Friday, April 24, 2015


Monrovia, California

April 24, 2015

"I think it's so people won't know what they're saying."

This statement by my young American friend of Filipino ancestry was a follow up to his initial response to my question about how many languages are spoken in the Philippines.  "Something like seventy," he had replied, and then made what at the moment I had thought of as that slightly paranoid observation with which I began this posting.  Really? I thought.  You're implying that there are that many languages in the Philippine archipelago because groups of people don't want other groups eavesdropping on them?

"My dad used to speak a different dialect of Tagalog, which my mother didn't understand at all.  It made her angry."  As regards the differences of opinion between his now-separated parents, I do not know if the language problem factored heavily into the mix; his mother's anger was probably more the function of things having nothing to do with language per se,  Still, I had never thought of deliberate secrecy or a desire to piss off others as reasons behind the origins of languages.  Maybe in their perpetuation--in fact certainly so--but not in their very initiation.  All my understanding of language development--and I admit it isn't a great deal--has centered on the idea of a reverse of our national motto, e pluribus unum--from many one--as it relates to the tongues of humans.  That is, our languages tended to multiply as we dispersed and became separated from one another, populating isolated chunks of land, where we soon evolved new languages like birds might develop new colored plumage in different environments.  I do know that linguists theorize about a proto-Indo European language that might have been the mother of many of the western languages, which developed into many different branches as its speakers scattered here and there.

 In the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, the kick-ass-God-as-lawgiver-and-punisher part of the scriptures that Republicans love to quote, there's a passage that talks about the Tower of Babel.  According to the story, for a time after Noah and the Great Flood, everyone spoke the same language.  Some time later, when the population had multiplied a good deal, they traveled eastward and decided to start a city and build a very high tower, one that would take them into the clouds, which evidently was tantamount to attempting to trespass into heaven.  God, who in the Old Testament is often depicted as a neglected and disgruntled guy ("like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli," in the immortal words of George Costanza), afraid that humans will have too much power and maybe forget to kiss his ass for having created them, decides to destroy the Tower of Babel and scatter the people, after which they spoke different languages and couldn't understand each other and were generally confused and befuddled.  Hence, the story would have us conclude, the breakup of languages into mutual unintelligibility was all our fault, because we sought too much power.  A bunch of languages would thus hinder us, due to the fact that we would always have a hard time understanding people who lived in other places.

This story is instructive of how some early people thought about God.  First, they saw God as a kind of fading tribal elder rather than an infinite and unchangeable Master of the Universe.  In fact, these two almost diametrically opposed images of God play back and forth throughout the Old Testament.  The Master of the Universe, who would have the power to destroy the tower and scatter the people, would obviously have no need to do such a thing, because he would already be so mighty that insecurity simply wouldn't register with him, much less give him any reason to take action.  After all, how god-like could humans ever become if they were the controlled product of the Creator of All Things?  Not too much so, I'm thinking.  But that rather deistic view of creation doesn't make for good storytelling or for effective domination over people by religions.  So if God was an old geezer who'd once been the top dog but was now sort of losing his clout, and not being worshiped enough in his opinion, then it would make sense for him to stick it to his potential competition before they put him out to pasture for good.  But as usual I digress.

Following my young friend's statements about the Philippines and about his parents, my mind went immediately to occasional afternoons when my father and his siblings, and in the early years my grandfather, would sit in the living room and speak Dutch in front of me.  I knew that all of them could as easily have spoken English. I knew they were consciously and deliberately excluding me from the conversation and at the same time indulging in a language they spoke as kids which they didn't get to use much any more.  It didn't make me angry; rather, I was somewhat fascinated with the strange guttural sounds emanating from their mouths.  This was just another form of "grownup talk," like the polysyllabic, euphemistic, and otherwise cryptic ways adults often talk over and past their children in their presence.

