Friday, 10 June 2011

Babel in reverse?

In many countries around the world, this Sunday (12th June) is celebrated as Whit Sunday, and in some places Whit Monday is a public holiday - and a day off work for employees in many business companies. So it is an important date in the calendar. But if you ask what is actually being celebrated, most people, even in churches, are lost for words.
The first "Whitsun" was the very opposite. In a spontaneous gathering in first century Jerusalem, which was rather like a "flash mob", the confusion of languages which originated in Babel was overcome, at least for a short time. The story can be found in the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2):
They (the believers) were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak. There were Jews living in Jerusalem, religious men who had come from every country of the world. When they heard this noise, a large crowd gathered. They were all excited, because each one of them heard the believers speaking in his own language. In amazement and wonder they exclaimed: "[...] All of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things that God has done!" Amazed and confused, they kept asking each other, "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:4-7, 11-12, Good News Bible)

What happened?
The city was full for a Jewish religious festival. The visitors and residents were ethnic Jews and were there for the festivities, which were conducted in Hebrew. Some of the people in the city actually lived in other countries and spoke other languages. The text gives a list of the languages represented, citing 14 or 15 different languages or language groups. But almost all of the speakers of these languages probably spoke Hebrew too, at least as a second language, because they obviously kept their ties with their ethnic home country, otherwise they would not have come to Jerusalem for the festival. And although they had different primary languages, they were still able to communicate with each other about the surprising events they were witnessing. This discussion, and the public speech by the Apostle Peter which followed, were presumably in Hebrew - and without any miraculous translation.

Was it really necessary?
The New Testament narrative portrays a language miracle, a reversal of the events at Babel which I commented on in an earlier blog post. But what was the point of this miracle?
●   It apparently did not happen during Peter's subsequent speech. The message about Jesus was evidently not conveyed by a language miracle, it was conveyed in Hebrew, and the listeners were able to understand and respond.
●   The people in the crowd were able to discuss the events among themselves without a language miracle.
●    The language miracle came at the start of the flash meeting, when it seems all of the believers were speaking at the same time. They must have been pretty loud, because it was the noise that attracted the crowd. It was only after the crowd had gathered that some of the listeners started saying, "Hey, that's my home language! How come you speak that language?"
 ●   We are not told in detail what was communicated by the miracle. We are told that the believers spoke of "the great things that God has done", but the detailed explanation was then given by Peter in a separate speech, presumably in Hebrew.
So although this event was a language miracle and had an influence on the way the message was received by the crowd, its real significance seems to lie elsewhere - not just in getting the message across.
And this brings me to another observation on the way language works.

The credibility gap
This blog post is difficult for some to believe. When I speak about a language miracle, I am convinced that it is possible. To me, this is a logical consequence of my faith in God. Perhaps some of my readers do not agree. In itself, that is not a problem. I am sure that we are mature enough to differ without any hard feelings. But our differences also have a linguistic element.
When I speak about my faith, listeners who do not believe in God can understand the words, but they may find it difficult to grasp what I am talking about. Sometimes it even seems as if we can't communicate at all.
Similarly, if you tell me about the joys of deep sea diving, some listeners may feel the exciting ripple of water on the skin and the joy of seeing the many life forms that live under water. But the only message I receive is the claustrophobia of the diving mask and the fear of getting water in my nose.
Our experience of the world influences the way we "understand" language, and differences in our subjective make-up can interfere with our objective ability to comprehend what another person is saying. So when I talk about my belief in God, more than just linguistic ability is necessary to "receive" the message.

The view from the inside
As a linguist, I am curious about the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" (which is the jargon term for speaking in unknown languages). This phenomenon still happens today, and sometimes I hear such unknown languages used by others, sometimes I use this phenomenon myself as a style of prayer. I do not know whether my own prayers in "tongues" are ever in an identifiable language. I have heard reports of such prayers being identified as specific languages (including a report from someone close to me), but usually I simply do not know. And if I try to analyse the sounds made, this somehow detaches me from the prayer. I can pray in "tongues" or I can analyse - but not both at once. And it is always my choice - this form of prayer is not compulsive or involuntary.

Language as a mystery
I regard language itself as a mystery and a miracle. This post simply explores one facet of this mystery. There is much more that could be said - so feel free to add other aspects in the comments


  1. A very interesting post indeed, thank you! From what I know about the world in the first century and how the first Christian congregation(s) worked, they used Greek in the way we use English today, in all countries. Almost all of the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek, including all of Paul's letters to the congregations in various places. Therefore, I wonder whether Peter wouldn't have made his speech in Greek rather than in Hebrew? On the other hand, of course this was all taking place in Jerusalem, during a Jewish festival.

  2. Yes, a knowledge of Greek (and Latin) was rather widespread around the Mediterranean in the first century. But at the time of this incident, the message of Jesus was still regarded as a Jewish movement. In Acts 10 Peter finally realised the international dimension, and Paul then travelled far and wide to spread the message. So I think the speech on the first Whit Sunday was in Hebrew.
    Ironically, we are not told whether Jesus himself spoke Greek and/or Latin.