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Notes from the Marom Beit Midrash

Ludwig Zamenhof and the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel

Genesis 11:1-9. This comes after the Flood. Everyone is in one place; humankind is trying to reinvent itself.

In so happened that the whole earth had one language, and one speech4, and, as they journeyed from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

Each man said to his fellow, hey, let's make thoroughly fire-hardened bricks. Now they had brick for stone, and slime for mortar. They said, hey, let's build ourselves a city and tower, reaching, like, all the way up into heaven1; and we'll be, like, supercool and everyone will think we're the best, yeah?2 'Cause otherwise we're going to be absolutely all over the place, man.

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men wree building; and the LORD said: Behold, the people is one, and everyone has the one language. Now they've started this, nothing will be beyond bounds, that they think of doing. Better go down there, and confound their language, so each one won't understand the other's speech.3

So the LORD scattered them abroad from there across the whole face of the earth, and they broke off building the city. And that, o best beloved, is why its name is called Babel; because there the LORD confounded the whole world's language, and scattered them from there across the whole face of the world.5,6

  1. To challenge G-d? Or overthrow Him?
  2. "Make ourselves a name", i.e. a reputation. Rashi says this is euphemistic for making an idol. But if everybody is all in one place, who are they making a name/reputation for? Evidently, it's for posterity. (It will became an idol even if it is not yet.) They are already thinking of future generations. But what is the purpose of the tower? Cf. "Ozymandias".
  3. Note the way G-d chose to confound the project—rather than removing the building materials or the skills.
  4. Is this not a good thing? But if everyone all shares the vision that can be frightening.
  5. Yet we still get things done today. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we all speak different languages? It has been argued by rabbis that this is a plea for multiculturalism.
    Parallel also with the ?grnt of G-d.
  6. Two punishments? Is the scattering merely an inevitable result of the confounding of the language? The Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, has the following to say on the subject [transcribed at great speed, so possibly not entirely accurate]:

    There were three classes of men came together to build the Tower of Babel.

    One said let us ascend to Heaven and live there. Their punishment was to be scattered.

    One said let us ascend to Heaven and there we can practise idolatry. Their punishment was to have their language confounded.

    The third said let us ascend to Heaven and there make war on G-d. Their punishment was to be turned into apes and demonds and ghouls.

Should we be aiming to return to the state of a single language?

Consider now the role of Hebrew as a Jewish lingua franca. The language of prayer and the dream of it as the language of speech.

[As an aside, on the subject, via Babel, of linguistic geeking, there's quite a lot of interest which can be said about words in the above passage, for example:
  • Shinar, the name in the Bible of Sumeria.
  • The word for bricks, לבנים levenim, derived from the stem לבן signifying white, from which is also derived a bunch of other words including לבנים Lebanon—used in the Pentateuch to refer to Mt Hermon, which is a distinctive pale colour, geologically different from the neighbouring Bashan (the Golan Heights). The Arabic word taleban, meaning seeker after (Islamic) knowledge is also derived from the same root. (A Hebrew verb with the meaning "clarify" provides the connection with "white".)
  • The word for "burn", שרפה serefa, will be familiar to non-Hebrew speakers through the angel-word "Seraph".
  • The word for "plain", בקעה, is elsewhere rendered "valley". ערבה displays the same ambiguity, in the KJV rendered "plain", in Modern Hebrew referring to the East African Rift Valley between the Dead Sea and Eilat, as does the word עמק, normally used to refer to the Jezreel Valley, a.k.a. Plain of Esdraelon. Anybody know the solution to this conundrum? Or is it just that English lacks a word for wide, flat-bottomed valley, and Hebrew happens to have three?

Ludwig Zamenhof

Many people have experimented with the idea of a universal language. Ludwig Zamenhof was the most successful.

Zamenhof was from Białystok, which used to be the jewel in Poland's Jewish crown. 70% of the population in Białystok at the start of the twentieth century was Jewish. Now there is nothing of its Jewish life left. He was born in 1859; he described language as the chief motor of civilisation. It has raised us so far above the beasts. The higher the level of language the faster progress.

I was born in Białystok, in the province of Grodna. Russians, Poiles, Germans and Jews. Each spoke a different language, and each was hostile to each other. Each felt that the diversity of language is the main cause that divided the human race.

Białystok was densely populated; a place of great intellectual life—and ?wars. A place of trade—there were people coming and going all over the town. It had a huge market square.

There was strong Zionism there, also the Tarbut schools which taught in Hebrew. People teaching about other cultures, and ?modern traditions.

Zamenhof trained as a doctor, and became an eye-surgeon. He had a traditional Jewish upbringing, but was secular. He dreamed of fulfilling his youthful dream: reversing the Tower of Babel. Why did G-d ask to divide people with language? He single-handledly created an artificial language, very much against the wishes of his parents.

Esperanto—which means "he who hopes"—all very idealistic—is 70% Romance—because there were more people who knew Romance languages—20% Germanic, and also has Slavic and Greek influences (Zamenhof thought Greek was Slavic <rolls eyes>).

