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In The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges, the narrator tells us:

He showed his find to a wandering decoder who told him the lines were written in Portuguese; others said they were Yiddish. Within a century, the language was established: a Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabian inflections.

In this quote the speaker references Portuguese, Guarani, Yiddish, and "Arabian inflections". While the combinations of some of these terms are nonsensical, the terms themselves originate from real world places and languages. But The Library of Babel is supposed to take place in a universe all its own, so how does the speaker know what these languages are?

How do these languages exist in The Library of Babel?

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    To the downvoter: this may seem like a silly question, but it's actually answerable from an in-universe perspective in a way that's very much in the spirit of the story itself. – Rand al'Thor Jan 26 '17 at 23:59
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Remember that the Library is infinite and complete:

the Library is "total" - perfect, complete, and whole - and that its bookshelves contain all possible combinations of the twenty-two orthographic symbols (a number which, though unimaginably vast, is not infinite) - that is, all that is able to be expressed, in every language.

Note the phrase "in every language". That includes all possible languages which might be constructed using the same twenty-two characters, including (perhaps) languages which no human has ever learned. The same issue is addressed more explicitly later on in the story:

There is no combination of characters one can make - dhcmrlchtdj, for example - that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god. To speak is to commit tautologies. This pointless, verbose epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five bookshelves in one of the countless hexagons - as does its refutation. (A number n of the possible languages employ the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol "library" possesses the correct definition "everlasting, ubiquitous system of hexagonal galleries," while a library - the thing - is a loaf of bread or a pyramid or something else, and the six words that define it themselvs have other definitions. You who read me - are you certain you understand my language?)

The Library contains books written in every possible language written using the same characters. It so happens that the narrator has knowledge of the languages which we know as Portuguese, Arabic (presumably in a transliterated form), and so on. In the infinite expanse of the Library, it stands to reason that there will be someone somewhere who knows those languages, just as there will be someone somewhere who knows entirely different languages which use the same words, or which use totally different words. There will be someone, somewhere in the Library, who speaks exactly the same languages but calls Portuguese "Japegrin" and Arabic "Sinistrom".

The infinitude of the Library, encompassing all possibilities, means that every possible combination of circumstances may happen somewhere. Don't be surprised by what seems an extraordinary coincidence - the only reason it seems like such a coincidence is because the story focuses on the particular place, known to exist somewhere, where these circumstances occur. It wouldn't make for such a readable story if Borges had focused on the part of the Library where all the words known by all the local librarians are total gibberish to us. But since there exists a place in the Library where Spanish, English, and so on are known and understood, it makes sense to set the story there.

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  • That would be an astonishing coincidence, in-universe, and an astonishingly subtle one to go unremarked, in a piece that's so focused on the immense implausibility of finding sense or order in the infinite Library. There's a big difference between "The narrator does not speak in words coherent to readers" (i.e., the story is unreadable) vs. "All referenced languages share their names with real-world languages by sheer chance." The Library is not a place of extraordinary coincidence -- that's kind of the whole point... – Standback Jan 31 '17 at 18:02
  • @Standback But all extraordinary coincidences occur somewhere, assuming the Library is infinite - so they're not really extraordinary coincidences at all, just an artefact of the specific place the story has chosen to focus on. See the final paragraph. – Rand al'Thor Jan 31 '17 at 18:17
  • I have great difficulty with this interpretation. So much of the story's focus is on how, in an infinity, any coincidence will happen somewhere -- but by the same measure, the chances of stumbling upon a coincidence that's meaningful to you are infinitesimally small. The coincidences stumbled upon are stark, but utterly oblique -- a whole book of "MCV", the phrase "Oh time thy pyramids." The idea that this is the one coincidence that happened to line up just right with no discrepancies, seems to me entirely unsupported, and clashing with the story's themes. – Standback Jan 31 '17 at 19:27
  • (A weird but fun comparison: The way Welcome To Night Vale gets names of states wrong, like "Mi-CHI-gan" instead of "Mi-SHI-gan". I guess that's one way to show the world is subtly askew... :P ) – Standback Jan 31 '17 at 19:30
  • Just because every conceivable language will be represented in the library does not mean that it will be understood. It is impossible to learn a language without either real-world references or the aid of another language (and while there are dictionaries in the library, there are many more false dictionaries, and no way of telling). There is nothing that can confirm that the deciphering is actually correct, unless there are people who has knowledge of these languages from some other source. – andejons Jan 31 '17 at 21:01
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The Library of Babel cannot be taken as plausible, realistic worldbuilding. "How can real-world languages exist" is not going to have more of an answer than "How does an immense number of bound books exist," or "How can they know what bread or pyramids are, when they can't possibly have either." There is excellent reason for Borges to use real languages, but they're not in-universe reasons.

Borges uses languages here in order to demonstrate yet another facet of infinity: the idea that the already-infinite selection of books and combination can furthermore be interpreted according to a near-infinite number of languages or cipher keys.

This is a fundamental theme of the piece: levels upon levels of infinity; and the blurring between the meaninglessness of random chance, the immense significance that's possible when everything exists somewhere. As the books are infinite, and therefore meaningless and also hiding books of impossible truth and value; the ways to interpret an impenetrable book are also infinite, and therefore each book is both meaningless and also possibly hiding impossible truth and value.

A lot of the brilliance of this piece is in the crafting of clear, intuitive imagery, for impossible, paradoxical concepts. In this case, foreign languages are exactly the imagery Borges needed. It's an amazingly simple, elegant, graspable way to convey the idea that gibberish to one person might hold meaning for another.

It is my opinion that any modification of this concept might have made the story more plausible, but would have made its imagery weaker, less immediate.

  • Consider how using imaginary languages -- which would certainly be more plausible -- would be a stumbling block. It would take the reader time and effort to understand what is being conveyed. It would make sense, but it wouldn't be immediately intuitive, which is key here.
  • Non-language models - e.g., maybe all the books are written in cryptographic cyphers, which can be decoded - are absolutely possible, and Borges touches on these (e.g. with the repeating MCVs, and how they struggle to come up with some form of language under which the text could conceivably make sense), but would take much more explanation and would be less vivid by orders of magnitude.
  • In contrast, consider how effective Borges's description is: "A Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabian inflections." In the real world, this would be an utterly bizarre, implausible combination. That's the point. By taking familiar elements and combining them at random, Borges arrives, again and again, at his intriguing portrait of infinity. And for that to work here, you need to be able to immediately grasp the image he's created, and how very strange it is.

So, yes, those languages should not technically exist within the Library. But the Library is a dazzling thought experiment; not a "real" or rigorously-speculated world. In the service of the thought experiment, real languages serve Borges far better than imaginary ones could.

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