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The Story of Language...

Languages have also been a very fascinating subject in my life. For one , I feel as if I should be able to speak more languages than I do. My parents are Haitian but I was born in Brooklyn, I speak English fluently (without a Brooklyn accent) but my Haitian creole is halting, my French is halting. I'd need some serious practice in both to be truly fluent. However, the similarities between the Latin languages allows me to figure out maybe 30% of spoken Italian, Portuguese, Spanish if the speaker speaks slowly enough. My facility with spoken languages would improve if I had the practice but the last few years have been spent getting around the problem rather than attacking it directly and it has a fascinating history that I will detail below.

The history of the formation of languages is something I've done a lot of reading on, the other reason for my interest is that I am a software engineer and program in several different computer languages: c++,java,xsl,javascript,css,xml are all on my plate for my work. The various programming languages define the function of the software I've designed in the distributed web platform AgilEntity. In fact as a theme language is the entity upon which I've centered my first startup (numeroom) built on the AgilEntity platform.

Language in the human family is an amazing story, it allowed our ancestors to communicate silently on hunts (using gestures), it allowed coordination using specific sounds later using the voice and later still it was useful to encode ideas into those sounds for the purpose of casual communication which for the first time allowed large amounts of acquired individual experience to be shared with a local group, then as these groups grew in size and languages became more complex, methods were invented to codify them put them to stone and parchment and now a permanent record of human thought arose, writing. The advancement of the human family is entirely owed to this shift in going from language as symbolic motions of body parts (face to limbs) to language as symbolic sounds to language as symbolic shapes. The irony is though as all these separately evolving language and writing families expanded, they touched...and in so touching their *differences* became great source for discord, misunderstanding and war. Language the tool that liberated us from the savanna now became our bane! It hampered cross cultural growth (except through war) and for the last 4 or 5 thousand years as these different civilizations touched, they mostly fought! We became prisoners of our language and character families, requiring translation to relay nuances of information exchange, slowing down communication. As the industrial revolution approached and we found ways to relay information quickly (even if it then needed to be translated) we learned to send communication over electric wires using the telegraph, then later the telephone and just over 100 year ago, through the air itself using invisible light. These advances helped mitigated against misunderstandings related to the speed of communication but still the difference in languages persisted, particularly for the purpose of commerce. The common people of nations were still for the most part trapped both geographically and linguistically from the other nations of the world. This isolation kept xenophobia alive and well into the last century as war reached its pinnacle with the deaths of millions over perceived but false ideas of cultural and ethnic superiority. We had some technology but were still prisoners of our languages. It's only in the last 40 years that the final piece to eliminating the barrier came into being, the internet closed the gap on communication so that people other than statesmen could communicate rapidly and over time cheaply. As the web emerged in the early 90's the bulk population of all nations now had a way to interact with the bulk of all other nations, yet still language formed a barrier. In the late 90's companies like Alta Vista began to create translation dictionaries between various languages, in 2002, Google joined the space and made available web based services for translating web pages or snippets of text. These one shot services though only served the needs of the one, in the moment of the request. I saw the need in 2005 for a different solution that could facilitate agnostic language communication in a social context.

As a child I remember clearly the Biblical story of The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), it fascinated me that even in the writings of the stone age writers of that story there was an implicit understanding of the *divisive* power of language. If you'll recall, a coming together of Peoples in the plains of Shinar in those days (when all people spoke the same language according to the Bible) the people wanted to build a monument to Man, a tower that pierced the sky. The Hebrew God did not like this 'arrogance' of Man to believe in his own power (another Irony as our own power is all we have evidence for) and so in the midst of their gathering for the construction he struck them all to speaking different languages. The lack of understanding scattered them off to all far regions of the world and thus we have different languages. The childlike simplicity of Biblical stories (written by grown Men) must be appreciated, it shows how child like all of human understanding was at this time in history only 3,000 years ago. In any event the irony is that the writers of the story knew that having us all speaking the same language would allow us to build the tower! So to explain the failure of this neighboring culture (which spoke a different language!) to build the tower, the Hebrews say that their God struck them dumb...this highlights an interesting historical truth about the time, the middle east was a nexus point of transit from Africa to Asia and back, many peoples and languages formed, evolved, warred and were driven extinct due to these conflicts of migration. Yet still the concept of a single language as a unifying force for Man was implicitly known and in fact actively feared.

