The Last Word : Babel
Latin, German, French, Italian, Swedish, Swahili. These are all languages in which I've sung in choir or in Community Chorus. Sometimes I have a hard time wrapping my mouth around the syllables, especially the language that uses a click sound, but it is lovely to make music using the original language.
Translations can occasionally be only vague representations of the foreign words and always at the mercy of the translator's skill and the rhythms on the page. You can't give the same note value to a one syllable word as a four syllable one, so lyric translators have the task of finding words that mean the same thing, and fit the notes. On the other hand, some words are so similar, it's easy to pick out the linguistic DNA of our own language. Alleluia is Hallelujah in any language.
There are almost 7,000 known languages in the world. Of dialects, countless. All Homo sapiens have language. The fact that every culture, every tribe, nation, island has a language so evolved that it can express philosophy is what we humans all have in common. Every language has the linguistics to describe emotion and abstracts. Maybe every language doesn't contain the vocabulary for electronic devise setup (hence the bizarre and always amusing translations on stereo instructions), but the gift of language gives every human being a vocabulary for describing his or her environment and experience. This gift is so taken for granted that we fret only when Little Joe hasn't anything to say until his third birthday. And not every practitioner of speech is gifted with all of the words in his particular language, but the words to describe basic human needs and desires are there.
It is a common belief that children exposed to other languages at an early age will take to them like a duck to water; that the ability to process multiple vocabularies and syntaxes is like a soft sponge, just waiting to absorb the water of language. I spent a winter many years ago as a payment cashier at my local Sears. We not only took Sears payments, but stood in for the Connecticut Light and Power electric company. My small town Connecticut community, back in the last century, was 51 percent Italian and these little old ladies (this is not a condescending description; they were elderly and most of them barely came up to the ledge of the counter) would come to my window accompanied by their grandchildren, tots of five and six, who would act as translators. The kids bounced from Italian to English not even realizing they could do it. On the other hand, while I was still in high school, it wasn't uncommon for the teenage children of first- and second-generation immigrants to deny that they spoke Italian.
They might say, "Oh, I understand it, but I can't speak it." It was as if by admitting fluency in the language of their parents they were less American, more outsiders.
The ability to learn new languages is not given to all of us. I struggled with high school French, did pretty well with college German, but can't speak more than a sentence or two of either language, and certainly never got to the point where I could argue my electric bill.
It is often said that certain books should be read in the original language they were written in to appreciate the author's true words. Back in the days of a classical education, that's what boys did - they read "The Iliad" in Greek and conjugated Latin verbs because knowing those languages meant they were educated. Maybe they didn't actually learn how to speak conversational Greek, but they knew how to parse out "The Odyssey" as Homer dictated it.
Humans ascribe language to all manner of vertebrates. It's as if we can't imagine that speech isn't the chief method of communication among our bird and mammal brethren. I know that my dog at least tries to speak, and I don't mean that cutesy bark on command business. She can enunciate something that, to my ear, sounds a lot like "Let's go out now." When I listen to a mockingbird run through his repertoire, I wonder if the native speakers, the jays, chickadees, Carolina wrens, and other birds, hear the mockingbird's impressions with a mockingbird accent, like we hear English spoken by Gerard Depardieu in a French accent. Do any of them believe that one of their own is speaking? Does the mockingbird understand the vocabulary of the bird language he is uttering? Is he multi-lingual, or just a good mimic?
Even when our ears do not hear, we humans make up our own nonverbal method of speech, e.g., the American Sign Language for the Deaf. What I never realized is that sign languages, like spoken languages, differ. When the up-Island deaf community developed its own sign language, it was unique to Martha's Vineyard and to those who interacted with the deaf population. An off-Island user of sign language might not have been able to understand a word and would have needed a translator.
It's a miracle, this need for language. I marvel at Helen Keller for the same reason. Not only was she deprived of sight and hearing, but could not speak - and yet, as an adult, she learned how to talk so that she was no longer separated from the world by lack of a common language. The desire to express her experience and thoughts in language was as hard-coded in Helen Keller as it is in every human and she rose above her limitations to speak for herself.