Brain Food #496

To use language, to have a voice

Thoughts of the day

According to the Ethnologue, there are more than 7,000 languages being spoken today, with 40% of them being endangered.

In 1993, on this day, celebrated American writer Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her lecture (worth reading in its entirety), which she delivered some months later, touches upon the topic of language as a force. One that can divide, and is often used to do so, but also that can empower and propel us in the right direction.

In her lecture, of course, Morrison tells a story — one through which language gives us the power to weigh our lives, liberate ourselves from the chains society brings upon us, but one that also gives us the opportunity to understand each other, despite the conventional divides that speaking different languages might bring:

“The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower’s failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.”

But of course, what she also weaves between her lines is that to use language, one needs to have a voice, and to have a voice means to transcend death:

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”


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