The Babel fish and the existence of God revisited

Does St Salvator of Horta’s geo-sensitive (Catalan-Basque) miracle cure for a deaf-mute girl open a logical loophole in Godless Adams’ argument?

If the Babel fish was invented by Man then we’re too smart to need a God, and if it wasn’t invented by Man then God comes over all atheist:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It proves you exist and so therefore you don’t. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy,” says man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing. Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys. But this did not stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme for his best selling book, Well That About Wraps It Up for God. Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

But what if it was invented by Man acting on behalf of God? A saint, for example. In La Quatrième partie des chroniques des Frères Mineurs (1609–a translation of Venetian printer Barezzo Barezzi’s 1609 original) we hear how a Basque couple visit Salvador of Horta (1520-1567, canonised 1938) in search of a cure for their daughter, who has been born deaf-mute. He tells them to stay for eight days and pray to the Virgin Mary, at the end of which their daughter will speak. On the fourth day the girl indeed speaks–but in Catalan, which the parents can neither talk nor understand. “Salvador,” they say, presumably in Spanish, “this isn’t much good: why can’t she speak Basque like us?” “Pray for another four days,” replies Salvador, “and your wish will be granted.” On the eighth day she’s still babbling away in Catalan, but Salvador says that if they return home the girl will start speaking Basque (with hopefully the same dialect as her parents) as soon as she reënters Biscay, which duly happens:

Vn homme de Biscaye auec sa femme portèrent de ceste prouince vne fille qu’ils auoient, sourde & muette dés fa naissance, & la présentèrent au seruiteur de Dieu qui luy donna la bénédiction, & apres dit au pere & à la mere: Vous demeurerez icy huict iours priant la tres-faincte Vierge Marie & vostre fille parlera. Le quatriesme iour venu la ieune fille commença à parler le langage de Cathalogne, où pour lors ils estoient, tellement que chacun commença à crier Miracle, Miracle. Et le pere & la mere disoient: nous ne voulons pas que nostre fille parle ce langage, mais bien celuy de Biscaye, & à ceste occasion se tourmentoient beaucoup. Et sur ce s’en allèrent à l’homme de Dieu, le prians de vouloir oster ce langage à leur fille qu’ils ne pouuoient point entendre, & luy vouloir donner celuy de leur pays. Le peuple qui estait là assemblé s’estonnoit de voir cet enfant parler vn langage que son pere ny fa mere n’entendoient pas, ny aussi elle ne les pouuoit aucunement entendre. Le sainct homme leur respondit: Nostre Dame à faict ce miracle afin que chacun voye que vostre fille parle le langage de ce pays. Or vous continuerez de prier iufques au bout des huict iours, & moy aussi prieray Dieu afin que vostre fille parle vostre langage: Ils continuèrent doneques leurs prières, & vn chacun alloit voir ceste fille qui parloir si bien le langage Cathalan. Les huict iours finis le Pere lay donna la bénédiction, & dit à ses parens: Mes amis, nostre Dame veut que vostre fille parle le langage de ce pays iusques à ce qu’elle en soit dehors, & apres entrant en Biscaye elle parlera le langage de Biscaye. Eux ayans entendu ceste ordonnance partirent du lieu, & se mirent au chemin de leur maison auec plusieurs personnes, lesquelles s’acheminoient à dessein iufques aux confins du Royaume pour voir ce nouueau miracle. Il aduint comme leur auoit esté prédit, car ayant passé le fleuue qui fait la séparation la fille parla le langage maternel, & du pays où elle auoit prins sa naissance.

One of the curious things about this is the idea that a river divided Romance from Basque dialects: rivers run roughly north-south from the Pyrenees, while the language boundary in Navarre ran more or less perpendicular to them, approximately east-west. I guess the party travelled via Pamplona, so the river could have been the Arga, which flows just west of the town, split the old Kingdom of Navarre north-south, and was I think used in late medieval Castilian-Aragonese treaties as a frontier. That might explain why the Spanish and Catalan Wikipedia entries for the good Saint make the story an echo of the nationalist-revisionist ding-dong between Catalan and Spanish, with the parents demanding that she speak the latter.

Or it could have been the River Aragón, from which point Basque toponyms begin to dominate.

H/t A Nun for the St Salvador of Horta story.

Similar posts


  1. Shouldn’t be too hard to find some madman to claim that Arga and Aragón both come from a watery god, Aracus, and then who cares?

  2. God’s everywhere, the cheeky bugger. If I’m not way out, the idea that you speak English in England and Belgian in Belgium is that old one about the wanderings of the fractious brood of Ham, Shem and Japheth, sons of Noah. If you’re looking for legitimacy for official languages, then Spanish is the most spoken language in Catalonia, and Arab and Berber were spoken here before Occitan dialects. It’s odd that the manic, quasi-Christian insistence on Catalan as Catalonia’s only language should come principally from anti-clerical republicans rather than from Bible-thumping 17th century throwbacks. I suppose you could view ERC as amnesiac Cromwellians.

  3. I like the idea of amnesiac Cromwellians. I picture them wandering around Putney in lobster pot helmets saying “were we here to see a band or something?”

  4. Apparently some kind of Basque was spoken even earlier than any of the above in at least part of present-day Catalonia. Latin and its derivatives were imposed, more often than not, by the sword (also in its simple form, the cross). Historical justice demands to revert to what was once lost so cruelly.

    And now let’s talk about Alghero.

  5. Can, there is actually a small linguistic movement which claims that continuity is the order of the day, and therefore that the direct ancestor of Catalan has probably been spoken in much of Catalonia since Raquel Welsh was being chased around by a dinosaur wearing a fetchinng fur bikini. They find limited support amongst professional linguists, but there is a group of scholars with Catalan names at Valencia university who are quite prominent in the movement.

  6. Boy, some years ago, after the pertinent archaeological excavations, I saw the depiction of a caveman in some Barcelona paper identified duly as “the first Catalan”.

    (Thanks for the “Can”. Works both in English and in Spanish.)

  7. I never forget my towel and muffle my ears with it whenever s.o. sings over the internets.

    (From “1011 Ways of Making use of your Travelling Towel” by Olphard Brittchcombe, aka Next-Door-Green-Eardrops-Show-Mercy-Under-Violet-Skies from Phrelodia)

  8. Can, you know that if I export all your comments & send them to you and you load them into WordPress or whatever then you’ve got a blog?

  9. I am not capable enough, and I admire many times what you’re doing here. I do take your point that I should leave others more space, especially on someone else’s turf. I have never wanted to compete, but tried to complete, and sometimes to simply please (“have fun”).

    No sense in that if it becomes too much. Thanks for the hints.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *