Two hundred thousand years ago, give or take, we acquired the problem-solving gene that defines Homo sapiens. Intelligent man. The Bible poetically refers to it as eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. And in order to achieve dominion over all the beasts of the land and birds of the air, homo sapiens required strategic planning, co-operation, idea sharing and, most importantly, imagination. We required language, very sophisticated language.
My interest in the power of language was piqued by hearing a Ted X lecture by a Vietnamese immigrant in the USA, Phuc Tran talking about the subjunctive mood. Probably like you, I could not recall back through my youthful education when the intrigue of the subjunctive mood was explained by my English teacher. But to recap, the subjunctive mood is used in English to explore imaginary or conditional situations.
“Imagine if it had not rained then we would have gone to the beach”. “Imagine if I were king, then I would ban all religion”. “Imagine if I could just make this thing do that then the outcome would be…”
Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred. And as such the subjunctive mood is so critical to the fundamental point of language for Homo sapiens, that is to problem-solve. For the most creative problem solving occurs in the language of imagination.
Which is why Phuc Tran’s talk was so interesting. He was raised from a child in the USA and so was very familiar with the subjunctive mood in English. Phuc Tran has taught Latin, Greek, German, and Sanskrit at independent schools in New York and Maine and was an instructor at Brooklyn College’s Summer Latin Institute. In 2010, he served on a committee to revise the National Latin Praxis exam for ETS. Phuc currently teaches at Waynflete School in Portland. But his parents were raised in Vietnam and although his father was a lawyer and politician with the expected skills in the Vietnamese language, he had no comprehension of the subjunctive mood in that language.
That came to light in a very poignant way. When they were escaping during the fall of Saigon, the Tran family was about to board a bus to the airport when young Phuc became hysterical. In calming him down they missed the first bus and caught the second. That first bus was hit by artillery and all on board were killed. The second bus made it safely. So today Phuc ponders the ‘what ifs’. His father cannot comprehend this line of thought. His father does not do “what ifs”. His father says “Why on earth do you waste time talking about what did not happen?”
His father has a point. And in that point we can also see that the subjunctive mood has two very distinctive moods. On the positive side it is the pathway to discovery, to problem solving, to inventiveness, to progress. On the dark side it can spiral down into regret, fear and fatalism. Sometimes through history some of our greatest geniuses were also among our most troubled minds. Soaring with the positive possibilities, then spiralling down into the negative fears of failure. The subjunctive mood is a wild horse that should not be ridden bareback; it needs reins, saddle and stirrups.
The right hemisphere of the human brain allows our creativity to explore the unknown and it is the left side that exercises the controls of calculation and logic. It is notable that the new wave of human distress, widespread social anxiety, has arisen at the same time that society has become increasingly reliant on technology to replace the left brain functions of calculation and logic, the reins on the subjunctive mood of the right hemisphere. Only two generations ago emphasis in classrooms was on developing ‘mental arithmetic’, the ability of students to carry out calculations using just the left hemisphere of their brain. This practice stimulated the electrical activity of that left hemisphere. When pocket calculators first came onto the market in the 1970’s it was forbidden to use them in the classroom but as their use gradually infiltrated classrooms, followed by laptop computers, the activity of the left hemisphere of young brains has weakened and the imagination of the right hemisphere has progressively dominated reality. Anxiety is the inevitable outcome of a dominant right hemisphere of the brain when outcomes that we only imagine begin to present themselves as reality that will inevitably happen. Perhaps mental calculations should be included in our daily gym programme to compensate for the role of calculation technology in the same way that stationary bikes and treadmills compensate physically for the motorised technology.
Phuc thinks that absence of the subjunctive mood may be the reason for the stoic resilience of the Vietnamese people. My daughter, who studied linguistics at Otago University, challenges this conclusion with the proposition that it is the culture creates the language, not the other way round. That stoic people probably have no interest in the subjunctive mood whereas excitable, ambitious people actively seek to express themselves in the language of the imagination. I tend to agree and speculate that when the balance of a tribe or nation swings more towards stoicism or imaginative ambition will have a huge impact on the evolution of our species.
The Bible records that humans had been so successful in the development of common language that God and his angels became alarmed that by the construction of the Tower of Babel, humans were challenging God himself. To summarise the Biblical story according to Genesis 11: ‘throughout the land mankind spoke one language and they moved eastwards to the land of Shimar (Sumer). And they said: “Come let us build a town and tower with its top reaching to heaven”.’ The Tower of Babel, said to be a baked brick structure intended to reach the heavens, was halted by God and his angels, because (Gen. 11: 6-9) “the Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.‘ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.”
But what was it about this Babel tower that so concerned the God of the Bible, Yahweh? The Tower in question was built in Shimar (Sumer) which was Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq). Archeology dates the arrival of humans into Mesopotamia between 3500 and 4500 BC. as they moved eastwards from the Mediterranean. This is from carbon dating the virgin soil beneath the earliest records of human occupation. The Bible records in Genesis 10:10, that a descendant of Noah’s son, Ham, a man named Nimrod was the first ‘king’ of this region and built his city called Nippur. We know from unearthed and translated Sumerian tablets that a six-seven story Ziggurat had been built in the city of Nippur where this priest-king lived.
The Sumerians are known for their skilled metalwork, stonework and statues. But more importantly they developed mathematics system based on 60, a twelve-month calendar based on moon cycles and a cuneiform alphabet which they used to keep records on clay tablets using a stylus. We also know that the oldest records of the science of astronomy are from Sumerian tablets dated back to the 3rd millennium bc and that they demonstrate that the Sumerians had a sophisticated knowledge of the solar system. Clearly an imaginative race.
