A Multitude of Languages

Prelude in C J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

Chorale Prelude on “Spirit of the Living God”

Psalm 104 W. Zeitler

There are approximately 6000 to 7000 different human languages. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Ziad Fazah (b. 1954) as the world’s greatest living polyglot, fluent in 59 languages. As extraordinary as that accomplishment is, that’s still less than 1% of the extant human languages.

And there are so many languages besides Sanskrit and Swahili — there are the languages of Medicine, and Law, and Physics, and of Bricklaying and Carpentry. It doesn’t take much for my mechanic to try to explain what’s wrong with my car and I’m lost.

And there’s the problem of communicating human experience in general. When you’ve lost a loved one, how difficult is it for you to share your experience with someone who hasn’t ever lost a loved one themselves?

On Pentecost (Acts 2) the Spirit descended and everyone heard the disciples speak in their own language. The author of Acts lists about 15 different languages. So if you were in the audience, even if you spoke four or five languages (which is a LOT!), most of what you heard would still be unintelligible.

The “major” and the “minor” scales, and to a far lesser extent about a dozen or so other scales (such as the ‘blues’ scales) have kept composers in the West busy for about a millennium now. Let’s be generous and say we’ve really used maybe 20 different scales. I think it is fair to say that Mozart devoted his whole life to exploring the possibilities of just two scales— the major and minor — that’s how musically fertile even two scales can be. But based on the Western system of notes (as exemplified by the piano keyboard), there are 1510 possible scales. In other words, with the combined genius of medieval monks and Hildegard of Bingen (12th century) through Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Coltrane, we’ve managed to explore (superficially?) roughly 1% of this musical terrain.

This morning’s postlude is based on one of these unused scales. I’ll play the scale itself once, then play the piece I’ve written based on it. Ha, ha, this plan of playing one new piece based on one new scale each Sunday would keep us busy for another 1509 weeks. That’s almost 30 years!

In a certain sense Humanity has figured out a lot in the last few centuries, and that is no small accomplishment. What we have learned over the last few centuries represents an unimaginable amount of sweat, sacrifice and genius, and I bow down in humble gratitude for the immense Knowledge that has been bequeathed to us. And yet, in the face of Mystery — the Mysteries of Life, and Death, and Suffering, and Infinity, and the Cosmos — I also have to wonder if we haven’t just barely begun to understand anything at all.