The Tower of Babel - its side effects


In the book of Genesis, we read that everyone on earth at that time spoke the same language. A large group of people, who had emigrated to what is modern day Iraq, wanted to settle down permanently and so decided to build a city, and also a tower which would reach up to the skies. They even tell us their construction methods – fired bricks, rather than stone, and bitumen as the cement.  It seems that god took offence at this and it is recorded that he said -

“...Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth....Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth...”

Which means that it is God's fault that I have to learn other languages to talk to people from other countries. But why did God feel threatened by the efforts of his creation? The Bible implies that he thought that man was getting above his station, but does not explain much else. However, according to Josephus, the first century Roman-Jewish historian, the decision to build in brick and bitumen was a response to Noah's flood. They wanted a city and a tower that could withstand another flood. So the buildings had to be waterproof. I have to say that I am not convinced that using bitumen as cement, especially in a baking hot area, was a brilliant solution for the construction of a skyscraper. But they had forgotten that the first flood was God's instrument to punish a people who ignored their god. And so God felt impelled for the second time to remind them of his existence!

Creating groups of people dispersed throughout the world, however, who spoke different languages was not, perhaps, an action destined to produce a very peaceful world. It was a somewhat short-sighted decision on God's part. Differences between different groups of people promote suspicion and therefore hostility. It is perhaps a minor example but, many years ago, we were on holiday in Wales, not far from where my father was born. We went into a small local shop. People were speaking to each other in English, but after they spotted our presence, strangers, they changed languages and continued in Welsh! I was very offended.

My father spoke Welsh as a little child because it was the normal language in the small town of Llandeilo. After a few years the family moved to Cardiff where the national language was almost extinct. It wasn't taught at school. So then after a few years my father became an English speaker and could no longer remember any of his Welsh. They say it's not easy to learn another language when you're older.  There are many who believe that they are not capable of it, that they do not have the necessary ear. I suspect, however, that it is not only 'the ear' that they lack, but also the willingness to deal with the grammar. The grammar of your own language is not a very popular subject at school. So spending even more time as an adult learning foreign grammar is perhaps not a very attractive prospect. Which means I'm probably a nerd. But it also means that God’s plan to divide us seems to have worked.

Indeed, why try to learn another language when we are faced with more than seven thousand languages in the world. It's overwhelming. How to choose? But in a way, the events of history have narrowed the choice. A conqueror will always try to impose his language on those who have been conquered. It is designed to take away their image of themselves as a different and independent people. And not only in the past, because we see it now, for example, in northern China where the Uighur language is no longer taught. They want to eliminate the Uighurs as a self-identifying group, both with regard to their religion and their language.

But, for this highly unethical reason, half the people of the world speak at least one of the 23 most common languages - mainly the languages of countries that had empires in the past. And at the other extreme, about 40% of languages are now 'in danger', often with less than 1,000 users. Evidently, there is not much practical benefit in maintaining a language that’s not really contributing to communication. So we can see that there is a desire among his creation to push back against God's reckless decision and communicate in some way. Natural selection explains this trend - it is obvious that the ability to communicate has beneficial effects in every sense for the coherence of the group - even if imposed by a foreign power or for political reasons. So, normally, it would be difficult to see a future for niche languages.

But we don't live in normal times.  There's nationalist pressure that pushes in the opposite direction to normal. In Wales, like many other regions in Europe, the promotion of their native language is seen as an integral part of their struggle for independence, to build their mini-empire. Of course in a region where there is a democracy, there is no strong counter-pressure trying to eliminate a minority language. Indeed, there are local governments in Europe which are willing to spend money to encourage the teaching of their language in schools, a language of no use outside its relatively small community.  But to boost its desirability, it is done in combination with a requirement to use the language  in parallel with the national language  at local government level. It therefore creates an employment opportunity for those who can speak the language. Its popularity becomes more widespread as a result - especially among parents who want their children to have a 'stable' job in local government. But for the most part, the new aspirant states do not have a self-supporting economy. So I don’t think their tower will rise very far before it crumbles back down to earth again. After all, a continuing effort is required to overcome natural selection - just like trying to reverse entropy.

There is perhaps a solution to all this - the Star Trek solution - where no knowledge of the other language is necessary. God doesn't seem to have foreseen the power of software. Eve now, you can buy a hand-held device to which you talk and which will translate out loud for the benefit of the bar staff in a foreign country. But Amazon has produced a free program that you can download to your smartphone to do the same thing. It says it translates almost in real time between a couple of languages, chosen from a very long list of languages.  It's called 'SayHi'.  I decided to try it, so I downloaded the app. I was a bit annoyed that Amazon requested not only my current location, but also my gender, my age and a photo. As it happens, I have a picture of a small flower that I tried to take, but the sun was behind me, so the picture is actually of my shadow. I finally uploaded it and, suddenly, there was a list of young ladies, who all wanted to say 'Hi' ...

Having checked the name of the software again, I found that it was in fact 'SayHi Translate'. After hastily uninstalling my dating app, I installed the right one without further embarrassment. And its quality? We still haven’t arrived in the promised land, but it is actually quite good. For an informal meeting when there is no alternative, it would work well, provided you used sentences which were straightforward. For those who want to order a meal or ask for directions it would be excellent. But for a normal conversation, the delay between speaking and hearing the translation would be like a conversation on Zoom, but even worse. And talking about love with one of the young ladies on ‘SayHi’ – well, I am not really convinced the conversation would flow.

Paul Buckingham

5 July 2020

Genesis Chapter 11:

1. Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east,[a] they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was 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.

Josephus - extract

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