Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Friday, 28 November 2014

Letter from Butiama: The origin of language

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 11th February 2007.
There is a Biblical passage about the tower of Babel (Genesis11: 1-9) which reports that humans once had a single language, and that we agreed to build a tower to reach heaven. The Almighty God was monitoring the scheme, and stepped in to intervene after deciding we had gone too far.

God created languages, making it impossible for those at the construction site to understand and cooperate with each other. Unable to continue, humans dispersed around the earth to indulge in other mischief.
In the scientific study of languages, experts group those languages with similar characteristics in groups. Genetic or typological characteristics are used for the classifications. Genetic classification, in lines similar to the story of Babel, looks for evidence of linkages to a common language, while typological classifications look for similarities in structure.

The study of language assumes that the groups of languages and the families they belong to are derived from a “parent” or “proto-“ language, the mother of  all languages. Bantu is one such group from which most of the languages spoken in the eastern, central, and southern African region originate, while the Germanic subfamily is known to have spawned several European languages including English, German, Swedish, Dutch, and Norwegian.

Science has not and will not be able to determine whether all languages originated from one particular language because the available written records are not consistent across all languages and, even when they are available, cover only a fraction of the estimated thousands of years in which human speech has existed.
However, it is instructive to note that, in some languages, there seems to be some trace of the Biblical account on the tower of Babel.

I believe that Swahili and Italian speakers can make a strong religious claim to being one of the first two language offshoots from Babel, and a scientific claim for being two of the world’s earlier proto-languages.
Take the example of the Italian word giu’ whose pronunciation closely resembles that of the Swahili word juu. Giu’ means “down”, juu is “up.” Imagine the confusion created each time the Swahili speaking bricklayer asked the Italian stores clerk for additional bricks to be sent up.

Although these two words have opposite meanings, if you look at them as representing one of two extremes they are strongly connected on a scale of height, and would give some credence to the Biblical account of the Divine intervention to curtail the effectiveness of communication, at least between Italian and Swahili speakers.

To the northern Chinese ma can have three meanings depending on the intonation you use when pronouncing those two letters. On a flat tone it means “mother”, on a falling tone “to curse.” In Italian the same word means “but” and several other meanings associated with that word.

There are several examples of words that has one decent meaning in one language and a different and obscene unprintable meaning in another. Again, a few Italian words that can be used in normal conversation share the reputation of having obscene Swahili meanings.

While some religions preach that we shared a common language in the past, and scientific study points to a shared common origin of languages in language groups, there is a great likelihood that the advances in human knowledge existing today would have changed the story in the Bible.

I have had the chance to observe Chinese technicians working on a Tanzanian construction site. They could not speak a word of neither English nor Swahili. In comparison, the only Chinese word that their coordinator knew was the word for “beer”, which was of little help even if they were constructing a brewery.

In little time a communications system was developed and used. To order more nails, they showed a nail to the coordinator, and wrote down the size and quantity using the number system familiar to any literate Tanzanian. It worked well for most situations. Thanks to easier communication nowadays, when communication completely broke down, they would place a call to an interpreter in China to resolve the matter.

Human knowledge today would have probably changed the story of Babel. Construction would have continued until the tower would have collapsed from its own height, but while construction lasted, religion and science would have found common ground.

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