Human Language

06.25.2013

Walking down the street the other day, a little girl walking with her parents suddenly stretched out her hand to my two-year-old daughter and Catalina took it.

The girl, her parents, and Catalina all walked along holding hands, even though the parents had not noticed. The two girls, one Moroccan and the other American, connected through mutual girl friendliness and childhood curiosity. No language barriers there!

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When the little girl took Catalina’s hand, it was in a sweet language of girl friendship. Her name was Aya, the name I had wanted for Catalina, meaning: sign or verse (of the Qur’an). And it felt like a sign. They were too little to know much of any language. It made me think of children as the prima facie material of human existence. But also, the common experience of having a child—and of just being a child—connects us. Some Islamic thinkers take that unity of human origins in “mean water” (86:5-7) as the point of departure for human equality, between males and females, races and classes. We all, literally, come from the same place, from the same kind of water.

Those connected hands made me think about how language joins us into communities, but also separates us in a tower of Babel kind of way. It is an issue that has bedeviled the language learners on this trip, how to use their new bridges to forge relationships in meaningful ways, but fear and bashfulness about crossing those bridges—whether linguistic or cultural—remain.

But there is also another way of thinking about these different linguistic and cultural communities, in an aya from the Qur’an: That God made us nations and peoples, so that we may know each other (49:13).

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Ellen McLarney

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