On the Camino de Santiago the Tower of Babel is linear, not vertical

Language of and on the Camino de Santiago: signs, symbols & icons

The story of the Tower of Babel as recounted in the Old Testament (Genesis 11:1-9) is about one universal language, by a culturally homogeneous  group of ambitious ‘construction workers’ attempting to build a vertical tower all the way towards heaven.

As the narrative goes, God eventually pays a visit to these Tower of Babel construction workers and proceeds to both “empower” and “curse” them with multiple languages on their construction site; resulting in the fact that team members can no longer communicate with each other and scattering them upon the face of the Earth.

Fast forward to the last one thousand years with culturally disparate people coming from everywhere on the planet and speaking many languages on the Camino de Santiago.  Many differences including language, but united by a common track, sharing the same space and having the same goal: going west to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.  See CaminoDownunder’s map on its homepage: http://caminodownunder.com

In the Book of Genesis, God understood the workers’ motivation on the Tower of Babel in building this stairway to heaven and the threat posed to his omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence.  God acted unilaterally as he has always done, when he commanded multiple languages on earth.

As a result of God’s intervention, the genesis of languages in the plural saw the light of day.  You could argue that multilingualism, multiculturalism and globalisation were born as a result of God’s power to reassert his authority over monolingual mortals going up into the sky.

In hindsight, going vertical was going to get them nowhere: they should have gone horizontal and stayed close and parallel to their physical world.

How could a massive vertical skyscraper tower ever be successful with everyone speaking the same language?  It was, excuse the pun: a pie in the sky exercise in futility.  It had to come crashing down.  And so it did.  And consistent too with the scientific and physical laws of gravity.

In today’s 21st century world we have global villages, mass tourism and travel for transformation, intertwined with hundreds and hundreds of different languages around the globe, but diminishing with each year’s passing; just like the diminishing bio-diversity of the world’s fauna and flora.

In the 21st century, diversity is all aspects of life from cuisine to cultures, from languages to locations are valued and sought after.  Today, more than ever we appreciate and seek out differences and diversity especially when we travel and undertake different journeys.  Some of us may not be comfortable with great differences in our front or backyards: but we certainly want to experience that when we travel around the world.  We see it as an asset and not as a liability this rich diversity of humanity.

However, successfully moving between cultures, using languages and making linguistic connections also requires a very well-educated person with multilingual skills.  In this century especially, monolingualism does not have a brilliant future.

Human capital (having multilingual skills) on the Camino tracks is much appreciated by all, acknowledged by the locals and always empowering.

Which universal language is required when you are a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago? 

Answer: the language of the Camino.  And what is this Camino language?  It is in fact made up of many languages, multifaceted and multilayered.

The Camino de Santiago is geographically long, culturally and linguistically complex  and deeply layered historically.  And it is also in the late 20th and 21st centuries democratic, pluralistic and no longer monocultural.

The Camino is the language of signs, symbols and waymarks and of course human verbal utterances of a multilingual variety.

Waymark with symbols and signs

Sometimes verbal utterances may not always  be universally comprehensible – but what is universally understood, and which connects everyone are the visible body signs and emotions which accompany these various verbal utterances and there you have precisely the LANGUAGE OF THE CAMINO.

You have also the language of introspection, meditation and silence: human verbal utterances are not important nor sought after.

The universal body language of smiling, waving, gesticulating: they are widely and often used with much success.

There is the language of listening to and hearing the various sounds of and on the Camino.

You have the language of  pointing and looking .

The language of signs, symbols and icons: such as your walking clothes, your backpack, your credencial, your cockle shell if it is exposed, the waymarks along the track.

And if you come from Brasil you will sometimes proudly show the Brazilian flag attached to your backpack and if you are Canadian: you will often have a small material badge on your person or on your backpack indicating the maple leaf thereby distinguishing yourself from other North Americans.

Lingua franca: the common adopted language between speakers whose native languages are different.

In the middle to late Middle Ages which language would be used along the Camino de Santiago?  The only then ‘universal‘ language would have been the language used by the Christian church: Latin.  But to use it successfully in the monasteries, churches and church controlled hospices  you needed to be formally educated, invariably by the Church.  Illiteracy (inability to read and write) was endemic and most people just spoke their local, regional language.  Literacy in the Middle Ages was not a priority.

