Babel, language and comprehension

Diversity of language is among the characteristics that distinguish between different nationali-ties and cultures. It can be viewed negatively as a cause (or symptom) of division, or a mark of inclusion or exclusion. More positively, it might be celebrated as an aspect of the variety and breadth of human experience.

Language which divides - and reunites

Tower of Babel

Tower of BabelNear the very beginning of the Bible, the Tower of Babel functions as an ‘etiological myth’ (i.e. an origin story) to explain why human beings speak multiple languages. The people of the world, having at first just one common language, congregate and contrive to build a ‘tower with its top in the heavens’ and thereby ‘make a name for [them]selves’. God intervenes to divide and confuse their language, preventing their ambitious project and scattering them over the earth Genesis 11:1-9. This reaction by him is often (but not always) understood as a judgement against the sin of hubris.


In the early days of the Israelite settlement of Canaan, the Gileadites capture the fords of the Jordan whilst fighting the men of Ephraim. They devise a cunning scheme to identify enemy fugitives, revolving around the different regional pronunciations of the word ‘shibboleth’ (meaning simply ‘the part of a plant containing grains’). Ephraimites were distinguished from other tribes by the fact that they said ‘sibboleth’; under questioning, this difference cost many their lives Judges 12:4-6. The word has come to mean, more generally, a custom or characteristic which distinguishes between insiders and outsiders to a particular group.

Spiritual language

After the linguistic divisions of the Old Testament, in the New Testament Acts 2:1-12 recounts how Jesusdisciples are filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, enabling them immediately to go out and speak to the linguistically diverse crowds in Jerusalem in such a way that each hearer is miraculously able to understand the message. Thus (according to Christian belief) human division from God and one another is overturned by the reconciling message and achievement of Christ.

Paul lists ‘speaking in tongues’ as a spiritual gift 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. In the above instance, ‘speaking in tongues’ corresponds to a supernatural, God-given ability to communicate in known human languages which have not been learnt by the speaker. Tongues can also include communication which does not necessarily have an existing human meaning but does have a divine meaning. This meaning can be translated by someone with the spiritual gift of interpretation 1 Corinthians 14:26-28. Elsewhere, Paul talks about the Holy Spirit causing people to pray with ‘groanings too deep for words’ when they do not know what to say to God Romans 8:26-27. This implies that tongues need not have a structured linguistic meaning to form a part of the way in which Christians communicate with God.

Understanding God’s language

Balaam’s donkey

In the early history of the Israelites, Balaam is a non-Israelite prophet whom the king of Moab summons to pronounce a curse on the people of Israel. Balaam is torn between his desire to obey God and his greed for the honour and payment promised in exchange for his services Numbers 22:4-21. In a slightly puzzling sequence of events, God permits him to go but then sends the angel to block him en route. He cannot see the angel, and is confused and angry when his donkey stops in its tracks and refuses to obey his increasingly violent command. Eventually, the donkey reasons with him in human speech, and Balaam’s eyes are finally opened to recognise both the angel and God’s message to him Numbers 22:22-35.

Jesus ‘the Word’

The New Testament gospel of John describes Jesus as ‘the Word’ who was ‘with God’, and who ‘was God’ – come to earth in human form to communicate what God is like John 1:1-3; John 1:17-18.

However, much of his earthly life and ministry is, even by Jesus own admission John 16:25, mysterious – so that even those closest to him do not understand the implications of his teaching and life until later John 12:16. One example of this is his tendency to teach through parables Matthew 13:34-35. Sometimes he explains his parables to his disciples (e.g. in the case of the parable of the sower Matthew 13:18-23) but he is open about his deliberate intent to keep his other hearers wondering Matthew 13:13-15.

On a related note, Paul suggests that the good news of Jesus can only be understood by those to whom the Holy Spirit has revealed it 1 Corinthians 2:7-12.

Babel, language and comprehension in literature

  • The character of Pierre in War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy, 1869) does some very creative maths with the letters of his name to ‘prove’ via numerology that he is destined to bring down Napoleon
  • In his short story The Library of Babel (1941) Jorge Luis Borges imagines a collection of all possible 410 page books. Though the vast majority of these are meaningless configurations of letters, it necessarily also contains every coherent book of that length which might ever be written
  • The Magician’s Book in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) contains spells, secrets and life-changing stories, and makes hidden things visible. The pages can only be turned forwards, not backwards
  • In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Douglas Adams, 1987), Dirk breaks an investi-gative dead-lock by ‘writing down the answer’. Now (he announces) he just needs to solve the fresh new problem: translating the unknown language he has written it in!
  • As a Professor of Semiotics, Umberto Eco filled his novels with insights, puzzles and jokes around the theme of language and meaning.
    • The Name of the Rose (1980) is all about books – and books within books – and the disconnect between written language and external reality. The character of Salva-tore speaks six languages – all at once – and thus makes little sense to anyone!
    • Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) further explores the propensity for humans to interpret through a filter, and find nonexistent patterns. E.g. a mysterious coded fragment is interpreted in vastly different ways by characters with different expectations
  • A lipogram is an example of constrained writing in which a particular letter or group of let-ters is disallowed. The longer the lipogram, the harder it is to retain meaning and style. Carol Shield’s short story Absence (2000) cleverly omits the letter ‘i’, whilst Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a meaningful novel of over 50,000 words (Gadsby, 1939) without a single let-ter ‘e’.


  • In the West Wing episode Shibboleth (season 2, episode 8), a group of Chinese immigrants seek religious asylum in the US. After speaking with one of them, President Bartlet is satis-fied that they are truly Christians and have not simply been ‘coached’.
  • There is a widely-used online identity authentication system name ‘Shibboleth’.

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