Babel and Pentecost--Post-Colonial Languages, Identities, and Biblical Models


How much is our language a shaper of our identity? Alternately, how much is our identity dependent on the language we must speak to communicate in public life or to write for a wide-spread audience? Within post-colonialism, one continuing source of debate is whether native authors should use the language of their former colonizers--English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, or Arabic. Those who reject the use of such languages point to how the colonizer's tongue was used as a tool for colonial hegemony. Many recall the experience of having their native language treated as inferior in school, even outlawed for public discourse. Those who defend the use of non-native languages argue that such languages can be made to bear the weight of native experience, that they can be adopted, altered and reworked for local purposes, and that they will reach a larger, more global audience.   Alongside this debate is another debate concerning the validity--both pragmatically and aesthetically--of native forms of colonial languages, sometimes called creoles, pidgins, or dialects. Are these, for example, authentically native and, therefore, sources of pride?

These issues are somewhat involved with what have been called "mold" and "cloak" theories of speech.  "Mold" theories propose that what we believe is shaped by the cognitive and emotional resources of our languages, while "cloak" theories stress that our thinking is semi-dependent of language, that it could be covered or expressed by any number of tongues.The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a famous example of a mold theory.  The hypothesis in its weak form argues that language shapes the way we view reality by giving us patterns that precondition our choices for describing what we experience (e.g. color schemes, domestic structures, local tools, names for natural phenomena, senses of direction, or seasons of the year).  The hypothesis in its strong form would suggest our worldviews are determined by our language, and that languages are, for all accounts and purposes, incommensurable to one another. To be forced to or even to voluntarily adopt a language other than one's native language is at some level to become a human being of a different sort.  Change the language, and you change your worldview and, thus, your identity. Even the weak form of Sapir-Whorf would suggest that to use a different language is to color your world with different shading, even if not to be entirely different or incommensurable to another.

Interestingly enough, biblical translation organizations like Wycliffe and Rhema hold a similar understanding; namely, that every person should have the Christian scriptures in his or her "heart language," that is, their first language, the one most formative of identity and understanding. Even if the Bible is already translated into a nearby trade language that a people use for cultural and economic exchange, biblical translators insist that this is not good enough because such a secondary language doesn't speak to persons' most intimate concerns. The Bible would speak as an outsider (perhaps, even as a colonizer). Thus, while a colonizer's language ironically might be useful as the language of neutrality in trade situations, it finally cannot express a culture's spiritual and aesthetic being.

Consider the Pinupti word "katarta." Goanna lizards, native to Australia, upon awakening from hibernation, poke a hole from their plugged burrows through to the surface.  This hole is a katarta. An aboriginal speaker only needs one word, while an English speaker needs a rather complex sentence. While both speakers can discuss the concept, the Pinupti speaker can do so more quickly and easily. Codability, according to Peter Herriot, is "the ease with which a language tag can be used to distinguish one item from another." The experience is, thus, initially much more codable for the native speaker. English speakers will either have to adopt the word or create an English coin-phrase with a close proximity if they wish to discuss the concept with any ease. Now, multiply this example over a whole language and one can begin to sense the way language can massage perception.

Add to this the nature of translation itself. George Steiner notes that every translation undergoes four stages:

  1. Initiative trust, a belief that there is content to be understood and imparted
  2. Aggression, a move to comprehend the text in question
  3. Incorporation, the step by which the text in question is brought over into the receptor language
  4. Compensation, the parity that must be obtained in the new language because one recognizes that something is always lost from the original.

This is why translators debate what kind of translation will best serve the original text.  Should one translate as closely as possible word-for-word; should one attempt a more dynamic equivalence, ala' thought-for-thought? And how can one possibly account for anything like the rhythms, the speech patterns, the codability of the original?

The same kind of question could then be asked of using a secondary language. What happens in a post-colonial setting where the language in question may not be the first language of the author? Can a novel written in English, for example, ever do justice to the Hindi or Yoruba experience? At least five overlapping approaches are taken:

  1. rejection: the dismissal of the colonizer language either as too freighted with a non-native worldview and/or as the continued tool of a neo-colonial ruling elite that is native only in racial background.
  2. abrogation: the rejection of "standard" forms of the colonizer's speech for the dialect, creole, or pidgin forms used by native peoples. Kamau Brathwaite calls this "nation language" and stresses that such forms have a native, oral rhythm that is distinctively non-colonial.
  3. mimicry: the resulting appropriation, distortion, even mockery of the colonizer language by native speakers.
  4. relexification: the process whereby a colonizer's language is made to simulate the rhythms or speech patterns of the native language and/or the post-colonial use of the colonizer language.
  5. liminality: the process whereby liminal spaces are opened up between two cultures where exchange may take place. To use a colonial language liminally is to transform it into a place where hyrbridity of culture and discourse occurs.

Of course, other possibilities include the old colonial one--a full acceptance of the colonizing language as the bearer of progress and civilization, though this is understandably not a particularly popular one in post-colonial studies--and a bilingual or multilingual text that assumes audiences that may only speak one language but also privileges those that speak both.

In almost all the methods mentioned, there is an assumption that the use of the colonizer's former language is a socio-political and cultural move that has an impact on many areas of life. Two biblical passages are of particular interest when considering the relationship of language, identity, and colonialism. Genesis 11 describes the judgment upon the imperial project of Babel. As Miroslav Volf notes, "Imperial architects seek to unify by suppressing differences that do not fit into a single grand scheme; they strive to make their own name great by erasing the names of simple people and small nations" (226). The resulting judgement is one of scattering what should not be forcefully unified. Babel reminds us that God is not a God who obscures diversity.   Acts 2, on the other hand, describes God's blessing on the early church at Pentecost. Rather than God channeling the gospel through one voice only, the anointing of the Spirit comes so that each may be understood in his or her own language. Again, Volf:

Whereas the tower seeks to make people "not see" and "not speak" and sucks the energies out of the margins in order to stabilize and aggrandize the center, the Spirit pours energies into the margins, opens the eyes of small people to see what no one has seen before, puts the creative words of prophecy into their mouths, and empowers them to be creative agents of God's reign. (228).

One principle we can then apply is that of biblical justice: does the use of a colonizer language lead to Babel or to Pentecost? In this sense, Pentecost and Babel are two sides of the same notion. God refuses the human attempt to bottle up the weak and oppressed's voices; instead, he pours out his good news through an array of tongues. Pentecost also reminds us that God will not let us remain incommensurable in our native tongues, for we are opened up to each other in the inclusiveness of the gospel.    We should expect creoles, liminality, and relexification. These are all expressions of the changing nature of things. The separation and binding of creation is carried out in language. There may be instances when the rejection of the colonizer language best serves the immediate deconstructing of a political and cultural hegemony, yet we should beware of situations where separation continues to refuse to bind back again, becoming a new Babel on a minor scale.

The experience of biblical translators is again instructive at this point. Biblical translation in practice is a mixture of mold and cloak. Mold, because as we discussed above, it assumes the importance of the heart language of a people, but also cloak, because it assumes Steiner's model is not insurmountable. The Bible's essential power to speak to every people is mediated through even imperfect translations. Moreover, as the multicultural nature of church and scripture remind us, the gospel is commensurable with the linguistic identity of every people. No tongue is closed off to the vocabulary of the gospel, yet each tongue also has resources to further unpack the Bible as well. We are all working towards a condition of the codability of the kingdom of God in our midst. In a sense, all biblical translation is a further expression of Pentecost.

Herriot, Peter. Introduction to the Psychology of Language. London: Routledge, 1976.

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding