Friday, June 23, 2006

Augustine atop the Tower of Babel

Jonathan Wilson has an interesting post about language and imperialism based on his reading of Augustine.

The passage falls in the middle of book XIX, which discusses "the opinions of the philosophers regarding the supreme good, and their vain efforts to make for themselves a happiness in this life." According to Augustine, the world's different languages produce political divisions that frustrate any efforts to achieve universal temporal peace:

And here [in the world], in the first place, man is separated from man by the difference of languages. For if two men, each ignorant of the other's language, meet, and are not compelled to pass, but, on the contrary, to remain in company, dumb animals, though of different species, would more easily hold intercourse than they, human beings though they be. For their common nature is no help to friendliness when they are prevented by diversity of language from conveying their sentiments to one another; so that a man would more readily hold intercourse with his dog than with a foreigner. But the imperial city has endeavored to impose on subject nations not only her yoke, but her language, as a bond of peace, so that interpreters, far from being scarce, are numberless. This is true; but how many great wars, how much slaughter and bloodshed, have provided this unity!
So Augustine says that peaceful intercourse (which he takes as the goal of human government) is impossible without a common language, but the Roman empire imposes a common language by force, which itself thwarts the cause of peace in the world. He continues:
And though these [wars of conquest] are past, the end of these miseries has not yet come. For though there have never been wanting, nor are yet wanting, hostile nations beyond the empire, against whom wars have been and are waged, yet, supposing there were no such nations, the very extent of the empire itself has produced wars of a more obnoxious description -- social and civil wars -- and with these the whole race has been agitated, either by the actual conflict or the fear of a renewed outbreak. If I attempted to give an adequate description of these manifold disasters, these stern and lasting necessities, though I am quite unequal to the task, what limit could I set?
At least a few things should be qualified. The Romans, while imposing their language on the nations and tribes they conquered, did not always insist that their language supplant native linguistic traditions, nor did they insist on strict adherence to their own grammatical standards. For the most part, Latin was a language of communication for elites, a pidgin for merchants, and its use fluctuated over time and space. "Latins" multiplied, becoming languages of their own or synthesizing with the native tongues they encountered. Indeed, Latin was not the only language of empire--Greek was alive in the "East," which put it in a position to preserve other traditions of Rome long after the city's fall. (Of course, my typical complaint that "peace" really meant "order.")

Latin was not the tool of empire as was, say, French, Spanish, and English. French may be one of the best examples of how insisting on homogeneous linguistic standards can work against the goals of empire. French educators insisted that colonial subjects were incapable of reproducing the vocal and philosophical subtleties of the language. According to David Gordon, this "linguistic chauvinism" made French alien and unassimilable to those subjects. Even Britain had a better track record bringing their language to the world, allowing peoples to adopt it to their own needs.

Why, however, did Augustine not draw on the Tower of Babel in reflecting on the potential of uniform language? The creation of many tongues, in order to defeat the arrogance of humanity, would seem to make multilingualism a virtue.


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