5. The Tower of Babel

In which we examine an ancient and hitherto unsolved puzzle

We met Marvin the Paranoid Android in the last chapter. Let us start this one with another marvellous piece of whimsy from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The Babel fish. In the weird and wonderful world of Douglas Adams, sticking a Babel fish in your ear eradicates all need for interpreters, translators and language learning.

Babel is a Hebrew word meaning ‘confusion’. It gives us the English word ‘babble’. An unintelligible and inarticulate sound. That’s what foreign languages sound like, isn’t it? Even if we can appreciate the beauty of Italian opera or Bantu antiphony, it’s hard to know where one word ends and the next begins. But no language is just babble. All of them can express the full depth of human feeling. But in very different ways. As we shall see.

If you haven't yet guessed, the picture that features on every page of this website is of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Babble, Babel. Here’s the connection:

“And Cush begat Nimrod … He was a mighty hunter before the LORD … And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel …

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there … And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth ...

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

Babel. Confusion. The builders of the eponymous tower, previously of “one language, and of one speech,” were suddenly and inexplicably unable to communicate with one another. Babble.

Was there then just one original language? Have all languages developed from one common source? And why is the answer to those questions of interest to those of us who wish to learn other languages without having to insert a fish in our ear? This chapter will endeavour to reply to these conundrums.



  • Language families

  • Which language is the easiest to learn?

  • Learning several languages simultaneously

  • Linguae francae, koine, creoles and pidgins

  • Languages and dialects

  • Patois: Language superiority, colonialism and racism

This is an extract from our must-read book about language learning, THE LANGUAGE SECRET. Browse the site for more extracts from the other chapters and information about what they contain. You can also purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page.