Malala Got Shot for Just Saying
What We Say Matters
In his fascinating After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (NY: Oxford University Press, 1975), George Steiner speculated on the origins of languages. At first it seems like a no-brainer: given all the people and geographies and histories and wars and all that has happened over time, sure, we have a whole lot of languages. But Steiner goes all systematic through the known number of languages over the course of history and asks the rather obvious question: Why? Given that human bodies all work roughly the same way, and that we ingest roughly the same foods the world over, and the we all need air and water and sunshine and coffee (ahem)…why is it again we don’t all speak the same language? It’s a great question and his book is a readable and erudite discussion on the topic. I’m only a few chapters in, but two things stand out:
- Steiner believes all of communication is translation. Whether inside a language or between languages, we are constantly translating and decoding words and meaning. I think he is right about that: there is no end to trying to understand each other. Even couples married for decades need to translate the words spoken by the spouse to understand what it is they really meant. And then to sort out what they should do about it.
- Steiner speculated on a “proto-language,” a sort of first language from which all other languages descended. Steiner called it Ur-Sprache (p.58) and likened it to the language of Eden. A supremely powerful language that when spoken, made stuff happen. One need only think of a couple old Bible stories to get the sense of the promise of this old language: God speaking stuff into existence and Adam naming all the animals (with no committees second-guessing his naming choices).
But…alas…this language is no more.
Or is it?
Maybe we still see hints of Ur-Sprache every day, when we say things and our saying seems to make it so. Saying a thought aloud has a kind of generative effect. Not always. And with more or less effect. But still—stuff happens when we talk.
Maybe this is why people in the U.S. hold so tightly to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. And why people all over the world agree that freedom of speech is a human right (except for despots, when speech calls attention to their efforts to rape and pillage their people). And maybe that’s why we feel almost personally violated by the Taliban in Pakistan singling out and shooting a teenager (Malala Yousafzai) for speaking her mind. It is beyond repulsive. Beyond degenerate.