; and on still another, it’s a lament for the fragmentation of mankind, for our lack of trust, our misunderstandings and enmities. It’s a tale told around the world, in
, Africa and India – perhaps anyplace where people built pyramids and towers. Nearly always the existence of multiple languages is presented as negative, a punishment which reverberates down the ages. Diversity of languages is seen as a bad thing, something which divides the human world and holds us back. If only the whole world still spoke one language! We would all be one people and could achieve anything! America
Anyone who has struggled at school to learn a foreign language may have some sympathy with this view. Anyone who has mastered a foreign language will, perhaps, feel differently.
There’s a fascinating article about language by Christine Keneally in this week’s ‘New Scientist' (29th May): '6,909 Ways of Thinking'. It's about what different languages may tell us about humanity, the development of speech, and the ways our brains are shaped. It’s not all that long since scientific thinking about languages was dominated by Chomsky’s theory that all languages are underpinned by a universal grammar for which the brain is deep-wired, and that this is why babies pick up languages so easily, while children who for one reason or another are deprived of language, past a certain age find it difficult or impossible to catch up.
Now, it seems, some research is suggesting a different approach: the universal deep grammar may be a chimaera, and human languages may be genuinely diverse, with characteristics familiar to some being completely absent from others, and vice versa.
We of the Indo-European tongues are so accustomed to nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that it’s hard to imagine talking without them. But apparently, over the last two decades, researchers (like Columbus ‘discovering’ something the natives already knew) have found some languages such as Lao (spoken in Laos) with no adjectives at all: and even a few languages from the American Northwest without distinct nouns or verbs, but, instead, ‘a single class of words to encompass events, entities and qualities.’ This does not mean these languages are less sophisticated than ours. All human language is highly sophisticated. They are simply different.
English, according to the article, lacks ‘ideophones’: ‘where diverse feelings about an event and its participants are jammed into one word’. Keneally provides the immensely appealing example of a Mundari, Indian subcontinent, word, ‘rawa-dawa’, which apparently means: ‘the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it.’
(After I’d stopped smiling, I started to think about that. Is it really true that English contains no ideophones? Does the word ‘shrugs’ mean merely ‘an up and down movement of the shoulders’? Doesn’t it nearly always additionally imply ‘the person performing the action dissociates himself from responsibility’? Can a word such as ‘shrug’ ever be completely unpacked from its associations? Doesn’t it all rest rather shakily on interpretation? And isn’t interpretation what language is all about? Can all the ambiguities and double levels of meaning be so easily pinned down?)
At any rate, it appears that humans may just have invented their languages as they went along, using ‘standard engineering solutions that languages adopt again and again; and then you get outliers’. Languages may have evolved, like other characteristics, in response to particular environments. Studying the differences between languages may provide rich information about the human mind.
Keneally goes on to point out this means that the extinction of a language is a double tragedy (especially it’s usually accompanied by the erosion of a culture). We lose not only the language itself, but also what it can tell us. Some Australian languages have words for species – of bees for example – which have not yet been described by science. It is, she quotes one scientist as saying, like losing a shelf from a library without even knowing which books were there.
This is a haunting image, but I find another comparison springing to mind. Languages are like the rainforests – beautiful, mysterious, diverse, full of life, full of unexpected creatures and unknown species. It’s a commonplace to defend the preservation of rainforests on utilitarian grounds: who knows what unknown medicinal plants we may still find there? Who knows what the loss of such great forests will do to the climate? These are strong arguments: but the emotional heart of the desire to preserve the rainforests is that they are beautiful, and we want some wilderness in the world yet.
Diversity is good. No modern language is unmodified by another. Even a brief glance at the dictionary shows how English combines French, Latin, Greek, Celtic and German elements, and still imports fresh words from abroad. Not only do we humans come up with different concepts in different languages; we may even need different languages to think differently in. Just think how many things we couldn’t even say if there were no foreign languages. No schadenfreude. No dejà vu. No glasnost or perestroika, no segueing from one idea to another. Just think how awful that would be.
Instead of reading the story of the
And in this myth we see a more hopeful view of the diversity of languages: confusion of languages as a gift - like all the gifts of trickster gods, double-edged! - but still a gift rather than a curse: the Sky-Father retreats, but we human beings develop, invent, and flourish.