The Babel Syndrome,

Some conclusions drawn upon a social disease.

This talk was said on the 8th of November 1997 at the Pink Room in Murcia's Casino, on occassion of the Book Fair which organized the Murcian Booksellers' Association.

Preleganto Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for coming to listen to my talk on a topic which is relevant in a peculiar way to the background of books, and thus appropriate in the Cultural Week organized within the Book Fair, created by the Guild Association of Booksellers in the Region of Murcia.

As we all know, sindromé means in Ancient Greek contest, and it is a word which is used in medicine to define the whole set of symptoms characteristic to a given disease, so that by defining every one of them, the disease itself can be defined. I am going to tell you about the Babel Syndrome, a social disease classified among neurosis by the Swiss psychologist Claude Piron.

But why Babel? Let's see what we can learn about this word from the Book of Books, that is to say, the Bible. On chapter 11 of Genesis, verses 1 to 9, we can read:

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. The Holy BibleAnd 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 of men builded. 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.

This is what we can read at The Bible, the absolute truth for a thousand million human beings. However, any priest will tell us that this cannot be taken exactly to the letter, for it is metaphoric language, suitable for the Semitic minds for which it was written originally. Let's consider, then, this story from four different points of view; let's see four different interpretations:

1) A theologian: «God, symbolized by Heaven, summons man before Him. But God is love, clearness, affection, understanding, the union in the respect to differences. Man has a vocation which compels him towards the highest, but he can't achieve it other than with a spirit of pride or rivalry (commentarists usually consider that men want to get Heaven not to discover God and have a mutual tender milieu, but to usurp His place). If man let these temptations dazzle him, his vocation is perverted and he lets dissension get in, as God is concord itself».

2) A Marxist: «the Babel Myth reveals the force of union and the fear it inspires to those who seized power and put themselves over the other ones. The "Lord" is here the exploiters' class, who shudder when they see that the union among the exploited classes threatens to reverse the power. Since they are afraid of that union, the leading class create confusion. By means of their manipulations and misinformations they hinder the coalition of liberating forces. Language belongs to the superstructure, it is a weapon, as it is proven by the function of social discrimination in the orthography in France, pronouncing differences in England, the use of languages in the world. Is it by chance that those who master English in Spain never belong -so to speak- to the working class, the proletariat? The Biblical Myth is an example of manipulation the aim of which is keeping the producing forces within the limits of resignation, underneath, with a threat: if you try to get to the leaders' level, I will sow confusion among your ranks, and you will feel ridiculous».

3) A capitalist: «This tale recounts --in a mythical way-- how absurd it is to try and take people to paradise, as communists have tried to do. If you commit yourself into an ambitious enterprise with no previous reports on the ratio cost-effectiveness/investment, the moment comes when you've got to withdraw: misunderstanding and disharmony appear among investors or performers and those who think the law of reality can be ignored. Heaven is not a ceiling which a tower can reach. Yesterday's Soviet Union exemplifies this myth, they attempted to take people to the Arcadia they sing about without considering the involved human and economic realities. The result is that the social tissue has been torn. The inhabitants in this great and old country do not talk the same language any more and the building is stopped in an incredible confusion».

4) A psychotherapist: «The Babel Tower? It is related to the Oedipus complex. Erecting a tower..., we do know what that idea comes from. The boy wants to reach the (seventh) heaven which his father and mother know. Confusion is what he feels when he pictures himself caught by his father in flagrant crime. Suddenly the erecting of the tower is interrupted. In a way, the Babel story is connected with the ghosts of castration. If you try to erect a tower to reach Heaven's pleasures.., flap!, «He» cuts your thing, because you are guilty. Maybe that's why girls are better at languages than boys. They do not feel they are the rivals of a father who is dangerously mighty».

We have just seen where the name of the illness comes from. Now let's describe it. It is a social sickness, that is to say, it is not suffered by an individual person, but by society as a whole. The culturing soup for this illness is shaped by a series of factors to which are not alien to stereotype, chronic misinformation, lack of serious and meditated debating, as well as the dangerous habit of delegating your own opinion into experts who are more or less professional.

