Professionally I advertise myself as a “language expert,” which is quite accurate (see www.language-expert.net ), and I get a wide range of contacts from attorneys and private citizens regarding anonymous letters, plagiarism, contract interpretation, copyright infringement, and other issues where money, reputation, or something else of value is at stake. 

I also get questions about grammar and usage, which I answer gratis, just to shed a bit of linguistic insight on issues that usually cannot be resolved definitively because language is flexible and variable, and there just isn’t one right answer.

But a few days ago, I got this, which is indeed in a class by itself:


“My name is _______and I am student at Texas Women's University in Denton, Texas. As a philosophy major, I am currently writing a research paper outlining the argument against the Tower of Babel. The Tower of Babel is a story told within the Christian bible (Genesis 11:1-9) that tells how all the languages in the world began to exist.

“Within the bible, the people of Babylon decided to build a tower to reach the heavens. This made god angry so he decided to scatter the tower workers all around the world and gave them each a different language to speak. And this is the very reason there are many different languages.

“Within my research paper I am required to provide a professional reference. I would truly appreciate some feedback as a linguistic expert on the validity of the Tower of Babel.

“Is the Tower of Babel possible?
“Is it likely?
“Is it impossible? (I am personally inclined to believe that it is impossible)

“WHY and WHAT makes this story possible, likely or impossible?

“In a nutshell, what is the best reasoning for the many different languages that have existed?”

"I am truly grateful for your feedback and it will go a long way in my research paper.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------


My reply:

Dear _____,

I suggest you read my book, "An Atheist Reads the Torah" -- it answers this as well as many other questions.  Briefly, there is no archaeological or any other evidence for any of the events of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The Tower of Babel is a complete fiction.  As far as we know, there is no evidence that everyone in the world spoke one language. I find it remarkable that this is even a viable point of view in an academic institution.

Scientific investigation tells us that the world's 5,000 or so languages are related to other languages in the distant past, and we can describe the historical processes by which ancient “proto-languages” change and ultimately divide into separate language families and individual languages and dialects as people moved farther and farther from each other.

Language is perhaps 100,000 years old. There's disagreement over whether it originated once or many times. We can't go much beyond the historical written records. I think it originated many times because the world's languages are so different. It probably started with gestures, mixed with nouns. Verbs and grammatical relations came later.

The real point of the Babel story is subjugation and dependence: God says that if humans can build the tower, they will be able to do whatever they set out to do and nothing "will be beyond their reach." We learn early on how the Torah writers felt about human ambitions.  

And who heard him say this?  The text doesn’t say that he said it to anybody in particular.  If God supposedly wrote that passage, why does he refer to himself in the third person?

Indeed, God’s method is successful, and he has a point: to this very day, language differences are the main source of cohesion within -- and the root of divisions between -- tribes and ethnic groups.

BTW, this story is not, properly speaking, in the “Christian Bible.” The first 19 books are known as “the Hebrew Bible” or “the Tanakhor “the Old Testament.”  Furthermore, all of Noah’s descendants settle in Shinar before they begin the tower; only afterward is it called Babylon (Genesis 11:2 and 9). 

I am really concerned about the quality and bias of your education.

Thanks for contacting me. I hope I have been helpful.

 

__________

 

Humanists have long pondered the question of why religion, even though it is manifestly wrong and harmful to boot, manages, century after century, to survive and enslave most of the world’s people. 

Now comes one of the most astonishing answers I have encountered (OK, maybe I’ve been too sheltered): they teach in it college!

And they call it philosophy!  What a disgusting perversion of a noble endeavor.  In the search for an understanding of the mind, of life, of consciousness, knowledge, thought, beauty, morality, and everything else that makes us human, debating the truth of Bible passages has no place whatsoever.

The Middle Ages are gone, and good riddance.  Except at Texas Women’s University (and, no doubt, many other fine institutions).

Views: 218

Tags: Babel, Bible, Genesis, Tower, language, of, philosophy

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Comment by Alan Perlman on April 16, 2013 at 11:06am

Tom,

Thanks for kind words.  Linguistics used to confine itself to grammar, pronunciation, historical change, dialect variation, and meaning/lexicon, but looking at language out of conext reveals nothing about the peripheral phenomena that you note and that ultimately influence understanding. 

Linguists then (borrowing from language philosophers) discovered speech act theory an pragmatics,  "illocutionary force" (what I meant to say) and "perlocutionary force" (what you heard).  This just scratches the surface. 

As a speechwriter, I found out how limited my academic understanding of communcation really was, but over time I caught on to these other factors.

Comment by Tom Sarbeck on April 14, 2013 at 9:59pm

Alan, thanks for your essay.

I remember "A ha!" moments when, after I'd done a lot of public speaking, I studied how communication can fail. I explained it to myself as follows and your essay reminded me of it.

1. There is what people intend to say. (Call it A)

2. Their "screens" of ability to say it change A. (A becomes B)

3. Listeners' screens of ability to understand B changes it further. (B becomes C)

4. Listeners' ability to accept C changes it more. (C becomes D, which might have little similarity to A)

That was before neurology entered the picture.

I'm glad I'm not Chomsky's only critic.

