Babel

IMG_0138

 

People started using a language to communicate at some point in history…They say about a 100000 years ago… could be more… some say 200,000 years ago… Intellectuals and scientists are still trying to figure out that one.

Linguists continue to cogitate and have agitated arguments over the issue of the evolution of the first language. But the point is, they can argue because language and words evolved and they exist. And it is a fact that language is what has separated humans from the birds, bees, lions, tigers, apes, fishes, crabs, whales, dolphins, elephants and Neanderthals. These creatures communicate too (or communicated too, in case of Neanderthals) with grunts, tunes, trills, gestures, dances and notes; but none of them can (or could) talk or communicate in ways as complex as humans.

Neanderthals evidently had the tools in them to talk, but were too primitive to develop speech, which ultimately fell into the forte of our ancestors, the homo sapiens, who evolved somewhere in Central Africa.

Sometimes, I wonder if the famed Ethiopian Lucy of the Australopithecus family called out to her beloved in words or grunts or notes? She has been much celebrated with words by not only intellectuals but also by songsters like Beatles and Elton John. And yet, perhaps 3.2 million years ago, did she speak? Would she be able to understand the serenades for her?

Would she be able to comprehend any of the modern languages we use today? Can you believe that currently there are more than 5,000 languages in the world?! It might seem an astounding figure, especially compared to Lucy’s times, but from a handful of people, the human family has to grown 7,500,000,000 large… quite a leap from Lucy’s lifetime, I believe!

At some point the first language must have started with grunts coming out of descendants of Lucy, the first men and women that lived in Africa and, eventually, in their progeny who walked out of Africa to create homes all over the world. We, the progeny of these walkers, now speak in complex sentences, using varied words in varied languages that probably our early ancestors would have found impossible to comprehend.

Languages, like their users, tend to run into each other. They share some words or some word roots in common. They could all exist in harmony and learn from each other if they did not join their users in a rat race to prove themselves superior or the most spoken. With a cutthroat cultural race among different nations and states, languages have become a commodity. Politicians use it to prove their prowess and power. Some languages have been wiped completely off from the surface of the Earth by invaders and rulers or sneers from people who considered them inferior. Some of the power brokers ironed out the differences among people who lived under their protection by ironing out their language and uniting them under the banner of one language that they called the national language.

Today, when a person speaks, he is immediately classified into a nationality, a class, a creed, a culture and a region. Henry Higgins of Pygmalion (play by G.B. Shaw, 1913) and My Fair Lady (Hollywood adaptation of Pygmalion) fame created more than a century ago made a pertinent observation on this issue. He says,

an Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him: the moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him...

We can apply this well in the context of  the spoken word, not just for English speakers or ‘an Englishman’ as he says, but for speakers of all languages. The minute we open our mouth, we are labeled.

There are people who frown on users of languages they consider spoken or used by hostile groups. But one just wonders, is it the fault of the language or the users? We associate the power of words with the negative impact the users have made on society…much like we associate the power of the atom with the devastation caused by the nuclear bomb.

Then, there is the case of mother tongue… when you do not speak, read or write it, people among your family and friends often frown… I have always wondered why? Perhaps, because of the theory that says language evolved from mother tongue, that is the sounds used by the mother to communicate with the baby… then it must have been in an arboreal environment… now, we do it in more than 5000 different ways! And yet, in this long linguistic list missing is the original mother tongue of all mother tongues that evolved in Africa 100,000 or 200,000 years ago! We do not even know what the language is…

Our research of speech starts with the written words. The oldest known written language is Egyptian or is it Sumerian…? I am confused! Logically, there must have been something they spoke before they built palaces and homes… and that would be the mother tongue of all the human race. That is what we all would be speaking if we went by tradition and culture…that is what our ancient ancestors spoke when they walked out to populate the beautiful green Earth. And that is what we have lost to the dusts of time…

Now the babel of more than 5000 languages have become sources of unhappy divisions instead of a means to communicate to make our own lives easier and happier. I wonder, how our great (to the power a hundred and twenty thousand generations or more) grandmother, the celebrated Lucy, would react to this medley of words …

 

Advertisements

Leaving China

image

Chapter 9

Happiness is a subjective thing. People feel happy for different reasons and in different places. I found happiness among friends and people in Suzhou. When I left Singapore, I was convinced that I had lost the ability to make friends. It came as a pleasant surprise in Suzhou that I had not.

I found friends with no effort. People were appreciative of what I had to offer. China started out as a country which for me was shrouded in mysteries. The people who mingled with me had all come from different countries, including China. Perhaps, I got in touch with the positive energy within me. I do not know why and how it happened. Did it happen because I had started doing pranayama five days a week? Or, was it because I had no expectation from the people around me? Whereas, in Singapore, I did?