But first let's describe the symptoms which we alluded to before, and then we'll detail the attempts to treat and cure this strange social disease.

First symptom: there is no problem in today's world. The communication problem is solved with English.

Second symptom: translation and interpretation are effective. This justify the money they cost.

Third symptom: even though governments assign to Babel so many millions of dollars which could cure the illiteracy or the health or the hunger of the concerned peoples, there is nothing wrong with it, because there is no other thing we can do about it.

Fourth symptom: it is not important the inconvenience to let some people use a language perfectly and at the same time prevent other people from having that facility.

Fifth symptom: languages taught in our schools are perfectly learnt, or at least within a level which is more than sufficient.

Sixth symptom: foreign languages can also be learnt outside the official institutions. You only need to try hard enough. Those who do not learn English do not try hard enough, they are not really interested.

Seventh symptom: the teaching of foreign languages in our schools give access to a foreign culture.

As in many other mental illnesses, the Babel Syndrome implies a delirium. Instead of perceiving reality, society is happy with the imaginary, as the symptoms I have just enumerated show.

If the problem had been solved with English, nobody who heard this speech in its original language (Spanish), people who had successfully finished their secondary studies -full with English- would have had any problem to follow an average film in English, and even this very same speech could have been understood by them in English. However, my twenty years old experience as a teacher of English as a second language has proven to me that this is not the regular case. I love English, so much that once I decided to devote my whole life to teach it, and I have never regretted this decision. If Spanish is my mother, let's say that English is my aunt, that rich auntie who feeds me, who grants me access to a wonderful culture where I can find Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brönte sisters, Hume, the Beatles, Agatha Christie, the people who drive on their left, and on the other hand the right people, the Americans of the American Way of Life, of the Land of the Free, of the market economy, of In God we trust, people with honor, Hollywood and its Oscar prizes, Dashiel Hammet, the world of digital communications and so many other benefits which would be so long to list. That is to say: thanks to English I have become a model subject of the Empire of the Setting Sun. And I am not being cynical or ironic, I mean it honestly. But the most fundamental ethics compels me not to lie to myself or to others. If that metaphorical aunt I refer to and who so many benefits gives me is not beautiful, or she misbehaves, it would be wrong that I tried to convince anybody of the contrary. I will only say that those pupils who finish their secondary studies in our country without an immersion course in the United States or Great Britain usually are very far away from the ability to say a speech or write a composition in English which makes sense to native speaker. The same thing happens in France and Italy and other European countries, with the remarkable exception of Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. And the reason why lies mainly in the linguistic proximity among the natural languages in those countries and that of England. If in Spanish schools Italian or Portuguese were the languages taught during these seven years, probably most of our pupils --who are not any duller or are taught by more unskilled teachers than those in other countries-- could produce essays or have debates in that second language learnt at secondary school. Let's think that when it was French the second language all the Spaniards learnt at school, not so long a time ago, linguistic competence acquired by our students through learning methods which were older and much less efficient than those of today was higher than it is today, which can be proven the existence of an oral test in those exams called maturity tests to enter university, and which are now substituted by the Selectivity tests, which are easier to succeed among other things, because the oral test is no longer present.

No, the cause of this lesser linguistic competence in our students is to be found in English itself. Let's consider the following aspects:

1) A mess of ambiguous expressions. The writer George Steiner used to say about those of his foreign students who had achieved a clear mastering of English: so much that is being said is correct, so little is right. To anglophones, English as spoken by competent foreigners looks pedantic, poor, artificial and complicated, since where foreigners use long and cultured words, they use a series of monosyllables. So, instead of despise, the English use look down on; instead of to occasion, they prefer to bring about; instead of let him say everything he wants, they prefer let's hear him out; instead of to compensate, they prefer make up for; instead of I'll have to tolerate his presence, they'd rather say I'll have to put up with him. But to make up, besides compensate, can also mean to make a decision, as in the sentence he's made up his mind to stay in, and also it can mean to use cosmetics, as in I've made up my face to go out. It is not exactly several meanings for a word, but for a whole group of words.