Comment by Tom Sarbeck on April 14, 2013 at 9:01pm

To Alan, I read somewhere that kids are agnostic savages, or savage agnostics, until caregivers socialize them.

Let's see, where did I read it?

Of course, in the above line where I wrote it.

Spoofing.

I was in middle school when another sister and another brother joined the family. Their savagery was rather mild, and until their dad put them in Catholic schools they neither affirmed or denied the existence of gods.

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 14, 2013 at 11:35am

To Debra, I believe (and have read this somewhere) that kids are atheists (or at least non-deists) by inclination; religion is a cultural superimposiition.

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 14, 2013 at 11:31am

Tom, This isn't the first time I've read "what's up with Chomsky?" comments. 

He's definitely not a spellbinding speaker.  And if you haven't had to plow through his writings...don't bother.  Re your last comment: that's the first time I've heard that suggestion.  When every public word you utter is noted and/or quoted, maybe you let the quality slip.  It is a fact that Chomsky - unlike anyone else I know of -- has been spared, for DECADES -- the application/selection process that the rest of us have to go through when we want to deliver a paper or publish a book.  He's just gotten a free ride, and when there's no check on quality, quality tends to slip.

As it turns out, Chomsky and I are both linguists, and he was starting to get famous just when I was coming up.  Here's a post from my other blog: http://jewishatheist.us/?p=416 

 And, for what it's worth a comment I received: There is something about Chomsky that does not

add up. He is a bit like the Pope, everyone listens to him, and he says what is
expected, but does not really say much and what he does say is so general it's
hardly relevant to anything.

There is something incongruous in Chomsky's message, but it is always delivered
very intelligently

 

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 14, 2013 at 11:27am

Tom,

Interesting comment on Chomsky, especially your last speculation.  It's important to note that (a) Chomsky is a self-appointed expert on everything but linguistics, and (b) unlike the rest of us, who have to submit articles and manuscripts for review, Chomsky got a free ride for DECADES.  He was the most quoted intellectual in American because nobody would refuse to quote or publish him.  His reputation snowballed even if it was hollow at the core.

His speaking style was never spellbinding (and thank your lucky stars you never had to plow through his writings), but when you're listened to and quoted uncritically for so long, the quality tends to slip.  I'm fairly certain nothing "happened to" him.  It's just that nobody would ever dare to question the Great One.

Comment by Tom Sarbeck on April 14, 2013 at 3:57am

Re Noam Chomsky:

I saw his Manufactured Consent and I've heard him a few times.

I agree that he has good ideas, but he talks as if he is terminally bored with his own message.

It saddens me; I wonder if there's something he did to himself or if there's something his followers did to him.

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 13, 2013 at 9:03pm

I will respond in more detail to the many insights shared by fellow A/N contributors. For now, thanks, Joan, for the kind words...and to all who commented on the sea-change in education, let me say that I have witnesssed it: both my college/grad education and my 13 years as a professor were fortunately free of dogma, corporate pragmatism, teaching to the test, and political correctness.  It's all happened within my adulthood.

Comment by Joan Denoo on April 13, 2013 at 8:48pm
Alan Perlman, Thank you for the lead to
http://harpers.org/archive/2009/09/dehumanized/.
One thing he says that fits with my notion of "mindbinding" is his statement,
"we are more nurture than nature; that what we are taught, generally speaking, is what we become; that torturers are made slowly, not minted in the womb. As are those who resist them. I believe that what rules us is less the material world of goods and services than the immaterial one of whims, assumptions, delusions, and lies; that only by studying this world can we hope to shape how it shapes us; that only by attempting to understand what used to be called, in a less embarrassed age, “the human condition” can we hope to make our condition more human, not less."

"By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe."

He refers here to what we should be teaching. "We teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgments compassion and breadth (and thereby contribute to the political life of the nation), and sufficiently skilled to find productive employment. In that order. Our primary function, in other words, is to teach people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst. It is only secondarily—one might say incidentally—about producing workers."

"The problem, though, is that although our school system was once the envy of all (a “first-rate education,” we understand by this point, is one that grows the economy), now only our white suburban schools are “comparable to those in Singapore, which may have the best education system in the world.”

"One teaches some toothless, formalized version of these things, careful not to upset anyone, despite the fact that upsetting people is arguably the very purpose of the arts and perhaps of the humanities in general."
"science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one. Science explains how the material world is now for all men; the humanities, in their indirect, slippery way, offer the raw materials from which the individual constructs a self—a self distinct from others. The sciences, to push the point a bit, produce people who study things, and who can therefore, presumably, make or fix or improve these things. The humanities don’t."
~ Mark Slouka
These are just a few of the jewels I found here. The article is well worth the read. Thanks Alan.
Comment by Joan Denoo on April 13, 2013 at 7:40pm

SILVIA SAINT-CLAIRE, I am very happy you joined the conversation. We have so many mindbinders and cobwebs to cut through, it takes a lot of conversation, comparing and contrasting our experiences and learning new thing, to form a new paradigm.

I like your statement, "The kids who were my students went to college with critical thinking implanted in their brains; I made sure they did...the same with the kids who decided against college."

Thanks for your leads to "Noam Chomsky on Education".

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