February 24, 2007

"Babel" babble

There's a pre-Oscars article from the Associated Press making the rounds, all about how to pronounce the name of one of the Best Picture contenders, Babel. Turns out the star of the film isn't exactly sure:

"Thank you for honoring our film 'Babble.' Or 'BAY-bel' or 'Bah-BELL,'" Brad Pitt said after the film received an earlier award at a film festival in Palm Springs, Calif. "We're still arguing how to pronounce it."

With input from American University linguist Robin Barr and University of Illinois religion scholar Wayne Pitard, the AP article provides a not-half-bad historical summary of the word Babel from Akkadian onwards. Along the way it's been reanalyzed as having something to do with Hebrew balal 'confuse' (in the Tower of Babel story of Genesis 11), and more recently with English babble. In the end, the article doesn't actually give any pronunciation advice, attributing to Barr the sentiment that "none of the pronunciations can be held up as the sole 'correct' one." (The reporter also appends an irrelevant quote from George Orwell about language corrupting thought, along with a cliched quote from the Gershwin brothers about calling the whole thing off, but let's not dwell on either of those digressions.)

As to the standard pronunciation of Babel in English, British dictionaries like those from Oxford and Cambridge tend to give only one choice: [ˈbeɪbəl], rhyming with table. U.S. dictionaries, on the other hand, from the New Oxford American to Merriam-Webster to American Heritage to Random House, advise that both [ˈbeɪbəl] and [ˈbæbəl] are acceptable variants. The latter pronunciation is probably influenced by the happenstance similarity to the onomatopoetic English word babble, as the AP article suggests. But note that the related toponym Babylon is pronounced with [æ] rather than [eɪ] in both U.S. and U.K. English, so that likely encourages the babble pronunciation as well.

The conflation of Babel with babble (or Babylon with babble-on) is also helped along by latter-day interpretations of the Tower of Babel story. It all goes back to Genesis 11:9: "Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth." The use of balal 'to confuse' in the original Hebrew version of the passage is understood by modern Biblical scholars to be "a satirical word play in the story," as Pitard told the AP, taking advantage of the Hebrew verb's phonetic similarity to the Akkadian place names Babel and Babylon, which actually derive from bab 'gate' + ilu 'god.' (See The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg for more on this wordplay.) But the Genesis author's paronomasia was apparently taken as serious etymology by St. Augustine; in his exegesis of the Tower of Babel story in The City of God, he states simply, "Babylon means Confusion."

To follow the Augustinian way of thinking, we could chalk up all of these battling interpretations and pronunciations to the hubris of Nimrod, the builder of the tower at Babel. St. Augustine took a decidedly glum view of the possibilities for cross-linguistic communication ever since the dispersion of tongues at Babel destroyed the perfectly unified language of Adam. Elsewhere in The City of God he writes,"man is separated from man by the difference of languages," so much so that "a man would more readily hold intercourse with his dog than with a foreigner." Hence the world at large is "fuller of dangers" than any smaller community linked by a common tongue. I haven't seen the film Babel yet, but I gather that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has reached roughly the same conclusion. Fitting, then, that even the pronunciation of the movie title should be so emblematic of confusion.

(Hat tip, Martha Barnette.)

[Update #1: Steve of Languagehat points out that deriving Babel from Akkadian bab-ilim (bab 'gate' + ilu 'god') is a bit of a simplification. See this Languagehat post, which quotes a more complex description of the toponym's development:

"The Sumerian name for this small village was Ka-dingir-ra. In Semitic Akkadian it was called Bab-ilim. It seems that the name came not from Kadingirra, but from another name for the town, Babil, the meaning of which is unknown. Later the plural name Bab-Ilani 'the Gate of the Gods' was used."

Steve adds, "It seems more likely to me that an older name Babil (perhaps ultimately from some long-vanished language) was reinterpreted by the Akkadians to make sense in terms of their own language than that the village was originally named 'Gate of God.'" So apparently the folk-etymological reanalysis of Babel was going on from very early on!]

[Update #2: Anders Ringström sends along a relevant quote from Bruno Meissner and Karl Oberhuber, Die Keilschrift (Sammlung Göschen Band 708/708a/708b, Berlin 1967), p. 65:

baabu(m) Tor; babilu Babylon (volksetymologisch als baab ili(m) "Tor Gottes" verstanden; in Wirklichkeit alter Flurname babila)

So that accords with the idea that Babel/Babylon is actually derived from an older toponym Babil(a) that was folk-etymologically analyzed in Akkadian as baab ili(m) 'gate of God.' Babila is here called a 'field name' (Flurname), which refers to a geographical landmark rather than a populated settlement (Ortsname).]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 24, 2007 02:12 PM