Confusion of Tongues

Steven Shapin

  • Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English by Michael Gordin
    Profile, 432 pp, £25.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 78125 114 0

From God’s point of view, the problem with the Tower of Babel was an excess both of hubris and of technological power. God had designed human beings to recognise the limits of what they could achieve, and here they were building a ‘tower whose top is in the heavens’. Not in my backyard, God thought, and pondered both the cause of man’s vaulting ambition and how He might put a permanent check on it. The trouble was that the people ‘all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.’ The solution God came up with was the ‘confusion of tongues’, ‘that they may not understand one another’s speech’. One tower-builder would now say, ‘Bitte geben Sie mir einen kleineren Schraubenschlüssel,’ and another would reply: ‘Non ho idea di quello che stai chiedendo.’ Exasperated, a third would suggest, ‘Давайте чашку чая и домой,’ and a fourth, turning his back on the whole business, would announce: ‘Kei te korero koe i tito noa, ko ahau ngenge o te whare pourewa.’ Living in a post-Babel world, many readers of the LRB will understand one or perhaps two of the speakers, but it’s unlikely that more than a handful will be able to work out what all of them are saying. And, to be truthful, this (barely monoglot) writer constructed the conversation courtesy of Google Translate.[*]

That was meant to put an end to the matter. It would still be possible for each language community to build a tower of its own, but without the capacity to pool all its resources, share its ideas and co-ordinate its activities, humankind wouldn’t be able to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. There are some sorts of thing that can be done alone; others that ‘take a village’; and others that involve co-ordination on a massive scale. Science is not the only thing that calls for global co-ordination – there are forms of religion, commerce, finance and military action that bear comparison – but Michael Gordin argues that Babel has long been a special problem for science and that science, in turn, has had a special role in coping with it and in trying to overcome it. Scientists wish to, and sometimes need to, communicate with their peers all over the world, and they want to do that effectively and without ambiguity. It’s said that scientists are natural cosmopolitans – far more so than their colleagues in the humanities or social sciences. Some scientific projects call for the production and collection of data on a global scale. Scientists often come together in one place, to be trained and to train others, to talk informally and to collaborate. And scientific claims are, in principle, subject to evaluation, criticism and corroboration by anyone, anywhere, who possesses the pertinent knowledge and skills. Many forms of scientific knowledge aim to represent reality irrespective of the nationality, culture and language of those producing it: scientific facts and laws are supposed to be universal. Die Gedanken sind frei, but if you don’t understand the language, thoughts aren’t free: getting access to them is difficult and expensive.

Once upon a time, so we’re told, all scholars read, wrote and spoke Latin. It was an ideal learned language because in one sense everybody spoke it, and in another scarcely anyone did. Originally the native tongue of a small area around Rome called Latium, Latin enjoyed its scholarly Golden Age in the medieval period. By this time it had long been a ‘dead language’: it was the official language of the Western Church and the working language of scholarship, but nobody’s Muttersprache. Since it belonged to no nation or race, it was ‘neutral’, available to everybody, or everybody who mattered: Asians, Africans and the Amerindians that Europeans hadn’t yet encountered spoke languages medieval scholars didn’t know, and the European non-learned spoke ‘vulgar’ tongues which were beyond the learned pale. Latinity wasn’t just the way scholars communicated; it was the way they recognised one another as scholars.

Latin was a solution to Babel, but a ‘paradise lost’ of universal scholarly Latin was, as Gordin insists, more legend than historical reality. First, in antiquity, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek continued as a ‘vehicular’ (or ‘auxiliary’) language, that is, a language that people whose native tongues differed could use to communicate. Even the Roman elite felt it necessary to have a command of the master-language of science and philosophy. Second, the decline of the Roman Empire meant the eclipse in the West of both Latin and Greek. The Eastern Empire ran for centuries largely through the lingua franca of a Greek dialect confection known as Koine, and Arabic was the major European scientific language of the Middle Ages. When the Arabic versions of original Greek texts were translated, they were rendered into Latin, which remained current among clerics and Church-affiliated scholars. The history of ‘universal’ scientific Latin is not continuous with antiquity; it became a standard scholarly language, Gordin writes, ‘through its encounter with Arabic’ centuries after the Roman Empire had ended.

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[*] Google Translate ‘learns’, so that anyone putting in the same English phrases that I did will get slightly different translations.