Saturday, February 11, 2006

Will Robert Langdons of linguistics save the world?

I believe that in coming times, it will be linguists, and especially experts on semantics and syntax – in this order – who will change the world for better. As the world conflict increases because of misunderstandings of language, and the purpose behind language, linguists will be spurred into action. They will examine human language more closely; and during this study they will discover amazing similarity of patterns, tones, and themes in the language of humans.

Not only will pure language (?) reveal interesting relations among world languages, but the themes in global stories and folklore will also appear to have amazing commonalities.

This knowledge will travel down from the academic world to the general public. For the first time, the population of the world will be surprised – and shocked – that they all may have been saying the same thing, differently.

Which way to Hellfire? Gehinom, and Jahannum

For me, the realization was accidental. Thanks to the company of learned family, educators and friends, I have known for a long time about the etymology (origins) of many Urdu words, and have had some idea about the derivation of the language Urdu itself. But I had no idea of similar concepts…sounding alike…in Urdu and… Hebrew!

While reading up on Jewish eschatology (beliefs about the end of world), I saw the term “Hibbut ha-kever, the pains of the grave.” I like new languages, so I said the word out loud. It sounded familiar. Urdu readers who try this out will not miss. Soon, they will hear something that sounds like, “haibat e-qabar.” Meaning? “The horror/s of the grave.” Then there’s Gehinom (“purgatory” in Hebrew) and Jahannum (“hellfire” in Urdu). With slight difference, the concepts largely refer to the same things. Eureka! *

Robert Langdon: an Intercultural De-mystifier

No, I do not think Dan Brown is a literary genius, only a phenomenon. Both The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons were “putdownable” half way down. But I like character Robert Langdon’s career interests: he is a (religious) symbologist connecting the dots and revealing the hidden links between religious symbols and their history. The most important contribution of the Code, indeed, might be to spark an interest in (religious) art history.

Just as Robert traces links between symbols and weaves a thread across cultures and thus beliefs, the linguists of the near (near, I hope) future will present for the people of the world links between their words, and concepts and constructs. A little help from philosophers, of course, will be needed.

The Talk of Civilizations

While there has been much work on conflict resolution and language already, the issue is making that knowledge a part of the social construct of the societies around the globe. Besides, knowledge alone is often worth not much in itself, but its application is.

Knowledge is like fire; it is the application that makes the difference. Which is why the use of knowledge by the untrained or ill-willed can make knowledge useless or dangerous.

The knowledge is out there, mostly already worked out by the left-brained. With the rise of the creative class and the right-brained, there is higher hope that the connections between bits of knowledge will be made to lead to a wider understanding approaching the universal.

Yours Literally

The most heart-breaking (at first) and heart-warming (later) realization will be that much we each took for “literal” was actually symbolic or analogical. The folklore of the world has been hiding layers of meanings. Most recently, Harry Potter fans, critics, and “analysts” have dedicated sites and written books to discover the layers of meanings in the series. Know what the horrific Dementors personify? I like the one that says they personify Depression. They suck energy out when they’re around, and a dose of chocolate helps after they paid a visit. I tested this one on many die-hard Potter fans. None knew.

Interestingly, we may be missing similar meanings in ancient, older, and foreign texts and taking them too literally.

Grapes or Angoor?

Or we may realize that in many instances, it was merely a difference in our language, which is a form of concepts, that we differed over in substance. A Sufi story saw that a long time ago. In the story, men of various nationalities fought over what they will buy for food. The Pakistani wanted, “angoor.” The Englishmen insisted upon buying “grapes.” The German wanted “trauben.” And the Spaniard demanded, “uvas,” instead.

I have modernized the nationalities, but the story remains the same. For how long will it? We don’t know. For the sake of humanity, it’s hopefully a short period before realization dawns.

* Most references are from Wikipedia, as of February 11, 2006. Wikipedia will provide an excellent starting point for more research on the topic. In itself, Wikipedia is a melting pot – a phenomenon of multi-cultural and multi-linguistic interaction, and the many differences that arise naturally.

- This article has just been edited because I couldn't read it myself.
Hey, I do feel language must get simpler! I promise no more late-night writing. I channel some old spirit when I write late night. Happy reading!

Image credits: Logoi for the Chinese alphabet; and
andrea_j for the letter A. Alphabet "Alif" is a painting by Ali Omer Ermes.


Fyza said...

good going Ramla. I have been thinking lately, in fact working lately, on how language carries the whole of a nation's psyche and culture. And this issue has been intriguing me that there is so much similarity between different cultures and languages. Esp. arabic and hebrew are very close in sound and meaning..urdu and persian are close...derivatives one of another, of course. I was wondering if it would really be a good idea for the world to be 'globalized' thus by bridging gaps between the semantics of various languages. But no, i would rather NOT have it that way. I would rather love the diversity therein..

just a random thought :)

keep dreaming right!

Ramla A. said...


There is no suggestion or dream of a GLOBAL-de-gook language. Languages are, and will remain, diverse.

If diversity was not the nature of things, we'd not have 300+ varieties of potatoes.

The suggestion is to UNDERSTAND that there are common roots to all languages... not academically, but to see the larger reality: there is Unity behind Diversity.

P.S. May I suggest a reading of Jostein Gaarder's Maya, if you are very interested in the subject. After Sophie's World, I have found Maya a thoughtful way to understand Unity.