The biblical story of Babel starts with an assertion that is unlikely to be true: “And the whole Earth was of one language, and of one speech” (Genesis 11:1). This introductory sentence is often passed over within the large narrative of the building of a tower, its destruction by God, the scattering of peoples, and the birth of mutually incomprehensible tongues. Whatever its source in ancient Western history and its echoes in other traditions, Genesis 11 is the anchor of the widely held belief that linguistic diversity is a punishment, a nuisance, an obstacle to communication and to harmony that can never be truly overcome. But it’s worth remembering, first, that human conflict does not only arise between groups that lack a common tongue; and second, that it’s not at all likely that there ever was a time when the whole Earth was “of one speech.”
In principle, there is no reason why we should not all speak a common tongue. There is no physiological restriction on the languages an individual can learn, there’s no insuperable psychological obstacle to learning to speak like someone else (actors and voiceover artists do it for a living, after all), and there’s no intellectual limitation on the number or type of languages people can learn. So why don’t we just all learn the same tongue? Millions of people switch languages in the course of their lives, and even those who don’t still make greater or lesser changes to the way they speak as they move through different social spheres and different decades. Why then has humanity not taken a collective decision to do away with the “language barriers”? The only clear answer is that we do not really want to. We do not want to speak the same way as everyone else. There are some solid reasons for not wanting the whole world to be “of one speech.”
There are more than 7,000 forms of speech currently identified as different languages, but within that already vast range there are infinite variations among social and regional groups, down to micro-variations by village, neighborhood, street, and family. Even at the most local and intimate level, no person speaks in a way that is identical to that of anyone else. We adjust our mouths and tongues so as to make the pitch, timbre, and intonation of our voices quite unique, and we all also have our own subtle “fingerprints” in the words and structures we use. The result is that the first thing anyone ever says by the mere fact of opening their mouth is, “I am me, not you.” It’s an immensely useful function of language. When you pick up the phone and hear your sister say “Hi, it’s me,” you know instantly who “me” is. When there’s a power outage and someone says in the dark “Don’t worry, I’ll get the flashlight,” you know instantly that it’s your brother and not an intruder or a space alien talking to you. If we were truly “of one speech,” the identifying function of language would be lost. And it would be a huge loss. It is quite hard to imagine just how we would use language if we could not first use it to say who we are. At any rate, a world presupposed by the start of Genesis 11 would be unlike any ever known on this Earth, and I doubt it would be a more peaceable one.
Language diversity is integral to the faculty of speech, and part of its raison d’être. It’s not a fundamental obstacle to communication, because most people know more than one tongue. Even in the allegedly monolingual USA, at least 20% of the population does not speak English at home; in the ancient world, all educated Romans knew Greek; and among the very first records of writing in the ancient Middle East are tables of equivalence between words in Sumerian and Akkadian, manifestly used to train translators. But translation undoubtedly goes much further back than that, probably to the very beginnings of language use.
"Without the baffling diversity of human languages there would have been no need to make the great leap of imagination that allows us to hear (or read) one person and to understand that the message comes from another."
Before the invention of writing, translation must have required imagination and courage on the part of all speakers involved. That’s because the speech of the translator is not to be taken as his or her own, but as a representation of the words of someone else. It’s a quite unnatural thing: Even today, interpreters in often tense situations are taken to task for what they’ve said, when the actual source of the speech is someone else. In other words, linguistic mediation in oral mode requires participants to accept a kind of fiction—to agree that the go-between’s speech will be accepted not as his or her own, but as that of another party. The origins of translation are thus tangled up with the origins of all kinds of fiction, and most especially, dramatic fiction, where actors speak roles that are not their own in real life.
The language barriers we have maintained for millennia and made more numerous and more intricate with the growth of populations and distinct social and political arrangements have thus served as prompts for the development of basic features of civilized life. Without the baffling diversity of human languages there would have been no need to make the great leap of imagination that allows us to hear (or read) one person and to understand that the message comes from another. Without translation, we would not have to negotiate the tricky but infinitely rewarding gap between our knowledge that everyone is different and our wish to believe that we are all the same. So let’s forget the first sentence of Genesis 11, and take the Babel of tongues in which we have always lived not as punishment for whatever may have offended the Lord, but as the ground floor of the great edifice of culture and understanding that we have built since then.
David M. Bellos is the Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University. He is the author of several books, including Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. His new book, The Novel of the Century. The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, will appear in March 2017.
Image: Crispijn de Passe the Elder (Netherlandish, Arnemuiden 1564–1637 Utrecht). Destruction of the Tower of Babel (detail), 1612. Engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Phyllis Massar, 2011 (2012.136.714.10)