The riddle of Babel: Language's missing link
The Times of India, December 19, 2003

LUCKNOW : Was the Biblical Tower of Babel merely a metaphorical
representation of a linguistic chaos unleashed by the lack of commonality?
Or was it a pointer to the missing link in human interaction? The detractors
and supporters of this position are equally vocal. There are about 6,700
languages spoken in the world today, while a few centuries back, there were
close to 10,000.

Is the Tower tottering? Or are the world's peoples understanding
each other better? Professor Sushant Mishra, lecturer at the Central
Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Lucknow , explains that there is
a definite common strain between all languages. "We have exclusive responses
to all physical and emotional needs, but needs across the world essentially
remain the same," he explains. For example: "In China we have a different
word for rice as compared to the equivalent word in Hindi. But we are
essentially asking for the same commodity, hence the commonality in a

Christian Matthiessen, professor at Macquarie University ,
Sydney , has a different take. "Human language and humans have co-evolved,
therefore human language is as complex as the human brain. It is very
difficult to find a commonality between something as complex as this,"
Matthiessen posits. He says that of the 6,700 languages spoken today, only
about 300-400 have a reasonable description (as opposed to various dialects
of one language), while the rest are unaccounted. This makes it even more
complicated when one searches for a commonality.

But at a more abstract level, there does exist a link between
all languages stresses Professor MAK Halliday from the University of Sydney,
Australia. "All languages have the same basic architecture and also a
similar functional structure." Since every language is a theory of human
experience, "the commonality lies in the way we interpret reality," he says.

On the other hand, Matthiessen believes that for any particular
experience, three kinds of interpretations are possible. "We interpret and
reciprocate our experience of the world; on the interpersonal level, we
enact our social roles; and finally, we understand the text in the context
that it was spoken in," he explains.

And then there are linguists who swear allegiance to the
'Chomskian' school of thought that posits an underlying commonality between
languages and between the basic thought patterns of humans. Also, according
to Professor Robin Fawcett, professor of linguistics at the Cardiff
University , Wales , "The conceptual systems into which we interpret our
languages, have sufficient enough in common to enable us to recognise
approximate equivalences." This, incidentally, is the reason why we are able
to perform the rather complex task of translating text from one language to
another, Fawcett points out. And the riddle remains.