From foreign speech to unfamiliar script, not understanding a language can be an awesome way to understand otherness
A Kinder Surprise egg seems an unlikely artefact in which to find hope. A chocolate egg containing a small plastic toy in a yolk-yellow capsule, the most common hope it represents is that a harassed parent will be able to quieten down a child for a little while. Certainly, that’s why I originally bought them. But the tiny folded message inside the capsule soon drew me in further. Warning of the dangers to small children of the plastic toys – in 37 languages – the legalistic message was deemed necessary after it became known that toddlers have indeed choked on these small parts. Kinder Surprise eggs are, in fact, banned from sale in several countries for precisely this reason. For me, the sight of so many languages, from Armenian to Vietnamese, in such a small and singular space, is a source of wonder that transcends the manuscript’s stern purpose, never mind that I can neither speak nor read half of them.
One might think the opacity of unknown languages would give us sober pause, underscoring our separateness, and the irreconcilable differences that exist between us. This is the message of the foundational biblical myth concerning the Tower of Babel. The book of Jubilees describes how the monolingual peoples of the world come together with the hubristic intent to build a tower to reach the heavens. God dispatches this threat to his omnipotence by smashing down the tower in anger, as reported in Jubilees, and causing a ‘confusion of tongues’ among the builders, who, no longer able to collaborate, fall into conflict and violence.
While the theological implications of the story – that if we could all understand each other we would challenge God – may not resonate so strongly these days, the idea that a lack of understanding underpins human conflict seems to be an enduring one. Yet here’s the rub: for all the potency of the myth, it has dubious psychosocial validity. In fact, not understanding the language of the other can be a more powerful way of reminding us of our common humanity.
On the myth-busting front, consider this: while human conflict is as pervasive as ever, the linguistic landscape has grown less confusing. Modern nation-states have promoted single national languages at the expense of regional dialects, leading to the disappearance of local vernaculars, while the mass media and the rise of global English has only enhanced this centralising tendency. Indeed, language extinction is proceeding at such a rate that the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists 2,464 languages that are currently at risk of extinction.
Consider, too, that some of the most inflamed conflicts today are between people who speak the same language. The constant bitterness and abuse that permeate social media wars are rarely caused by linguistic differences (as opposed to the particular use of words; on trans issues, for example). I would even argue that the problem with social media is that it’s allowed us to understand the other too well. It’s salutary to see previously well-respected intellectuals reveal sides of themselves online that many of us would rather have not known existed.
My passion for not understanding language frees me to revel in the manifold sounds the human mouth can make, the tiny nuances the pen produces on paper
Where conflict does occur between peoples who speak different languages, mutual incomprehension is often far from causal. The Second World War was not a fight between German/Italian/Japanese and English/French/Russian, but between states, social systems and ideologies that proved incommensurable. Where language is a principal issue in conflict, it is often part of a wider set of differences: the tension between French- and Flemish-speakers in Belgium is intimately connected to economic divides between the de-industrialised, French-speaking south and the more prosperous north.
If the confusion of tongues is not the primary source of human conflict, might the corollary be true: that resolving conflict doesn’t require a common language? I’d always assumed that talking to each other, whether directly or through an intermediary, was an essential component of peace-making. More broadly, I assumed that peace-making meant finding a common language in the sense of finding a common idiom – a shared frame of reference in which communication becomes possible. Over the years that I’ve been involved in interfaith work between Jews and Muslims, and in intrafaith work within the Jewish community, addressing delicate questions of coexistence, I’ve been inspired by practitioners and theorists of dialogue such as David Bohm. Also, the philosophers Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, both of whom deemed the intimacy of conversation and conviviality essential to developing a better, more human-scaled, world.
I haven’t lost this heady, even mystical, faith in the possibilities of meeting and talking with the other. But more recently I’ve sought to understand how similarly transcendent possibilities can arise from not talking with the other, or even being able to understand their voice. Philosophically and theologically, I’ve subscribed to Martin Buber’s ideal of working towards ‘I-Thou’ encounters, in which we each meet the other mutually as authentic individuals, without objectification or qualification.
Here we come back to the Kinder Surprise. I love to peruse scripts I cannot understand, signs I cannot parse: Czech diacritics, the loops and curves of Georgian, the intricacies of Chinese characters, the elegant fluency of Arabic. In my book The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language (2021), I went further, commissioning dozens more translations of the Kinder egg message into tongues as out of the way as ancient Egyptian and Klingon. My passion for not understanding language releases me from the effort of comprehension, freeing me to revel in the manifold sounds the human mouth can make, the tiny nuances the pen produces on paper. It made me wonder if Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ encounter might not require any dialogue at all? What if his concept of ‘dialogue’ – which he contrasts with the ‘I-It’ instrumentalism and objectification of ‘monologue’ – could be taken non-literally?
