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Posts Tagged ‘Babel’

We only had one day wandering round Dublin, but I managed to see some incredible things. I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of the Chester Beatty Library, but one of the seminarians persuaded us to visit there first, and the manuscripts are absolutely outstanding. I won’t splurge or use the exclamation mark; just let me copy this short description of some of the exhibits from their website:

The early New Testament papyri are, for many visitors, the greatest Christian treasures to be seen at the Library.

These incredible discoveries were first made public in The Times (19 November 1931). Before this find, the earliest and most important manuscripts of the Greek New Testament were parchment codices from the fourth and fifth centuries, all dating from the period after Constantine had granted toleration to Christianity.

Only a few small fragments of papyrus with portions of the New Testament from an earlier date were known, and most of these were too small to be of much significance.

The discovery of the Chester Beatty New Testament papyri caused a sensation; they were at least 100 years older than the most important parchment codices at that time.

The papyri not only contained much larger portions of the New Testament than any previously known papyri, but also provided a unique witness to the biblical text at a time when Christianity was experiencing extensive persecution and destruction of its scriptures.

By acquiring these early Christian texts, including the earliest surviving codex of the gospels and acts, the earliest copy of Saint Paul’s Letters and the earliest copy of the Book of Revelation, as well as many other early or unique versions of homilies, epistles or pseudo-canonical texts, Chester Beatty’s Library became one of the major centres in the world for the study of the Christian Bible.

Here is the section about St Paul:

This significant New Testament papyrus in the Chester Beatty collection contains the texts of the letters of St. Paul, dating from around the years AD 180-200. It is one of the great treasures to survive from the early Christian church.

Paul’s letters are among the earliest surviving Christian texts and are a unique witness to the spread of Christianity and the Gospels. Only four other known papyri contain portions of more than one of Paul’s letters, and of these four, two are of a much later date. The early date of the Chester Beatty codex and the fact that it contains almost the complete text of the letters of Paul, makes this codex extremely important for the study of the text of Paul’s letters.

There was also a fragment from St John’s Gospel from the second half of the second century. I can’t resist an exclamation mark here: it was incredible! It was the Greek text of Jesus saying to Mary, ‘Woman, here is your son’, and to the Beloved Disciple, ‘Here is your mother’.

If you want to follow the St Paul up further, see the Michigan website here about the P46 codex.

I had lunch with a friend at the Dominican friary at St Saviour’s, tea in the centre of the city with another friend, and then a very disappointing pilgrimage to the church where Venerable Matt Talbot is buried – it was closed! I couldn’t believe it; in the middle of the Eucharistic Congress one of the most important shrines in Dublin was closed. Oh well – lucky I managed to venerate his relics at one of the stalls at the Exhibition Hall in the Congress earlier in the week. And then I managed to get half an hour in the Hugh Lane Gallery to see the Francis Bacon studio. If I get time I’ll post about Matt Talbot and Francis Bacon later on.

The reason we ended up in Babel was because of the Dublin Spire (or Spike as most people seemed to call it). I couldn’t find a single person in the city who liked it – and I asked lots of them out of curiosity. But I thought it was wonderful. Tall (obviously), graceful, somehow full of meaning and utterly meaningless at the same time. It is the ultimate Tower of Babel – reaching for the sky simply because that’s what human beings do.

And it created the marvellous illusion, if you stand about ten feet from the base, that it actually continues up and up without limits and pierces the clouds – like Jack’s beanstalk.

So it was a fascinating few hours in Dublin, and I hope I can go back sometime soon and visit everything I didn’t see; and get into Matt’s church!

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I’ve just discovered a new word: “Globish”. This is the simplified form of English used today as a means of global communication, often learnt as a third or fourth language.

Does the rise and rise of Globish mean that English will continue to be the lingua franca of the technological age?  

Perhaps it’s not true to say that English is dying out, but it may have a much shorter shelf life than many expect. This is what Nicolas Ostler argues in an interview with Robert McCrum, talking about his latest book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.

English is on an up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now. So the essential idea is to see what happened to them and see if this could possibly be relevant to the situation of English, which is the world’s lingua franca today.

The main point is simply that linguistic empires rise and fall. But two other arguments are made. The first is about technology:

It’s been the received wisdom in language technology that machine translation isn’t good enough. But all that’s preventing it from being good enough is just a problem of scale. The way that machine translation is now being pushed forward simply involves being able to process more and more data in order to find the significant patterns. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There’s no way that the little problem of incompatibility between languages is going to stand in the way of it for long.

And because it’s being done in a data-based way, the techniques which will solve the problem will solve it for all languages, not just the big important ones. So even remote Aboriginal groups will benefit – maybe a generation later, maybe sooner. And when that happens, people will be able to fulfil themselves through their own language, which is what they always wanted to do anyway.

The second argument is that however widely spoken English may be as a lingua franca today, for many people it doesn’t go very deep as a living language:

I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can’t help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish – a simplified version of English that’s used around the world – will be there as long as it is needed, but since it’s not being picked up as a mother tongue, it’s not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language.

Ostler is the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. You can see the website here.

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