The Role of Language – From Belgians to Mr Bean via Babel

The following article appears in the August 2023 edition of Roqueta, Menorca’s English language magazine.

The former Menorquín politician, Maite Salord, recently appeared in a lengthy column in the Menorca daily newspaper (the Diario, as it is popularly known) to express concern about the risk of the loss of the language that is derived from Catalan, but still quite distinct in Menorca. Those of us who have devoted much time and energy towards trying to be able to understand and be understood in Castilian Spanish might groan a little at this, especially because it seems that an awful lot of official communication, from road signs to missives from the Ayuntamiento, seems only to appear in Menorquín. And let’s set aside for now the rather odd decision to post signs only in Menorquín about parking restrictions that really apply primarily to tourists.

In that vein, we might spare a moment of sympathy for a seminarian from the Netherlands, studying in the north east of England, who was given a placement in Stockton – where there is a very strong local accent. And there was an occasion when two new couples, one from Belgium, appeared at the entrance to the church, and I sent someone who had worked in Brussels to talk to them. At first, he chose the wrong couple, but then came back and said, ‘After completely failing to understand the people from Solihull, I had no problem with the Belgians!’ We do not all speak the same English.

Language can be seen as an inconvenience and an obstruction to communication. The Bible has something to say on the matter. The Old Testament story of Babel imagines a time of one language, with people unified in communication. This led to the planning of audacious deeds, most notably the building of a tower to the heavens. As the book of Genesis presents it, God did not favour the plan, and confused the people’s language. This is open to different interpretations. The scattered people of Babel can be seen to have been punished by the action.

However, another way of looking at it is to wonder whether to have only a single way of describing the world, only a single way of depicting human life, might impoverish us. Unity can be great, but uniformity less so. In one of the Star Trek series (Next Generation), the Borg appear: a people, a species who are cybernetic organisms (cyborgs) linked in a hive mind called ‘the Collective,’ under constant supervision and guidance to ensure uniformity. The assimilation into a unified mind leads to lack of dissident voices which might be seen as the root of a conscience, leading to ruthlessness. Uniformity robs us of the possibility of alternatives, of choices, of checks and balances in our ways of making decisions.
So the confusion imposed upon the people of Babel (in effect, upon humanity as a whole), while potentially being a punishment, might be one of those two-edged swords which also has a benefit, and can be a blessing.

There are four gospels in the New Testament, each of them telling a story from a slightly different point of view. Someone once used the analogy of four witnesses observing a traffic accident, who see the same thing, but report it differently. Human beings trying to relate divine truths will inevitably run up against the limitations of human expression of things beyond our comprehension.
As the Bible sees it, the voice of ‘the other,’ whether in the form of the voice of a neighbour, or the voice of the divine creator, is a voice to which we need to listen. Truth is seldom one-dimensional, and we depend upon one another to explore different ways of seeing life.

Language may often seem to be a barrier, but it might really be a doorway. Other languages help us to experience something new. As the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, who is fluent in German, has said on a number of occasions, learning another language becomes as much about learning a culture as about understanding vocabulary and grammar.

When I was working in research and development in the 1980s, in the early days of personal computing, and long before the current form of artificial intelligence was anything but science fiction, we were thinking about ways to measure the competence of software programming. One of the younger members of the team came up with this criterion: the computer tells a joke; people laugh. He had grasped one of the truths about language: humour is one of the most difficult things to communicate, which is why Mr Bean’s popularity transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Different languages and voices lead us towards other visions and perceptions, and they expand and broaden our understanding of one another and of life. We can treat this as an inconvenience, or we can treat it as an opportunity – something that applies to many areas of life! The disappearance of minority languages diminishes all of us. And even though it can be an inconvenience to struggle with Menorquín after learning Castilian Spanish, as I have often reminded people, when a native of Menorca speaks to us in Spanish, they are doing us a favour, by using their second language to help us to understand and be understood. This is why it might be at least polite to reciprocate, and try to meet them half way, though our endeavour to learn Spanish – something else that applies more broadly in life, when someone tries to meet us half way.

And the lesson of language might lead us to try to look through what may appear as a difficulty to unearth a blessing.

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