Before Babel – a lost paradise?

Pieter Bruegal the Elder, The Tower of Babel
Katrin Kohl

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel presupposes a past linguistic paradise consisting of a universally shared ‘original’ language. This was lost when humans cooperated in a universal joint venture that relied on communication without language barriers. God scotched the plan because it would have enabled humans to challenge his omnipotence.

Genetically, there is no reason why, given the right circumstances, we should not all grow up speaking the same language, and it is as if the myth of linguistic unity prior to the Babel venture is a wistful reflection of that potential homogeneity. It is possible that there was once an actual proto-language, but the reality of language in the known world is very different: it is characterised by diversity, with languages having an inbuilt tendency, or at least potential, to drift apart.

The explanation for this somewhat inconvenient barrier to easy communication would appear to lie in the interdependence between cultural and linguistic diversity. While we may imagine a unified human race that extends across the earth without culturally significant differences, in practice human beings form smaller groups with diverse identities and inhabit spaces that are culturally as contested as they are geographically and politically. Language deprivation experiments never succeeded in discovering the ‘original’ language of the human race because language develops out of human interaction. Children need linguistically active human company to develop mentally, culturally and linguistically – and in practice that means a community that passes on its specific shared language, and with it the ability to share and express its cultural identity.

Ultimately, though, the drive towards linguistic diversification stands in a complex relationship with the drive towards effective communication across groups. Frequently, more local languages interact with a shared lingua franca. This may be a pidgin or creole, or a language adopted from another group for purposes such as trade, administrative efficacy or religious community building. The effect can be both inclusive and exclusive, as with Latin in the Middle Ages, which united theologians and other scholars across cultural groups and political borders while excluding people without a classical education. A single individual will often participate in different groups and use their respective languages simultaneously, often in different contexts and for different purposes, and indeed it is normal for individuals to live in multilingual environments.

Political developments can promote the spreading of a language, as with the colonial powers in South America, Africa or India, which gained the status of lingua francas as a result of imperial expansionism, frequently retaining that role after the colonies had become politically independent. But in some cases groups foster a distinctive linguistic identity in order to stake a claim for cultural and political autonomy, as in the case of Catalan or Welsh. Many other factors may play a part, often in interaction with each other, such as migration, economic growth, or a technological development such as the internet.

All the above factors have played some part over time in giving English its present status of global lingua franca. Currently it seems as if that role is unassailable and permanent. However, historically the world of languages has not had a habit of standing still, instead re-configuring itself with every shift of power and cultural dominance. For example, the rise of China as a world power with economic clout is going hand in hand on the one hand with the rise of English in China, and on the other with the rise of Chinese in other parts of the world as China promotes Chinese culture and language interactively through the Confucius Institute.

Like all other languages, English is operating in a world that is characterised by rich cultural variety, subject to power struggles and expressions of difference, part of a much bigger picture in which global homogenisation interacts dynamically with many forms of diversification. Those processes are indeed built into English itself – in its many varieties, dialects and culturally distinct forms of expression. Shakespeare has remained part of the English language because he used it extraordinarily creatively, fashioning its multilingual heritage and contemporary forms into an astonishing array of unique utterances that are distinctively of their time, lasting in their appeal to our creative imagination, and capable of being translated into other languages and adapted to other cultural contexts.

Each language benefits from its very own heritage of creative geniuses who work with their specific language in their specific local cultural context while contributing, by multifarious routes, to the global conversation. Global English has a role to play in that conversation, though in itself it is a simplified, homogenised, and culturally featureless language – the very fact that it is adapted to be a global communicative medium has divested it of its local colour. This suggests that if it ever did exist, the language before Babel must have been rather dull and uninspiring.

Image source: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons