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The Beauty of Language Evolution

In a presentation in the Linguistics Club at my school today, somebody was presenting on the essential nature of words. They were arguing that language is a tool, something that allows humans to communicate efficiently. Instead of having to physically demonstrate the property of some animal, a caveman can simply describe that animal to his fellow cavemen. This allows humans to be much more productive than they otherwise would be. Without language, communicating with each other would be so inefficient that collective action would be an ineffective method for getting things done - each person would simply pursue their own affairs, without the burden of demonstrating their thoughts to others. In the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis, though, we learn that everybody on earth could communicate with each other; they all seem to speak the same language. Because of this, humankind could work extremely well together as a team. The JPS translation says that “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). Ibn Ezra explains this to mean that in addition to everybody speaking the same basic language, everybody also knew all of the same vocabulary; nobody knew words that others did not. The society was not divided by language nor by education ability; it was completely united. Again, that unity allowed them to work together extremely well, building a tower which they hoped would reach the heavens. One has to imagine that there was a great sense of unity among all of humanity at that time, just as there is a sense of unity today among speakers of the same language working together at the same task. In fact, the people seem to be so united and proud that they seem to be pitting themselves against God, rejecting His authority over them. They want to build a tower into the heavens, they want to make a statement that God is not unique in his dwelling in the heavens, that humans, united, could create something as magnificent as God. Naturally, this is not acceptable to God, and so God scatters the people across the earth and changes their language.

I think a lot of people wonder why language change occurs. Two groups of Latin speakers split apart and hundreds of years later they are speaking quite different languages. The mutations seem random. I think it is telling that this story is placed in between the early genealogies of humanity in Parashat Noach. Just as humanity split up in seemingly random ways as the generations wore on, so language seems to split and change in seemingly random ways as time goes on and tribes splinter apart. Was that mutation and the diversity it has created a good thing? At first glance, one might say no. So much war and conflict is caused by ethnic differences. Humanity could be accomplishing so much more if we could all just speak the same language. Heck, what if we could all speak the same language while living in one place! What a great world that would be, right?

The Tower of Babel story, though, suggests that maybe too much unification leads to rebellion against God. If there is no conflict in society, no differences, no social stratifications even, where do humanity’s aspirations go? They turn not inwards, towards improving one’s place in a society or improving one’s society’s place among the nations of the earth. Instead, they turn heavenward. What I am saying is that humans need something to strive for. If they have nothing to strive for within their societies, they will strive to compete with God. Looking at it from a different perspective, if all of humanity is on the same level, there can be no effort to raise up those that are lower. Thus, humans will like to elevate themselves as a whole, to exalt themselves instead of God.

Many scholars see this story as a kind of polemic against Babylon and the centralization and monument building that Babylon represented to the ancient Israelites. Babylon was a much more urbanized society than ancient Israel, which consisted primarily of family farms. Thus, there was great division in Israel. In addition to being united as Israelites, the Israelites were also divided by tribe and by family. I am not saying that the Israelites were fractured, just that they saw themselves as part of different groups. Thus, they could dedicate their efforts towards improving the standing of their specific group within Israel, or to improving the standing of groups less fortunate than them (which I think we all would agree is the nobler pursuit). When everybody is united, though, when there are no divisions and everybody is on the same team, then humanity can easily view God as the other team. The people at Babel were essentially building a monument to humanity. They were saying look how much we can achieve as humans, we can achieve as much as God, build something up to God’s dwelling place!

Think of the USSR. The USSR and Communist theory seeks to destroy all distinctions between people. There are no classes. There are no educated elites which know words that the masses do not. Everybody is united in purpose, trying to bring about the socialist workers utopia. Basically, the individual is destroyed. Communism was also an atheist ideology. Marx viewed man as God, man as the ultimate end to work for. The Communists, thus, built monuments to the power of mankind. They were not alone in doing this. Look at Washington, D.C. D.C., like Babel, is an example of centralization, a place where an entire nation is ruled from, where the powers at be come together. D.C. is also, naturally, a city full of monuments. Monuments to the greats of American history and the heights which the American people have achieved. Look at ancient Rome, a centralized city. Monuments to the Romans abound in Roman. Look at any center of a nation, any capital, look at the concept of nationalism in the 1800s in which nations were unified under one language, and you will inevitably see monuments which those peoples have built to themselves. These monuments, though, are built in the context of the competition between the nations. Even the USSR’s monuments, that nation which was meant to represent a universal ideal and not be a nation-state, built monuments to compete with America and its people. Is this kind of self-aggrandizement on the part of nation healthy? I don’t know. Certainly, though, if all the nations were unified and there was one singular human capital, and humans built one big monument to glorify themselves, that would not be a healthy thing (at least that is what I think the Torah is saying here).

Am I saying that God dispersed humanity and confused its tongues so as to create internal competition which would prevent them from uniting and rebelling against their Creator? Yes. It is the divide and conquer strategy which has worked so well in the history of authoritarians. I would argue, though, that God is a justified authoritarian in Genesis, as God created humanity, and so He is simply ruling over His creation.

Did I possibly do too much with the Tower of Babel story? Yes. Was the timing of this piece weird? Yes. What can I say?

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