2) A huge vocabulary. In Spanish and in European languages in general, we are more economic at the number of words which we use colloquially. In our language the word grande expresses an idea which is covered in English with the words big, large, tall, great, grand, important,... This comes from the fact that the lexical source of English comes from both Germanic and Latin. This has caused word pairs which are used where we use just one word. Este, referred to geographical places, is different if we mean Eastern Europe or East Africa. Confusing both equals to confirming our foreign status. The same happens with the pairs inevitable/unavoidable, brotherly/ fraternal, liberty/freedom, buy/purchase, read/peruse, eastern/ oriental, beef/cow. Another example: from diente (tooth) we have in Spanish dental and dentista. In English the original word is tooth (the plural of which, teeth, is not relevant now), but the expert in teeth is not toothist, but dentist: that is to say: two words where other languages use only one and its derivatives. A Japanese also uses ha (tooth) and isha (doctor) to get haisha (dentist), and he finds equally abusive that he is forced at school to use a language which wastes so much memory to learn it.

3) A delicate phonetics. English resembles more and more that language of old Egyptians, which was written in a way which was totally alien to what you were supposed to hear. In all the languages of Europe one can know how an unknown word is going to sound the first time one sees it. However, phonetically nothing differentiates beet from beat, piece from peace. Very few non-specialised foreigners can tell the difference between sheep and ship, above when you talk fast to them. In English we use twelve different vowels where other peoples use five. And the thing is that the English write those twelve vowels with the very same five vowel signs as we do in other languages, like Spanish, French or Italian. So, e sounds /e/ in bed, get and sell, /i/ in evening, complete and cinema; u sounds /a/ in sun, iu in useful, and u in bull. And all this happens in standard English (that is to say, in good English). But there is plenty of dialectal forms, legitimately used by the natives of anglophone countries, where we can be presented with sentences like 'm gonna say no nothing, which makes us think Henry Higgings was write when he asked himself why can't the English talk proper English?

4) Unexpected uses of English. Once upon a time there was a young graduate on modern languages at a reputed European university who wins a job as an interpreter at the United Nations, which -as we all know- has its see in New York. Our young hero goes proudly to the bus stop, and there he sees a notice which says No standing. He can see no seat nearby, and he guesses he is not supposed to sit on the floor till the bus comes. He obediently walks to and fro along the bus stop till the bus comes. When he comments the problem at his new working place, they explain to him that in America no standing really means no parking. However, he was luckier than that Japanese teenager who visits the States for the first time, who is taken, as he walks unnoticingly into a private property, as an intruder. The guard shouts Freeze!, and the boy, who knows it is not that cold, walks on..., till a bullet breaks his heart.

5) A nebulous grammar. There is no gender or number at English adjectives, and this is something to be thankful for when we study English, above all when we compare it with the nasty inflexions in German or Russian. But when we hear about our English teacher, we are not sure whether they are talking about a teacher on English who was born in England, or a teacher on any subject who was born in England. It worries us much more when our doctor orders us to do some short breathing exercises, and we do not know whether he means short exercises or short breathing. Probably the English can tell the difference from the context, but they are natives. We are also native, but from another culture of which we must feel proud. Babel problem is not solved with English, of course not.

