Confused Language

A recent Economist magazine review on Noam Chomsky’s work [paywall] comments:

Since he wrote “Syntactic Structures” in 1957, Mr. Chomsky has argued that human language is fundamentally different from any other kind of communication, that a “linguist from Mars” would agree that all human languages are variations on a single language, and that children’s incredibly quick and successful learning (despite often messy and inattentive parental input) points to an innate language faculty in the brain.

This view is remarkably accurate, especially considering the differences between Western and Eastern languages. The Economist review goes on to say that Chomsky and a computer scientist, Robert Berwick, claim to explain the evolution of human language in their new book titled: Why Only Us. Perhaps they’re wrong?

For a different perspective, it’s worthwhile reading the entire biblical account of this phenomenon.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore, its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9 English Standard Version (ESV)

So the choice is stark. Either we have different languages because they “evolved” that way. Or we reaped what we sowed in trying to “make a name for ourselves.” And we did; just not a good name. Let’s see what Calvin has to say on this scripture passage.

And the Lord came down. …Moses…intimates that God, for a little while, seemed to take no notice of them… For [God] frequently bears with the wicked [such] that he not only suffers them to contrive many nefarious things, as if he were [unconcerned;] but even further[s] their impious and perverse designs with animating success, in order that he may at length cast them down to a lower depth.

Behold, the people is one. …God complains of a wickedness in men…to teach us [not that he is swayed by any passions, but] that he is not negligent of human affairs, and that, as he watches for the salvation of the faithful, so he is intent on observing the wickedness of the ungodly; as it is said in Psalm 34:16,

“The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.”

Go to, let us go down. …[God] declares that the work which they supposed could not be retarded, shall, without any difficulty, be destroyed…This example of Divine vengeance belongs to all ages: for men are always inflamed with the desire of daring to attempt what is unlawful. And this history shows that God will ever be averse to such counsels and designs; so that we here behold, depicted before our eyes what Solomon says:

‘There is no counsel, nor prudence, nor strength against the Lord,’ (Proverbs 21:30)

Unless the blessing of God be present, from which alone we may expect a prosperous issue, all that we attempt will necessarily perish.

So the Lord scattered them abroad. Men had already been spread abroad [by virtue of] the benediction and grace of God. But those whom the Lord had before distributed with honor in various abodes, he now ignominiously scatters[as] a violent rout, because the principal bond…between them was cut asunder.

Therefore, the name of it [is] called Babel. …What [did] they gain by their foolish ambition to acquire a name[?] They hoped that an everlasting memorial of their origin would be engraven on the tower… [However,] they [did] gain a name, but not each as they would have chosen: thus does God opprobriously cast down the pride of those who usurp to themselves honors to which they have no title.

However, Calvin points out God’s mercy and grace through all this:

Now, although the world bears this curse to the present day; yet, in the midst of punishment…the admirable goodness of God is rendered conspicuous, …because He has proclaimed one gospel, in all languages, through the whole world…

…They who before were miserably divided, have coalesced in the unity of the faith. In this sense Isaiah says, that the language of Canaan should be common to all under the reign of Christ, (Isaiah 19:18); because, although their language may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing, while they cry, “Abba, Father.”

***

What always stands out to me in this Genesis scripture account is the verse: “And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” This was God’s assessment of us when we had one language. With increasing consolidation around a few key languages and advances in CRISPR, AI, and nuclear annihilation, we may still do on a global scale what should have remained impossible for men to do.

Because of these things, but not only these, I urge you to embrace that other human impossibility:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Mark 10:25-27 (ESV)

Please enter His kingdom, now.

Tower of Babel - Bruegel

The Tower of Babel, 1563, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), public domain in the United States

The Three Languages of Politics – A Review

Arnold Kling is a Cato Institute Adjunct Scholar, a Mercatus Center affiliate, and regularly posts to his askblog site. His book: The Three Languages of Politics is a short essay and analysis of political speech in the United States.

Kling identifies three ideological groups and their dominant dichotomies. Progressives divide issues along an oppressor–oppressed axis. Conservatives use a civilized–barbarous axis. And libertarians, Kling’s camp, use a freedom–coercive axis.

He goes on to say that individuals in each camp use political language divided along these axes to show loyalty, elevate status, and create hostility towards others in opposing camps.

Political debate using these preferred axes is frustrating and endless as each camp talks past the other without communicating.

A debater might either aim to: open minds of those in opposition, open minds of those in their camp, or close the minds of those in their camp. The majority opt for the third option.

Uncharitable discussion focuses on finding an opponent’s weakest argument and denouncing it.

Few participants attempt to be charitable and end up narrowing and reducing their audience’s understanding of the issues at hand.

In the course of argumentation, Kling observes, we suggest we are reasonable and our opponent is not. The only people we are qualified to call unreasonable [or other derogatory terms] are ourselves. Our opponents may be wrong, however, and it is our burden to prove it [which is often hard or impossible].

Kling suggests we treat these ideologies as languages to be understood and not heresies to be stamped out.

Learning the language of other camps enables us to understand how others think about political issues without demonizing their positions or them.

Constructive reasoning weighs the merits of facts and theories to take a stand on an issue. Motivated reasoning filters the facts and theories to legitimate preconceived opinions.

Engaging in motivated reasoning is like arguing a case at law. We present evidence to justify or reinforce already accepted ideas. Openness only extends to those facts and theories that support our views.

Kling concludes that constructive reasoning applies an equal standard to evidence that supports or contradicts our preconceptions. We become open to changing our minds.

Remarkably, we find scripture touches all these axes: oppressoroppressed, civilizedbarbarous, and freedomcoercion. Then again, perhaps it’s not surprising that He plays no favorites.

Newsstands in DC

Newsstands (propaganda) by InSapphoWeTrust (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)