“The Tower of Babel and Babble.com”
Mike Trest, Master Mason,
James K. Polk Lodge #759
Charlotte York Rite Bodies, Commandery No. 2, Knights Templar
December 12, 2019
I was born in Morehead City in Eastern North Carolina. My family roots are both broad and deep “Down East”. My earliest years were spread between Washington, DC, the Carolinas and the islands and waters of the outer banks due to my father’s years in USMC. Since I have lived 50 of my 75 years in different states and different countries, speaking different languages, and observing diverse local cultures and traditions my wife and I have found the N.C. Masonic communities to be quite welcoming. Therefore dealing with new people and cultures is only occasionally a challenge. However, I am relatively new to Masonic membership and thus still discovering BOTH commonalities and differences among different Masonic bodies. Our Masonic travels in the Carolinas and New Hampshire have helped us to understand the welcome found in each new community. Thus, Judy and I are both are still “becoming better Masons”.
In my liberal arts studies and my Archaeological work I have had to deal with the concept of communities of interest presented in the book of Genesis (chapter 10) regarding the Tower Of Babel. The first question for me was how, at that time, it is said “to have one language”? And secondly, for the reasons explained therein, how & why our language was “dispersed”?
On the first question, we need to understand the concept of “lingua franca”. It refers to a language adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different. For example, physicians & pharmacists around the world use ancient Latin or Greek to formally name their many medications. So also, the legal professions combine many concepts based on the Magna Carta and other earlier legal texts going all the way to ancient Babylon. The common language [ lingua franca ] of diplomacy has been the same since relatively recent Napoleonic times.
By the way, thanks should go to our early brothers, The Knights Templars created and enforced a similar finiancial standardization almost 1,000 years ago. We and they are also indebted to the Rosetta Stone. This became the key to understanding Egyptian Hieroglyphics by the common presence of the name of King Ptolemy in all three languages. That proclamation by Egyptian priests was more than another 1,000 years older than either Napoleon or the Templars. This is how it was said to have “one language”. It was a common language of trade and finance.
The concept of WRITTEN LANGUAGE is quite old and quite diverse:
German, Spanish, Italian are transparent languages, you’re meant to pronounce every letter of a word. Silent letters are few. Printed letters are occasionally different as well. (Examples: Gothic German sharfis “S” and Umlauts. Spanish ~ anyan and `grave accents.) French, English, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese and a few others are opaque languages, the relationship between how a word is written and spoken is complicated. Arabic and Hebrew (plus ancient Aramaic) have completely different written letters but share a fairly common vocabulary of words but with different pronunciations.
SHARED ALPHABETS are still quite common: Using common written letters but the underlying language is of a completely different language family. Examples are the use of Latin letters for English, French, German and others. So also is the use of Arabic letters for Iranian Persian / Farsi and Afghanistan Dari. Even in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan the Indo-European language is written in Crylic letters. This can also be found in Yiddish which uses the Hebrew alphabet for the underlying Germanic language. Even our western alphabet has been traced to early Phoenitian.
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IDEOGRAPHIC (Pictograph) LANGUAGE:
Cave Dwellers Wall Pictures, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, some Asian languages and graphic representations are but a few examples where pictures or images were (and are) used to communicate.
The (Phonetic) SOUNDS OF LANGUAGE:
Phonemes are distinguishing sounds in a language. The 26 letters of the English, depending on geographic location, can be pronounced differently or with different emphasis. However, the range of possible sounds that humans physiology can make is small. English only occupies a small part of that space with about 30 distinct sounds. However, Lithuanian has 32 letters and 52 sounds.
The SPREAD OF LANGUAGE:
In the early 1980s I discussed a correlation between ancient Celtic language phrases and certain Hebrew expressions. In the 1890s there were publications discussing the origin of the peoples of the British Isles. The dispersion of Semitic peoples from Middle-East to North Africa after the Roman destruction of Israel was timely. These movements included Carthaginian and North African migrations into Spain and throughout Western Europe. The same could be said of the explosion of Asian speakers of English after WW-II and Vietnam.
