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Babbling in Babel

Turning torso vOnce upon a time, everyone spoke the same language. That, at least, is what the Bible says, and even if I am doubtful to taking this as God’s truth, let us assume this was the case, the consequences being that we agree humans first saw the light of the day in one location rather than having multiple evolutionary threads which all culminated in homo erectus, then to become (with a lot of intervening years) homo sapiens.

The idea of multiple evolutionary threads ending up with the same end result – us – falls on the fact that nowhere are all factors identical, and the one thing we know about evolution is that generally it is a reaction to something. All change is, as nature – and us – always prefers status quo if that is the best option. Well, in actual fact most humans prefer status quo full stop, being somewhat wary of change.

Those first hominoids were itty bitty little things, and they didn’t say much either. Communication was rudimentary at best, but as the years went by, grunts became vowels and consonants, and at some point in time speech was born. I guess they celebrated – whipped out the aged zebra steaks and the fermented honey or something.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedAs per the Bible, it was the power of communication that enabled these our ancient forbears to come together and begin an enormous enterprise: they were going to build a tower that went all the way up to the sky so that they could circumvent God’s restrictions on access to heaven (you know: good guys get in, baddies do not – but on the other hand, we all know it’s the bad girls who have all the fun). Welcome, people, to the Babel project!

Clearly, by then people had some sort of religion – why else attempt a rendezvous with God? The concept of a deity requires abstract thought, but does abstract thought require speech? Does speech –or rather communication – in itself develop the brain towards more complex thought patterns? Like one starts out talking about the simple things – “me want pig”, “you go that way” – and from there we move on to “do pigs have feelings?” Whatever the case, those cave dwelling ancestors of ours who have left us masterpieces such as those in Lascaux or Altamira had progressed a long way when compared to the original hominids – much more than we have progressed when compared to the Cro Magnon people. (I know; it’s difficult to accept we have a LOT in common with people in animal skins…)

Back to that first global effort, the tower of Babel. The people chattered and planned, they cheered themselves on and spoke enthusiastically of clambering up the sides of their construction to see for themselves the wonders of heaven. God was not pleased. In fact, He felt there was an element of intrusion in all this. Plus, I suspect, he had no desire to let anyone have a preview of the delights of paradise – these were strictly reserved for those who deserved them.

Confusion_of_TonguesGod threw a tantrum, and wham! The tower was no more. And just to make sure these pesky humans didn’t attempt something similar in the near future, God brought forth multiple languages, and behold, just like that the world went polyglot. In retrospect, not a bad thing – where would we be without the richness provided by multiple languages and culture? At the moment of it happening, I guess it would have been very confusing – putting it mildly. One moment, the person beside you was answering your questions in perfectly comprehensible English, the next he is speaking what sounds like Russian – and eyeing you with an anguished expression as he no longer understands what you’re saying. No, all in all, this was not one of God’s better ideas – however much I love languages.

The notion that once upon a time we all spoke the same language is probably not wrong –even if the tower of Babel should be considered a fable. That original language is now lost to us, and when linguists today study our various language families, their conclusion is generally that there was something before them, a language harkening back all the way to the stone-age or so.

Today, most people in Europe speak languages within the Indo European language group. Proto Indo European was probably once spoken by our very ancient forefathers, and the number of modern languages that fall within this family of languages is huge – from Bengali, through Iranian, Armenian to the vast majority of European languages. I can’t help but wonder where the cradle was – geographical common sense points at somewhere close to the Black Sea.

However: Indo European wasn’t first – at least not in Europe. For a really, really old language, we must set course for the Basque country, a region in the north-east of Spain and spilling over into France. No one knows where the Basque language came from. No one knows where the Basques came from. All we do know is that the Basques – or at least their language – were here long before the speakers of Indo European arrived.

Not only do the Basques speak a unique language, they also, as a people, share recurring genetic traits that set them apart as different from the surrounding peoples – it is theorised the present day Basques are a remnant of the Proto Europeans, the first humans to colonise Europe as the ice age waned. Interestingly enough, the Basques share a lot of their distinctive traits with the Welsh and the Irish, so they were obviously around much earlier than the rest of us too.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Or maybe that’s just me…

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa (W. Lloyd MacKenzie, via Flickr @

Once upon a time, the people of the world communicated in a common tongue. Once upon a time, or so the story goes, those long-lost ancestors of ours attempted their own Stairway to Heaven. They didn’t make it, but mankind has continued to build upwards, to strive for the sky. All the way from the ancient stone towers that dot Europe, to the pyramids of Egypt and the present day skyscrapers that are so tall one gets vertigo just from looking at a picture of them.

Is this because we’re trying to recreate the tower of Babel, driven by a desire to stand closer to God? Show Him we have overcome the language divide He caused? I think not. I believe we are all born with a spark of the divine, and so the endless blue of the sky calls to us, promising us wonders beyond wonders if we ever make it over the rainbow. Himmel, cielo, heaven, ciel, spéir, awyr, zerua, taivas – all of them words to denominate the sky above us. Beautiful words, old, old words, because ever since man first discovered the miracle of speech we have lost ourselves in the beckoning infinity above, wondering – always wondering – what may lie beyond.

1 thought on “Babbling in Babel”

  1. Leaving aside the question about ‘Babel’, maybe Homo Sapiens had migrated far and wide before there was anything we would recognise as language. I’m thinking there might have been a proto-indo-european, but African tongues would have been different. Interesting topic!

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