Friday, 13 August 2010

Heavy stuff about languages

Languages fascinate me on many levels. One thing I find quite interesting (even puzzling if you cross reference it with the ideas in vogue nowadays) is the complexity of ancient languages.

You would have thought that the further back in time you go, the simpler the recorded languages get because apparently, we all started in grunts …. Hunh? Hungawa! (And all that jazz)

Take Sumerian for instance, the oldest written language (oldest records of it date about 4000 BCE I believe). It’s more complex than most modern languages with its infixes, suffixes, prefixes….
Take another one, Hebrew (one of the languages the bible was written into). It causes challenges to translate into our modern languages. Words that existed back then do not exist anymore. Consequently, in order to translate the idea, more words are needed or a close one is used with a long explanatory footnote!
Compare this with what we put in r txt msgs …Str8 2 da point, no literature, all bout speed init… Spelling has less and less importance. Have you also noticed it’s creeping into emails (“Knd Rgrds”)?
It looks to me like languages are getting simpler rather than the opposite.

I get the feeling it’s not just in languages. I’m not sure we are immensely cleverer than our ancestors. Remember the tower of Babel story?
Babel was ruled by Nimrod, the first power hungry man in history that made it big. He proclaimed himself emperor and had a tower built that would touch the heavens. Sounds like the first skyscraper doesn’t it? Pretty amazing since this guy had this built millennia before Christ!
Some would say, it’s just an old story. Does it really sound so far-fetched? Well consider the artefacts we have left from Babylonian Advanced Mathematics and architecture. No motorized crane or other powerful machinery available, no 3-D computer designs. Still there were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon built in the 7th century BCE. Critics say that it would have been a masterpiece of engineering, even by today’s standards. It was one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient world for crying out loud. They were great mathematicians, great designers. Look it up!
The colours on some of the ziggurats (Babylonian building) discovered by archaeologists reveal something interesting too: To obtain the glazing blue colour seen on the ziggurats palisades, a precise quantity of specific materials have to be heated at a constant temperature for a precise period of time. How did they manage that without a high tech modern oven? How did they know how to do that in the first place? Perhaps ancient civilisations knew more than we want to credit them for.

The ultimate puzzle is this: The bible account says that God confused languages in Babel. Old story again, people object. How else do you explain that language families are so different? To name but a few differences, some languages are written from right to left (Arabic for example) instead of left to right, some use an alphabet whereas others use pictograms instead (Chinese for example). Is the transition documented? No. As far as I know, linguists are still divided; they haven’t found the missing links. Incidentally, the missing links in the evolutionary chain have not been found either, contrary to all the hype that was whipped up about it last year. But that’s another story.

Okay, enough. I’ll try tackling something less heavy next time, promise!

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