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Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI


Part V: The Confusion of Languages

Chapter 3

The Confusion of Language:
Ancient and Modern

     IT HAS ALREADY been pointed out that while Indo-Europeans have tended to develop their languages by a process of simplification, and Semitic peoples have tended to preserve their languages more or less unchanged, the Hamitic peoples have proliferated their languages to an extraordinary degree. Some will object to the first observation and argue that Indo-European languages have diverged widely. This is true, but the divergence has been a very orderly one -- orderly enough in fact that there is no longer the slightest question as to their derivation from a single source at the beginning. But so diverse are the languages of Ham that even yet there are many who argue against the possibility of ever convincingly demonstrating their essential relationship as a family.
Loomis Havemeyer has emphasized this diversity between languages of the Indians north of Mexico, for example. He says they may be divided into fifty-nine different groups -- and adds: (65)

     Each one of these groups is made up of numerous dialects, sometimes as many as 20 in one stock, so that it is impossible for an Indian from one part of the country to make himself understood in another district by means of his spoken language. It even happens that tribes only a short distance apart are not able to converse.

     For all this, he comments, "Yet some few things seem to indicate that at one time far in antiquity these numerous families may have had a common beginning."
     Frequent reference is made by travellers to the fact that Hamitic peoples separated in point of time by only a few decades and geographically by as little as a single river may nevertheless be quite unable any longer to understand one another's speech. Cunningham Geikie notes that:

65. Havermeyer Loomis, Ethnography, Ginn and Co., New York, 1929, p.265 27
66. Geike, Cunningham, Hours and the Bible, Alden, New York, 1886, pp.126-7

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     Among the one hundred islands occupied by the Melanesian race, there are no less than two hundred languages, differing from each other as much as Dutch and German. Among some races of Central Africa, Barth tells us, the want of friendly intercourse between tribes and families has caused so many dialects to spring up as to make communication between them difficult. On the river Amazon, Mr. Bates found several individuals in a single canoe speaking mutually unintelligible languages. It is in fact impossible to fix an approximate period for the rise of such new forms of speech.
     If there is nothing like literature or society to keep changes within limits, says Max Muller, two villages separated for only a few generations will soon become mutually unintelligible. This takes place in America as well as on the borders of China and India, and in the north of Asia. Messerschmidt relates that the Ostiaks, though really speaking the same language everywhere, have produced so many words and forms peculiar to each tribe that even within the limits of ten or twelve miles, conversations between them become extremely difficult.

     Referring to these same islands, the Melanesians, Bishop Selwyn remarked upon their diversity of languages, saying that "nothing but a special interposition of the Divine power could have produced such a confusion of tongues as we have here! In Islands no larger than the Isle of Wight, we find various dialects unknown to each other!" (67)
     Geikie speaks of the absence of literature as being a cause of rapid change, and undoubtedly this is true in part. However, it is not the whole answer,
(68) because it is found, for example, that a syllabary of ideographs (i.e., the basis of written language) may in the course of time come to be given entirely different sound values by two different communities who nevertheless continue to use it. The written form remains largely unchanged, but the interpretation may change radically. In a very simple way this is true in English where, for example, what is written as an L may be pronounced as an R.

67. Quoted by D. M. Panton, Dawn, Sept., 1945, p.1095. R. M. Ritland mentions that in New Guinea several hundred languages may be found on a single island (A Search for Meaning, Pacific Press, Omaha, 1970, p.260, note 50). Theodora Kroeber, the wife of A. L. Kroeber, the dean of American anthropologists, in her beautiful account of the life of "the last wild Indian in North America," underscores the same phenomenon here too. She speaks of the six great linguistic superfamilies each made up of numbers of separate families of speech. "Five of these superfamilies were represented in California, and contained among them twenty-one basic languages which were for the most part mutually unintelligible. . . . But this is not yet the whole of the story, since the twenty-one languages further separated and elaborated themselves into a hundred and thirteen known dialects." Some of these in turn were as different as Swedish is from German, making their speakers unable to communicate. There were then twice as many Indian languages on record in California as there are counties in the state today! (Ishi: in Two Worlds, University of California Press, 1971, pp.1-16).
68. Hedderly Smith (The Missionary and Anthropology, Moody Press, Chicago, 1945, p.53) quotes Bloomfield to the effect that most languages were spoken throughout most of their history by people who did not read or write, yet such languages are just as stable as literary ones.

