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​Babel Babble

Gadfly | April 30th, 2015

The Planet’s Tower of Babble

At last count the 7 billion descendants of Adam and Eve – or of Pithecanthropus erectus – who presently inhabit the earth try to communicate with one another through 7,000 languages.

Three billion use one of the top twenty languages in this order: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Punjabi, German, Javanese, Wu Chinese, Telugu, Vietnamese, Marathi, French, Korean, Tamil and Italian. In contrast the last speaker of Selk’nam in Tierra del Fuego died 40 years ago. The world has lost 30 languages since 1960 and now the average loss is one every four months. The most concentrated cluster of languages exists in Papua New Guinea with over 800 in a small area. No wonder we have difficulty understanding one another.

If we adhere to the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh or the King James version of the Bible, God did it to us. After the Great Flood when there was a united humanity speaking the same language, the remainder decided to build a city and a tower where they would all live. They did not want to be scattered all over the earth. But God didn’t like this idea, whatever the reason, so he “scattered” them all over the earth. The construction of the tower and city stopped.

Genesis 11:4-9 summed that event up: “Therefore its name is called Babel, because the Lord confused the language of all the earth, and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Let’s remember that there have been over 70 major translations of the Bible in the last 400 years, so this version may not even be close. Archeologists have been looking for the Tower of Babel for centuries. There’s the story of the Great Ziggurat of Babylon that was over 300 feet high that was destroyed by Alexander the Great around 330 B.C. So far that’s nothing but babble over Babel.

English is Beginning to be the Universal Language

As of January 1, 2014, English had 1,025,109 words in it, the most of any language. I have no idea who counted them. The English vocabulary size over rival languages is impressive: four times more than German, five times more than Russian and six times more than Spanish and French.

Over 1.5 billion people use English as a second language. China and India each have more English speakers than the U.S. I wonder how many thousands of words came just from the invention of the computer. English is now the official language in 87 countries and territories. Over 75 percent of Europeans are fluent in English because 83 percent of European students study English as a second language.

The percentages of world communications that use English is astounding: books printed, 50 percent; telephone calls, 52 percent; radio programs, 60 percent; global e-mail, 68 percent; global computer text, 80 percent; and 85 percent of the 12,500 international organizations use English. Yet Yiddish may be the most colorful in describing inept, pathetic and pitiable men: schmo,schmeschmegegge, schlep, putz, klutz, schmuck and nudnick. A nudnick, by the way, is a pest, and a phudnick, or schnook, is a nudnick with a Ph.D.! I know a few.

I love the Yiddish word chutzpah which means nervy and unmitigated gall. The classic definition: the quality demonstrated by the young man who killed his mother and father, and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.

English is one of the more direct languages. I have always enjoyed the directness of England’s King George V who invited Charles Lindbergh to visit London on his way home from his famous transatlantic flight to Paris in 1927. I’m from Little Falls, Lindbergh’s home town, so I have read extensively of Lindbergh’s exotic life and times. The flight, if I remember, took 33 hours. King George greeted Lindbergh and immediately pounced on him, “Now tell me Captain Lindbergh, there is one thing I long to know. How did you pee?”

Words Can Mean Different Things to Different People

Having lived in the South during Jim Crow days and commanding about 30 black Marines in a Marine-heavy machinegun platoon, I have always had a fascination with black writers, poetry and prose.

Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets. Gloria Naylor has taught writing and literature at George Washington and other universities. A child of Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to Harlem to escape life in the segregated South, her first book “The Women of Brewster Place” won the 1983 National Book Award. In an essay titled “Mommy, What Does ‘N****r’ Mean?,” she solves the mystery of the difference of the word when used by blacks or whites.

When a black woman says “my n****r” it is a positive term of endearment for her man. When used by blacks it is pure essence of manhood, such as, ”Yeah, the old foreman found out quick enough--you don’t mess with a n****r.”

If a black uses “n****r,” it is a word used to applaud a man who has distinguished himself. If black parents neglect their children, or if drunken black parents fight in public, they are called “trifling n****rs” by other blacks. Any time a white uses “n****r” it has negative connotations. It is always derogatory when used by whites in newspapers, radio, TV or in conversations. This is where two cultures really differ in language usage.

Many endangered languages still have enormous value to modern societies. Polynesians have terms that identify hundreds of types of flora and fauna in their languages that are completely unknown to us.