This has been happening since the beginning of human history. Language correlations among dispersed geographic locations occur when catch-phrases, slogans, chants, and other verbal communications are spread via traders, armies, and refugees. However, except in the case when conquering armies overlay the soldier’s home culture and language on their conquests, these similarities usually spread as short sayings, quips, or slogans passed along in pop-culture or daily commerce. In India today, “H’inglish” is a hodge-pod combination of Hindi and English languages combined. When we were sitting at the Damascus Gate in the old city of Jerusalem, Judy and I heard many different languages and combination of languages. So also did the ancient Phoenicians on the docks serving Ugarit (in Syria) long before that Gate was ever built. History is replete with real examples as well as epic tails of wide-ranging traders, armies, and adventurers.
Since these words, phrases, and quips are passed verbally, and because there are well documented phonemic shifts between languages, it is easy for slight differences in pronunciation to occur. For example, in Arabic there are three different letters with “S-like” sounds. In Hebrew, there are only two letters with three pronunciations for “S”. In today’s English, we still can hear all three sounds but we have only one letter “S”. (You can detect this if you slowly say “see” , “saw” , “seen” and notice the slightly different motions of your tongue).
In the Greek & Roman Western languages, we frequently see a shift in pronunciation or spelling of words with the letters “V” and “W” [Volkswagen] or the letters “D” and “T”. Swapping “F” and “PH” or “K” and “Q” in some extreme examples can be shown. Some phonemes are simply not available between some sets of languages. One example in the Mediterranean area occurs with the sounds for “B” and “P”. In today’s Western European areas there is always a strong distinction between B & P. But to most Arabic listeners, “Papa Poulis” in Italian (Pope Paul), sounds like “Baba Boulis” to the Arab speaker. There is simply no representation or common phoneme in Arabic for the hard “P” sound. In the 1920s ~ 1940s writings about the formation of Israel in “Palestine” the spelling and pronunciation were printed as “Falestine”.
Page 2 of 3Those famous sayings that have passed from language-to-language are ofter perceived as misspellings or mispronunciations. For example, a common expression “Copacetic” may not originate from either Italian speakers or from Southern black jazz musicians. Indeed, it can be found in Hebrew today as “kol b’seder” by looking at three phonemes that frequently shift: “C/K”, “B/P” and “D/T”.
While my academic training is focused on early languages and history, I have closely observed the impact of the mixing of languages and cultures resulting from more recent migrations . . . closer to home.
America has faced comparable situations over the past 250+ years. In many of our larger cities (and recently in our medium and small cities), we are experiencing similar cultural pressures. Here in our North Carolina mountains the presence of Scottish, Irish, and German migrations can be heard in the language, music, and dance. So also the islands of the outer-banks of Virginia and North Carolina still retain some of the sounds & phrases of those earlier settlers. The same can be said for several areas of the Carolinas where multiple generations of freed-slaves have been interacting with southern English speaking populations over the past 360 years. In the past 50 years, we have observed a significant jump in populations of Spanish speakers. A great percentage of the poultry processing jobs and dry-wall construction jobs in the Southeast have transitioned to a majority of hispanic workers. Finally, here in Charlotte, NC we have an influx of Northerners moving South for better climate as well as better job opportunities. I believe this an example of the dispersal described in Genesis.
THE MASONIC ELEMENT: We need to look at our own Lodges.
We are changing! Our lodges throughout the Carolinas now see that community demographics are changing. Our lodges are even dealing with Masonic regional differences even within the Carolinas! As local populations expand with more diversity, the challenge we face is how to communicate our ideals to candidates with differing cultures & languages. And, more importantly, how to maintain our ideals and become “better people by welcoming other Masons.”
As you learn more about the “siboleth and shiboleth” distinction, if you are so inclined, you might even study the diversity of your own family history and culture. Or, perhaps, you might even take a class with Babble.com for the cultural enrichment that is available.
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