Perhaps, when we travel, we learn to accept things as they come. We become more open about people, cultural rituals, things and places. By cultural rituals, I mean social norms as well as the cultural heritage of a people brought up in a particular way. Imagine, when Marco Polo crossed over the Pamirs, through the Uzbek territory into China, how many different varieties of people, languages and cultures had he experienced? In those days you had no electronic translators. How did he grapple with the languages? His father, Nicolo Polo, could talk the language of Tartars, the account says. He had picked it up as he travelled across the continents! When we travel nowadays, we have our electronic equipment or little books with translated phrases to cope with foreign languages, cultures and people. We have our pre-conceived notions too and try to fit the country and people in that. For instance, in Singapore and Malaysia, often Indians are associated with vegetarianism and Bollywood. There are many in India who eat all kinds of meat, fish and non-vegetarian food and are not appreciative of the song, dance and culture of Bollywood, just as there are many Americans who may be vegetarians and non-representative of Hollywood! Pre-judging a person by the norms of a country or a race, I have learnt, is always inaccurate. Putting people into boxes of nationality and culture is an error I would not like to be guilty of. Can you factory produce people in pre-conceived groups with labels? Aldous Huxley actually wrote a whole book about it… Brave New World. He based the boxing, or rather the bottling of embryos, on intelligence levels and economic needs. Schools were set up and the products were educated to suit their stations and cultural needs in life. It was rather a bleak scenario he painted.

In contrast, I prefer Marco Polo’s outlook. He took life as it came. He travelled half way around the world and made his own conclusions and lived and roamed as an free individual. In Saba, Persia, he looked for the grave of the three Magi who blessed the newborn Christ with gold, frankincense and myrrh. He never saw the grave but, because he believed in it, he narrated with conviction.

What has come down to us is an interesting read, chronicling customs and history in a way no historian can emulate. It is an individual perspective, beyond borders, beyond nations, beyond space though mapping an era. Ruminating over world history, I feel after the national borders had been drawn by the power brokers of the world, we lost out on our ingenuity and wonder for the world around us. We spent our time worrying about acquiring wealth, exhibiting money and power and warring over property and boundary lines. That has led us nowhere because, for most common people, it does not matter. What does matter is we have food to eat, education for children, a fruitful and happy life. When has warring over borders ever made any common person happy? Yet, people are willing to sacrifice their lives for a concept that was an outcome of industrial revolution, a nation. It is, as TED speaker Taiye Selasi pointed out, not even a real thing. Why is it we cannot rise above these concepts and live in a world where our introduction is that of a good human being?

Most of the friends I made in China were just good human beings to me. The countries didnot matter. Something clicked for us in a way it didnot click for me when I looked for friends within the confines of the borders of my country of origin, my motherland. I had very less in common with the representatives of my country of birth that I came across in my journey through the world. And, yet, most people try to tie me down to a region. I have moved so often since I got married that if I kept looking for roots, I would feel bereft. I look for what I gathered within me from different places I lived in, travelled to, from people who impacted my thinking, from ideas that help me look for a more positive future…

Some of my friends, like Donatella and Heidi, pointed out to me that what was most important for being friends was that our heart remained in sync. Recently, I had an interesting discussion by email on education with Heidi and Joanna, a Chilean friend married to a Finnish. Joanna, a mother to two sons, one of them being a good friend of Aditya, had lived in Australia for eight years and now she is living in Suzhou. We could discuss the systems from Finland, India, China, Singapore, Canada and Australia. The outcome of the discussion showed that every country had strengths and weaknesses in it’s systems. I would have liked to pick the best of each for my kids. They cannot study in each of these countries but I have at least put them in a system which aims at bringing out the best in the child. It does have it’s hiccups but I would say that I cannot think of a better alternative.

I would like my children to think mankind and not nations. I would like them to be like sunshine, open, free and bright. And luckily for me, they and many of their friends do not think borders atall. Aditya in his English essay in the eighth grade called himself a citizen of the world. My sons speak five languages and have friends from all over the world. They know bad words in probably ten to twenty languages, including Korean and Finnish! That is a start!

In China, pasta is called Yi Da Li mian. The direct translation is Italian noodle. In China, we eat mian and in Italy, pasta, the difference in flavour is from the herbs, garnish and oil used. But, the staple is the same…Historically, there are number of theories about the origin of pasta. Some say Marco Polo carried it back from China to Italy. Some say it was Arabic and some even say, Greek. In China, noodles were eaten 4000 years ago, according to a National Geographic report in 2005. Either ways, the stuff remains most popular through the ages served in an Italian or Chinese way.

I started figuring out all this after moving to China. However, I had to leave China to figure out some more stuff… I had to be in Singapore, missing my friends and my life in China to write this book. I had to think and reflect on why I felt lonely and irritable after moving back and then find the answers.

I missed the vibrancy of life, happiness and the feeling of being a traveller through time…like Marco Polo. I wanted to continue in the society of optimists who made things happen with their positive outlook and enthusiasm for living! I wanted to live perpetually in a world without borders…