Once upon a time, there was no snake, there was no scorpion,
There was no hyena, there was no lion,
There was no wild dog, no wolf,
There was no fear, no terror,
Man had no rival.
In those days, the land Shubur-Hamazi,
Harmony-tongued Sumer, the great land of the me of princeship,
Uri, the land having all that is appropriate,
The land Martu, resting in security,
The whole universe, the people well cared for,
To Enlil in one tongue gave speech.
Then the lord defiant, the prince defiant, the king defiant,
Enki, the lord of abundance, whose commands are trustworthy,
The lord of wisdom, who scans the land,
The leader of the gods,
The lord of Eridu, endowed with wisdom,
Changed the speech in their mouths, put contention into it,
Into the speech of man that had been one.
This is the nam-shub of Enki, translated from Sumerian
cuneiform. It is two things: it is a story of linguistic
disintegration, and it is an incantation which supposedly causes
linguistic disintegration. To hear the tale is to lose the power
of understanding speech. It tells of Enki, who "changed
the speech" of the population to "put contention into
it." This, of course, is similar in content to the
Babel legend, where God disrupted
the linguistic unity of the people in order to stop the
Tower from being built.
I have quoted this from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash
(216-7). Stephenson obtained it from Samuel Noah Kramer and
John R. Maier's Myths of Enki, the Crafty God (New York,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.) In Snow Crash,
a sinister industrialist has obtained and translated ancient nam-shubs
and is using them to wreak linguistic havoc in the modern world.
The nam-shubs suggest a magical theory of language, in which the
only kind of utterance that can cause the breakdown of
language is one which also happens to talk about the breakdown
of language. In other words, the surface meaning of the incantation
is crucial to its deep effect.
Why? Some indication can be found in Hofstader's discussion of
the USE-MENTION dichotomy in information theory.
I find it curious that many stories about lethal texts and/or
linguistic viruses invoke ancient mythology, as if the ancients
knew things about language which have been forgotten in the modern
world. Snow Crash posits that Sumerian nam-shubs are being used to wreak linguistic
havoc in the modern world. Macroscope
has a character who has the "gift of tongues," and takes
its protagonist, Ivo Archer, back to Mesopotamian times.
in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral
Mind, posits that new kind of "unicameral" consciousness
swept like a virus through the ancient world, destroying what
had been a kind of Edenic innocence, and cites, as evidence, Sumerian
inscriptions which sound much like nam-shubs.