Were all of today’s thousands of languages separately created? And if not, have languages evolved?
Composite graphic by Brendon O’Loughlin and Steve Cardno
Artist’s reconstruction of the Tower of Babel. The ancient historian Herodotus, who saw it on his way through Babylon, describes it as having eight levels, and standing a colossal 60 m (about 20 modern stories) high. This view, modelled upon ancient Ziggurats, is probably very similar to how it actually appeared.
‘Dr Wieland,’ said the boldest of the three young Christians who had approached me during a break in the creation seminar I was giving at a Singapore church, ‘We’re all linguists by training; we are preparing for missionary work in Myanmar [Burma]. Could you tell us please, does the Bible say anything about the origin of languages?’
After recovering from my surprise at the question, I said, ‘Yes, it certainly does.’ I explained to them that after the global cataclysmic Flood, the survivors (all descended from Noah’s family) defied God’s command to spread out and fill the earth. On the plain of Shinar (Sumeria/Babylonia), they began to build a city, called Babel, and a tower, the top of which would be ‘unto heaven.’1 At that time, perhaps only 100 or so years after the Flood, they were all still part of the same society, speaking the same language.
As a judgment upon their rebellion, God confused their language, so that they would not be able to understand one another, and would scatter over the whole earth. This creation of different languages was thus a sudden, miraculous event.
I could see puzzled, even worried, looks on their faces. ‘Could you show us where it says that, please?’ So I opened up Genesis and read out the relevant passages. This only seemed to deepen their anxiety, albeit masked by the innate politeness of their culture.
Leaving aside the obvious question of how they could be nearly ready to go out onto the mission field with such a poor knowledge of biblical history, why did the Word of the very Lord whom they had pledged to serve on the mission field cause such consternation?
Then it dawned on me. As linguists, these people would be fully aware of the way in which languages are changing all the time. Not only that, they would have studied evidence of the historical links between languages which today seem quite different from one another.
Yet here was a passage in Genesis which, at a superficial glance, could be taken to mean that all the languages now spoken in their region, the Hokkien Chinese of their own families, the Tamil spoken by their Indian neighbours, the language of the Karen tribesmen of Myanmar, all came about at the same time, by miraculous means.
But of course Genesis does not teach this, any more than it teaches that all the 800 or so languages (and many more dialects) of Papua New Guinea originated instantly in the Middle East. First, let’s look at this whole issue of languages and change.
Anyone who doubts that languages change only has to read the poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as he wrote English 600 years ago. For instance, ‘ … the yonge sonne hath in the ram his half cours yronne, and small fowls maken melodye, that slepen all the night with open yë.’ Even though today’s King James Bible (the 1769 revision) is not modern-day English, it too is dramatically different from its original 1611 edition,2 with tens of thousands of changes deemed necessary to make it comprehensible to a populace whose own English has continued to change.
The spread of writing, in particular the printed word, has probably slowed down the pace of diversification, which can be dramatic in cultures without written language.3 This is especially so where groups are cut off from contact with one another for a while. Two Papuan villages isolated from each other by inhospitable, mountainous terrain, whose inhabitants spoke the same language dozens of generations ago, might not even be able to communicate with each other today should they get together (see Languages through time—three concepts).
Then there is the fascinating evidence of how languages are related. Able to read both German and English, I noticed I could often make out what a piece of Dutch text was saying, though I could never understand spoken Dutch. It was as though Dutch was somehow ‘in between’ the other two. For instance:
Then when visiting a 500-year-old cemetery for Dutch seamen in Melaka (Malacca) on the Malay peninsula, I found the inscriptions on the tombstones to be even more comprehensible to me than modern Dutch. Obviously, these languages were even closer in the past. They have ‘diverged’ from one another, so that as time goes on, they grow further and further apart.
Links between German, Dutch and English sound reasonable enough, as would the idea of links between, say, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish (some of the so-called Romance languages) and ancient Latin. But links, not just within but between these two groups, are also glaringly obvious. For instance, in the example earlier, notice how the German word for clock ‘uhr’ sounds like the English ‘hour’ which in turn is like the Latin ‘hora’ (for hour).4
In fact, not only these languages, but a vast number of the so-called ‘Indo-European’ languages, including Greek, Russian, and even ancient Sanskrit, even, can be shown to all be linked in this way. If you deny that the Indo-European languages are related, you would have to say that the chart (below), with its array of similar-sounding names for similar common things, is full of fantastic coincidences.
This means that in all probability, all these languages, except Hungarian (far right column), shared the same ‘ancestor language.’ Linguists refer to a ‘proto-Indo-European’ language, and have even tried to make reasonable inferences about what some of its words would originally have been.
|Comparing a lot of words for common things can show us the ‘relatedness’ between various languages. Those like Italian, Spanish, and French are obviously closer to each other (and to ancient Latin) than any of them are to, say, German, English, or Danish. Nevertheless, even this limited sample shows the inter-relatedness of all the languages in the above columns (except Hungarian), which are all of the Indo-European language family. (Note: Greek and Russian have different alphabets, so we have turned these into approximate English equivalents.) Interestingly, as seen in the last column, despite being spoken by a nation in continental Europe, Hungarian is not an Indo-European language. Basque, the language of a group of people in present-day Spain, is from another language family altogether. Each language is totally unrelated to any outside of its group. This is consistent with the idea that all the languages in each group arose from one of the ‘stem’ languages of Babel.|
Do languages therefore evolve?