But new technologies compel us --some friends tell me-- to learn English. If we master English we will understand computers better and we will use them more efficiently. Understanding how a computer works really means understanding machine code, that is to say, the zeroes and ones language and not English. But let's concede that, let's assume that it is true, that it is useful knowing the commands or reserved words which these machines used, for example, in programming languages. And let's take the programming language which uses most English words, BASIC. If we get a good Basic manual, we will see that there are not more than eighty. Let's double this figure, and we will see that we still need 2740 English words to reach those 3,000 words which the experts say which are necessary to hold a conversation in English. Of course, these 80 words are the ones like print, screen, put, list, rem, locate, and so on, which have very exact translations into Spanish or any other language. But this is better understood with a little poem by Anita Raskin I found once in a book titled Television and FM antennas (Daniel Santano León: Antenas de televisión y F.M. Madrid 1962, E. Paraninfo):

I remember, I remember,
In the dear old days gone by,
When a screen was meant to hinder
The intrusion of a fly;
I remember when antennas
Were the things we used to see
Waving gently from the forehead
Of a butterfly or bee;
And I recollect when people
Spoke of snow, and likely meant
Little flakelets, wet and chilly,
Swirling Whitely in descent.
I remember, I remember
What those words once meant to me,
Ah! Those dear old definitions
In the days before TV!
Anita Raskin

But if we cannot or do not want to learn English at a sufficient level to make ourselves understood by foreigners, there is another solution: to trust that function to professional intermediaries which we call interpreters or translators. It is preferred the first word to mean those people who bring the words from one language into another one as they hear them, and the second word usually means those people who translate by written, more comfortably and using more time and the possibility to use dictionaries and specialized works about the text to translate.

Interpreters do a heroic job which not everybody is qualified or skilled to do, since you have to listen in a language and speak at the same time in a different one. This requires having special faculties, a great memory and a continuous mental flexibility, with no flaws, during all the time it lasts the conference, speech, or interview they are contracted for. This, of course, has a cost. And this cost is measured in many dollars. Professor Piron, psychologist, languages expert , former language teacher and translator at UNO and WHO, who has been throughout five continents working as an interpreter for the conferences in those organizations, and also a psychotherapist and Professor at Geneva University, tells us that in 1991 an interpreter earned over the equivalent to $500 a day in a multilingual conference. The European Community employs more than 570 regular interpreters and over 2500 temporary ones. In 1989 they allocated more than 1400 million ECUS to interpretation and translation, that is to say, $1,620,000,000; and this figure grows bigger and bigger every year, and it is paid by you and I. For every single word they translate they get $0.36. If we multiply this by the three million seven hundred thousand words (3,700,000) which are translated every day and we will draw the horrible conclusion that every single day the European Community spends $1,332,000 just to make our representatives understand one another. Thus we Europeans spend our money. And we cannot avoid comparing this expenditure with some other ones which are cheaper. For example, the cost to feed 70 Vietnamese abandoned children a month: $400; that is to say, the same as translating 1200 words, that is, two pages. The fight against hunger amounts to just $2 per child a year: 27 words in a European Union document. Whereas the European Union and the United Nations Organization invest such amounts in understanding themselves, in talking a lot and doing very little, we lack money for things like these: a hundred million children never go to school; two hundred million very seldom go, a thousand million people have no health attention, a thousand seven hundred and fifty million have no drinkable water, a person in every five lives in absolute misery... But there are those who defend that governments can do nothing else, that translation and interpretation services are efficient and they solve problems.

At the UNO they have tried a hybrid method, which works just as badly as at the EC, but it is more unfair even if it is cheaper. This organization represents over three thousand languages, but translation and interpretation is restricted only to six: English, French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. But many working sessions take place only in English and French because of material inability. This means that only the representatives of those six languages --at best, two languages at worst-- will be able to play at home. Let's imagine that somebody is forced to play tennis with one hand tied to his or her back, using a racket which is too heavy, against a good player, thinner, more flexible and who has been playing tennis since he or she was a child. Of course, the audience would not tolerate it and would go away, angry. However, this is what happens at the United Nations Organization every day, where very important problems affecting World Peace are debated. Vietnamese, Koreans, Kenians, Afghans, Ukrainians, Germans, Polish..., must trust the good will of privileged Europeans, though not always understand what they say in the debates. Obviously, World Peace is less important than a tennis match.

What we inhabitants of the world village need to understand one another from one neighborhood to the others in this shrinking planet is not the language of the strongest and most powerful neighbor. Every language involves a certain culture, a philosophy of life, an ideology, an attitude towards the others. In order to understand one another, we need just a neutral language. But there are other considerations.

