March 23, 2009
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.