02 April 2017

Some Words About Words

Last Sunday's post explored that mythological Tower of Babel. God thwarted the attempt to build a tower up to the dome of heaven by "confusing" everyone's language. Because they could no longer communicate, they left off building the tower. The account of the confusion of languages at Babel not only reveals a primitive understanding of cosmology, but also suggests a lack of understanding about the basics  of human language.

 Although not explicitly stated, the passages seems to suggest the the ancient Hebrews believed that each language is natural and intrinsic to its speakers and that languages are fixed attributes of those speakers. (I supposed the Hebrews kept the original human tongue--although the Bible does not say that either.) The passages contain no hint that languages adapt and change over time. This conflicts with our modern understanding of language.

Words are not natural or intrinsic at all. Words are arbitrary sounds we articulate to symbolize the objects of our thought. These objects of thought may be concrete objects that constitute external reality such as rocks, bodies of water, clouds, and animals. The objects of thought might include abstract concepts such as love, liberty, and God, or products of our imagination. Languages do share some structural similarities in propositions that describe the relationships between an actor, and object, and changes of some kind that an actor imposes on an object. But little else. Moreover, languages evolve. In the Western world, this is most obvious in the case of Latin, which evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

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