Essays About

The Confusion of Tongues

Visiting foreign countries, I can never suppress a sense of the inefficiency of humanity speaking multiple languages. Each language repeats with slight variation what every other language already says, like people in group discussions who, to assert themselves, restate in their own words and examples every comment anyone makes. The redundancy of languages suggests the lack of a world supervisor. Earth's societies are like children playing without an adult, each making its own rules which no one else abides by.

Abroad, I experience life like a deaf person, interpreting faces instead of phrases. Watching old Greek women make small talk by a storefront or Italian cab drivers hurl angry sounds at other drivers, like cab drivers at home, I feel falsely divided from my fellow humans. Beneath their opaque words are recognizable actions and emotions. Nature gave them and me the same brain, but culture divided us with different sounds for getting our thoughts out.

I grant that linguistic diversity adds color to the world, and that I will never know Dante truly if I read him in translation, but the bar of cosmopolitanism is too high. I tend to give up learning languages after a few months, for it is odious to regress from a mastery of English to a second-grade knowledge of French or German—from deciphering Melville to deciphering menus.

I sympathize with religions that see language as God's gift and diversity of language as God's curse. Humanity has over-solved the problem of communication. Once, we were isolated from each other by lack of speech. Now, by excess.