From Babel to Languages



To those who nodded, smiled or simply understood what this title is all about: Hello!

If you have no idea, don't worry! This not-so-mysterious mystery is about to be solved. The story goes like this:

At one time, the people of this earth all spoke the same language. They decided to build a city -- later called Babel -- with a tower that reached the heavens, so that they might make a name for themselves. God saw this and 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."

This is the story of how different languages came into existence as told in the Book of Genesis: whether or not you believe it to be true is up to you. However, there are two key ideas in this story that caught my eye. One is about languages -- obviously -- but there is one more thing: our desire, as human beings, to reach the heavens, to make a name for ourselves -- to be more like God. We haven't changed much since that "accident," have we? Almost all of us still have the same anxiety: making a name, having something to be remembered for, achieving immortality. I don't claim to be any different than you -- in fact, as George Orwell states in "Why I Write," sheer egoism is one of the greatest motives to write, even though I certainly don't think of myself as a writer. I'm not sure whether we're doomed to fail, but the desire is here, has been in our hearts ever since the history of humanity started. I'm not qualified enough to go any deeper than making this statement, so let's get back to the other topic, languages.

Well, I'm not an expert in this either -- seriously, sorry for my lack of qualifications, but we're just thinking together, right? RIGHT? -- but I do love languages. As a matter of fact, I challenged myself to learn seven languages by the age of 25. Leaving that aside, let's focus on the story one more time. Do you see what really happened there? God didn't just scatter those people around, He confused their languages! He didn't kill them, but he killed the way they communicate. If that doesn't put language above all else, I don't know what does.

Now, why is (are) language(s) so important? Is it really as important as it appears in this story? For one thing, the story approaches language as a way to communicate. In that sense, the ability of communicating through the same language is the key there. Before I started to write this column, I asked the same question to myself and to others, and the first answer was always about "communication." I'd like you to think of that in the broadest sense, though. Communication is far more than simply having a conversation, it is expressing yourself through words and signs, and that might put even literature in this category. Good communication is at the center of clearing away all the misunderstandings, and if you think of all the breakups, divorces, and even wars caused by miscommunication, you'll get the point.

Of course I don't see communication (and expression) as the only important thing about language. It's a unique cognitive ability of human beings. I won't get into linguistics and cognitive theories of language, but one simply cannot write a column on this subject without saluting Noam Chomsky and his universal grammar theory. Oh, and if you want to learn more or brainstorm about these topics, there's a cognitive science society at Bilkent, just for your information.

Now, I'd like to take you one step further and ask you another question -- aren't I lazy, making you do all the thinking! -- do you think we're trying to get back to Babel, to that very thing we lost, a common language? I'm sure smart people like you know what I'm talking about: English! Can English be our way back? We're studying in a school that teaches in English. I'm a native Turkish speaker, but I'm writing this column in English. I often think and sometimes even dream in English. Most of us have international friendships that were made possible only through English. I can hear you saying "globalization" right now, but I don't really think so. I certainly don't deny the relation, but it's not the only reason for English to be so widespread. So, what do YOU really think? Please send me an e-mail if you'd like to think together. After all, Descartes was right: Cogito ergo sum -- I think, therefore I am.