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Many English people pronounce Psalm as "Psarm"; in the New World the L may be left out entirely and the word pronounced as "Psam." When the Chinese syllabary was adopted by the Japanese, they attached entirely new sound values to the ideographs. Thus the symbol (Fig. 1a) meaning "moon" will be read as wuek in Peking, as nguok in Fukien, and as goat in Amoy. In all three cases the meaning is the same, namely, "moon," but the vocalization is altogether different. As Miriam Chapin said: (69)

     It follows that an Amoy reader can get the full meaning out of a page of Chinese without the remotest idea of how to pronounce it. If he has to read it out loud, he will utter totally different sounds from the man in Peking.

     In the case of the English pronunciation of the L as an R, the underlying causes are subtle, though linguists have theories to account for it. In the case of the Japanese adoption of Chinese characters, it was merely a matter of convenience. When we go back, however, to Sumerian, the most ancient written language in Mesopotamia, a language which as we have already noted seems to be in some way related to Chinese, we come up against evidence of "confusion," the reasons for which are much more difficult to discern.

Figure 1a, b.

The kind of confusion I am referring to may be illustrated by considering a representative Sumerian ideograph. For example, the sign (Fig. 1b) may be vocalized as ut, ud, udu, umu, um, tam, par, hish, and a number of other alternative sounds! One of the problems of learning cuneiform is that the student not only has to memorize so many different sound values for a single sign, but also has to determine which particular sound the original scribe had in mind in any given instance. There are some rules governing this which help, but one still wonders whether a text may not have been exceedingly difficult to interpret correctly even by a well-educated Sumerian.
Now, if we revert to the events that took place during the building of the Tower of Babel -- in which the Sumerians were undoubtedly involved -- it may very well have come to pass that a situation arose where contemporary groups of people, who had joined in the undertaking and who shared a common cuneiform syllabary for keeping written records, began to attribute to the signs different sound values that were not shared by others in the community. Hence would arise the kind of "confusion" which the student of Sumerian finds in even the earlier cuneiform texts.
     It is, of course, quite possible that God could have brought

69. Chapin, Miriam, How People Talk, Longmans Green, Toronto, 1947, p.73.

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about this confusion of language instantaneously in a way which must be accounted as nothing short of miraculous. He did virtually the opposite instantaneously, as recorded in Acts 2. In the first case it was to render futile the efforts of men to reach heaven by their own means; in the second case it was to guarantee that men might reach heaven by God's means, thus undoing the curse of Babel and deliberately uniting men where they had formerly been deliberately divided. But if the "confounding" was not miraculous, the record certainly indicates something unusual. I suggest that these builders abandoned the project because their lines of communication broke down, for reasons which are not so much miraculous as they are rather exceptional -- and are actually still subject to examination. The natural tendency of Hamitic peoples to diversify their languages almost endlessly is exceptional enough in itself. What made the events of Genesis 11 even more exceptional was that God somehow greatly accelerated this natural tendency.
     From the tenor of these remarks it will be concluded that we are limiting our view almost entirely to the Hamites, as though Semites and Japhethites took no part in these events. As we have seen, there is evidence of the presence of Japhethites and Semites in Mesopotamia in very early times, so that these two must also have been there at that time. But there is a tradition that the people who decided to build a city and a tower to preserve themselves against too wide a scattering were the children of Ham only and did not include either Semites or Japhethites. In view of what has been said about the building of cities, and the fact that the city-idea was not originally native to either the Semites or Indo-Europeans, this tradition seems more than reasonable. In an early edition of the Speaker's Commentary there is an observation by Bishop Browne as follows:

      It has been thought, though perhaps on insufficient ground, that "children of men," as in Gen. 6:2, designates the impious portion of the human race as opposed to "children of God"; and possibly the rebellious offspring of Ham.

