The Babel Fallout

Jewish and Christian mythology tells us that the need for translators was born after the construction of the legendary tower at Babylon and its subsequent destruction by Yahweh. It is interesting that both Judaism and Christianity take such a negative approach to the birth of human languages (the plural is extremely significant here) and see the proliferation of human languages to be the direct result of man’s arrogance. However, let us appreciate the myth as it is told in the Jewish and Christian stories. The King James Bible (Genesis 11:1-9):

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 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. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 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. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. 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. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

If we look at Hebrew mythology, we find a similar reference to this heinous crime (of building a tower) mentioned in the Book of Jubilees:

And in the three and thirtieth jubilee, in the first year in the second week, Peleg took to himself a wife, whose name was Lomna the daughter of Sina’ar, and she bare him a son in the fourth year of this week, and he called his name Reu; for he said: ‘Behold the children of men have become evil through the wicked purpose of building for themselves a city and a tower in the land of Shinar.’ For they departed from the land of Ararat eastward to Shinar; for in his days they built the city and the tower, saying, ‘Go to, let us ascend thereby into heaven.’ And they began to build, and in the fourth week they made brick with fire, and the bricks served them for stone, and the clay with which they cemented them together was asphalt which comes out of the sea, and out of the fountains of water in the land of Shinar. And they built it: forty and three years were they building it; its breadth was 203 bricks, and the height (of a brick) was the third of one; its height amounted to 5433 cubits and 2 palms, and (the extent of one wall was) thirteen stades (and of the other thirty stades). And the Lord our God said unto us: Behold, they are one people, and (this) they begin to do, and now nothing will be withholden from them. Go to, let us go down and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech, and they may be dispersed into cities and nations, and one purpose will no longer abide with them till the day of judgment.’ And the Lord descended, and we descended with him to see the city and the tower which the children of men had built. And he confounded their language, and they no longer understood one another’s speech, and they ceased then to build the city and the tower. For this reason the whole land of Shinar is called Babel, because the Lord did there confound all the language of the children of men, and from thence they were dispersed into their cities, each according to his language and his nation.

Many sources believe the grand perpetrator of this crime against God to be Nimrod who is wonderfully depicted in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy as a babbling giant. Nimrod shouts out five words which, aptly, make no sense at all:

“Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi,”
the savage mouth, for which no sweeter
psalms were fit, began to shout.

And, in response, my leader: ‘You muddled soul,
stick to your horn! Vent yourself with that
when rage or other passion takes you.

“Search at your neck, you creature of confusion,
and you will find the rope that holds the horn
aslant your mammoth chest.’

Then he to me: ‘He is his own accuser.
This is Nimrod, because of whose vile plan
the world no longer speaks a single tongue.

“Let us leave him and not waste our speech,
for every language is to him as his
to others, and his is understood by none.”

To this day, traces of the Tower of Babel myth are seen in the English word babble which, of course comes from the word Babel. This in turn comes from the Ancient Hebrew word balal which means ‘to confound’; ‘to confuse’; ‘to jumble’. The English word babble is similar in meaning: ‘to utter meaningless sounds, or utter in an incoherent way’; ‘to talk foolishly’. It is interesting how, over time, the meaning of the word has remained relatively consistent.


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