Why did certain languages effect a lasting grip on reality? Did Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Chinese (in a way that may also relate to the history of writing) have distinctive resources? Or are we, in fact, asking about the history of particular civilizations, a history reflected in and energized by language in ways so diverse and interdependent that we cannot give a credible answer? I suspect that the receptivity of a given language to metaphor is a crucial factor. That receptivity varies widely: ethno-linguists tell us, for example, that Tarascan, a Mexican tongue, is inhospitable to new metaphors, whereas Cuna, a Panamanian language, is avid for them. An Attic delight in words, in the play of rhetoric, was noticed and often mocked throughout the Mediterranean world. Qiryat Sepher, the ‘City of the Letter’ in Palestine, and the Syrian Byblos, the ‘Town of the Book’, are designations ·with no true parallel anywhere else in the ancient world. By contrast other civilizations seem ‘speechless’, or at least, as may have been the case in ancient Egypt, not entirely cognizant of the creative and transformational powers of language. In numerous cultures blindness is a supreme infirmity and abdication from life; in Greek mythology the poet and the seer are blind so that they may, by the antennae of speech, see further.

– George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975)


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