The Blessing of Babel

by FM on Tuesday, 20 January 2009 Comments
Let us start with a few definitions: a tongue (as in mother tongue) is a system of vocal signs, expressing and communicating thought, including knowledge, desire or feelings… The term of language is very close from the previous one (German has only one word, “Sprache”), as it refers to a diversity of uses of a tongue. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) defines a language as a “tongue” plus a “speech” - the tongue is a social institution, speech is the tongue as individuals make use of it, at a given moment and time. Linguistics as a science is not concerned with “speech”, but only with “tongue”.

Is language what is “proper to Man”? The very understanding of this question varies according to the evolution of the philosophic tradition. In the Greek tradition, Man is composed of a body that draws its determination from a form, the form being in the case of Man a reasonable soul. The risk of dualism thus implied has but increased in the modern thought with Descartes. The prestige of Reason gives rise to the Age of Enlightenment. In this specific tradition, the definition of language as being “what is proper to Man” takes a new significance: Language is the expression and communication of a thought in a social context (whereas in the Cartesian cogito language as a “mediation” between the mind and the world was not strictly necessary.) Moreover, in the Enlightenment tradition, language as a system of vocal signs implies to pay attention to the body.

To consider language as specific to Man does not disqualify the Aristotelian definition but involves a counter-proof: wouldn’t language be present in the animal world? Indeed, the behaviour of certain animal species appears to aim at the communication of information, and in doing so represents a language. It applies for the language of bees, dolphins, greater apes, and maybe other species. For greater apes, one is in right to speak about intelligent behaviours. - Two remarks: First, the question of languages in the world of the sentient beings is as old as humanity. The animals are able to speak in myths, tales of origin, just like they were speaking in our childhood’s imagination. The second remark is that if one can and must speak about language in the animal world, it is about a language that does not reach the level of the human speech.

When the Theologians today read the myth of Babel in the Book of Genesis, they are confronted with the question of the diversity of languages. At the first glance, this diversity seems to be a punishment caused by the folly of the builders who want the Tower to reach Heaven. The blurring of languages seems indeed to constitute a curse. A second look at the story might teach us a different lesson: the Babel story is one episode or « instalment » among others in the human pilgrimage that starts after the Flood in order to repopulate the Earth. This pilgrimage stops when Men arrive in a plain called Shinear, where they want to settle. They use a sole language for giving orders for the moulding of bricks and the preparation of bitumen, so as to build the tower and reach Heaven. What is at stake here is the use of language, when the unicity of language makes Men become robots. It is as if an « unique» language goes along with an « unique » totalitarian power. In the Babel story, the unicity of language is also associated with the fact that Men give a « Name » to themselves, while the Name is what is received from the Other within the chain of generations. In this perspective, God intervenes so as to make Men resume their pilgrimage, and, throughout the way, encounter the Other – so as to make the Other, initially an Alien, become a Guest or, reciprocally, a Host.

Such reading is reinforced by the story that follows the one of Babel, i.e. the story of Abraham, who is called to start on the road towards a country he does not know yet. He will thus receive from God a new Name which would be a blessing extended to all Nations. Once he reaches Canaan, Abraham does not build a tower but rather an altar, at the very place where God has appeared to him. The pilgrimage that starts anew after Babel needs to go beyond the false dream of a unique language so as to enter the « time of languages » that testify to the diversity of nations’ and people’s history and memories. The blurred languages of Babel become a blessing when the name of Abraham, the Chosen one, resonates throughout them.

Today, the diversity of languages may still appear to us as a blessing : it testifies to the diversity of our experiences and memories. It also requires from us to enter into a process of translation, which obliges us to pay attention to this diversity of experiences and memories. We are thus led beyond the superficiality of a communication process that would be led by the false belief that the community of languages makes us perfectly understand each other. Ultimately, the diversity of languages testifies to the diversity of our experiences and histories, and points at the same time to the memory of our origins and to the « uniqueness » of each of us.

(Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563 - Wikimedia Commons)

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