Word Hoard

Monday, January 01, 2007

Reverse Engineering Babel

Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, "Come let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, "Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Genesis 11:1-9 NKJV emphasis mine.

Growing up, I was always taught that God confused language because the people blasphemed by building a tower so that they wouldn't drown in another flood; they had no faith in the Rainbow. Without going to any of the provided cross-references, my most recent reading of this passage reveals more ire with the gathering of people and the power they have when they can communicate clearly. (Generally, the passage seems a bit apocryphal too, but I'm not an authority, or even student enough, of the topic to make that judgement either.) Methinks God wanted to keep man down, and keep him separated too (cue The Offspring). Now there could be legitimate reasons for this like preventing disease, an excuse for circumscision in a desert environment, or populating all the corners of the earth. But it seems arbitrary to me, like the requirement of a blood sacrifice from Cain and Abel.

So, if God makes us impotent and separate by muddling our language, does clarifying our language empower and unite us? Speaking the same language sure would be a start to that end.

Don't get me wrong, I revel in the myriad grammars, phonemes, and lexicons. For example, there is a language that has a case that indicates the responsibility of an action. They have a different way to write the word for "I fell down." (and it was my fault) and "I fell down." (and it wasn't my fault). But what is so wrong about being powerful and united? I might forego some variety to that end. Sure someone said learning another language is like gaining a second soul, but what will I do with another soul?

What do you think?


  • At January 14, 2007 5:55 PM, Blogger Michael Covarrubias said…

    We need only consider the laws of air travel and the importance of a single language (English) that every pilot and air-traffic controller around the world is required to use. Language is the sharing of certain powers.

    The Old Testament relies on single events to explain a lot of developments. From the single event of BooM there's a human to BaM Now we have Indo-European and Austronesian and Uralic.

    So what about Mayan? Several years ago our conservative science teacher/friend argued that the Apocalyptic woman found a wilderness because G-d had forsaken the savage and "G-dless" populations of this continent. Therefore they didn't count as people anymore.

    I could hardly believe he was saying it.

    I've often wondered about the 6000 year explanation for population travel and language development. I don't think I'd buy it if I heard it.

  • At January 14, 2007 6:49 PM, Blogger Daniel said…

    I agree with you that it is an untenable explanation, and our friend's argument about Apocalyptic interpretation doesn't seem very comforting or consistent with other interpretations of G-d's character.

    I'm interested in what this passage communicates about that same character of G-d. Is it as straight forward as he was afraid of a united humanity, or was it a rebuke for their lack of faith/ What are the scholars saying by including this anecdote?

  • At January 15, 2007 7:43 AM, Blogger Michael Covarrubias said…

    Have you noticed the pronunciation "Babel" like "babble" that's all over the media now (because of the awards season)? I'm shocked by how absent the "babe"-l pronunciation is. I've not heard it once yet.

  • At January 15, 2007 1:47 PM, Blogger Daniel said…

    I did notice that. Not good, not at all.

  • At January 15, 2007 8:53 PM, Blogger Daniel said…

    The Golden Globes tonight has consistently said "babble." For shame.

  • At January 15, 2007 10:04 PM, Blogger Daniel said…

    In announcing the nominees and the winner, Ahnold, the Governator, said "bobel" (probably because the next film was Bobby) and then "babble."

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