The Babel of Languages
Editorial by Boyd Evan White
One of the truths of the Bible is so self-evident its full impact on human affairs is startling considering the stakes.
“So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.” – Genesis 11:8-9
What is the current situation concerning languages today? There is a lot to consider; the good, the bad and the ugly.
For instance, whenever the “Speak English” diatribe is brought up, the below quote from “A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin” always comes to mind. In this, Mr. Martin is describing the Revolutionary troops marching past him while he waited for the baggage train:
“They ‘beggared all descriptions’, their dialects too, was as confused as their bodily appearance was odd and disgusting; there was the Irish and Scotch brogue, murdered English, that insipid Dutch and some lingos which would puzzle a philosopher to tell whether they belonged to this world or some ‘undiscovered country’.”
The way to approach this is from the philosophy of small government. The smaller government is the less need for official translation of laws and documents; thereby, all people are left at liberty to find a way to communicate if it is worth their while.
And who does not employ “a little Spanish lingo” in their conversations as the esteemed Limbaugh would say. But you have to keep your ears open, for instance a “Maricón” in Spanish is a bull that humps other bulls. So you have to keep in mind the context with whom you speak, especially when they might slip in “A Maricón”.
Looking back in time it was not long ago when “English” was hard to read from a modern perspective. Take this passage from “The Canterbury Tales” (1387-1400 A.D.):
“Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in pruce;
In lettow hadde he reysed and in ruce,
No cristen man so ofte of his degree.
In gernade at the seege eek hadde he be.”
Then, compare that with the continuity of Chinese characters. Supposedly a modern Chinese person can read ancient Chinese scrolls written 2,000 years ago. A caveat has to be applied to that though; there are regional dialects and interpretation considerations. Two people might interpret the meaning of a group of characters differently.
As an example, consider these two interpretations of the same Analect from Confucius on the topic of loyalty and etiquette. They relay the same thought but there are subtleties in the words used to do so.
Book II, #21
“One said to Confucious, why are ye not in power, Sir. The Master answered, ‘What does the book say of a good son? An always dutiful son who is a friend to his brothers showth the way to rule.’ This also is to rule, what need to be in power.”
“Someone addressed Confucius, saying, ‘Why do you not engage in government?’ The Master said, ‘The Documents says, Filial, merely be filial, and friends to brothers young and old’. To apply this as one’s governance is also to engage in government. Why must there be some purposeful effort to engage in governance?”
Consider Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” written in ancient Greek being translated into English, Spanish, and Chinese. People who read that work would undoubtedly come away with the general premise but due to the differences in the languages would most likely have different understandings of the nuances.
Now we get to the concern of Muslim’s about translating the Koran into other languages besides Arabic. It is not beyond reason that different translations would allow “subtleties” to creep in and dilute the meaning of Aayats in the Koran. Not a concern to be dismissed lightly from their view.
This brings up a point about the Bible. It’s original languages were Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek. Then translated into Latin as one corpus. And then into other languages starting with old English. There a many “subtleties” that have insinuated themselves into the Bible. Not the least of which is the “Tetragrammaton” represented by YHWH. The name of God has been interpreted respectively as “Yahweh” and “Jehovah” with a couple more variations.
Then there is the great battle of the sexes. I asked a lady, “Which is it, ‘El Constitution’ or ‘La Constitution’?” To which her email replied, “‘La Constitution’, of course.” And sitting at my keyboard I then realized the great confusion in this country for it clearly is “El Constitution.”
Now, another aspect of the “English Only” policy. People from all over the world learn English but in so doing they bring their previous language, minds and history with that. There is a lot of richness to that; however, there is a lot of struggle involved with that too. And the thing about struggle is it is costly yet not something to be abandoned. Moreover, this can’t be entirely attributed to race or ethnicity; white people from Russia, Poland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Finland and more learn to speak English; yet, they bring their own understanding with them; and in the great scope of things English itself is mutated.
English has its place in the world. I lost an argument with a Hispanic lady who had countered when talking about languages, “English is the language of success.” It is hard to be argumentative when your primary language is being complimented. More to the point, English does have special applications. The vast majority of computer program languages use English for their command syntax. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of Air Traffic Controllers use English.
More to the point, with current mind-busting attempts to work sexual alternative lifestyles into the English language has resulted in the trashing of English. In contrast, where are the calls for Spanish speaking people having to adjust their language by maybe calling a male “La Hombre” or a female “El Senorita”. Who knows? Maybe there already are efforts of this corruption going on. If so, I commiserate, it is comforting to not be miserable alone.
But again, it is Liberty which should have the greatest place. It is only when government, with is capability to enforce, that this situation becomes a dire problem. For if you are at liberty and someone comes talking nonsense to you…you can just stop communicating with them. No harm; no foul.
All in all, we should probably stop giving so much credit that we automatically know what someone means just because they speak a common language. It is no great transgression to ask for clarification of what someone means. True, a little questioning might result in pissing the other person off to no end, but that would just expose how thin the veneer of civilization really is. The ability to communicate is one of the properties of that veneer; if the veneer is to be strong and respected people have to be able to go great lengths to communicate and define meaning; if not, the other side of the veneer which is not civilization holds sway.
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