by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
June 18, 2003
TALKING TOWER: THE LAST HUMAN DISTINCTION
SEATTLE. Wash.--In the Book of Genesis the nine brisk little verses that open the 11th chapter are hardly more than a brief respite from the exhaustive and boring inventory of the descendants of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
And yet they tell what is for me one of the most valuable stories of the Bible, that of the Tower of Babel.
One of the things I most regret having left behind in my Princeton office was a large reproduction of this mythical building as rendered by Peter Bruegel the Elder.
"And the whole earth was of one language..." it begins.
You remember the rest, but here it is in my own paraphrase: They said, Let us make brick and fire them well. For building stone they had the bricks and for mortar, asphalt (or slime, in the picturesque version of King James' committee of scholars). And they said, Let us build us a tower whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name... For the rest, less than a paraphrase is needed:
The Lord, incensed over the effrontery of those who wished to reach heaven the easy way, by climbing up the first (literal) skyscraper, put an end to the whole project not by blowing it away, which might have been simpler, but by the celebrated and highly interesting method known as the "confusion of tongues." The builders now spoke mutually incomprehensible languages, and when one said "Hand me that brick" he might be rewarded with a boot in the face by a colleague who thought he had just heard a mortal insult.
Most readers today probably remember the story as a typically naive legend made up to account for the fact that some people say lait, some moloko, some lac, some moo-juice, and they all mean the same thing: milk. But for me the truly memorable point of the story is not the confusion of tongues but what came before it: human language itself.
The visible and palpable tower was to consist of the good old building materials of brick and mortar.
But the brick would never have been fired nor the mortar mixed; the plan for the whole enterprise would never have been made; the first inkling of a plan would never have been formed, were it not for the truly essential element of the construction: language. One might even argue that the project of building a tower that would reach to heaven was itself merely the first step in the real purpose, found in the words of verse 4: "let us make us a name." A name is one of the elements of language.
To this day, language is the last human distinction. It is what we and we alone among the creatures have. That it exists in a variety of forms is a trivial detail. What is not trivial is that this essential element of the tower of Babel has no physical form whatsoever, not written (ink) nor sonic (speech). Language consists of the ideally abstract pattern of meanings conveyed, but only conveyed, by ink and talk.
To this day there are people digging about in the ruins of ancient Babylon (a part of modern Iraq, wherever that is) and announcing the discovery of the actual foundation of the Tower of Babel.
But they will never find it, for the simple reason that it is all around them, and perfectly invisible.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.