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One Language

By David Kishik.

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1.1               Up to the destruction of the Tower of Babel in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, “the whole earth was one language, one set of words.” Though the previous ten chapters are written in biblical Hebrew, it is a bit of a stretch to assume that this was the original language the first humans spoke.

1.2               Wondering what language Adam shared with Noah is like asking which God they worshiped, or inquiring about the brand of air we currently breathe. Diversity was not yet an option. Our mythological parents are neither Jews nor Gentiles but simply humans. So their language must be thought of as human language.

1.3               But a language that is just labeled “human language” cannot account for a narrative in which almost all the talking is done by God, often with no human in sight. And the little humans have to say is usually addressed to God.

1.4               At the same time, this pure language cannot only be “divine language,” either, because an entire conversation happens to take place between a woman and a snake. And there are three minor occurrences in which one human actually speaks directly to another human.

1.5               The language in the beginning of Genesis is therefore neither the language of man nor the language of God, neither Hebrew nor Esperanto. Could it be what Walter Benjamin once referred to as “language as such”? Call it, if you wish, generic language.

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2.1               The words in the book of Genesis did not change for over two millennia. The canonization of this text dictates that no letter be added or subtracted. Scriptural stasis is an attempt to combat the myriad ways in which the everyday use of language mutates over time.

2.2               Scripture is like water scooped with a glass from a running river. And to imagine our linguistic fluidity is to imagine our inescapable temporality. But just as a chemist can analyze a small sample taken from a large body of water, an exegete can still study a short text that has somehow survived a bygone form of life.

2.3               A few decades before Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of a word depends on the context in which it is used, biblical scholars began to examine sacred verses according to their “setting in life,” speculating about the circumstances from which they emerged and the aims they were meant to fulfill.

2.4               A setting for the most elementary use of language appears in the beginning of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. It consists of only four words: block, pillar, slab, and beam. A builder calls them out one by one, and an assistant hands them over in the order in which they are requested.

2.5               From there, the Investigations goes on to show how our language is so much more complicated than such words that identify simple objects. We use a plurality of language games to do a variety of things: joke, lie, sing, greet, thank, curse, praise, promise, pray, and so on.

2.6               Yet the “complete primitive language” that sets Wittgenstein’s philosophical argument in motion is a clear nod to that time when “the whole earth was one language, one set of words.” What his two lonely builders agree to erect seems very much like the Tower of Babel, which led to the confusion of humanity’s language and the dispersion of its original form of life.

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3.1               It is not due to an oversight that Genesis lacks a story about the birth of language, which is taken for granted, as if it had always existed. There appears to be no need to mark its creation, but only to explain why there are many languages.

3.2               Whether there was language before there was a world, or God, is up to the mystics to decide. What is certain, though, is that the Hebrew author does not accept the Greek link between language and humanity. Aristotle famously took us to be the animals that can speak. Yet in Genesis we are not human because we possess language, nor is there language because there is human life.

3.3               The Babel story maintains only the link between the plurality of human lives and the plurality of human languages. Once the conceit of a unitary form of life synonymous with the human race ceases to function as the book’s guiding idea, the text quickly unravels. The story of our infancy must come to an end.

3.4               The final account of Abraham’s family in the last lines of the eleventh chapter of Genesis is just a cliffhanger for what is yet to come. Soon, God will make Abraham, whose name at this point is still Abram, to abandon his forefathers, break with his mythological origins, uphold the exclusivity of his future dynasty, and forget his generic link to the rest of humanity.

3.5               So what remains? Only the pre-Abrahamic language remains, as a blurred trace of what it used to be before God garbled our speech, before translation became a task, before generic life was relegated to the so-called lower species, and long before multiculturalism turned into something that everyone must forever celebrate and never lament.

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4.1               It is commonly assumed that the consequence of Babel is the multiplication of tongues. But the previous, tenth chapter of Genesis unequivocally states that the different nations and clans that spread all over the known world from the families of Noah’s three sons were already multilingual.

4.2               Consider, then, an alternative reading of the ending of Babel’s tale: God punished humans by demoting their speech to idle talk, empty prattle, or nonsensical babble, or rather babel, which misguided the perplexed, hampered agreement, and confounded the foundations.

4.3       After the fall of the tower, words defy understanding; they begin to conceal rather than to reveal the truth. Assuming that communication has been compromised ever since, the aim of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is to mark a limit to the expression of their fundamental thought.

4.4       It is as if whatever can be said has already been said with the 3,792 words that comprise the pre-Abrahamic Bible. The rest is, or better be, silence.

David Kishik is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Emerson College in Boston, author of four books, among them “The Book of Shem: On Genesis before Abraham” (Stanford University Press, 2018) and “The Manhattan Project: A Theory of a City” (Stanford UP, 2015). His editorials appeared in the NYTimes: Public Seminar and the Philosophical Salon.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 14th, 2019.