     We may be on safer ground, perhaps, when we find an extant version purporting to be the Book of Jasher limiting the building of Babel to the Hamites, though without actually saying why. (71) The observation

70. Quoted by W. S. Smith, Lessons on Genesis, Church of England Sunday School lnstitute, London, no date, p.42.
71. Referred to by D. Woods, The Bible Confirmed by Archaeology, Covenant Publishing Company, London 1945, pp.8-9. On the authenticity of the Book of Jasher see the article by J. Kitto in his Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, Black, Edinburgh, 1845, vol. 2, pp.70ff., and the Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1883, vol. 2, p.1194. The Talmud supports this tradition: see H. Polano, The Talmud, Warne, London, no date, p.28.

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is presented to the reader with as little comment as is appropriate to what the original writer presumed to be a well-known fact. This interesting record must be quite old, for it is referred to early in Scripture, the first mention of it being in Joshua 10:13.
     In support of the tradition that only Hamites were involved in the project, two other facts may be pointed out: (a) that neither Indo-European nor Semitic languages actually suffered any judgment of confusion -- as the subsequent course of development of these languages has indicated; and (b) that those who were thereupon forcibly scattered abroad over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:8) were Hamites only, for there is evidence that the first pioneer settlers in every part of the world were invariably of Hamitic stock. Indo-Europeans have since been "enlarged" and in many parts of the world have followed and displaced the original settlers (as in North America, Australia, in very early times in India, and even in Europe). Preceding the Aryans were the Basques, the Magyars, and the Turks in Europe, and the Indus Valley cultures in India. Although he knew nothing of the latter, Prichard speaks of these aboriginal races as having spread

. . . through all the remotest regions of the Old World, to the northward, eastward, and westward of the Iranian nations, whom they seem everywhere to have preceded, so that they appear in comparison with the (Japhethite) colonies in the light of aboriginal or native inhabitants, vanquished and often driven into mountainous and remote tracts by more powerful invading tribes.

      The spreading abroad of Semites is of even more recent date. It appears in fact that "confusion" of language is associated with the dispersion of the Hamitic people, but can hardly be applied to either Japhethites or Semites at all.
     As a method of frustrating a united effort, the confusion of tongues seems almost perfectly suited. When Genesis 11:1 speaks of man as having "one lip and one words" (so the Hebrew), it suggests that the original unity of language was very complete, involving both pronunciation and vocabulary. Various interpretations have been placed upon these phrases, and some alternative translations have been proposed. I was rather interested recently to note in a Jewish commentary of a century and a half ago, written by a Russian rabbi, M. L. Malbim, that the phrase "of one speech" is rendered "of few words,"
(73) indicating as Malbim suggests that the people had but a small vocabulary. The idea is a novel one, but what really amused

72. Prichard, J. C., Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Houlston and Stoneman London, vol. 3, 1836, p.9.
73. See J. A Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Genesis, Oxford University Press, 1929, p.97.

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me was to find that Dr. T. J. Meek, who was responsible for translating this portion of Scripture for the Revised Standard Version adopted the same rendering! It would be difficult to justify it from the original Hebrew itself, but if one believed that everything has evolved, including language of course, then the rendering fits very nicely into such a preconceived notion. Early man naturally had to have a simple form of language. . . .
     It might be difficult, on the other hand, if man did have only a few words, to see how a judgment taking the form of a confusion of language could be very meaningful. Other commentators have rightly observed that the confusion must have resulted in fact, not from the paucity of words, but from their multiplicity; such a multiplicity implies a fairly complex organization of society, the level of organization that would be required for such an undertaking. Can one imagine, for example, a tribe of Australian aborigines suddenly deciding to build a tower of very great height? Does not the nature of the undertaking indicate a high level of economic organization in the place and, therefore, a sophisticated language?
     Moreover, even if Meek's assumption that this was a very simple society were justified, it would still be a mistake to suppose that a people who were in one sense "primitive" necessarily had a simple language, i.e., "few words." As a matter of fact, the opposite is often the case. Kroeber attributes this common misconception to the faulty understanding on the part of earlier investigators of primitive societies.
(74) The point has been emphasized many times since, as by Kluckhohn, Coon, and Taylor. (75)
     It is widely agreed today that no language can be classed as "simple." Every language is completely adequate for the culture which sustains it and which it sustains. Nor do languages naturally decline -- unless the culture declines. There is a tendency, it seems for cultures to decline especially when dislocated by reason of forced migrations or comparable factors; when this happens, the associated languages suffer also. It is in this sense that the proliferation of early Hamitic languages was both a cause and an effect of the forcible scattering of these people. At the same time, Kroeber points out,