In the 21st century on the Camino de Santiago which actual language is the lingua franca? 

It is Spanish.  And the Spanish language was just beginning to be codified and becoming more dominant in Iberia when the Camino came into existence in the 9th century.  And we also know that the Basque language was another language used on the Camino Francés, but only in Navarra (the Kingdom of Navarre in the Middle Ages).

Today, most of the well-known and used Camino tracks are in Spain and the dominant majority of pilgrims are from Spain.  Spanish is a global, international language and there are 21 sovereign nations around the world which have Spanish as its official language or first language.  In 2009, 79,000 pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela were Spaniards out of a total of 145,878; that is, 54% of the total pilgrim population .  Source: http://peregrinossantiago.es

The next dominant language group are Germans, with nearly 15,000 and constituting 22%.  The majority of young and middle age Germans speak multiple languages: their number one foreign language is English – and they invariably speak English as a foreign language with consummate skills .

English is the other lingua franca on the Camino de Santiago, especially on the Camino Francés.  How does a Moroccan on the Camino (20 in 2006) communicate with the only recorded Mongolian (1 in 2006)?  They use English of course.

Many Germans also speak other languages because the European Union mandates a minimum of two foreign languages to be studied from primary school to tertiary studies.  And there are moves in Europe now to increase it to three foreign languages.   Italians follow Germans with 10,000 pilgrims (15% of pilgrims) and the French with 7,500  (11%) followed by the Portuguese  4,800 (7%).

The next country on the list of pilgrims, is the first English-speaking country: the USA with 2,500 in 2009 arriving in Santiago de Compostela as pilgrims.  In terms of numbers, the dominant Asian and Oceanic countries are South Koreans followed by Australians.  Both countries have over 1,000 pilgrims each arriving in Santiago de Compostela and being rewarded with their Compostela in the Latin language.

This blog is written in English for an English-speaking audience who may not all be English native speakers.  It is the writer’s considered opinion that any independent pilgrim undertaking the Camino de Santiago will be acting in their best interests if they take with them on the Camino a linguistic baggage.  The writer is not suggesting that you undertake advanced Spanish language lessons: it is wise to show locals the minimum of respect by using and understanding a modicum of Spanish.

The influential 2000 Nuffield Languages Inquiry: final report and recommendation from the UK said it all: monolingual native English speakers disempower themselves in perpetuity even though they speak the world’s dominant lingua franca.  English is not enough and the value of knowing only English diminishes each day as more and more non-native English speakers become better speakers of English.  In other words, as there is excessive supply of non-native English speakers around the world; then the value of that product/service becomes less and less rare and therefore less valuable – the classic supply and demand relationship.

Participants in Camino Downunder’s classes and workshops in Australia and New Zealand are all given a unique and comprehensive glossary of Spanish words and expressions, allowing them in turn to gain deep insights into the different cultural, geographical, historical and linguistic regions which the Camino traverses.  With each new class and workshop the writer continues to add to this never-ending list.  And that is precisely what modern languages are all about: they keep changing and evolving commensurate with the constant changes in their societies and communities whilst also reflecting the life cycle of some words and idiomatic verbal expressions.  Yes, change is constant but also stimulating.

Modern, multilingual, urban city signage in Navarra



  1. i like it

  2. I visited a lot of website but I believe this one has got something extra in it. “Can’t I live while I’m young” by Phish.

    • Of course you can… but beyond youth you see more, understand more, know more, make more connections, you appreciate more and you count your blessings by being more moderate (I think).


  1. […] On the Camino de Santiago the Tower of Babel is linear, not vertical (caminodownunder.wordpress.com) Fast forward to the last one thousand years with culturally disparate people coming from everywhere on the planet and speaking many languages on the Camino de Santiago.  Many differences including language, but united by a common track, sharing the same space and having the same goal: going west to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. […]

  2. […] On the Camino de Santiago the Tower of Babel is linear, not vertical (caminodownunder.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] On the Camino de Santiago the Tower of Babel is linear, not vertical (caminodownunder.wordpress.com) […]

  4. […] On the Camino de Santiago the Tower of Babel is linear, not vertical (caminodownunder.wordpress.com) […]

  5. […] On the Camino de Santiago the Tower of Babel is linear, not vertical (caminodownunder.wordpress.com) […]

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