The Mysteries of Language

“The Tower of Babel by P Bruegel the Elder 051a” by Andras Fulop is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

I can’t understand a word. I like the sound of it, but Turkish is a language far beyond my linguistic acumen. The marks and accents on the vowels and consonants feel familiar, though. I’m visiting North American friends who recently moved to southern Turkey and are currently studying the language, so I ask my friends what languages it’s related to.

A quick Google search gets us our answer. It’s part of the Turkic language family that shows up across Central Asia. Hungarian also carries a significant number of Turkic words. Ah, Hungarian. That’s what it looks like, though it’s missing the identifying “gy” construction I see in so many words there.

As the days go by I start to navigate the words slightly—I learn that the squiggle mark under a “c” turns it to a “ch” sound and that one under an “s” turns it to an “sh.” That there are two versions of the letter “i,” one with a dot and one without. The dot is a long “eee” sound, without is a short “ih” sound. I proudly order a “piliç şiş” a few days later, impressing our waiter and getting myself a chicken shish kabob out of it. My friend had to tell me that “piliç” meant “chick” but I knew how to pronounce it.

I still don’t understand though. I hear over and over in conversation, “Evet, evet,” and I gather that it means, “I see,” or “I understand,” or “I agree,” but I couldn’t tell you the actual translation of the word without using Google—and my phone has no data in this country. So I walk through town in with a strange sort of deafness, hearing sounds, but lacking meaning.

I wonder if this is how it felt when God confused the languages of the builders of the tower of Babel. Suddenly, instead of understanding they simply heard sounds. I remember standing on a train when I visited Poland and thinking the whole language seemed to be made up of the sound “sh,” “ch,” “cz,” and “sz.” I felt like every other word was “checzesheszik.” That’s not a word, by the way.

I can imagine standing there on the tower, my chisel striking off excess stone from the block before me, chatting with my neighbor who’s doing the same work one block over, and then suddenly hearing just, “checzesheszik.”

“Seni anlamıyorum,” I’d reply.

And my neighbor would say, “Nie rozumiem cię.”

And we’d drop our chisels in shock and look around, crying out for just one person to understand us.

There’s something strangely comforting about understanding words when you’ve been surrounded by sounds you can’t understand for days. Hearing your language cut through the cloud of noise and settle on your eardrums with sounds that travel to your brain and translate into meaning. You look about, lock eyes with the other speaker of your language across the train  car, and smile. You’ve found an ally in the wilderness.

I can think of no more effective way of pushing humankind to spread out across the land than confusing their languages. The allies would find each other and then find their way away from the tower, seeking a place where they could hear meaning, not just sound.

My dad likes to say that some people think in the New Creation we’ll all speak one language, but what if instead of that, everyone will speak their own language, but we’ll all understand. I love that picture. I think it echoes Paul’s words to the Corinthian church, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Now I hear in a noise chamber confusedly, but then I’ll hear meaning. Now I understand in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

1 Comment

  1. David “Dad” Givens
    Jun 26, 2019

    Yes, dear Carrie, that’s what I said, but you took the application to a beautiful end. Now, what can you make of the other half of my perspective? “In Hell, everyone speaks the same language and no one understands.”

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