In English we have a magical word, thanks, which we do not use often enough. It is a whole sentence by itself, which we could enlarge, but without giving it any greater meaning: I thank you, or thank you very much. In Spanish you can say muchas gracias (many thanks), in German Danke schoen (thank pretty), in French je vous remercie (I to you thank) or merci bien (thank well). Really it is the same idea in all the four languages, and from a communicative point of view there should be no difference among any of them. But then we crash against myths, prejudices and simplifications which prevent us from understanding how things happen in reality. Let's take an example opposite to the standard in our language, just to illustrate what I mean. While other languages (like French, Spanish, Italian...) use three conjugation models, the English verbs follow just a single one, which is only too fortunate for us. But let's imagine we hear this: I be, you be, he be, she be, it be, we be, you be, they be. Let's take the verb Ser in Spanish: yo sero, tú seres, él sere, nosotros seremos, vosotros seréis, ellos seren. Our ears protest much less with the Spanish verb than with this particular conjugation of To Be, don't they? This happens because all our tradition, the respect to our elders hammered into our brains by our teachers at school, by saying it is said..., or you mustn't say..., because of the supreme reason, at most, that this is the way it is; all this tradition stirred in our minds, consciously or unconsciously. Any Spaniard reading this will have felt something similar when hearing our conjugation of the verb Ser.

But there is a language in which this form splits nobody's ears, because it is the correct one: mi estas, vi estas, li estas, ŝi estas, ĝi estas, ni estas, vi estas, ili estas. Considering that mi, vi, li, ŝi, ĝi, ni, vi, ili are the personal pronouns and the esti is the verb To Be (ser), now you know how to conjugate the present in all the verbs in Esperanto. By the way, mi povis means I could, and mi vidis means I saw. Now you know also how to form the past tense in all the verbs in Esperanto.

Esperanto combines the best of English --its simplified grammar-- and the best of Spanish or Italian --their phonetic pronunciation--, but both qualities are greatly improved, since there are no strong verbs or irregular plurals, and there are no doublets as in Spanish b-v, or z-c, c-k, k-q, and there are no soundless letters, like h.

In English, foreigners and children tend to make mistakes like childs instead of children, deceived by the regularity of boy-boys, girl-girls and so many others. In Esperanto we always have infano-infanoj, knabo-knaboj, knabino-knabinoj (j sounds as y in boy).

But many people react very aggressively against Esperanto, since they think a bigger ability to communicate than in their mother tongue is something like an attack to the most intimate in their selves. This is another characteristic of the Babel Syndrome, which takes it into the neurosis. The neurotic person reacts violently in the presence of certain key words, or as we said earlier, reserved words. Let's see an example out of the book Foreign Language Annals, by M. D. Arabaiza:

Language, the same as love and soul, is a living and human thing, so difficult to define; it is the natural product of the spirit of a race, not of a single man... Artificial languages are disgusting and grotesque, as are men with metal legs or arms, or who have a rhythm regulator woven to their hearts. Dr. Zamenhof, the same as Dr. Frankestein, created a monster made out of living pieces and bits, and as Mary Shelley tried to tell us, nothing good can ever come out of it.

Leaving aside the lack of respect by Mr. Arabaiza to those people who were unfortunate enough to lose a member in an accident, or because of a serious illness they need a pacemaker, it is remarkable his fear and blindness. He never considers the series of problems such a language could solve, its existing literature, or the acquaintances it enables, and also overlooks the discovering of foreign cultures. He just tells us that it is the evil we have to hide from. He is deceived into the fallacy which considers that languages are real living beings, and not just a mere analogy linguists use to understand certain phenomena. But a language is just a convention of sounds to each of which a meaning is given quite arbitrarily. If the so called natural languages had, in their lexis, any connection with reality, with the things they name, the words would coincide in all the languages all over the world. But what happens is that not even onomatopoeias match, since cocks say kikirikí, cokegricó or doodle-doodle-doo, depending on a Spaniard, a Frenchman or an Englishman is listening.

