In the age of Instant Translation we tend to forget that language is still a big barrier in the way of global communication. The internet experience of an average user in China or America for example is vastly different, not only because of regional blocking – which is easily circumvented – but because of the greatest firewall of all: language.

Just as there are many different languages which shape the worlds of their speakers, there are many different Internets, all with their own sub-set of language-specific media. Theoretically, we are all connected, but in practice we’re living in parallel universes.

The Origin Of Language: From Communication To Confusion

There are about 6800 to 6900 distinct languages on the planet. In the Western world we like to believe that if we know English that covers for most of the communication gaps and yet English ranks only on place 3 among the world’s most commonly spoken tongues, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Why are there so many languages? Where did they come from?

The origin of language is still one of the biggest riddles in human history. Up to this day there is no consensus on exactly where and how language began, simply because there are no direct records.

In the ancient legend of the Tower of Babel it is said that once upon a time all people spoke one language and were able to understand one another. And yet they were somehow worried that they might be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” so they tried to “make a name” for themselves by building maybe the first mega-skyscraper in history.

As the story goes, God wasn’t too fond of that idea. He confused the people’s languages (lebalbel literally means to confuse in Hebrew) and sent them packing.

This legend is often interpreted in a moralistic way (“Pride comes before a fall“) but if we look at the original text there are a few interesting points there which go far beyond doctrines of transgression and punishment.

Making a Name

To make sense of this whole Babel business we have to go back in the story, where, as the famous Bob Dylan song goes: “Man gave name to all the animals”, referring to the proverbial “first human” Adam who had to come up with all kinds of names for the various creatures which God spewed out in his six-day creative frenzy.

What language did Adam use for his first Encyclopedia Biologica, one might ask? Traditional interpretation said that this language must have been Hebrew, because, the names that Adam gave to the animals, according to the original Bible text, are Hebrew names. But as soon as we translate the text into a different language, these names also change. But let’s leave aside the ramifications of Adamic language and focus on the “name giving“.

What’s in a Name?

Another interesting fact is that in Hebrew God is called Hashem Elohim or just Hashem, which literally means: “The Name”. So The Name creates Adam (from domeh: similar) who then “gives names” to the animals.

Going back to the Babel story, the people try to “make a name” for themselves but The Name confuses their languages so that they now all have different names for all the things and cannot understand each other anymore.

In other words, there is a strong correlation between the “making” of a name and the actions of The Name. Instead of looking at God here as an external force which comes down from heaven to punish the people, we could also see the people and The Name as two sides of the process of language.

One could ask why Adam’s “giving of names” didn’t result in confusion whereas the Babel’s people “making a name for themselves” did.

Same Experience, Different Expressions

It is no mystery that all human beings have very similar experiences, whether dealing with forces of nature, emotions or feelings of hunger and pain. However, we all express our experience in very different ways.

There’s an expanded commentary on the Tower of Babel which states that while people were adding floor after floor and a human being fell down, they didn’t even notice but when a brick fell down they stopped their work and started weeping.

It’s precisely these “bricks” that are important. Whereas earlier cities were built with stones that came directly out of the ground, now the people are using bricks which they made themselves. These are literally the “building blocks” of the impending confusion.

If we look at these “bricks” as words which man made himself, languages are completely non-natural phenomena. Since human beings are using language as a non-natural device to express natural everyday experience, there is often no correlation between expression and experience.

While the Inuit build their igloos from ice bricks and other cultures use mud bricks, humanity is faced with building a global society out of different building materials which results in a lot confusion and merry misunderstandings.

By learning about other languages we are learning how to integrate and organize these different bricks into a coherent picture and maybe even reclaim parts of our shared humanity.

image: CC by Pensiero

The Great Firewall Of Foreign Language

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