I’m sitting at an Indian restaurant in Salzburg and eavesdropping on the German conversation one table over. I can’t understand a word, but always enjoy just tuning into the music of another language. They could be talking smack about a colleague or discussing the Theory of Everything, how would I know? But I do know a bit just by the tone, gesture, facial expressions. It’s probably just the usual universal small talk, but it sounds so intelligent because…well, because I can’t understand it!
I’m wishing that granddaughter Zadie was with me and I could pick her brain about what she’s thinking when she hears them. At 3 years plus, she’s just broken into the treasure vault of language where combinations of sounds mean very specific things. What would she think when she hears German? “What’s wrong with these people?” Or “Dang! I thought I was getting this language thing down. What’s this?!” Or “Why are those grown-ups talking baby talk?” Or if there were German speakers at one table, Italians at another, Japanese at another, would she be aware that each is different? Has anyone researched these questions and at what ages?
Why do we speak different languages? It all makes me think of the story of the Tower of Babel and marvel at its weirdness. According to Genesis, people build a giant tower whose “top is in the heavens” (the first skyscraper?) and God comes down to check it out. He comments, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
What?! Everyone can understand each other and they can do what they dream so let’s go down and mess it all up? And by the way, who precisely is Us? Is He talking to Mrs. God or son Jesus or a team of mischievous troublemaking lesser gods? They come down and people try to say “pass the salt, please” and to their surprise it comes out, “Pasame la sal, por favor.” So people get up indignantly from the table of their common humanity shouting “Hey, man, I can’t understand a word you’re saying!” and scatter all over the earth speaking different tongues. Then they started killing each other because one group named their spiritual force Yahweh and another Krishna and another Ogun and another The Great Spirit and so on. Nice work, God! Is that what you wanted? And then impatient gestures and loud voices were invented as obnoxious American tourists ask the bewildered natives where the nearest Starbucks is. Worst of all, countless hours are wasted in schools memorizing little dialogues and at the end of eight years of study, U.S. citizens traveling in France can barely say more than “hello, goodbye, please, thank you and how much for that beer?”
Nowhere in the Bible does it call the tower Babel, but one suggestion is that it came from a Hebrew word that means jumble. Apparently, Babylon was named accordingly, being the alleged site of that old Trump Tower. Baby’s “babble” certainly must be related to it. And out of it all came Bob Marley’s great reggae song “By the Rivers of Babylon.” Well, maybe that’s some consolation.
Of course, I love that there’s more than one way to say “I strolled beneath the moon” and wonder whether kids growing up bi-lingual are more flexible thinkers, understanding somewhere deeply that our naming of the world is a convenient fiction not intended to freeze everything into heavy fundamentalists nouns, but navigate more skillfully down the river of thought. My Spanish and German friends who married had a daughter who at two years old was walking around looking up at la luna, der mond and the moon without apparently feeling any confusion.
While thinking about all of this walking home from the restaurant, I passed the sculpture shown below. Might this be the new Tower of Babel, with a multiplicity of musical styles emerging from each speaker? And isn’t my work to be the translator for diverse musical languages, making them mutually intelligible to each other?