Language as Sound and Sign

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

  • Genesis 11:1-9

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

  • Acts 2:5-13

“Saussure was a 19th-century Swiss philosopher who saw language as made up of systems of ‘signs’, with the signs acting as the basic units of the language. His studies formed the basis of a new theory, known as semiotics. This new theory of signs was developed by other philosophers during the 20th century such as Russia’s Roman Jakobson, who summed up the semiotic approach when he said that ‘every message is made of signs.’
“Saussure said that a sign is made up of two things. Firstly, a ‘signifier’, which is a sound—image. This is not the actual sound, but the mental ‘image’ we have of the sound. Secondly, the ‘signified’, or concept. Here Saussure turns his back on a long tradition that says language is about the relationships between words and things, because he is saying that both aspects of a sign are mental (our concept of a ‘dog’ for example, and a sound—image of the sound ‘dog’). Saussure claims that any message—for example ‘my dog is called Fred’—is a system of signs. This means that it is a system of relationships between sound-images and concepts. However, Saussure states that the relationship between the signified and the signifier is arbitrary – so there is nothing particularly ‘doggy’ about the sound ‘dog’, which is why the word can be
chien in French, or gou in Chinese.
“Saussure’s work on language became the basis of modern linguistics, and influenced many philosophers and literary theorists.”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

The two Scriptures could easily be bookends, but I think the true bookends will be what we already have in the Bible, Genesis and Revelation.  In Genesis 11 our tongues get confused and we spread out over all the earth.  In Acts 2, our ears heard our own language when the speakers were “un-educated Galileans.”  Were they speaking in tongues?  Were there enough speakers (disciples and other followers of Jesus) to account for every different language in attendance?  Or was each listener hearing a Heavenly language, a system of signifiers and signifieds that we all know from birth within us, yet is blocked for access unless God chooses to allow that connection?  There are twins that seem to babble, but they understand what the other is saying.  Yet, later, they grow out of it.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) studied the system of language, but some of us have the knack while others do not.  I keep trying to learn English.  My wife learned several languages by the time she could walk.  Our younger son started picking up languages in college and twenty years later, he is still at it, learning another language.  As I tease him, due to his hearing loss, that he can mumble in 10-20 different languages.

But in thinking of our son’s hearing loss, improved by hearing aids, is Saussure’s system of language as a system of signs really talking about Sign Language?

I mentioned bookends.  At that birth of the Christian church during Pentecost, a large group in Jerusalem overcame the barrier of language and they all received the message of the risen Christ.  But this mode of communication did not last.  The Gospel grew and the church spread rapidly, partially due to the common business language of Koine Greek.  Yet, the languages over the two millennia since then have changed and we still have those barriers in communication.

Yet, one day, we will reunite with a common language.  Will this be as the brainchild of the antichrist?  If so, the result from the Tower of Babel is our sign.  It will eventually lead to war and destruction.  But if God directs it, we will see a gathering together to worship God and there will be peace on earth.  We see two prophecies that point to this.  One is that the antichrist will establish himself over the entire world and there will be a common language, but then Jesus’ millennium reign will be the lasting kingdom.

The antichrist may use the system started by Saussure, but the lasting untangling of our tongues and ears will be given by a word from the mouth of God.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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