Though languages clearly change, and more than one language can arise by divergence from a ‘common ancestor,’ there the similarity with ideas of grand-scale biological evolution ends.
In fact, I think it is misleading to talk about any ‘evolution of language.’ Changes in language come about mostly from humanity’s inventiveness, innate creativity, and flexibility, not from random genetic mutations filtered by selection. And languages studied today in the process of change appear mostly to be getting simpler, not more complex. Some of the most ‘primitive’ tribes speak languages with extremely complex grammar.5 Perhaps ‘devolution’ of language would be a better term.
What about Babel?
Languages through time—three concepts.
(A) Evolutionary tree
Evolutionary belief about languages—all probably derived from one primitive early language, which evolved from animal grunts.
(B) Language Lawn
Common (mis)conception of Genesis. Each of today’s languages arose separately at Babel.
(C) Genesis Orchard
After the Flood (we are not given any information about pre-Flood language diversification) the only language was that spoken by Noah’s family. At Babel, the family groups were each programmed suddenly and supernaturally with a different language. Each of these created languages has gone on to diversify into many separate languages, which are all related to each other—each group has a ‘common ancestor’ language.
Note that these same three diagrams also apply to the changes in living things. Evolutionary belief (A) has all species arising from one common ancestor. The misconception (B) has every species in the world separately created and unchanged through time. The biblical reality (C) has each kind separately created, with variation and diversification within that kind (no new information, hence no evolution), including after the Flood. Thus wolves, dingoes, coyotes, etc. have all arisen from an ancestral ‘dog kind’ population descended from that population which was on the Ark.
Genesis 10:32 seems to indicate that the dispersion of people across the earth was generally along extended family lines. The mechanism of that dispersal is seen in Chapter 11 to be the sudden creation of new languages which caused people to not understand each other. In such an ultimate ‘breakdown of communication,’ tempers would flare, suspicions abound mightily, and hostilities would rapidly drive groups which spoke different languages away from each other. However, in order to remain cohesive as the above verse indicates, each extended family group or ‘clan’ would have needed to all still share the one language.
Since very little time had elapsed since the Flood, there would not have been hundreds of clans yet. Perhaps only a few dozen separate languages needed to be created in order for each clan to have its own, and to achieve God’s purposes swiftly, as happened.
Eventually, as each clan moved out more and more over the earth in successive generations, some groups within it became separated from each other. By this means, any or all of the original ‘Babel languages’ could change and split into many different new languages, which would all show signs of being related.
Over relatively short time periods, changes accumulate giving rise to different dialects (e.g. Scots, Liverpool, and Australian English; Northern vs Southern USA). Eventually, these become so different that speakers of one cannot understand the other at all—a criterion for classifying them as separate languages.6
Thus, I think that the Indo-European ‘family of languages’ would have all originated from one ‘stem’ language at Babel. There have been thousands of years since that event for many, many hundreds of language groups to have arisen from that handful of separate (created) languages.
A prediction from all of this would be that, given the large number of languages in the world today, it should be possible to group them together into ‘families’ like the Indo-European family of languages. But there should be no links between one ‘family’ and another. That is because, on this model, each distinct language family is the offshoot of an original Babel ‘stem language’ which did not arise by change from a previous ancestral language.
This actually fits what we observe. For instance, the Sino-Asiatic language family, which includes Chinese, Japanese and Korean, gives no evidence that it descended from a ‘common ancestor’ language with any of the Indo-European ones—or any other language from another family.
Languages are becoming extinct, and many have never been studied by linguists. Thus, estimates of the number of different ‘language families’ vary, and are difficult. But they are generally in the vicinity of some 8 to 20 (commonly 12 or 13). That fits very comfortably with the descriptions in Genesis.
Evolutionists have tried hard to ‘link’ the various language families so that they in turn point back to a common ancestor. I.e., to show that the original Indo-European and Sino-Asiatic languages themselves arose from some previous language. But their efforts have been without success. The evidence is wonderfully consistent with the notion that a small number of languages, separately created at Babel, has diversified into the huge variety of languages we have today.
References and notes
- The Hebrew here can be taken in several ways. It can mean that the tower was going to reach into the heavens, a figure of speech meaning it would be impressively high (like we talk of ‘sky-scrapers,’ or Wolkenkratzer ‘cloud-scrapers’ in German). It may also mean that its top would be, like some of the ziggurats in ancient Babylon (Babel), open to the heavens as a giant astrological observatory for the false worship of those times. Return to text.
- The original KJV published in 1611 used spellings like Iesus, Iehovah, vnto, euill and beleeueth. It also contained the Apocrypha, cross-referenced to it from the canonical books, and listed verses from the Apocrypha in its Scripture reading schedule. The 1611 original also had over 8,000 marginal notes suggesting alternative translations and uncertainty about some words in the original languages. Return to text.
- Television, with its ‘homogenizing’ influence on language, also slows divergence, and may even be responsible for some convergence, e.g. between Australian and U.S. English. Return to text.
- By analysing common features, linguists can determine that the Romance languages diverged from a common tongue later than that tongue diverged from the common ancestor of the Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German, etc). Return to text.
- Linton, R., The Tree of Culture, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1955, p. 9. Return to text.
- Sometimes the criterion of mutual unintelligibility to determine separate languages takes second place to political divisions—e.g. Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. Note also that each individual speaks a little differently from everyone else—these are called personal idiolects. Return to text.
* NB: Not Felis, as commonly thought. Return to table.