The Tower of Babel and modern identity

Image of Tower of Babel, by Peter Bruegel the Elder

Peter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel

In the story of the Tower of Babel, humankind tries to build a tower to the heavens. God intervenes, causing people to speak in a confusion of tongues and scattering them across the face of the earth.

Marjorie Rubright thinks that the Biblical story served as more than just a warning against arrogance. During the Renaissance it also affected how people perceived their own identities—perceptions that still affect us today.

“The Tower of Babel story was, for Judeo-Christians, the first globalization narrative, and one that powerfully shaped ideas of self and other in the Renaissance,” says Rubright, an associate professor in the Department of English.

It was during the Renaissance that identity, nationality and language became closely associated in ways that many now regard as unexceptional. However, the literature of the Renaissance reveals that the close association wasn't a foregone conclusion. English authors were hotly debating not only what it meant to be English, but what counted as the English tongue. Before the emergence of the English dictionary, this was a particularly fraught debate. Then, as now, the English language was considered its own “babel of confusion,” always changing through its absorption of “foreign” words, and ever expanding by means of human migration and the introduction of neologisms. A pressing issue in the Renaissance that remains alive still today is whether English speakers around the world celebrate or aim to redress the babel of English. 

During the European “age of exploration,” travelers returned home to publish grammars and dictionaries of languages from Malay to Algonquin. They also began to speculate about which languages originated with Babel, and which were descended from the originals. Our ideas about linguistic ‘family trees’ may have had their origin in this mythic story of the dissemination of nations, Rubright proposes.

“In the Renaissance, ideas about language provided a basis for how people were constructing themselves in relation and in opposition to others,” she says. For the English, all of this came at a time when they were working to shape their own identity in a globalizing world. In previous work, Rubright has looked at the English fascination with the Dutch, who were seen as both closely related but also intensely foreign.

In a similar way, she says, dictionaries, phrase books and other language books emerging at the time shift between looking for differences between languages and noting similarities.

Prof. Rubright recently received a coveted fellowship to research her second book, A World of Words: Language, Globalization, and the English Renaissance at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where she will be able to study original copies of the rare books she’s interested in. Rubright says that at the Huntington, she’ll be able to “open volume after volume, and consider works across a large historical span, side-by-side.”