74. Kroeber, A. L., Anthropology, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1948, p.233
75. Kluckhohn, Clyde, Mirror for Man, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1949, p.148: "In contrast to the general course of cultural evolution, languages move from the complex to the simple." Also, C. S. Coon, A Reader in General Anthropology, Holt, New York, 1948, p.148. 9, p.223; Griffith Taylor, Environment, Race, and Migration, University of Toronto Press, 1945, p.427.
76. Kroeber, A. L., ref. 74, p.221.

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     Speech tends to be one of the most persistent populational characters; and ethnic boundaries are most often speech boundaries.

     God's method of scattering the Hamites by dividing their speech forms was, therefore, a profoundly effective and truly lasting one. Moreover, this lasting quality, according to Bloomfield, may not depend merely upon literacy, but is much more deeply rooted. Even in our own day we see the persistence of native languages in spite of pressures tending toward their disappearance. This is true in Ireland, of course, and it has recently been demonstrated of the Basques, who were under considerable coercion from the Franco regime to abandon their native tongue. (77)
     Returning to the circumstances surrounding the initial confusion of languages, I was intrigued to note in a quite ancient commentary by Harwood, dated 1789, with reference to the words (Genesis 11:5), "the Lord came down to see the city," the following observation,

     This is delivered (i.e., spoken) after the manner of men and here suggests to us, with what caution, as it were, God proceeds to judgment. The same is intended in Gen. 18:21. It always signifies that God takes particular notice of the actions of mankind and intimates His design of performing something extraordinary.

     God's judgments are not the sudden impulsive reactions of an all-powerful and angry deity. Rather they are the considered, just, and exceedingly effective methods by which He takes the innate capacities of men which could be used for good and sees to it, when they are used for evil, that they will serve to make the punishment exactly fit the crime. What is the nature of this capacity of the Hamitic mind which God used? We have already observed that it was a capacity to diversify speech. Diversification of speech is what results: but why does it result? Why do people with this capacity tend to multiply their languages in this way? In what way do their minds operate differently from ours?
It has been known for many years that Hamitic people have a peculiar tendency towards concreteness of thought and are normally indifferent to or disinclined to the making of generalizations. This is strongly reflected in their linguistic forms. Let me illustrate what I mean by this.
     In the language of the Yaghans, there are more than 10,000 words to indicate where one comes from or is going to, either north,

77. See feature article by Iris Johnson, "Basques: Historical Enigma," in the Christian Science Monitor, Thursday, Aug. 11, 1960, p.9.
78. Harwood, Thomas, Annotations Upon Genesis, published privately, London, 1789, p.58.