Southeast Asia forest-dwelling healers have identified 6,500 plants that have medicinal uses. Eli Lilly developed treatments for diabetes and Hodgkin’s disease from these plants. The Hauno’o tribe of the Philippines has 40 different expressions for types of soils. Those words often determine what is planted in what soil. For some reason or another, the Hawaiian language was banned from their public schools from 1896 to 1986. But now Hawaiian education authorities have created 19 language immersion sites that work with 2,400 students.

The Complexities of Language—or What Has God Wrought?

When I worked for the Fargo Public Schools, we often had more than 80 languages represented in the district at any one time. Refugees and immigrants from around the world were often settled in Fargo. That’s really small potatoes.

New York City alone has residents who speak over 800 endangered languages from every corner of the world. The U.S. has 560 recognized Indian tribes that were here before a single English word was heard from invading hordes. Navajo is about the only Indian language left that is still used in the daily life by two-thirds of the 250,000 survivors.

The Navajo code talkers who helped us win in the World War II Pacific theater became famous because the Japanese were unable to decrypt messages passed by Navajos on military radios. Indian languages are often very difficult to put in “alphabets” and other forms of translation.

As an example, there are about 25,000 Mohawk Indians but very few speak their language well enough to use it daily. It is said that Mohawk grammar is as difficult as Latin. The length of single words is often astounding. The following word means “the fool comes tumbling down the hill”: tahotenonhwarori’taksen’skwe’tsherakahrhatenia’tonha’tie.

It ain’t a Scrabble word.

I have always been amused by the differences in meaning in the 70 translations of Bible verses published over the last 400 years. How Bible thumpers can believe in absolutely literal translations is mind-boggling. There are studies available that compare Biblical verses and how they differ in meaning. Evidently there are a considerable number of theologians who believe God is talking only to them; therefore, another more accurate translation of the Bible is imperative.

The New York Review of Books recently explored the perils of translations from a Chinese novel to English. The reviewer uses this plot line to make a point: Golden Lotus, a desirable female, is waiting in a garden for her latest lover, who also happens to be her son-in-law. To tease her, the son-in-law hides under a raspberry trellis, then jumps out as she passes by and throws his arms around her.

The Wacko World of Lexophiles, Mensas and Verbivores

Fooling around with words and meanings can be great sport. A logophile is a person who has a nutty love of words. Here are a few examples:

(1) When fish are in schools, they sometimes take debate, (2) A dentist and a manicurist married and they fought tooth and nail, (3) You can tune a piano but you can’t tuna fish, (4) A will is a dead giveaway, (5) With her marriage, she got a new name and a dress, (6) When she saw her first strands of gray hair she thought she’d dye, (6) Those who get too big for their pants will be exposed in the end. OK. OK.

Mensa people are very smart. Here are a few samples of their weird world: (1) Intaxication: euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with, (2) Reintardation: coming back to life as a hillbilly, (3) Cashtration: the act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period, (4) Sarchasm: the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it, (5) Osteopornosis: a degenerate disease, and (6) Caterpallor: the color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

And then we have the verbivore who uses 500 words when a dozen might do.

An example: “I regret to inform you that yesterday, a senior editor, assumed room temperature, bit the dust, bought the farm, breathed his last, came to the end of the road, cashed in his chips, cooled off, croaked, deep-sixed, expired, gave up the ghost, headed for the hearse, headed for the last roundup, kicked off, kicked the bucket, lay down one last time, lay with the lilies, left this mortal plane, met his maker, met Mr. Jordan, passed away, passed in his checks, passed on, perished, permanently changed his address, pulled the plug, pushed up daisies, returned to dust, slipped his cable, slipped his mortal coil, sprouted wings, took the dirt nap, took the last long count, traveled to kingdom come, turned up his toes, went across the creek, went belly up, went to glory, went the way of all flesh, went to his final reward, went west and of course, he died.”

Where Did the Phrase “Diddly Squat” Come From?

The phrase “diddly squat” is one of my favorites. It’s very descriptive. It means “absolutely nothing.”

Rumor has it this phrase came into existence on Thursday, January 20, 1732, when a tavern waitress by the name of Eliza Squat gave birth to a son sired by a no-good named Don’t Have Squat. They named their product Diddly just before Don’t Have left Eliza for another woman. Eliza had diddled with a fiddle for years, so when Diddly in his crib made jerky movements it reminded her of the diddle a bow would make when she played her fiddle. Son Diddly later became a banjo player and entertained patrons throughout the colonies. But that’s just a rumor. Someone needs to see if the rumor is just diddly squat. 



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