Monday, 1 November 2010

Still building Babel?

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It is rather ironic. The word “Babel” and the closely related place name Babylon are used again and again in the translation world as a watchword for projects to help communication between different languages. In his novel “Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”, Douglas Adams invented the “Babelfish”, a little creature that is placed inside the ear and enables the wearer to understand every language, even from remote planets in other parts of the Galaxy. The Babylon software is less ambitious - it claims to translate between 75 languages, offering both full text translation and a wide range of bilingual dictionaries. Even more modest is Yahoo's translation engine “Babel Fish”. It supports a mere 13 languages.

The original Babel narrative, on the other hand, was a story of communication failure. It was also a story of an era of upheaval and change, with exciting technological innovations and great social and political ambition. Rather like our contemporary age. But first it is worth referring to the original.

Genesis 11:1-9 (New International Version)
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastwards, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel - because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there, the Lord scattered them over the earth.

Technological innovation
The new city was to be built with new materials. Brick and asphalt instead of stone and mortar. This was a new technological development which apparently offered greater flexibility and stability for the built environment. The people of Babel were excited about technical progress. They seem to have thought: “Our technology is so advanced compared with previous generations. We can do whatever we want to because of the inventions that we can draw on. We can build a whole city, and the central landmark in the city will be a tower that reaches to the heavens, a skyscraper which will give us a global reputation and make us the central unifying metropolis in the whole world.”

Technological advance is, of course, a wonderful thing. I am thankful that I can write part of this article away from my office desk on a netbook with enough battery power to last for a few hours if necessary. I am grateful for road, rail and air travel, for Internet communication, for electricity, central heating and a whole host of other things. I am glad that I can use a computer and a range of digital tools in my work as a translator. But a one-sided focus on technological progress as the solution to the world's problems will often miss the point. Technology will not solve all our problems in the world. Sometimes it may even lead to unintended consequences which are worse than the original problem that technology was used to solve.

Social and political ambition
The people of Babel wanted to prevent political disintegration. They did not want to be “scattered over the face of the whole earth”. Why were they worried about this? My guess is that they had seen signs of disintegration, either in their own social grouping or in other groups that they had heard of. They thought that building a new city and a high tower would provide a quick fix to complex problems.

We are not told about their social dynamics, but I believe that the group which set about the Babel project had a centralistic structure. The vision of social unity was almost certainly drawn up by a small group of leaders. The enormous construction project required a division of labour. Who should decide the shape and structure? Who should organise the workforce? Who would bake the bricks? Who would transport them to the building site? Who would carry the materials to the top of the structure? Who would lay the bricks? Who would prepare, transport and apply the asphalt?

In view of these conflicting interests, it is not surprising that communication failed. Such a large project must have taken a long time - probably more than a generation. It almost certainly required a rigid hierarchical structure and a whole range of social classes and organisational units. These different groupings would have lived separately. After all, the masters would not have wanted to live among the slave labourers, and the slaves would not have welcomed them either. I assume that the language of these isolated groups gradually changed, partly by normal language evolution and partly by deliberately distinctive language forms. In more recent history there are many examples of social groups distinguishing themselves by their language and saying things in a way that would confuse outsiders, for example in Cockney rhyming slang in proletariat East London and in the ghetto English spoken in a number of urban centres in the USA.

How does language change?
Language change is observed all over the world, and languages are constantly changing, although this is usually so slow that we do not notice. An interesting book on this subject is “The Power of Babel” by John McWhorter, an associate professor of Linguistics in Berkeley, California. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book over the last few weeks. McWhorter presents fascinating facts and opinions on the relative merits of language and dialect, on pidgin languages and creoles, on the rather fluid correlation between language boundaries and political boundaries, on research into historical language forms and much more.

I don't know what McWhorter would think of my application of the language change principle to the original Babel narrative, but his book has given me much food for thought, and an appetite to find out more of what other linguists say about language change and historical linguistics. And he gave me an explanation for my very own language confusion. I have a fairly good understanding of written French, but a very poor comprehension of spoken French. McWhorter comforted me by his explanation that written French (as codified by the Académie Francaise) is a preserved historical form, and that spoken French in just about all parts of France has changed and developed, and in some parts of France it never conformed to the centralised ideal anyway. Thank you, Professor McWhorter, for putting my mind at rest. (A question for any French linguists reading this blog: does this summary do justice to the state of the language?)

Judgement by God?
Another interesting perspective on the Babel narrative is offered by “Transubstatiation”, another translation blogger, under the title “The Babel Fallout”. He suggests that the Bible narrative, and the Jewish and Christian traditions which draw on this narrative, have a negative view of the proliferation of languages and believe that language change itself is a judgement on human arrogance. This is an interesting explanation, although I notice that in other places the Bible itself speaks positively about the existence of different languages.

Much more can be said about language change, languages in the Bible and in cultural history. And there is much to learn about the mechanics of language change and the role of language and language change in human communication. In all of these areas I am still learning, and I hope to add more to the picture of the mystery of human language in future posts on this blog.

So are we still building Babel, or is that just history?
In some ways, however, the human race is still building Babel. There is often a gap between technological, social and political goals on the one hand and the way they are presented and communicated on the other hand. The person with a vision may have excellent rhetorical skills, but these skills are no guarantee that the message will really “catch on” with his listeners. Communication breakdown is seen at a much more personal level, too. Just listen in on any argument between husband and wife, and you will probably find many examples of communication failure. Perhaps the words themselves are clear enough, but the message is not received or understood.

Have you seen or heard examples of Babel in action recently? Perhaps in newspapers, in political programmes, in advertising, in things you hear on the street? I would love to read any examples in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. On a related topic (the hotchpotch language variant called "Denglisch"), there is an interesting discussion on the blog (partly in German) and the website (wholly in German).