Archive for category Language

The power of language

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 the first problem we had to overcome was the very limited ability of homo erectus to communicate with each other. For achieving dominion over all the beasts of the land and birds of the air required strategic planning, co-operation, idea sharing, imagination. It required language. And sophisticated language.

So we developed it and thereby achieved great things as a result. So successful were we in fact that the Bible also records that God and his angels became alarmed that we had built the Tower of Babel and were challenging God himself, (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.”

So the solution to denying Homo sapiens intellectual ambitions was to create confusion in their ability to communicate with each other. And we still carry out this confusion of languages today. Language is just as often used to confuse as to illuminate. We are fundamentally tribal and we use language to define our tribe and confuse other tribes. We can be amazingly co-operative within our tribe and brutally violent to those outside our tribe. The Middle East and African conflicts are largely created because of the political desire to unite tribes into artificially created countries under a common language. It just is not working. They define their community by their language not by artificial lines on a map. In Papua New Guinea there are between 800 and 1000 languages. It is our ears more than our eyes that tell us if someone is from Northland or Southland, New Zealand or Australia, England or America. The Americans were from England so why did the founding fathers create such a distinctive accent? To define themselves as a new tribe of Americans? Even within a city, the East-End London Cockneys developed their own rhyming slang primarily to confuse the outsiders who could not be trusted and, of course, the old Bill.

My interest in the power of language was piqued this week 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.

“If I were prime minister I would ban brocolli”

“If it had not rained we probably would have gone to the beach”

“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 problem solving can only occur 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, and yet 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.

Phuc thinks that absence of the subjunctive mood may be the reason for the stoic resilience of the Vietnamese people. Does that mean that they are also an unimaginative, uncreative race because they do not have a subjunctive mood in their language?

Of course Phuc’s talk attracted some intellectual debate from other linguistic academics over the true definition of the subjunctive mood and whether the Vietnamese language does express it in different ways to English.  That is not a debate I wish to explore as, whatever the outcome, the point is what a significant tool language is in the development of our species and how fascinating it is that we have this conflict that originated in the time of babel whereby language is used as much to divide us as it is to unite us. Anyway the only Linguist’s observation that actually made any sense to me was from my daughter, Samara, who studied linguistics at Otago University, when she simply observed that the culture creates the language, not the other way round.

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A universal language

“So what do you know about the tower of Babel?” I asked Danny over coffee. Seemed as good a morning-talk subject as any. “The one in the Bible? asked Danny, “dunno, why?”.

So the ‘why the subject itself occurred to me’ is that I was thinking about the linguistic challenge facing the multi-national astronauts working in the international space station. I recalled the Biblical story that God confused the one common language on earth in order to prevent men building the Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. So that just seemed an interesting mirror to the past.

The ‘why I asked Danny’ was because he had been raised in a religious school and spent some time of his career teaching in a Jewish school; I thought with that background he might have an insight or at least a conspiratorial opinion on a classic Bible story. But no, it drew a blank. He told me to Google it; that’s school teaching 21st century style.

So 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, 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.”

Akkadia & Sumer 2200 bcBut 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.

Mesopotamian Pottery tablet VA/243

Mesopotamian Pottery tablet VA/243

The tablet VA/243 shows all known planets in the solar system in correct relative size, including Pluto and, importantly, 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.

 

Venus and Jupiter visible to the naked eye, align 30 June 2015

Venus and Jupiter aligned 30 June 2015

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, Neptune discovered by Johann Galle in 1846 and Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. And yet these three outer 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 adopted 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, 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 Stonehenge was built 3000 bc, in South America pyramids were being built and the remains of many ziggurats have been uncovered throughout Mesopotamia, having been built between 3000 BC and 600 BC.

So perhaps it was not the tower itself that was of concern but rather what was actually inside the tower. Perhaps it was 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 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.

And so it could get all too academically speculative or 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 a common language would enable men to reach the heavens and so a diversity of language was imposed on man to prevent that achievement; and that situation is now being challenged 4-5,000 years later.

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.

Though NASA no longer sends its own shuttles into space, it has an agreement to help staff the ISS until 2020 and, as part of this agreement, will continue to send astronauts to the ISS in conjunction with the Russian Federal Space Agency. So 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 travelers. 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. We will also soon have to take into account that China, as the emerging dominant global economy, will probably start playing a much larger role in reaching the heavens.

To seriously explore the heavens we need international financial and intellectual co-operation and so we really do need a common language. An Anglo-Asian-Euro common language may possibly evolve in time, but it seems far more likely that Apple.com will much sooner adapt Clarissa into a virtual common language by translating multiple languages instantaneously into a receiving earpiece; sreating a virtual common language. The confusion of language will then be unravelled. Maybe they will name it Nimrod. And when we understand each other, will “nothing we plan to do be impossible for us”?

So from the rubble of the Tower of Babel emerges, 4-5,000 years later, the Satellite of Apple reaching the heavens; such is the imagination of man. But will the Gods intervene again? Will the satellite come crashing down to earth and will Apple’s universal language become confused? And just how did the ancient Sumerians know about the outer planets 4-5,000 years ago?

This is the conversation I was trying to have with Danny. Coffee has that effect on me, its surprising that it is still legal. I must contact Peter Jackson and see if there’s a movie in it before I come down from my caffeine buzz.

 

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