As we all know, existing languages are often employed as a way of excluding outsiders.  Sometimes this is done in the hope of keeping non-dominant cultures alive and important.  Other times speakers of a language have a feeling of superiority about their own language and consider other languages concomitantly inferior.  "Your language has no poetry, no romance--it doesn't sing."  People bemoan the extinction of a language in much the same way they wring their hands over the extinction of an animal species.  This doesn't take into consideration that languages, like living things, are in a constant state of evolution and flux, and that the world has lost many times more languages and species over the millennia than exist today, or even than existed at the supposedly Edenic moment (1066? 1492? 1620?) when some nasty evil conquering group came and began to supplant the indigenous folks whom God had placed on the land with his own hand.  Languages are indeed like species of flora and fauna: some invade, some adapt, and some die out, but all change constantly.  And yes, occasionally some are hunted down and extinguished on purpose.

We've seen instances of the outright suppression of the native languages of subjugated peoples by dominant cultures--practices like forbidding the speaking of French or Spanish or Native American languages among students in U.S. schools, or the prohibition of the use of Irish or Welsh or Scottish in Great Britain by the English.  Get everybody in a straight line, and most importantly, understand what they're saying so they can't joke about you behind your back or conspire to subvert your rule.  At the other end of the language-as-dominance spectrum, liturgical languages used in religions, such as Latin, Hebrew, and Old Church Slavonic, are artificially preserved more or less as they were centuries ago in order to keep the old magic and mystery of the liturgical traditions alive, and, more importantly, to separate those who know these languages--mainly the clergy--from the unwashed masses.  "There is only one way to talk to God, and we know what it is," say the wise men of the church.  In other areas of endeavor as well it's always been important for a group of people to master the language, or at least the arcane vocabulary, of their professions, so as to elevate themselves from those not in the know.  Lawyers do it, physicians do it, as do middle managers who engage in Dilbert-speak to show that they're up on the latest bureaucratic or corporate lingo.

So then, what if some languages, or most of them, began, in the dim recesses of human history, long before conquest by imperial hordes and the advent of the printed word, as ways of pissing other people off?  Imagine this: one small group of people related by blood and kinship (what I'll call Tribe A) decides it hates the next group over (Tribe B).  Tribe B has been stealing from Tribe A and interfering with their hunting or gathering, and perhaps Tribe B accidentally or purposely killed or injured one of Tribe A's people or kidnapped one of them.  This is the basic shit that has happened throughout human history, and happens today in one form or another all over the world, civilized or otherwise,  It happened in myth and legend and in historical and sacred stories everywhere.  Somebody fucks with somebody else, usually at the family or tribal level.  The people who have been messed with either retaliate, starting a feud or a war, or have to move somewhere else.

But suppose that instead of fighting or fleeing Tribe A just decides to make up a different language, so that the next time they encounter people from Tribe B, the Tribe B folks won't know what they're saying.  Meanwhile the Tribe A people would know both languages, so they'd have something of an advantage.  A little like school girls whispering into each other's ears and giggling.  Nothing pisses someone off more than having secrets kept from them.

I admit this is all a little far fetched.  But consider it as a concept that contrasts with our received idea of what language has always been used for, namely, to help us communicate better with others.  We think of the fact that people speak different languages as an obstacle to communication, and encourage them and ourselves to learn other languages, when maybe what we really enjoy as a species is being able to irritate others by making them have to figure out what's going on, then just when they do understand, changing it again.  Teenagers constantly create their own slang in order to exclude their elders, from whom they feel alienated.  Disenfranchised minorities of all kinds coin their own vocabularies to allow them to communicate in ways that exclude the majority.  It might just be more fun to speak a language that your neighbor, or your teacher, or your boss, or your government, doesn't understand.

Maybe the Bible got the moral of the Tower of Babel story all wrong.  When God tore down the tower and scattered the people who were trying to encroach on his divinity, perhaps the people decided to start speaking a whole bunch of different languages just so God wouldn't know what they were saying, and what they were up to.

Just to piss him off.