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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tower of Babel

You remember the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), right? Everyone, at one time, spoke the same language. After the Flood, people got together and decided to "build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens" (Gen 11:4). The goal was to minimize God and "make a name for ourselves" to avoid being "dispersed over the face of the whole earth" ... you know, like God commanded (Gen 1:28). God's "fix" was to confound their language (Gen 11:7). Being unable to understand each other, they split up and dispersed. Success ... at least on God's part.

This will almost seem like I'm changing the subject, but bear with me. If you look around, you'll find that the English language is headed toward being the "universal language". A friend from China told me that as young students there they were required to learn English because it was required for commerce with other countries. I got the same story from a friend from France. And Germany. Pilots have to learn English to have a common mode of communication with other planes and with ground control. Tourist spots in various countries typically mandate English because so many tourists speak the language. Just about anywhere you go you will likely find someone who speaks English because, due to the political and economic power of the United States, English is quickly becoming a universal language. And, let's face it, the most common language on the Internet is English, regardless of your native language.

Now, combining the first two paragraphs, do you see where I'm going? At the Tower of Babel, there was a universal language. This fact combined with human arrogance produced Cosmic Treason that required a confusing of the language. Confuse the language and that particular treason -- "We will not obey, but we will make a name for ourselves" -- was terminated. My question, then, is "Has America arrived at the same place?"

I've written more than once about the common confounding of the English language. "Lie" means "wrong", "love" means "sex", "gay" means "sex", "marriage" means "sex" ... okay, maybe I'm being too simplistic, but you know the drill. So much of our English has evolved or morphed or been co-opted that using it for communication can be nearly impossible. When "Do you love your mother?" gets understood as "Do you have sex with your mother?", we're looking not only at a misunderstanding, but more likely a fight. Some words have had to be discontinued because their meaning has shifted far enough to be offensive. It's not just that we're building new words -- "Internet", "LOL", "audiophile", "netiquette", to name a few -- but we're modifying existing words to mean something completely different. Who would have thought that the words "ear" and "worm" would combine to mean "a tune that keeps rolling around in your head"? We know "flame" and we know "war", so we should know that a "flame war" is a war fought with fire, but it's not; it's an angry exchange of rude email messages. "Optics" could mean things through which we look or it could mean the way a situation appears to the public. That's barely related. "Tweet" used to mean the sound a bird made, but now it's the communication mode du jour. And who would have thought that a "cloud" would be the hot new way of computing?

Some of it is understandable. Take "drama" and "queen" and put them together and you get a woman who is really tops at drama. I can see that. But now we have to come up with new words for deviance, like "polyamory" to explain how it's good to have group marriage or "serial monogamy" to highlight how people have sex with one person ... at a time. (Note how "monogamy" has changed from "married to one person" to "sex with one person" and "marriage" has changed to even make sense in a term like "group marriage".) The Oxford English Dictionary this year added "OMG", "LOL", and the heart symbol to its online dictionary. Now, come on, people!

The famous line from the 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, could likely be quoted by just about anyone. "What we got here is... failure to communicate." Well, it's here. "Liar" may mean "intent to deceive", but that's not how it's intended half the time. "Hypocrite" may mean "presenting oneself as having virtues one doesn't have", but that's not how it's understood all the time. "Atonement" may mean "amends or reparation made for an injury or wrong" or it may mean "just forget about it", depending on the circles in which you discuss the topic. "Faith" may or may not have any component of fact, evidence, or reason in it, depending on who is using the term. "Christ" may refer to the Savior of Man or may merely be a swear word without meaning. And slowly but surely we seem to deliberately be reproducing the Tower of Babel story. Language is being confused. Unfortunately, in the original story the outcome was a dispersal that replenished the earth. This time we're just likely to get into fights. "Do I do what to my mother??!!" "Who are you calling happy??!!" "I don't care if you thought 'retarded' was a nice way of saying 'not as mentally quick as others of the same age'; you will be sued for using that word." (Please, feel free to substitute "inmate", "niggardly", and so on.) This isn't looking like a good outcome.

1 comment:

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I think political-correctness did a lot to destroy our language, and is probably one of the major perpetrators of its destruction.