And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, “Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth:and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:1-9)
Many Americans see multiple languages in our country as a threat. As I presented in my last post the US has suppressed other languages since its inception until today. We always see foreigners as a threat, but if they at least speak English, then they have assimilated to an acceptable degree.
Oddly, the rallying cry of the “English only” crowd is, “Let us not become another Tower of Babel.” (For example, Pat Buchanan says so here, and one of the authors of this article does the same here.) This implies that a lack of official language leads to chaos and the inability to work towards a common goal.
This stance shows that they don’t know what the “Tower of Babel” means. I’d like to go back over the story, so for this reason I cited the story, above. I hold a PhD in Ancient Hebrew and Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), so I place a lot of importance on the interpretation of the Bible. My aim is not to convert anyone here or make anyone religious, but to understand some of the historical background of this biblical story as it relates to the modern US. (If you are interested in hearing a discussion about this story that delves more into the biblical aspects of this story, please listen to this podcast episode of “The Bible as Literature Podcast,” that my friend and I produce.)
A brief interpretation
The people who settled in Shinar all spoke one language, and they accomplished great feats. They were so good that the Lord took notice; nothing would be impossible for them. The Tower of Babel, therefore, showed what a people is able to create if they all speak the same language. The Lord admitted it.
In order to prevent the ability to accomplish even greater things, the Lord zeroed in on language. If he confuses their language, they will not be able to communicate and coordinate.
I’m not going to try to argue for or against the existence of God, and I’ll observe simply that the final stage of the story reflects the reality of our world. The world is filled with different peoples and languages. The story sets up the reader to see the multiplicity of languages as a reminder of the problem of empire and human ambition.
The meaning of “Babel”
“Babel” refers to two things. First, it means “Babylon.” The Ancient Israelites knew about this great empire of their day. They represented the greatest empire ever up to their time, conquering from the east of modern-day Iran, all the way to the west to Egypt. They held the Israelites captive in their land, so the Babylonian palaces and armies dwarfed anything they would have known.
Second, it literally means “the gate of god.” Symbolically, the builders wanted to function as the “gatekeepers” of god. They wanted to hold all power in their hand.
We can thus see that this tower represents empire. The great accomplishments and the greater arrogance that comes when human beings want to take over the world.
Language and empire
Language is a key tool of empire. The authors of the Bible weren’t alone to see this. The history of the Middle East displays the hegemony of Babylonian, then Syriac, then Persian, Greek, and Arabic languages, depending on the empire of the day. George Orwell brought this point out beautifully in 1984, wherein the government controlled what words meant in order to manipulate the people by controlling what they could discuss.
The folks at Shinar look a lot like America. The story confirms that the proponents of “English only” are correct: only with a unified language can a nation accomplish great things. People deny reality to strive for a stage where we have a single language; they want a single language so that they can have a Tower of Babel. English-only proponents want this Tower, even though this goes against the will of the Lord (in the Bible) and against the reality of life (in our world). The arrogant of the world want a single language in order to accomplish what they want.
When you can’t understand the language, you can’t control the situation. Hence the fierce reactions and punishments against minority languages in every empire of the 20th and 21st centuries: US, British, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Turkish. Individuals in the empire can react just as violently, as one can see all over the internet, in the history of the US, and in some everyday interactions. Are those people talking about you? Probably not, but you can’t be sure. Better to force them to speak your language.
To those who hold power, languages are a threat. For the American Empire, the multilingual reality of our world is a threat. Why do languages disappear in our country? Why are we lousy at teaching languages? Monolingualism serves our empire.
Why do you think some people see multilingualism as a threat?