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south, east, or west, and from above, below, outside, or inside. (79) According to Bridges, other factors may require the use of an even larger number of words when the circumstances surrounding the coming or going of the individual referred to involve some specific time of day. In other words, if a man is coming from outside from the north, one verb would be used. If he is coming from inside (for example, inside a house) from the east, an entirely different word would be required. If the time of day of the event is changed, then another and entirely unrelated verb is used. And so it goes on with an almost infinite number of permutations and combinations, new forms being readily invented when the situation demands, each word unrelated in sound to the previous one, until the list accumulates to over 10,000.
     Again and again this observation has been made of non-Indo-European languages. Every event is unique. The common factors in events which, once observed, could vastly simplify such vocabularies are evidently not noted. Livingstone in Africa remarked that a score of words might be used to indicate a variety of gaits.
(80)  One might walk leaning forward or backward, or swaying from side to side, lazily or smartly, swinging the arms or only one arm, head up or down, or some other way. For each of these modes of walking there is a particular verb form, a clear indication that the people who use these forms of speech have overlooked what is common to the situation -- i.e., walking -- and are preoccupied with what is distinctive in each.
    The Lapps have a great many terms to denote various kinds of reindeer, not merely according to their species, but according to their age, whether sleek or mangy, starved or fat, frisky or docile.
(81) The word reindeer as a generic term does not form any part of these words as it would for us. There are 11 words for cold, depending upon who is cold, how they are cold, and why they are cold; 20 words for ice; and 41 words for snow in its various forms -- yet no word for cold or ice or snow per se. They have not classified objects nor categorized experiences. Everything is known and felt as concrete, isolated, and uniquely individual. Moreover, it is a general rule that the more intense their interest, the more profuse their vocabulary. The Aymara Indians of Peru have more than 209 words for potato;

79. Bridges, Thomas, "Notes on the Structure of the Yahgan," in Journal of the Anthropology Institute, vol.23, 1893, p.53-80
80. Livingstone, David, The Zambezi and Its Tributaries, Harper, New York, 1865, p.537.
81. Keane, ____, "The Laps; Their Origin," in Journal of the Anthropology Institute, vol.15, 1885, p. 235

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the Arabs several thousand words relating to the camel. (82)
     So different, in fact, is the mode of expression in such languages that translation into an Indo-European language in any exact sense becomes exceedingly difficult, and in any case tends to occupy many more words. In the languages of North America, a blow with the fist would not employ the same verb as would be used to describe a blow with the open hand.
(83) The Indian's emphasis is not upon the blow as such or the hand as such, but the whole event involving the attacker, the victim, the circumstances, everything. In fact to him there is virtually nothing common in the two events, and to repeat the word blow or hand would, in his view, be to mislead the reader. This is what makes translation look simple enough superficially, but often be very difficult.
      It follows from all this that such a way of viewing things, of naming objects, or of describing events invites the constant invention of new words and new modes of expression. Instead of playing upon a basic form with suffixes and prefixes, the creation of entirely new forms is the rule. Consequently any new undertaking results very quickly in a large addition to the vocabulary of the language. And the ease with which such enlargement takes place soon renders a fair proportion of the vocabulary of one group unintelligible to a neighbouring community.
      By greatly accelerating this process, God could have easily seen to it that those who took responsibility for carrying out different parts of the program in the building of the city and the Tower of Babel very soon found themselves unable to understand one another -- particularly since it was an unusual undertaking. In this way, the very novelty of the venture itself was the cause of its own abandonment.

Curiously enough, although this reconstruction of events is based entirely upon the much better understanding we now have of the form and structure of non-Japhetic languages, the far-seeing Dante in a way anticipated it. Here is what Dante wrote: (84)

      Almost the whole human race had come together to the work (of the tower of Babel). Some were giving orders, some were acting as architects, some were building the walls, some were adjusting the masonry with rules, some were laying on the mortar with trowels, some were quarrying stone, some engaged in bringing it by water, some by land; and different companies

82. Tschopik, H., Jr., "The Aymara; Handbook of South American Indians," Bulletin 143, Bureau American Ethnology , no.2, 1946, p.501ff. As regards camels,: actually 5,744 words, according to von Hammer: so Max Muller, ref. 4, vol. 1, p.383.
83. Cassirer, Ernst, An Essay on Man, Yale University Press, 1948, p.135.
84. Quoted by A. Gode, "The Case for Interlingua," Scientific Monthly, Aug. 1953, p.82, from Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia.

