December 30, 2007

The science and theology of global language change

Some of our satirists need to go back to Sunday school. Dennis Baron writes ("U.N. proclaims 2008 the International Year of Language", 12/30/2007):

While the rest of the world lines up to support the U.N.’s International Languages Year, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad has announced that America’s participation remains problematic.  The Bush administration is claiming that languages were theories, not scientifically-proven facts, and the president himself recently affirmed his belief that God created English in just six days and promised to veto the use of federal funds to teach language evolution to impressionable children.

But surely those who believe in biblical inerrancy accept that the bible treats linguistic differences as facts, e.g.

Neh.13:24 And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people.
Esth.1:22 For he sent letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people.
Pss.81:5 This he ordained in Joseph for a testimony, when he went out through the land of Egypt: where I heard a language that I understood not.
Isa.36:11 Then said Eliakim and Shebna and Joah unto Rabshakeh, Speak, I pray thee, unto thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and speak not to us in the Jews' language, in the ears of the people that are on the wall.
Jer.5:15 Lo, I will bring a nation upon you from far, O house of Israel, saith the LORD: it is a mighty nation, it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language thou knowest not, neither understandest what they say.
Ezek.3:6 Not to many people of a strange speech and of an hard language, whose words thou canst not understand. Surely, had I sent thee to them, they would have hearkened unto thee.

And most important, the world's different languages (presumably including English) were not part of the original six days of creation, but were ginned up much later, in Genesis 11:

[1] And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
[2] 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.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.
[5] And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
[6] 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.
[7] Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

The international movement to teach this history in the public schools is known as "Wrathful Dispersion Theory". Or, rather, it might be know by that name, if it existed -- the status of linguistic instruction in our schools is so anomalously low that no one has felt the need to create such a movement

This all leaves me uncertain what the theology of linguistic diversity might be, for those people to whom such things matter. On one hand, the creation of diverse languages was a punishment, not a reward or an example of divine bounty, so eliminating all the world's languages in favor of English might be seen as a good thing, restoring the world to a state closer to the creator's original plan. On the other hand, linguistic diversity is a divine punishment for human technological presumption, and who are we to interfere?

While we're on the subject, I've often wondered whether it's consistent with biblical inerrancy to believe that new languages (such as English) have continued to evolve after the Babelian dispersion? And if so...

In any case, it's lame to mock the fundamentalists without maintaining a modicum of biblical consistency.

One of Baron's digs at our current president did make me laugh, though I've never been a fan of the Bushisms industry in general:

Reacting to a New York Times report that Marvel Comics has just released a bilingual Fantastic Four comic book, the president also told reporters in a Rose Garden press briefing that the United States would not be a signatory to any multinational treaties attempting to reverse global language change. He urged everyone living in the United States to speak English, not Spanish, and, demonstrating his commitment to make English America’s official language, he resolved to begin learning English right away.

During George W. Bush's first term, I wrote to the folks at to suggest that their name, coined in response to Republican exploitation of Bill Clinton's extramarital peccadillos, ought also to be applied to W's linguistic practices. But there are a few good Bush language jokes, just as there were a certain number of good Clinton sex jokes, and this is one of them.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 30, 2007 12:54 PM