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A new digital Esperanto. It can either tie us together or make us enemies for life

A new digital Esperanto. It can either tie us together or make us enemies for life

Ebonics, the beautiful bastard tongue of the inner city, travels through satellite music videos and streaming media. Mobile phones and SMS are spreading a terse word form in which numerals replace the sounds formed by letters.

Once upon a time, there was a universal language. Everyone could understand each other, and apparently there was no word for ‘impossible’. Humanity got together, talked a bit and came up with a bright idea. “Let’s get into vertical real estate, and make a bundle in condos.”

The result was the tower of Babel. The rest is history. God confused their tongues. The architect couldn’t understand the quantity surveyor who had major communication difficulties with the foreman, and so on. Naturally the project came to a halt. Such is the power of God, and such is the power of language.

And strangely enough, to this day, even if every soul on a building site speaks the same language, they still can’t agree, and everyone else has extreme difficulty making sense of things. Even numbers, the one physical constant, seem to cease making sense when real estate is involved.

Language is something that binds us into groups and also divides us. Concepts require not just words but the nuances that words convey to be fully understood. Without language, all but the most basic concepts, such as ‘fire causes pain, hence avoid pain by avoiding fire’, cease to exist. Between different languages, everything is open to interpretation: consider the sticky differences of opinion that are regularly swept under the global carpet by veto at the United Nations.

But the story of the tower of Babel seems to be gaining renewed relevance as we progress into the realms of technology. The interesting thing from a cultural-anthropological viewpoint is that, when the tower of Babel was on the drawing board, there was very little dispersion of humanity.

Apparently vast empires were actually separated by a few miles. Being a king probably meant having control of a bunch of villages, one or two small towns and a couple of dissenting goats. The physical distances between population groupings weren’t all that great. Long distance communication probably entailed shouting to someone on the other side of a river or grabbing a spear and walking a couple of kilometres to settle the question of a missing cow. These conditions were perfect for uniformity of language, to some or other degree.

History seems to be repeating itself, even as we speak. Pick up a mobile phone or log onto the net, and you can speak to anyone, anywhere. In fact, the only real obstacles to global communication are language and the justifiable monosyllabic reticence of someone who receives a post-midnight call from a drunken acquaintance a couple of time zones away.

As far as language is concerned, its spread is becoming more rapid. Ebonics, the beautiful bastard tongue of the inner city, travels through satellite music videos and streaming media. Mobile phones and SMS are spreading a terse word form in which numerals replace the sounds formed by letters.

And as we grow closer and closer together, the indications are that a polyglot language will emerge combining useful words that are as easily picked up and disposed of as any fashion item or plastic gimmick, but on a global scale.

The new language won’t be English, Cantonese, French, Arabic or Spanish. It will be all of these, and then some. The words and concepts will be global; your reliance upon them will be determined by the distance over which you communicate.

So should the Big Guy start smiting the comsats, server farms and microwave towers. He probably won’t have to: in spite of all the translators, arbitrators, diplomats, emissaries and new-age therapists, we still have major difficulties understanding one another.

On the other hand, somewhere in Africa, there is small tribe that has no word for anger. Instead they use words that translate to ‘insane’, or ‘sick’. For sure, they live a peaceful existence and are not as frustrated as conventional wisdom would suggest.

Sooner or later all this communication will reach them, and they will begin to learn the language and adopt the concepts. Perhaps then we should start scanning the skies for lightning bolts.


 

About The Author

Pierre Maré

Pierre Maré is a multi-awarded Namibian advertising strategist and copy writer. From 2004 to 2016 he wrote a weekly tongue-in-cheek column for the paper Economist, eventually amassing an impressive 590 articles over the almost 12-year period. This series of Offbeat is a digital rerun of his pieces that received the highest reader acclaim. - Ed.

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