Monday, 31 May 2010

Languages and the Tower of Babel

Genesis 11, verses 1-9:
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 land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. 6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 

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 tower of Babel aren’t evil.  They’re only attempting what the space programme did – to reach the sky.

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 India, Africa and America – 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!

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 dej√† 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 Tower of Babel as a tragedy, the smiting down of presumptuous humanity by a jealous God, perhaps we could read it as a mytho-poetic account of human creativity: ‘Let’s reach the sky!’ ‘Let’s discover the origin of life!’ We strive for perfection and though we always fall short, at least we keep trying.   Or maybe we could turn instead to a different account: a Greek story about the trickster god Hermes - god of words and inventions, messenger between Olympus and the mortal world.  Hermes is said to have created a confusion of human speech, which spoiled Zeus’ pleasure in ruling over men.  The Greek writer Pausanius says that Zeus therefore abdicated in favour of the culture-hero Phoroneus, first king of Argos, who introduced the use of fire and the forge and who, when the primeval waters receded, "was the first to gather the people together into a community; for they had up to then been living as scattered and lonesome families.”

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. 


  1. Interesting post, Kath! We were just discussing at a poetry group the problems of writing a haiku in English - some people think it needs to be in Japanese to give the true shades of meaning.

  2. Very cool ideas in this post - I'm off to read the New Scientist article now too.

  3. Interesting post. But I don't agree with the affirmation that God created the different languages because he was jealous or because he felt threatened. The context of this event helps us understand his reasons. This event happened at cca 200 years from the flood. Noah's family had grown and some of his descendants moved towards East, in the plain of Shinear (Genesis 11:2). There, Nimrud, of whom the Bible sais that was the first man to become powerful (Genesis 10:8) had built 8 cities, including Babel (Genesis 10:10–12). His name was not given at his birth but, according with oriental customs, was a nickname meaning "he rebelled". A historian, Jacob Perizonius, said that he imagined that this man, a merciless hunter and surrounded by a gang, had always had on his lips the words «nimrud, nimrud», that is «Let's rebel! Let's rebel!». The purpose of the Tower was not high. The tower builders didn't seek knowledge, illumination, but they wanted to build it in order to avoid another flood and to rebel agains the mission that God had given to the human beings twice: Once to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28) and after the flood, to Noah and his family (Genesis 9:7). They were to spread all over the earth, populate it and take care of it. The verses you quoted in the begining of the article mention their reasons: "lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." Now, why accuse God of being the "mean" one, when he had all the reasons and rights to accomplish his will? :)
    P.S. - Sorry for my poor English, I did my best :)

  4. Dear Dia,
    Many thanks for your thoughtful comment, and your English is excellent! But I do think your historian is making just as many assumptions as me! Interpretation of this story will depend quite a lot of what prior beliefs we bring to it. Mine is that this is a legend - a story - and isn't meant to be read as if it were history. I believe it tells us something about the way people thought it likely God might behave, at the time they were telling this story - several thousand years ago. But I think standards of behavior both for humans and our deities have changed since then...

  5. Beautiful post, I love flicking through New Scientist, I used to study Japanese in high school and it fascinated me how various words in particular contexts could convey cultural meanings. I guess I'm the sort of person who embraces the diversity of language :) My parents speak Tagalog and although I don't speak it, I understand it and many words have multiple meanings which are imbued with emotion. I also remember reading Shadow of the Wind and wondering what it would be like to read it in its original language - Spanish. I definitely agree with how language can affect how one thinks.