Marcelo Dascal
Endangered Languages

6. The Tower of Babel

Nothing better than Genesis --- The Beginning - as a way to begin to discuss this question. The relevant passage (Genesis XI, 1-9) is the famous "Tower of Babel" episode. Genesis XI, 3-4 (22k)
God was not very happy with this arrogant attempt to penetrate his domain (Heaven). How could they dare to build a tower whose top was in heaven. ("Bab-el". according to Babylonian etymologies, means "The gate of God"). And how could they dare to work against the divine design to populate all of the earth. He decided to take a close look at what was going on. Genesis XI, 5-6 (18k)
What he saw was, presumably, the great ziggurat of Babylon, with the temple of Marduk on its top. Needless to say, he was upset, and decided to punish the Babylonians. Genesis XI, 7-8 (17k)
The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel by Brueghel

The Creator decided to prevent any further attempt of this kind by creating confusion among the builders. According to the biblical etymology "Babel" comes from the verb balal -- mix, confuse.Genesis XI, 9 (12k)

The confusion was produced by making their speech unintelligible to each other. This is traditionally interpreted as meaning that they spoke each a different language. It could also be taken to mean that the "others" spoke a deteriorated version of a "pure" language - presumably "our" own. From this, it is easy to draw the conclusion that, on linguistic grounds, "we" are superior to the "others."

Quite independently of the Biblical story, Herodotus begins his History by dividing humankind into Greeks and barbaroi. The latter are those who do not speak Greek, who babble other languages.
So too the Mexicas feared and despised the nomadic Chichimecas they encountered in the Mexican plateau. For the Mexicas, the Chichimecas were barbarians or popoloca because they spoke an unintelligible language.
The multiplicity of languages arises, according to the Biblical story, as a curse, a punishment brought upon humans due to their arrogance. Such a multiplicity has a negative, punishing effect, because it prevents understanding among men, thus fostering among them disagreement and dispute and thereby preventing their cooperation for evil purposes. Ever since, multiplicity of languages has been seen as a sure recipe for misunderstanding and quarreling.
The Founding Fathers of the United States of America espoused this idea:

" If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation would be least expected, it is America. Made up, as it is, of people ... speaking different languages. "
Thomas Paine

At present, a lively and important public debate is taking place in the U.S.A. between the partisans of "English only" and the defenders of multilingualism. The former fear that multilingualism "fragments the national unity", and demand that English be proclaimed the country's sole official language (the U.S.A. has no 'official language'). The latter fear that such a step would imply the cultural oppression of all minorities, including those that speak non-standard English, like the Black and the Chicanos.

The underlying political principle here is the well known maxim: "Divide and Conquer!".
In the 17th century, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, proposed a rather cruel plan to create an "invincible militia" presumably to be submitted to King Louis XIV of France. Young slaves from many nations would be gathered and trained in an island in order to become the toughest and most obedient soldiers on earth -- an early version of an all-purpose Rapid Deployment Force. Among the devices he proposed to ensure complete obedience was keeping apart speakers of the same language. Every platoon should be formed by slaves from different nations. This -- he believed -- would prevent them from conspiring against the commanding officers, to whose orders they would thus have to obey without questioning. (Later in his career, Leibniz realized that the diversity of languages might have other "uses" -e.g.., the reconstruction of the history of peoples and cultures.

He collected linguistic information through the Catholic missionaries in India and China, prompted the Russian Czar to conduct a linguistic survey of his empire, and became the first "comparative linguist" in the West.)

If linguistic diversity produces disunion and weakness, linguistic unity seemed to be -- according to the Babelian account -- a precondition for unity and power.
No wonder that the rise of the centralized kingdoms in Europe was accompanied by the standardization of language usage and the promotion of certain dialects -- at the expense of all others -- to the status of "national languages". Repression of minority languages was often violent: The American Blacks had their tongues cut, if they dared to speak their native languages.
The two attitudes towards the multiplicity of languages express, thus, one and the same principle, which underlies the Biblical account.

Arthur Schlesinger expressed these two faces of the same coin quite explicitly when he wrote:

" The national ideal has once been e pluribus unum. Are we now to belittle unum and glorify pluribus ? Will the center hold ? or will the MELTING POT yield to the TOWER OF BABEL ? "
Arthur M. Schlesinger

Chapter 7
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