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Unformatted text preview: 8 The Tower of Babel And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scat- tered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9) In the year of our Lord 1957, the linguist Martin Joos reviewed the preceding three decades of research in linguistics and concluded that God had actually gone much farther in confounding the language of Noah's descendants. Whereas the God of Genesis was said to be content with mere mutual unintelligibility, Joos declared that "lan- 2 3 1 232 TH E L A N G U A G E IN S T IN C T guages could differ from each other without limit and in unpredict- able ways." That same year, the Chomskyan revolution began with the publication of Syntactic Structures, and the next three decades took us back to the literal biblical account. According to Chomsky, a visiting Martian scientist would surely conclude that aside from their mutually unintelligible vocabularies, Earthlings speak a single language. Even by the standards of theological debates, these interpretations are strikingly different. Where did they come from? The 4,000 to 6,000 languages of the planet do look impressively different from English and from one another. Here are the most conspicuous ways in which languages can differ from what we are used to in English: 1. English is an "isolating" language, which builds sentences by rearranging immutable word-sized units, like Dog bites man and Man bites dog. Other languages express who did what to whom by modifying nouns with case affixes, or by modifying the verb with affixes that agree with its role-players in number, gender, and person. One example is Latin, an "inflecting" language in which each affix contains several pieces of informa- tion; another is Kivunjo, an "agglutinating" language in which each affix conveys one piece of information and many affixes are strung together, as in the eight-part verb in Chapter 5....
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