The Language Barrier

Exploring how language have evolved over time, creating walls between different people across the globe.

Language is a really interesting thing when you think about it, yet it is something we often take for granted or don’t notice really until we come face to face with a foreign or older way of speech or tongue. Some countries have only one official language, while others have multiple common ones due to the nation’s history and the predominant culture/race that exists there. We tend to spend our whole lives within our specific language, many of us never giving that a second thought. Others learn one or two languages either at home or at school and suddenly find that more of the ideas of the world are now available to them. Growing up, I myself took Spanish classes in Middle and High School, yet my true understanding of it all was minuscule and, over the years, faded away except for a few things like colors, days of the week, numbers, etc..

I was exposed to the opposite extreme of this while I was at University in regards to one of my favorite teachers who knew 13 languages, something that absolutely boggled my mind. Often, he would tell us that the more languages you studied, the easier it became to learn others due to the various relationships and connections that existed within the various tongues around the world. It made sense on paper, but in actual application, such a feat seemed unimaginable to many of us college students. Yet, the rewards of the effort are grand as you truly are exposed to the words, ideas, and beliefs of a different part of the world that you have never participated in before.

Just yesterday, in researching a manhua that I was enjoying, I found myself on the Chinese side of the internet and was immediately overwhelmed by it all for obvious reasons. I had forgotten about how vast the internet was and, in this instance, I was abruptly reminded. Yet, I began to wonder about how my singular language understanding limited me. Often while attaining my History Degree, I was told by professor after professor that translations were a tricky thing. Not every word and meaning can be easily transferred and that two people could take the same language class together, be handed the same text to be translated into English, and yet both end results will be different form one another.

Some people translate in a literal context- word for word- which can often be confusing or end up not making sense. Others translate texts in a metaphorical context- focused on getting the topics, ideas, and beliefs across rather than every individual word. Professors would speak about how the original language of the document/book was always the best way to go and that a historian must be picky and discerning when it came to the translations they read so that they could get as close to the original story/writing as possible. They would say that so much of the beauty and elegance of a work can be lost in translation, the genius of the original creators diminished in the translated copies we were given. So many teachers said these kinds of things to me over the years, yet I can only ever take their word for it. The idea of learning another language is incredibly daunting at times considering how many languages are out there and how vast and complex each one is.

So, in the end, many like me end up staying within our comfort zone in terms of language, never branching out. But even our own language can be daunting due to the passage of time and different dialects. English nowadays is different from English a century or two ago. In our day to day lives, we do not notice the change, but once we step back and look at the timeline, it becomes drastically clear. The King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611 which was a little over 400 years ago. In terms of human history, that is not too big of a difference, and yet the language used in that book is radically different from what we use today in terms of style and prose.

Or, for instance, when I was taking an English class on the Medieval and Renaissance Periods, I ran into Middle English for the first time and was blown away. At first glance, it looked like complete gibberish and I couldn’t believe that I would have to somehow read texts like these each week. Yet, the more I read it, the more I was able to make out similar words, a change that was drastically improved on once I began reading it out loud to the best of my ability. Suddenly, it all became clear- in retrospect this made sense considering that most people back then, other than the higher class, could not read or write and so English was more of an oral language than a written one. As mankind began to grow more literate and with the invention of Gutenberg’s Printing Press in the 1400s, writing became more systematic and uniform than before, to the point that people began to make sure that it looked neat and presentable.

Written languages in particular are absolutely baffling if you think about it for too long. How in the world did the sound ‘A’ come to be written like that, people may wonder? I actually watched an absolutely fascinating two episode documentary on Amazon Prime about this called ‘A to Z’ where it explored how the alphabet was created in a kind of pictionary game where they would take the sound of the letter and apply it to some object that used that sound in its first syllable. For example, the world ‘aluf’ meant bull in the Canaanite/Semitic language region where the a-z alphabet was first created so our letter ‘A’ is literally the head of a bull standing upright on its two horns. Evolution over time would change this letter and others as different cultures like the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans adopted this same alphabet and modified it however they wished to until it became what it is in modern days. More eastern languages also followed this same pattern of pictionary, drawing symbols to match objects like ‘tree’ or ‘house’ to those spoken words, creating the written languages that exist for China, Japan, and other Eastern Nations.

It really is incredibly fascinating and mindblowing to study the evolution of language, tongues, and writing as it has existed throughout time, especially considering that it is something that we are so used to and really take for granted. Sometimes I wish that there was only one language throughout the world so that we could more easily speak and understand one another. I often wonder what it was like for the first people of differing languages to meet and have to create connections between different words for the same things- like, how on earth did that work and how frustrating must it have been? Yet, it is not a realistic wish for there to be only one language considering how mankind has been spread out across the globe, speaking, writing, and learning separate from one another for so long.

And so, like in a science experiment where a group of animals are split up and placed in two different environments for a considerable time, evolution works its magic until they are inherently different from one another- and it has worked the same way in terms of language. Yet, due to Globalization and technology, such gaps are becoming easier to bridge in terms of Translators and polylinguists, especially as literacy has continued to rise. So many are stepping outside of their own barriers of language in order to understand a new area of knowledge and its all happening at a rapid pace. While the barriers still exist, they are not as daunting or impossible to cross as they once were. And so while I myself am not the one walking across this gap, I am excited to see it happening as only good things can come from so many open connections, each language growing a little more complete every day.