Babel

25 Oct

Today, together with the students on the course on the Pentateuch that I am teaching this week, we have been looking at Babel. Fascinating. Four days in, we are still battling through the world of mystery that surrounds the beginnings of history as recorded in the opening chapters of Genesis. And it seems that some of the battles are more to do with our own pre-conceived ideas than the initially perceived irreconcilable conflicts between science and faith.

I love the best theories of the origin of language. All of these place language into a social context, the interaction of humanity with one another or the world around them, but none are able to offer an even remotely satisfactory or convincing explanation of how language began. Grunts as people worked together on prehistoric projects of all kinds – ho heave ho – becoming full-blown speech; onomatopoeic mimicry of animal noises – buzz buzz – gradually expanding to cover the full-range of human experience; natural emotion – ouch and boo hoo – slowly finding means of expressing feelings in non-instinctive reactions; attempts to say hello – huh – when stumbling across another lone wanderer taking shape in greetings; humming and singing – lah di lah – finding identification with the world around; and even “oral-greetings”, mouthing shapes and other oral gymnastics then emerging into fully fledged language. That’s maybe OK if all you want to do is wave goodbye with your tongue, but just try telling someone that your brother is convinced he is the reincarnation of Genghis Khan with a few quick licks of the lips…

Note the “white lie” in this image — all the world’s language families are connected into one big family tree, from the same trunk. A nice idea, and a logical necessity without Babel, but one for which there is currently no empirical evidence whatsoever.

And that, believe it or not, is about as much as we can come up with. The origin of language is, quite simply, a complete mystery. Babel remains as acceptable a theory as any other, and fits perfectly with the evolution of today’s languages in a limited number of separate language families with no traceable connection between them.

Add to this the physiological adaptation that humanity exhibits for language, our natural capacity that makes speech not only possible but a logical companion, and the plot thickens: complex muscle structures around our mouths, small mouths (yes, believe it or not…) that can move quickly, a vertical larynx (good for speech, but unfortunately bad for choking on pen tops), and teeth ideally positioned to create a variety of sounds. And controlling all this we have our brains, with not only their huge capacity but also right and left hemispheres which allow for both analytical processing of language – the separation of sound from meaning and the creation of speech – and the appreciation for the social and conceptual content in communication. Then place language-learning into its natural context, transmitted to children over a period of years by parents and the wider community, and we have something without parallel in the animal world.

Along with all the other cultural capacities that make us human, language has always been there. Wherever and whenever people are found, so is language. There would appear to have never been a time when we were unable to communicate, and certainly no record either of how we acquired this ability, or how it emerged in a random evolutionary manner from our posited pre-human ancestors.

I am sure the theologians would disagree, but as much as any other single aspect, to me language represents one of the greatest facets of the image of God in humanity. To be able to communicate, to formulate thought, to express that whole gamut of human experience, from hard fact to powerful emotion, through the vehicle of language, is just priceless. All I need to do now is go and learn how to say all this in the rest of the world’s six thousand or so languages that I don’t know…

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2 Responses to “Babel”

  1. thechildanimalpoetandsaint October 26, 2012 at 8:10 am #

    “Man gave names to all the animals…” Thanks for another great article Neil.

  2. Simon Cross October 26, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    I like it a lot, although I had hoped for a little more about Babel itself… More and more I see the oldest stories as ways of understanding what it means to be human and in relation to the divine, rather than leaning too much on the historicity of each. I find it particularly difficult when people say ‘if you don’t believe them as precisely factually accurate you may as well abandon the Bible.’ It feels at times that Biblical innerancy is more about distancing oneself from the ‘other’ than it is about relationship with God.

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