An Academy Award contender that no one is sure how to pronounce?
Babel has seven Oscar nominations, meaning the name of the film will be read at least seven times Sunday night. But its pronunciation has stumped even its biggest star.
"Thank you for honouring our film 'Babble' Or 'BAY-bel' or 'Bah-BELL'," Brad Pitt said, after the film received an earlier award at a film festival in Palm Springs, California. "We're still arguing how to pronounce it."
The uncertainty over something as basic as the title is fitting, since the movie percolates with cultural confusion. It takes place over three continents in four different languages - five, if you count sign language.
<b1> C Barr, the linguist-in-residence at American University in Washington, studies the phenomenon called folk-etymology - speakers' incorrect reinterpretations of, and anecdotes about, words - and notes that the name of the city first pops up in the texts of Sargon, an Akkadian king about 2300 B.C.
Which leaves us about 4,300 years for those reinterpretations and anecdotes to develop.
The Tower of Babel story in Chapter 11 of the Bible's Book of Genesis tells how, when humans all spoke the same language, they determined to build a tower up to heaven. Alarmed, God ended the project by confusing their language: They could not understand each other and could not work together anymore.
"The ancient storyteller of Genesis 11 is using the name in a satirical word play in the story," says Wayne T Pitard, a religion professor at the University of Illinois.
Both Barr and Pitard offer that the word is actually a form of the name of the city of Babylon, and it has nothing to do with the Hebrew verb "balal" (confuse) in the Bible; it derives from the Mesopotamian Akkadian language and means "gate of the gods." The longer form of the ancient word "bab ilani" (hence, Babylon) is an alternative form that means the same thing.
Barr says the English word "babble" is not at all related etymologically to the Hebrew/Akkadian "Babel." It is onomatopoeic, like boo or hiss.
"There are words for 'babble' in many languages that have arisen independently via the imitation of children's speech or other unintelligible language," Barr says. She adds that the ancient Greek word for "barbarian" originally simply meant anyone who did not speak Greek - "their language sounded like 'bar-bar-bar-bar' to the Greeks, apparently."
The Middle English "babelen" (the source of "babble") is unrelated, but is also imitative of child language or flowing water (the common "babbling brook"), she says. And the Sanskrit word "balbala" means "stammer."
But before anyone gets tongue-tied, Barr avers that none of the pronunciations can be held up as the sole "correct" one. And, really, does it matter?
George Orwell once wrote: "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."
Or as two other deep thinkers of the 20th century, George and Ira Gershwin, wrote (and Fred Astaire sang):
"You like potato and I like potahto,
"You like tomato and I like tomahto;
"Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!
"Let's call the whole thing off!"