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“New World Babel” by Edward Gray Critical Essay


Gray, in his book, New World Babel, discusses the transformation of Euro-Americas’ views about Native American languages. He traces the journey of their notion of these languages from as early as the pre-Enlightenment period to the modern period.

From the onset, Gray is keen enough to notice the differences in the opinions between different groups during different historical periods. He observes that the Jesuits, Catholics, and Puritan Protestants had varied opinions about Native American languages (Gray 25).

Gray correctly argues that the Catholics gave up teaching the natives Latin after realizing that their languages were devoid of abstract words and phrases necessary for bringing out truths in speech (Picker 363). However, they went ahead to teach them the Gospel using pictures and performances.

In many countries, the performances are in Latin. The decision to resort to the use of pictures and performances must have been driven by the notion that people can notice divine words without necessarily understanding their meanings (Picker 362).

On the other hand, the Puritans believed that everybody must be able to read the bible. Therefore, they used most of their time teaching the Indians how to read and translating the bible. Gray insinuates that the Puritans believed that the natives had to understand the meaning of every word before discovering the divineness in it.

Gray also argues that the advent of the Enlightenment period transformed Europeans’ thoughts about native languages (Gray 34). He correctly presents the then overriding opinion that Euro-Americans held about the existence of varied languages in the world.

Most of them believed in the biblical theory that argues that people speak different languages due to the Babel tragedy. Since everything was explained using the bible during the pre-Enlightenment period, Gray’s description must be a true reflection of the linguistic ideologies that existed during those periods.

He cites Locke’s act of discarding Babel as the origin of the differences that exist among different language speakers as an example of the new Enlightenment ideologies about language (Picker 365). Locke argued that human beings’ different experiences at different times were responsible for their differences in culture and behavior (Picker 364).

This argument is also a true reflection of the ideologies during the Enlightenment period since that period was dominated by arguments supported by scientifically tested facts.

The way Gray presents the information demonstrates that sometimes there was progressing and regressing in terms of what the scholars at different times thought about the Native Americans. He argues that the New Americans had initially thought that Native American languages marked boundaries between their speakers (Mandell 201).

However, they discarded this notion when they realized that many groups of Native Americans spoke different languages but had similar cultures (Picker 362). As a result, they began viewing the native languages as ways of understanding the primary and universal nature of human beings (Mandell 201).

They used native lexicons as insights for their own European languages. This move was driven by the belief that the native languages represented the fundamental and universal nature of language (Picker 364). They showed how all languages looked like before they were tainted by social refinements and intellectual development (Picker 362).

Such a practice was only possible after the Enlightenment period. In their study, they discovered that Native American vocabularies came from sensation and emotional aspects as opposed to Europeans vocabularies, which derived from calculations and politics (Mandell 201).

The regression happened in the 1800s, where elements of human universality were substituted by notions of static national and racial variations from the Romantic era (Mandell 201).

Gray also takes note of the prejudices that Euro-Americans had towards Native Americans. The new Americans always considered themselves superior and more civilized than the Native Americans (Mandell 201).

As a result, they came up with a theory that argued that the native languages were primitive because the speakers’ minds were inferior compared to theirs (Picker 361). Gray quotes Jefferson’s argument that the diversity of native languages was a result of the speakers’ simple and savage nature to demonstrate this notion (Mandell 201).

Therefore, according to Jefferson, the Native Americans’ mental deficiencies were responsible for their discord and linguistic confusion. He went further to argue that language had nothing to do with the environment or the progressive evolution of human beings.

Instead, he believed that it was due to the cultural biases and mental deficiencies (Picker 364). Such an argument is clearly biased and subjective since it favors the speaker and is not backed by empirically proven facts.

The lack of objectivity is also evident in the arguments that existed during the Romantic period. Whereas some Romantics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge celebrated Indians’ appetite for poetry, others proposed the elimination of the many native languages for the sake of civilization (Mandell 201).

Since this period was dominated by English conquests in different parts of the world, the English wanted their language adopted as the only one spoken all over the world (Mandell 201).

Such a standpoint vividly contradicted arguments by more objective people such as John Eliot and Samuel Johnson who argued that “truths are universal no matter the language” and “languages are pedigrees of nations” respectively (Picker 361).

Works Cited

Gray, Edward G. New World Babel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.

Mandell, Daniel. “Canada and the United States.” The American Historical Review 105.1 (2000): 200-201. Print.

Picker, Joshua. “New Turn for the Linguistic Turn.” Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000): 360-366. Print.

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