Human practice throughout human history shows that
cross-linguistic communication has always
been possible. Neighboring languages borrow and lend words from
each other. (For example, English has borrowed heavily from French
- more than French from English.) A language may become widely
spoken in a wide area - a 'lingua franca', like Swahili and Hausa
in Africa, Tokpisin, a 'pidgin' used in Papua/New Guinea, or Seaspeak,
a simplified English used worldwide by the merchant marine.
More recently, with the advent of the science of anthropology and anthropological linguistics, researchers (49k) have been able to 'decipher' the most remote languages and thereby to reach some understanding of cultures very different from ours.
The translations they make available are no doubt imperfect, but thanks to them our understanding of other languages and cultures has been steadily improving. Rather than leading to Babelian confusion, this has been of mutual benefits : "we" can understand better "their" needs, worries, and ways of life; just as "they" can understand "ours".
It is important to emphasize this double direction,
that is, that understanding must be mutual. Whoever has
done research in a remote tribal village knows perfectly well
that s/he is as much an observer as observed. And also that not
only language counts.
When we visited the Piraha village in Brazilian Amazonia, every single movement, facial expression, and habit of our party was carefully observed by the villagers. When we wanted them to perform their ritual dances, they in turn requested us to dance as well. Here you can see Varda and myself dancing an Israeli folkdance (19k) for the Pirahas.
They observed us attentively
(24k), and only then began to dance
In another tribe, the Tenharim, whose village has been cut by the Trans Amazonian highway, the stranger (myself) is invited to participate in an all-male dance (21k) commemorating the tribe's girls' coming of age - a sort of Bat Mitzvah, where the remnants of the initiation rite are apparent.
But he had first to be made-up
(17k) , in order to symbolically
be on a par, be together, with the other dancers.
Our efforts in such cross-linguistic and cross-cultural
situations are focused on understanding each other, rather
than on exploiting each other or quarreling
with each other.
Great Dialogue by Karel Napras (18k)
Cross-linguistic communication thus enhances understanding,
dialogue, tolerance, rather than confusion and dispute.
Back to Chapter 8