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were engaged in different other occupations, when they were struck by such confusion from Heaven that all those who were attending to the work, using one and the same language, left the work on being estranged by many different languages and never again came together in the same intercourse.
     For the same language remained to those alone who were engaged in the same kind of work; for instance, one language remained to all the architects, another to those preparing the stone; and so it happened to each group of workers. And the human race was then accordingly divided into as many different languages as there were different branches to the work.

     What this amounts to in effect is the accelerated formation of a number of technical jargons involving in some instances the creation of highly specialized vocabularies, quite unintelligible to all except those who were members of the trade guild, and in other instances the attachment of entirely new meanings to familiar words which thereby came to signify something quite different to those who employed them.
     It can hardly be doubted that mankind is slowly strengthening his presumption today to take heaven by storm in a somewhat analogous fashion. What is hindering -- increasingly -- the realization of this presumption is the rise of a whole new series of technical jargons, once again involving in some instances the creation of an entirely new terminology and in others the attachment of specialized meanings to otherwise familiar words. Thus it comes about that those trained in one discipline have difficulty in communicating with those trained in some other. For example, the electronics expert and the architect may both speak of noise, but they are not talking about the same thing. The problem of inter-communication between disciplines has become one of the most acute and greatest hindrances to the further advance of man's conquest of his world, a greater hindrance indeed than even his lack of complete knowledge. It is as though God were once again setting limits to his ambition by the multiplication of languages.
     William Temple had something like this in mind when he wrote:

      The supreme usurpation is spoken of as frustrated by the confusion of men's speech. The ambition of Babel -- to build a tower by which man should ascend to the throne of God -- led to that name becoming a synonym for confusion. For man could achieve even the semblance of success in his titanic self-assertion only if he could prevent the outbreak of divisions and rivalries. The multiplication of tongues, each representing a special tradition and a peculiar hope, has effectively prevented man from achieving a godless contentment. Thus from the selfish ambition which essays the blasphemous task of establishing an independence of God and usurpation of His throne springs

85. Temple, William, The Church Looks Forward, Macmillan, London, 1944, p.175.

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also the selfish rivalry which makes the effort ineffectual. Evil has at least this much of good about it that its own nature renders it self-destructive.

     No matter how we look at it, the "confusion of tongues" seems to have been the most perfect means by which God could achieve His purpose, not only of preventing man from attempting what could only be to his own hurt in the end -- namely, complete unanimity in any undertaking -- but also of ensuring that the earth would be sufficiently settled that man could in time have dominion over every part of it. Because man is sinful, complete unanimity can only ever be achieved for evil, and the only such unanimity that Scripture recognizes is that which the Lord will destroy at His coming.
     In conclusion, I should like to re-state what I have said about the nature of the confusion of language at the building of the Tower of Babel which made this event so uniquely appropriate in the circumstances. Hamitic languages have shown two lines of historical development which are in conflict: on the one hand (as in China)
(86) remaining virtually unchanged for thousands of years; and on the other hand, changing almost beyond recognition within a few generations. How are we to reconcile these two tendencies?
     The answer to both anomalies is found in the special nature of the Hamitic mind. The divergent tendency seems to find expression whenever Hamites move into what is, for them, a new environment or whenever an entirely new undertaking engages their energies. On the other hand, as long as they remain stationary in one place, their languages are marked by an extreme conservatism. Thus it comes about that when migrations separate them, they readily invent new forms and new vocabularies which thereafter persist and make any re-union unlikely if not impossible. Thus boundaries between such separated groups become highly persistent. The end result is that while Hamitic languages do not seem to change by development, as the Japhetic languages and Semitic languages do, change occurs suddenly and such changes become exceedingly permanent -- and divisive. The purpose of God to send forth the Hamitic people with their very strong bent toward practical things, which made them so peculiarly well suited as the world's first pioneers, was thus beautifully served by a judgment which was, as many of God's judgments are, in one sense actually a blessing in disguise.

86. Needham points out that whereas the ordinary Englishman of today can hardly go back with understanding further than three or four hundred years in his own literature, to the literary Chinese the works of millennia are open. See Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1954, vol. I, p.40. This applies, however, not to the spoken forms, but only to the literary ones.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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