Sunday, July 17, 2011

Secular Sunday Sermon: Confounding Their Language


And in the land of Shinar, they started building a tower to the heavens. Seeing this, God got worried that "now nothing will be restrained from them". So, he vowed to stop it. And these were his words:
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. (Genesis 11:7)
Or, at least, those were his words as recorded in 1611 in the confounded language of England. 216 years previous to that, that same confounded language, then a peasant tongue under Norman French control, would have read:
And scheende we there the tunge of hem, that ech man here not the voys of his neiybore.
And, furthermore, 362 years after the first one, this particular product of God's judgement had been confounded (or scheended) enough as it had spread around the world in waves of destruction to the point where it would come out as:
Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.
And confounded and confused we remain. On the other hand, how can we, confounded as we are, know these exact 'words of God'? Perhaps what God said was this:
הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם--אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ
After all, in the plateaux of the Middle East, in captivity in Babylon (that same city!) the early Israelites would have kept God's words alive in repetition of these words (approximately), in a certain variety of the language that all but confounded itself out of existence for more than a thousand years until being revived in the mid-19th century.

Of course, perhaps not. Jesus would have recounted these words approximately like this:
ܬܘ ܢܚܘܬ ܘܢ̇ܦܠܓ ܬܡ̇ܢ ܠܫ̈ܢܐ. ܕܠܐ ܢܫܡܥܘܢ ܓܒܪ ܠܫܢ ܚܒܪܗ
If Jesus was either God himself or the Son of God, perhaps this is the actual language of God, the one that he used in order to say "Let there be light" to no-one in particular. Interesting that we, confounded as we are by God's judgement, have allowed this particular tongue to fade almost completely off the earth, surviving only in a few small Near East villages where the locals in any case probably speak it only as a second language, if at all.

Alternately, there's a good chance that God might have said this:
هَيَّا نَنْزِلْ إِلَيْهِمْ وَنُبَلْبِلْ لِسَانَهُمْ، حَتَّى لاَ يَفْهَمَ بَعْضُهُمْ كَلامَ بَعْضٍ
As over a billion people today believe this to be the language of God. Perhaps it is. Did God predict that this particular confounding of languages would, thousands of years later, lead to the creation of a country called Sudan, where speakers of this confounded tongue would use their government and militias to oppress and kill speakers of other confounded tongues? Did God predict Lebanon, wherein different speakers of this same confounded tongue would kill each other based on their interpretation of God?

Maybe not. On a tiny little island in the Irish Sea called 'Man', the locals once would have repeated God's words to each other like this:
Tar-jee, lhig dooin goll sheese, as ayns shen coyrt shaghrynys er y ghlare oc, nagh vod yn derrey-yeh toiggal glare yn jeh-elley.
Since 1974, however, the residents of that island quote God only in the confounded language at the top of this article. Manx, now studied only in universities, is but one of the many confounded tongues that the English language has wiped off the face of the planet. And the English language is not the only criminal. Some report God's words this way:
Laten Wij afdalen en hun verschillende talen geven, zodat zij elkaar niet meer begrijpen!
Many of them moved far from their homeland to the southern tip of Africa, where they further confounded their speech until it arrived at this:
Kom, laat Ons neerdaal en hulle taal daar verwar, sodat die een die taal van die ander nie kan verstaan nie.
Thereafter, they (together with speakers of the topmost confounded language in this article) used that confounded language as a weapon - using their skin colour to keep down and subjugate other people - to force their specific interpretation of God onto the locals, to the point that they themselves, struggling until recently under an oppressive Apartheid régime, might well report God's words this way:
Yizani, sihle, sidube khona apho intetho yabo, ngokokuze bangevani ngentetho.
Meanwhile, neighbours to the English and Dutch had confounded their variety of Latin to the point where they reported God's words like this:
Allons! descendons, et là confondons leur langage, afin qu'ils n'entendent plus la langue, les uns des autres.
Having driven to near extinction the spoken traditions of their neighbours, who would have rendered those same words as either
Jatsi gaitezan, ba, eta izkuntza naastu dagiegun, batak bestearen izkerea ulertu ez dagien
or
Yao, diskennomp war an Douar, ha taolomp ar c'hemmesk en o yezh, evit na vo mui komprenet an eil gant an egile
they proceeded to travel the world as their English and Dutch (and Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian and German) neighbours had. They came to West Africa, where their missionaries taught the locals about a God who once said:
Zo mu sauka, mu dagula harshensu, domin kada su fahimci maganar juna
Having spread the Word, they then herded these people onto boats crossing the ocean, confounding not only their languages but their cultures, identities and senses of self in order to use them as mere chattel to grow sugar and coffee. Partially mollified by the language-confounding God they had been forced to adopt (yet partially encouraged by the African deities they had not fully abandoned), these children of God slowly mutated their captors' language to the point that they recited God's words to each other like this:
Bon. N'ap desann, n'ap mele lang yo. Konsa, yonn p'ap ka konprann sa lòt ap di.
And so God's European children continued to spread their confounded tongues throughout the Americas, Africa, South and South-East Asia and Oceania, bringing God's word and transforming it into a sword (or machine gun) - leaving in their wake not only the dead bodies of certain speakers of other confounded languages but also the dead bodies of the confounded languages themselves.

In committing rampant linguicide (a language dies every two weeks in our modern world), are we offending God? Recreating the Tower of Babel? Will God have to return for a second judgement? Will we wake up one morning again unable to understand each other? And have to abandon the internet?

Or perhaps one day in the future, we will build that tower and speak that common language. But perhaps it won't be this one. In the far East, God's confounding efforts have had particularly mixed results, as despite the presence of hundreds of languages there, more than a billion of God's confounded subjects (the largest number in the world) would write down God's words like this:
我 們 下 去 , 在 那 裡 變 亂 他 們 的 口 音 , 使 他 們 的 言 語 彼 此 不 通 。
All the more remarkable, in that they would say these words in any of eight different ways but write them the same way - thus sidestepping the Lord's judgement. Perhaps the modern Tower of Babel is the written word - a tower of words that reaches to the heavens. They used paper instead of stone, and ink for mortar. A tower so indestructible that not even God can eliminate it - a tower that converts itself into pulses of electronic zeroes and ones and scatters itself to every corner of the globe.

And thus the real message of Babel becomes clear - try as he may, God can never overcome the human impulse to come together. Try as he may, he can confound our languages but he cannot confound our humanity and solidarity. Our tower will be built, we will reach to the heavens. We will not be scattered over the face of the earth.

Whatever God says, whatever God does.
_____

Note: the translations of Genesis 11:7 are as follows, in order they appear:
  1. Early Modern English (King James)
  2. Middle English (Wycliffe)
  3. Modern English (New International)
  4. Hebrew
  5. Aramaic
  6. Arabic
  7. Manx Gaelic
  8. Dutch
  9. Afrikaans
  10. Xhosa
  11. French
  12. Basque
  13. Breton
  14. Hausa
  15. Kreyòl ayisyen
  16. Chinese (traditional)
Note #2: Hausa is actually spoken by people who are primarily Muslim and were not extensively used in the slave trade. But it's one of only a few French West African languages I could find Genesis translated into.



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