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March 23, 2009

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The Gift of Babel


Saw Dan Everett’s Long Now lecture on Friday, and it was great, but there was one idea that was extra-great, and I wanted to share it.

As a refresher, the story of the Tower of Babel goes like this:

Long ago, in the city of Babel (Babylon), all of humanity spoke a single language. Things were going well, and we were prosperous and prideful, so we decided to build a tower… that reached all the way up to heaven. To punish our hubris, God drove us from the city and made us speak many languages instead of just one.

(The King James Bible version is here.)

So the idea here is language-as-punishment, and it certainly resonates: Even today, in 2009, we are all cut off from so many other people, all divided by walls of mutual unintelligibility.

But Dan Everett has a different story to tell:

Long ago, in the city of Babel (Babylon), all of humanity spoke a single language. Things were going well, and we were prosperous and productive, so we decided to build a tower… that reached all the way up to heaven. To reward our great work, God gave us the gift of many languages, and sent us out into the world to name the plants and animals we found there, each in our own way.

Everett used the wonderfully evocative phrase “10,000 Adams.” The idea is that every human language (of which there are about 7,000 extant today) has its own way of naming and talking about the world, and the distinctions are important, interesting, and often useful.

Linguistic diversity makes us richer, not poorer.

The Tower of Babel thing was hardly the central point of Everett’s talk — the Long Now blog entry does a good job capturing the real meat of it — but it was the point that charmed me most. I’m a sucker for good revisionist mythology.

And as a speaker of English only (terrible, I know) I tend to gravitate towards the curse-of-Babel view of things. But Everett has shifted my stance. I’ll try harder to pick up another language instead of sitting around waiting for Google to put an electronic babelfish in my ear.

Because if Everett’s right, the babelfish won’t do the trick. There is information and inspiration embedded in each of these 7,000 languages, and the only way to really get at the Gift of Babel is to speak more than one.

Posted March 23, 2009 at 3:29 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Society/Culture


I loved the point Everett made that language offers such a wide array of insights beyond just linguistic construction. Different ontologies, different mathematics (yeah, you heard me, science nerds - the Piriha language Everett studied doesn't include a counting system - BAM), different conceptions of time itself!

I too was swayed to his point of view that languages should be preserved.

Some of y'all might be interested in Wyatt Mason's smart take on why Samuel Beckett wrote in French. It takes the reverse-Babel idea and adds another twist -- Beckett couldn't write successfully in English because he knew it too well.

Another incentive to learn a second language, Robin -- you might be a genius poet in Japanese! (Instead of an occasional English haikuster.)

[As the resident linguistic/mathematical supernerd, I'm going to let the "different mathematics" crack slide.]

I've heard it said that people end up expressing *different personalities* in different languages. Not vastly different, of course; but markedly different. What a trick, if true! Even if just a little bit true! Learn another language; meet another version of yourself.

Just read that Beckett link. Gawd. Amazing.

I love Beckett's idea that we have to tear language apart, to destroy it -- not because there might be something REAL, something pre-Babel underneath it, but precisely because there might be NOTHING behind it. Nothing at all.

I think if one feels that way -- that there's nothing beneath -- it's a sign one is getting lost in the matrix. (Not that that's always a bad thing; deep in the matrix is where lots of great art, literature, etc. comes from.)

Everett's tales of the Piraha of the Amazon, and the crazy concrete-ness of their language, were really wonderful -- and a reminder that talk of "language games" only makes sense when you're living so far removed from the basic reality of hunting, fishing, and finding your way back to the river.

Fun aside: The Piraha have verb suffixes that indicate *how you got the information*. One suffix for "I heard about it from someone else," another suffix for "I saw it with my own eyes." Every verb is qualified. They're, as Everett puts it, the ultimate empiricists.

I'll post a link to the video of his talk when it's posted; it was really a treat.

I'm not sure if I know what you mean by lost/deep inside the matrix. What appeals to me about Beckett's program is 1) the sense that language itself is so rich, so powerful in its effects that there might be nothing outside of it; and 2) that most typically Beckett-like overwhelming feeling of resolve without hope -- like the end of The Unnameable:

I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any - until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.



Good thoughts. I think many people believe that software will eventually translate everything so why bother learning another language. Software will never be able to adequately capture the nuances and inflections of other languages.

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