It would be very long to comment here all the objections which have been presented against Esperanto along its hundred years of existence, and we do not have the time. It is possible that now you state some of them, though this talk is not supposed to convince anybody to adopt Esperanto, but just to point out the presence of a social illness which should be cured not at an individual scale, but at a social one. And this should be done, in my opinion, through a calm and objective debate. I read an English poem for you earlier, and now I would like to read another one in Esperanto, so that you can judge whether the language Esperanto is more artificious (since any language is artificial) than English. The poem is called Al la Juda Foririnto (to the Parting Jew), and its author is a Dutch worker called Leen Deij:

AL LA JUDA FORIRINTOTo the parting Jew
Li fermis la kofron, manpremis - aidaŭ!He closed his case, saluted..., good-bye!
Sen ia protesto li iris...HodiaŭWith no protest he went. Today
mi tion komprenas; li povis nur miri,I understand; he could just wonder
ke mi, la kristano, lin lasis foriri. that I, the Christian, let him go.
Kun kapo klinita la kofron li portis. His head lowered, he took his case.
Li iris la vojon al Auschwitz kaj mortisHe took the way to Auschwitz and died
sen ia povis nur miri,with no protest..., he just wondered
ke mi, la kristano, lin lasis foriri. that I, the Christian, let him go.
Kaj iam la filo, kun filo parolos,And ever the son with the son will talk,
kaj tiu demandos, la veron li volos. and he will ask, he will want the truth.
La mia silentos..., kaj provos nur miri,Mine will be quiet.., just wondering
ke mi, la kristano, lin lasis foriri.that I, the Christian, let him go.
Ni sentis kompaton, kaj monon kolektis,We felt pity, and money collected
dum kelkaj el ni la infanojn protektis. while some of us his children sheltered.
Sed Auschwitz ekzistis! Nu, kion plu diri?But Auschwithz did exist, what else can we say?. Well,
ke mi kaj ke vi..., ni lin lasis foriri. That I and you..., we let him die!
 Leen Deij (Holanda)

Last, I would not like to finish my talk without reading some thoughts by a nonagenarian Esperantist, Raimundo Laval, so that you can draw your own conclusions:

Utopia, you said?

Some intellectuals declare pretentiously that a language for the humankind is a utopia. Because, they say, every people has a special spirit which is expressed in its own national language. Thus it is not possible an authentic communication between people from different nations and languages. According to them, for example, the thought of a native of East Asia is completely locked up to somebody from the West and vice versa. Then, how could they understand each other? Even using the same words, they would understand them in a different way.

When I listen to this serious arguments, I laugh; and read again the letters from my friends in the Far East, or the book by Miyamoto Masao, or a page in El Popola Ĉinio ("From People's China"). I remember that fluent conversation with the esperantists from China, Japan or Indonesia. Wen using our common instrument I never experienced any difficulty of communication. I am aware that we express our thoughts and feelings in the same way, even if we sometimes use different pictures and metaphors, but comprehensible all the same. The cry of a Japanese woman who lost her son in the Pacific War or under the Hiroshima Bomb is similar to that of an American mother whose son died in Pearl Harbor, or to that of the German mother whose children were slaughtered at Dresden or Hamburg bombing. The same happy smile appears at the lips of young lovers in Peking or Moscow. At any latitude and longitude the brain works in the same way in any human head, and the heart beats just the same in any human bust. Anywhere the human body reacts similarly to suffering and joy, and people find the same words to express feelings and thoughts.

Let's not get deceived by sophist theories. Let's counterpoint them our practical experience, quietly.

Did you say utopia, impossibility? We prove movement by walking.

And to prove this movement, I invite you to have a look at the books in Esperanto which we brought along, after answering the questions you choose to ask me. Everything goes. I said.

Esperanto Spain ~ Esperanto FAQ ~ Esperanto Course

Read by people since December, 14th 1998.

NOTES.- King James's version.