The tablet VA/243 shows all eight major planets in the solar system in correct relative size and the two dwarf planets of Pluto and Ceres. It also showed planets circuiting the sun (represented by the star of David). It was not until the 16th century AD that modern astronomers worked out that it was the earth travelling around the sun not the sun travelling around the earth.
While the five planets out to Saturn can be seen with the naked eye and were known to ancient astronomers, Uranus was only discovered by William Herschel in 1781, Ceres by Guiseppe Piazzi in 1801, Neptune was discovered by Johann Galle in 1846 and Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. And yet these four planets are depicted accurately on this 3,000 BC Sumerian tablet.
Babylon itself is first mentioned in tablets around 2300 BC as a small city in Akkad. Its status grew and around 1800 BC, a ruler named Hammurabi expanded the borders of the Akkadian/ Babylonian Empire, conquering Sumer. Babylon is recorded as replacing Nippur as the “Holy City of Mesopotamia”. The Babylonians studied the Sumerians cuneiform alphabet and then adapted it to their own Akkadian language.
The literal words of Genesis 11 are that the whole earth spoke one language. But this is the Bronze age. There were well-established civilisations in Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Sparta, Troy, China, Europe, Australia, North and South America and archaeology demonstrates that there were already many languages around the world. Being so concerned about this one baked-brick tower trying to reach the heavens also seems a bit pointless when just along the road the Egyptians were building their pyramids, in Britain they built Stonehenge to study the heavens, in South America pyramids were being built and the remains of many ziggurats, all built between 3000 BC and 600 BC and used as observatories to study the heavens have been uncovered throughout Mesopotamia.
So perhaps it was not the tower itself that was of concern but rather what was actually inside the tower. Perhaps the Sumerian priest/astronomers’ knowledge of the heavens was developing far more rapidly than God and his angels deemed safe for humans to possess. Was their imagination starting to get out of control? So was this Babel story no more than an historical account of the Babylonians conquering the Sumerians, plundering the library of knowledge, cosmology and science stored in the Priest-King’s Ziggurat in Nippur and then replacing the Sumerian cuneiform language with the Akkadian cuneiform language so that the knowledge contained in the Sumerian tablets would become confused within a generation. Were the Babylonians a stoic race? They certainly put great emphasis on their defence infrastructure surrounding their city with three rings of 40 foot high impenetrable walls which might indicate stoicism.
This story could get all too academically speculative and just dismissed as another Biblical myth that just doesn’t quite stack up against archeological evidence, except for the uncanny message that it is recorded in the Bible which tells us that the common language that the gods an angels set out to disrupt would enable men to reach the heavens. Why that is significant is that 4-5,000 years later humans once again are imagining that we will reach the heavens.
While the modern exploration of the heavens was initiated as part of the USA/USSR cold war, it is today very much a global mission. USA launched the space station Freedom in 1987 with support from the European Space Agency (Columbus Laboratory) and Japan (Japan Experimental Laboratory). In 1990 NASA launched the Hubble space telescope into low earth orbit. Russia then abandoned its plans for a successor to the Mir space station and in 1993 became a partner of the International Space Station (ISS). Without Russian support, the Western partners probably would have had to give up the Freedom Space Station. Today astronauts from around the world, including Japan, Canada, Europe in addition to Russia and the United States, travel to the ISS. Several languages are spoken on board. This communication challenge is assisted by the spoken dialogue computer on the ISS, named Clarissa, which is programmed to understand both English and Russian. But future NASA astronauts will be required to learn Russian before they go into space. Because the Russian Federal Space Agency is facilitating the space flight to and from the ISS, it makes sense that the NASA wants astronauts to be able to correspond with their fellow space travellers. For over ten years all European astronaut activities are conducted at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany. In fact all the other astronauts on the ISS: Americans, Russians, Japanese and Canadians are also trained with European laboratory equipment. And European astronauts receive training in either Houston, USA, Star City in Russia, Tsukuba in Japan or Montreal, Canada to learn to operate the systems and components of the partners. The arrangement between the international partners is that any partner who owns a laboratory or another infrastructure element on the station trains the astronauts of all partners for it. China is also developing its heavenly ambitions but is doing so quite independently of the ISS partners.
To seriously explore the heavens we need international financial and intellectual co-operation and we really do need a common language. The English language has been on a colonising mission for hundreds of years and while, at 370 million, it is only the third most common first language of the world, a long way behind Mandarin at 1.3 billion and also well below Spanish at 470 million, English is by far the most common second-spoken language on earth at just under a billion people against Mandarin at 200 million. Mandarin matches English in its population size if not in it’s geopolitical breadth and this difference makes English the likely contender as the one language that will rule them all in our goal of reaching the heavens. But even if one language is not agreed, technology, driven by our imagination, will be able to instantly translate different languages to create a virtual common language to all men.
This is all developing at a time when the US government is finally admitting that alien craft, with vastly advanced technology, are entering our skies at will. So will the Gods and angels intervene once more to deny our attempts to reach the heavens? Will they decide that our species is not yet mature enough to be allowed into the heavens? That we are just too volatile and dangerous.
With a nod to Jack Nicholson in the movie ‘ A few good men’: You want the subjunctive mood? You can’t handle the subjunctive mood!