There are ten basic grammar rules; everything in the language is regular.

Of the seventeen basic words, with prefixes and suffixes you can easily create ten thousand words. What you lose are subtleties of meaning and nuance.

In ?1887 Zamenhof published a book with a dictionary. The first thing he did was translate great works from other languages. He wrote his own book and songs; tried to create a whole ?clr [culture?]; the Esperanto colour is green; its symbol is a six-sided star.

Esperanto was not meant to replace existing language. It was meant to be a second language for everyone to communicate in. It is supposed to be basic—a lingua franca for trade. Zamenhof wanted it to be international and neutral. For him the ease of learning it was more important than the subtleties.

He called a conference in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, in France—in Esperanto, with translators. Ninety-six people attended. In it, he said:

In our meeting there are on strong or weak nations, privileged or unfavoured ones, nobody is humiliated, nobody is harassed; we all support one another upon a neutral foundation, we all have the same rights, we all fell ourselves the members of the same nation, like the members of the same family, and for the first time in the history of the human race, we—the members of different peoples, are one beside the other not as strangers, not like competitors, but like brothers who do not enforce their language, but who understand one another, trustfully, conceitedly, and we shake our hands with no hypocrisy like strangers, but sincerely, like people. Let's be fully aware of the importance of this day, because today among the generous walls of Boulogne-sur-Mer have met not French with British, nor Russians with Polish, but people with people.

He coined the phrase "Hillelism" to describe the brotherhood of man. (There is a debate in the Talmud as to whether a chicken is kosher. Shammai said you have to look for this and that and the other; Hillel said it depends who is asking, i.e. you're more lenient for a poor woman who can't afford to throw the chicken away if a defect is found.)

The above quotation comes across as a bit naive; he was accused of this by other people, and responded in 1906:

We are not so naive as some think of us; we do not believe that a neutral base will turn men into angels, but we do know that evil people will always be evil; but we believe that communication and knowledge based upon a natural tool will prevent at least the great quantity of brutality and crimes which happen not because of ill will, but simple because of lack of knowledge and oppression.

By "knowledge", he meant education.

Zamenhof died in 1917; he was by then a celebrity. But the First World War destroyed his great idealism—everything he believed in, he saw destroyed. By that time there waere lots of Esperanto societies over Europe. It had caught on but not in the way Zamenhof intended—it never became a second language.

Zamenhof's grave is in the Gessia cemetery in Warsaw; the gravestone is designed by Esperantists and donated by Esperantists. (Next to it are the ashes of his two daughters, who both died in Treblinka.)

After his death Esperanto was banned under the Nazis—because he was Jewish, but also because of his vision of equality. It is very big now in the USA, and China and Japan. One of his visions was that Esperanto should be used as a tool in science. In certain areas this is the case [which??]. Esperanto was banned under the communist regimes—which means it was considered important enough to be banned. In the 1960s there were schools in the UK teaching Esperanto because it was going to be the "language of the future"׃

[?Esperanto ?Zamenhof] is respected, but considered eccentric.

In Europe there are Zamenhof streets all over the place. 12th December is his birthday and there are worldwide celebrations.

So why did his vision fail?

It was too neutral—people don't want it. Also, it seems too artificial. And it was too hard to ?moderns post-Z [??]. Also, a language needs a culture—there is no Esperanto food or drink or way of life. It needs to be a living organism. And finally, there is no motivation to learn the language if it is not the case that everyone already knows it.

Life after the Tower of Babel

So what would allow world peace that we could all do?

In the Tower of Babel story; is the diversity of languages a punishment, a reward or a piece of clever strategy on G-d's behalf?

What are people supposed to do now? Learn each other's language? Not communicate with each other?

Probably the former: Compare the response to the punishment for the sin of Eden. Women had to give birth in pain, and men had to work hard to get their bread, but anaesthetic during labour is permitted; and so too is the use of a crop-sprayer.

In the same way it could be said that Zamenhof's response to the punishment of the Tower of Babel was to do the same.


Date: 2006-05-30 07:25 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Your text has many errors.





Date: 2006-05-31 02:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ploni-bat-ploni.livejournal.com

Did you know that one of Zamenhoff's daughters converted to the Baha'í Faith (http://www.bahai.org) which exactly envisions a universal language?


Date: 2006-06-06 08:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I did not know that the Baha'is already existed at that time and people from Europe converted as well. I don't know anything about Baha'i only that they are persecuted in lots of Islamic countries. I know someone who is Baha'i who lives in London and comes from India but she is not afraid going back for a visit. Maybe there is no persecution.

Re: Baha'i

Date: 2006-06-14 09:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Read all about it! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahai)

Date: 2006-06-14 09:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
No, I didn't know that; that's interesting. <looks up on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bah%C3%A1%27%C3%AD_Faith_and_auxiliary_language)>


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