Babies, Bathwater, And Babel

For those of us who are interested in the Tower of Babel project [1], it is common that we will read writings that have been translated from Russian that seek to discuss the long-term history of human languages. Various different trees have been posited for these languages, and time and space (and my own limited expertise) preclude a detailed discussion of which of these trees are better than others. At least in the general details, the understanding is that there are fundamental similarities between languages that are due to a common ancestry in these languages and that the extant languages of the world (as well as extinct languages which were spoken and especially written in the past) can be reconstructed through a comparison of the historical drift by which languages were subject to that can be to some extent reversed through knowing something of how these languages changed over time.

So it is, for example, that we can reconstruct the similarities between languages that are somewhat close in area and very similar in their grammar and vocabulary, and then once we have worked out these ancient and extinct tongues we can then see how these in turn came from earlier languages and repeat this process multiple times, going further and further back to see how more and more languages are cousins of each other in the same sense that going back further and further in time shows that we are physical cousins with a great many people who share common ancestors at some point in the past. The family resemblances in grammar and structure and like the DNA and records that can tie people with their ancestors and with those who share a common ancestry. So it is that English is part of a group of similar and related West German languages and slightly more distant Germanic languages and more distant Indo-European languages and on from there, where more distant relations can be found with Afro-Asiatic languages (including Berber and Semitic languages), Finno-Uralic languages, Sino-Caucasian languages, Dravidian languages, and the like. While this work may seem rather far-fetched at first, if it is conducted in a disciplined and stepwise fashion that seeks to uncover information about past and present languages in great detail it can provide an understanding about common ties that invites comparison to the archaeological and DNA records as well as invites research into changes in culture and in the movement of peoples and tongues over time.

One of the concerns that we can have in the present climate is that much of this research has taken place in Russian by Russian scholars whose work is accessible to others through translation in to the English-speaking world (as well as translations into German and French and other European languages where the audience and academic infrastructure are the highest). In a world where people are being actively encouraged to be hostile to Russians in general who have little or nothing to do with Russian aggression against their neighbors, there is a strong concern that the insights or research that come from Russian academics will similarly suffer and find themselves marginalized because of the pariah status of their nation as a whole. Lest we think that is an unrealistic situation, precisely such a situation occurred in the Cold War, where the research of Russian scholars was largely not known in the West because of geopolitical divisions. A return to renewed hostilities between Russia and the West augurs poorly for the spread of Russian insights and scholarship into Western audiences, especially given the dependence on such research being known on those willing and able to translate Russian papers and books into English or other languages likely to be known by scholars. In a world where Russians are hated on principle, this translation work and this cultural curiosity is likely to be considerably hindered.

What, then, should our response be to this problem? We need to be able to properly distinguish between the behavior of governments and that of scholars and ordinary people who live under a bad regime and who are limited by their poor media which gives them biased information. To the extent that we are all aware of the information which we have and the behavior of our own governments (which we may not support and which we may have limited influence over even in our comparatively mature republican regimes), we can seek to separate our opposition to regimes and our narrow and reflexive hostility to things just because they are associated with those who we are opposed to. If I am not necessarily sanguine in our ability to make subtle distinctions between that which we oppose and other things which can be associated but do not truly belong with those things, at least I hope that those who are like-minded may avoid an unprofitable hatred of Russian scholarship simply because we are opponents of Russia in a geopolitical sense.

[1] This project seeks to reconstruct the original form of speaking for humanity through recovering the history of language starting from the earliest forms possible and moving backwards to points where more and more languages can be connected together, especially through logical changes over the course of long periods of time going back 10,000 or more years.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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