I always found this fascinating and it is only in the last 4 years, while engaged in a chat room with a non English (Romanian) speaker, almost 5 years ago that I realized a way I could build a modern digital tower of babel. One day in 2005 I thought it would be awesome if I could simply type in English and have her read Romanian and have her type in Romanian and I read English. I knew that I could co-opt Googles Translate service to get this done and hacked their consumer page to "borrow" the translation service, 3 days later I had a working version of this translated web chat. Unfortunately it didn't support Romanian as Google Translate didn't support Romanian at the time. Since then I've managed to create an efficient and highly scalable distributed solution to the many to many real time language problem of a group chat, unlike a single IM...a group chat requires some way of managing all the spoken languages, translating between them simultaneously. I invented a way to do this that took advantage of the distributed nature of the AgilEntity platform and would not require the conversing clients poll one another (doing it this way would plateau and then quickly lose efficiency as client cross talk increased). The business collaboration service I plan to launch features this and many other implicit translation and collaboration features that are all designed to make language as irrelevant as possible. I am fund hunting and hope to release it as a public service soon, in so doing I want to change human communication by achieving the fear of the Hebrew God, of allowing humans to communicate freely without the barrier of language and thus allow us to achieve our true potential.



Anonymous said…
Your entry looks interesting and it deserves a slower reading, but just a quick reality check about how far metaphorae can be taken: the whole Babel Tower episode in the Bible is just the way the resented Canaanites represented the power of the Babilonians who conquered them (king Nebuchadnezzar II, circa 597 and then 587 BCE, see The tower of babel is nothing more than the ziggurath of Babylon, the greatest symbol of their might (in Canaanite eyes) and the punish for their crimes by the Jewish god is nothing more than the acknowledgement of the multitude of languages spoken in the biggest market of their known world.

Multiple languages don't separate us, as we are currently doing so: monolingualism does. People who can only speak one language will want everyone else to speak theirs. Multiplicity of language is a cultural trait: I don't want to communicate with the whole world! Too many people! With my closest beings (family and friends) I will surely speak one or two languages, wider circles may imply more languages (as I speak several ones so will others; multilingualism was never a problem in the ancient times, even the greatest Kings like Cirus the Great or Darius the Great, who were de facto rulers fo the world would write their laws, their cilinders and murals in up to four languages: persian, elamite, aramaic and sumerian, despite the fact sumerians were long gone and elamites were a really small subject kingdom in their huge empires).

Trying to propose one language for the whole world based on limited facts (supposed ease of trade or sharing of ideas) or misguided metaphorae like a moral book loosely based on the History of a desert culture some 2900-2000 years ago won't make great service to Humankind and will only empower the few really powerful humans that control from the shadows: every human speaking just one language has already been demonstrated by Orwell or all the colonial empires: more efficient servants and slaves.

Thank you.
Anonymous said…
Same as above, just forgot to tell you I arrived here from your comments on Mark Pagel's TED talk about language and transformation of Humanity

David said…
I am quite well aware of the fact that the tower of Babel is based on Babylonian Zigurat's, the point was made clearly in the post but I guess you missed that as well:

"So to explain the failure of this neighboring culture (which spoke a different language!) to build the tower, the Hebrews say that their God struck them dumb...this highlights an interesting historical truth about the time, the middle east was a nexus point of transit from Africa to Asia and back, many peoples and languages formed, evolved, warred and were driven extinct due to these conflicts of migration. Yet still the concept of a single language as a unifying force for Man was implicitly known and in fact actively feared. "

So, I recognize the multiple languages at play...but the point is, they (Canaanites) realized that greater communication would:

"and now nothing was restrained from them, that they imagined to do." -- Genesis 11:6

You are misunderstanding the entire point of the post. It has nothing to do with creating a world with "one language" it's about enabling individuals with existing multiple languages the ability to communicate anyway. I've provided ample historical evidence to support my claims but you provide not a single piece of evidence to counter what I've provided (that increased communication between peoples is good).

The fact that multiple languages were used to transcribe things is precisely a sign of the problems that can emerge when things are not translated properly. Moreover, as different languages contact in first events invariably discord and misunderstanding was the result...again you completely missed the point of the writing.

Also, I use the Bible only as an example, I happen to be an atheist and put no significance in these words beyond pointing out that they show how implicitly people saw the power of increased communication between people, but you apparently missed that entire paragraph of the post.

Finally, you mention Orwell?? That's where you basically hit Godwin's Law. It would be nice if you could have posted without "anonymous" so that I could put a face to the author of such a skewed interpretation of what was clearly indicated above, maybe you'll chose to come out of the internet shadows in a response...but I doubt it.

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