During a recent trip to Austria I decided it was time to learn some German. In the dim distant past, at secondary school, I’d done a couple of years studying the language – but with very limited success. Now the internet and various apps make language learning much more accessible and entertaining. Alongside this I decided to learn one or two phrases by rote, including ‘happy New Year!’, which had rather specific and time-limited utility. However, making any attempt to speak a local language brings rewards, not least as it conveys the desire to learn; to understand and to be understood.
The only language in which I have any proficiency is Spanish. Living for a year in a Latin American country immersed me in the sounds and the culture of a land which felt very different from my own. Slowly the words seeped into my thoughts and I realised for the first time that language is about far more than translation. Words approximate – but they are not identical. Living and speaking in a culture different from my own taught me that language is an embodied experience of a particular way of seeing the world. As a result, the way we speak offers a unique insight into how human beings encounter community; reflect history; and give voice to their desires.
In the book of Genesis there is a fascinating account of how human beings moved away from one language to having many. It is a myth of explanation that seeks to translate the phenomenon of linguistic diversity into a tale of divine intervention. In the beginning ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words’ (Genesis 11:1). This is typically interpreted as a story about human pride in which, in due course, we would be able to achieve anything. Consequently God intervened and ‘confused the language of all the earth’ (ibid., v. 9). As Milton puts it, God sowed a ‘jangling noise’ amongst the people. In effect, pluralism of language was a punishment designed to slow the development of human power in response to the growth of human ambition.
“But God who oft descends to visit menJ Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XII verses 48-55
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon,
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav’n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown”
Some interpretations of the Babel story have seen it as God’s response to Empire. When one people use their common heritage to mobilise resources and expand their territory, to such an extent that nothing seems impossible, their pride is met with punishment. This interpretation is linked in particular to the role of Babylon in the oppression of Israel and Judah. Undoubtedly this view is informed by the common practice of single-language empires to suppress (sometimes with violence) the use of local idioms. However, this interpretation feels at times to stretch a point beyond its supporting evidence, and some recent scholars have turned away from the ‘pride-and-punishment’ exegesis to focus on the narrative as a theme of cultural origins following the flood.
In his paper on the interpretation of the Babel story, Theodore Hibert, argues that the primary motive of construction is not to affront God (pride) but to remain in one place (i.e. to avoid being ‘scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’ ibid, v. 4). This suggests that God’s concern is that human culture will remain homogenous and limited. Strikingly, this interpretation is aware that language and land belong together. Therefore, the mixing of language and the dispersal of the people is an early recognition that cultural diversity is dependent on geographical location. While there is no explicit reference to it Genesis 11, it is tenable to infer that the desire of the people to be culturally uniform and in one place ran counter to God’s instruction earlier in the book for the people ‘to fill the earth’. Consequently, the cultural diversity that arises from dispersion is seen to be divinely desired and instigated. (see Hiebert, T., 2007. The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures. Journal of Biblical Literature, 126(1), pp.29-58. Vancouver).
Yesterday The Guardian featured an article about the demise of many languages. The reason for this is primarily connected with climate change and the fact that many distinct cultures live in places liable to be harmed by global warming. The article reports the launch by the United Nations of a Decade of Indigenous Languages, recognising that this diversity is not only important for the people speaking these languages, but for all of humanity. As languages become extinct (which happens for one language every 40 days) we lose a distinctive way of seeing the world and, importantly, connecting with the natural environment. At the same time, as the late Ken Hale put it, losing any language is the cultural equivalent of ‘dropping a bomb on the Louvre’.
In a few weeks time Lent will begin, the 40 day period of reflection for Christians with a focus on the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. This Lent I’ll be mindful that in that brief span of time a language will die, and hope I shall be more motivated to contribute towards limiting climate change and its consequences – as well as continuing to learn and appreciate new languages. In my experience the rich diversity post-Babel is a joyful jangle, and God help us if we end up with the horror of a single voice.