Babel

Language learning is not much fun.  At least it isn’t for me.  For me it’s just plain old hard work, and work that I’m not particularly good at.  But maybe the reason I’m not good at it is because I don’t like it, so my attitude gets in the way to begin with.  I was never very good at running laps in soccer practice either; running for running’s sake is a pain.  Same with learning languages: I do it because I have to, not because there is any pleasure in it.

In Morocco, aside from learning a bit of Maghrebi Arabic (darija), I also learned a few phrases of French in passing.  I put my meager skills to use when we visited Paris some years later.  “Bonjour, monsieur. Ça va?” the hotel clerk greeted me.    To which I enthusiastically replied, “Al hamdu lillah!”   We won’t be staying there again; the service was terrible.

When we were looking for an apartment in Fez the real estate agent found us a rooftop servant’s quarters.  Renata told him she would turn into a donkey if she lived there.  The difference between hamra and hamar; she meant she would turn red (sunburned).  We ended up taking the place anyway; I signed as Balaam.  Renata has always done most of the talking.

During the time we were learning Dutch I once told my landlord, “Ik heb uw noten in de deur gekregen.”  Which means “I got your nuts in the door” rather than the intended “I found your letter on the doormat”.  Mr. van der Kroon had to think long and hard before answering.  In fact, he became slightly emotional, fighting back the tears; I think he was touched by my use of his native tongue.

My children still make fun of the unique language abilities I demonstrated during a driving holiday across Germany and Switzerland.  But really, German is just an awful language.  If you don’t believe me, find a copy of Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language” and he will convince you.  (Excerpt: “Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions….”).

My friend, Jim Mellis, points out that when it comes to religious theories about the origins of languages, most of us don’t read the Bible very carefully.  We read Genesis 11 and assume that the world’s polyglottal condition is solely a result of mankind’s sinful pride.  But we ignore the Table of Nations in the preceding chapter, where the many territories, nations, clans and languages of the known world are listed.  And we fail to see what is plain in John’s Revelation, the Bible’s final book, namely that languages survive into the next age, into a re-created world.  Jim’s assertion is that, from a theological point of view, languages are part of the cultural and ethnic diversity God intended from the beginning and that at the end of time language will be one aspect of the splendor of the nations brought into the heavenly kingdom (Revelation 21:24).

Enough theology.  The odd thing is that I really quite enjoy listening to languages, even ones I don’t know at all.  It has happened more than once that I’ve sat on a city bus eagerly listening to the foreign tourists behind me speaking a language I cannot place.  I just love it.  The unfamiliar sounds, the cadence, the melody.  It’s a complete mystery to me, and beautiful.  It’s heavenly.

So, whatever God did at Babel, I’m sure glad he did it.  He turned mankind’s misstep into a dance.

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