Buber modelled the I-Thou relationship on the (potential) relationship between God and humanity. He explicitly cautions against pursuing a direct relationship with God, since that would be to treat God as an ‘it’, and instead positions the I-Thou relationship as requiring of us a kind of surrender, opening up the possibility of an encounter that is both ineffable and real. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was similarly preoccupied by our relationship with the ‘other’ – so often a synonym for objects of hatred and suspicion, the target of Buber’s ‘it’. For Levinas, though, the other is at once entirely separate from us and yet intimately connected to us – an other being like us. When we encounter the face of an other, it reminds us of the infinity of responsibility we have to each other. In Levinas’s ethics, we are intimately bound up in each other through our very separateness.
Though history is scarred by unhappy encounters with the other, there exist traditions that emphasise an unconditional acceptance of otherness. In his book Hello Stranger (2021), Will Buckingham shows how hospitality is, in some cultures, an act of radical openness. In some Bedouin traditions, the host must not ask the guest the purpose of their visit, but focus on ritual pleasantries and the sharing of food and shelter, rejecting instrumental – ‘I-It’ – relationships in favour of something more fundamental.
Aware of the dangers of orientalism and imperialism, I try to purge myself of images of snow-capped mountain tops and chanting monks when I contemplate Dzongkha
Just as radical is the idea that the possibilities contained in embracing otherness might actually be imperilled by the work of understanding. To attempt to communicate through language can lead to the worst of all worlds: assuming that nothing separates us, yet also confronting us with desires, values and viewpoints that are incomprehensible. In contrast, the linguistically incomprehensible other can force us to focus on the faces and bodies we share, and the humanity that binds us together.
This may all seem abstract and high-minded, but the pleasures and potential of not understanding languages are very real. Consider this rendering of the Kinder Surprise warning into Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, written in a version of Tibetan script:
ཉེན་བརྡ། ཨ་ནིཡི་གུ་འདི་ ལེགས་ཤོམ་སྦེ་ ལྷག་ཞིནམ་ལས་ བདག་འཛིན་ཐབས་སྟེ་ བཀའ་དྲིན་བསྐྱང་གནང་། ཨ་ལུ་སྐྱེས་ལོ་གསུམ་མན་ཆད་ཚུ་གིས་ དོན་ལུ་འོས་འབབ་མེད་ཨིན། ག་དེམ་ཅིག་སྦེ་ རྩེདམོ་རྩེད་བ་ཅིན་ རྩེདམོ་གིས་ཅ་ཆས་ཚུ་ ལྐོད་མར་གཏང་ནི་ ཉེན་ཁ་ཡོདཔ་ཨིན།
To me, this is as delightful to contemplate as any art form. Its elegance and delicacy completely belie the dreary austerity of the message it communicates. To someone from Bhutan, it’s an everyday message; to me – who cannot understand it – it is a startling reminder of how, to put it in non-Levinasian terms, human beings are awesome. Maybe I am reminded of my own awesomeness too; since my everyday language may, to an other, be an incomprehensible delight.
Nothing comes without danger though. Finding pleasure in the incomprehensible language of others, no matter how profound a Levinasian/Buberian encounter it offers, can be twisted into the very objectification both philosophers abhorred. A middle-aged white man extolling Dzongkha script risks repeating the patronising discourse of imperialism, and treating the non-white other as someone capable of producing beauty almost despite themselves (while incapable of telling us anything that would challenge our superiority). In a small way, I know what it is to be linguistically patronised: on visits to the US Midwest, people have told me how much they love my English accent. I have no doubt it is genuinely felt, but it feels like I am being treated as a pet.
Appreciating languages we do not understand takes work, if it is to contribute to a Levinasian encounter with otherness. That work involves interrogating the associations that an incomprehensible language holds, in order to release oneself from them. Aware of the dangers of orientalism and imperialism, I try to purge myself of images of snow-capped mountain tops and chanting monks when I contemplate Dzongkha. I try to see it as functionless, placeless art. While that effort can never be entirely successful, like Levinas’s entire ethics, it is an effort worth making because it opens the door to ‘linguistic civility’.
What civility means, and should mean, is contested, but the sociologist Richard Sennett’s definition as a ‘craft’ that needs to be worked on is apposite. For Sennett, civility requires that ‘you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say’. As comedies of civility such as the US television series Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-) by Larry David reveal, the person who says what they are thinking – even if it’s what everyone else is thinking – is dangerous and peculiar. We all know this: who hasn’t learned a salutary lesson by congratulating someone on their pregnancy when they have simply put on weight? Civility is especially challenging when we share a common language, while socially valuable silence is easier when we cannot communicate with language.
To work towards linguistic civility is to work towards overturning the Babel myth. It is to see the confusion of tongues as a reminder of our mutual capacity for language, not as a reproach to our common humanity. From the vilest online troll to the saintliest of peacemakers, we are all other to each other, and, when we speak without being understood, we celebrate the possibility of otherness to highlight our connectedness.
We all have it in us to find ways of revelling in languages we do not understand. It can happen in humble ways, such as enjoying the unfamiliar speech of the radio station playing in a taxi. Or in those moments of being overwhelmed and awestruck at the incomprehensible street in a foreign land. It can happen when we linger on the Chinese characters in a restaurant, rather than on their English translation. All that is required is releasing oneself from the pressure to achieve literal understanding, and letting oneself embrace a much deeper understanding.