What happened at Babel?
Linguists have tried for many years to discover the links between the sounds of languages which would lead them to a common evolutionary origin for all humanity. It is true to say they have not succeeded. They assume it has taken tens of thousands of years for modern languages to form, but the story of Babel indicates that modern languages began in their basic form only some thousands of years ago. We are informed in Genesis chapter 11 that prior to the events of Babel mankind spoke only one language.
Modern languages therefore began to develop only thousands of years ago, not hundreds of thousands.
Traditional views of evolution state that the rate of change in organisms is extremely slow. Today it’s obviously imperceptible. You can’t see it! Newer theories, such as punctuated equilibrium, suggest evolution by rapid changes to account for the absence of both missing links and any observed evolution. It is unfortunate for evolutionary linguists that they can’t make use of slow mutation, or even rapid change in small populations, to support any evolutionary theory of language development.
Mutations just don’t apply to language.
Rapid change goes so very much against the popular language theory that small societies change their speech form more slowly than large ones. In other words, linguists who believe in evolution are tongue-tied as to how modern languages originated.
How long would a language take to develop?
Differences between American English and British English today, or between South American Spanish and Castilian Spanish, or between Dutch and Afrikaans indicate that over a few hundred years there is insufficient change in isolated languages for them to be classified as different languages, even though they come from the same background.
On a broader scale, English and German appear to have come from a common proto-Germanic ancestor. Common words such as water and wasser indicate this to be so. But this common ancestor had to be at least 3,000 years ago to account for the emergence of such different ways of using words (e.g. ich spreche nicht deutsch vs. I don’t speak German). If all languages have evolved from a common ancestor in the same way as English and German, it would take an incredibly long time to achieve such a wide variety of languages. Some have suggested a period of at least 300,000 years for all the world’s languages to be derived from a common ancestor.1
There are various difficulties however, with the view that you could develop all languages from one primitive start anyway.
Natural barriers in language exist which would prevent such a thing ever happening. Native-born English people gain a great deal of amusement from listening to a person from a different language background speak English. The reason is not that the different language background English speaker can’t speak the English words properly, but that he speaks them using his native speech rhythm which is totally different from English speech rhythm.
People from a different language background think that English people speak strangely for exactly the same reason.
So a language is more than just words and words used in order; it’s words that also will be used in a particular type of rhythm which communicates to users of the same language.
In order to change a language thoroughly, it needs to be changed in all its attributes, e.g. words, word patterns and speech rhythms. Changing speech rhythms is one of the hardest to achieve.
Children appear to learn these while they are still in the womb.2
It would appear therefore, that the only way to change a language rhythm naturally, would be for all pregnant women to be struck dumb and then for them to move to another country where they had contact only with other speeches of different rhythms. Language studies indicate that languages do not appear to change rhythm by evolutionary descent, no matter how long they have.
Based on what happened at Babel however, we do not need hundreds of thousands of years to explain the origins of the languages we hear today.
The Genesis text states that at Babel God confused their one language (v.7) and scattered the people over the surface of the earth (v.8).3
Babel was a communal rebellion against God’s instruction4 to fill or populate the whole earth after Noah’s Flood. To confuse the people’s means of reaching their common agreement against God, namely language, was a fitting punishment.
But what happened at Babel? How did God confuse the language?
We may find it helpful to look first at how communication or speech actually does occur between people. Such a study shows there are at least four ways in which language could be interfered with so that it would become confused and provide the basis for a new and different language.
The conversation between one person (the speaker or the source) and another person (the listener or the receiver) occurs by means of a particular medium (the air).
When a huge truck drives past as you are talking to a friend, your message becomes distorted by the noise. Your friend can no longer tell exactly what it is you are trying to say. The truck noise interferes with your words. If the noise continues to cause such confusion both parties will give up and move away from the noise. In such a case their speech has been distorted en route from one to the other, in the air.
Babel could have been achieved by God making use of any distorting or changing phenomena between speakers and listeners.
Some believe that such a method was used in reverse in Acts 2:4-8, so that those speaking foreign tongues had their messages changed by God into many different human languages en route from speaker to listener. Similarly in Numbers 22:28 where the donkey may have brayed in donkey talk, but was heard to speak in human words by Balaam.
God is quite capable of rearranging air molecules for long enough to cause confusion, so that people would give up trying to understand any conversations and move away.
But the weakness with this suggestion is that unless such interference was kept up for a very long time it would not have changed any basic aspect of language. The Genesis story of Babel indicates that the confusion occurred over a short period of time, in order to achieve a rapid moving away.
Some have suggested that the people at Babel were unable to speak properly or to give a clear message, e.g. similar to the effects that happen to a person when they get drunk, or use some drug with effects similar to alcohol—their speech becomes distorted.5
Again the problem with this suggestion is that God would have had to keep up the effects long enough to enable the people both to separate and to invent and master new ways of saying things. Although such a method would certainly have caused confusion, it would have required a very long time for the production of any new language pattern. Therefore it is unlikely that such a method was used to produce new languages at Babel.
The third possibility is that God rendered the people at Babel temporarily deaf (partially or totally) for several years.
People could still talk but they could not listen properly, even to themselves (the receivers were distorted). The Hebrew shama (שָׁמַע), translated ‘understand’ in Genesis 11:7, has the basic meaning to ‘hear’. If it were their hearing that was impaired at Babel, it would produce the following effect: During the years of such deafness, only certain sounds would be audible to both the speakers and hearers.
When the next generation arrived, the children would pick up entirely new forms of speech, particularly different speech rhythms.6
Even today deaf people have difficulty communicating. This is particularly so because, even though they are using the same words as the listeners they are using different speech rhythms from those used by their listeners.
They do this particularly because they cannot hear themselves.
Languages distinguishable after Babel by speech rhythm would eventually separate people more thoroughly than those merely having different sounds, so it seems reasonable to suggest that such changes in sounds would also have occurred, particularly in view of the number of distinct language families in the world today.7
An imposed deafness is my choice, as a linguist, of the most likely natural mechanism which God could have used to cause the confusion at Babel.
One other alternative exists. God may have simply given men new and separate language patterns totally inbuilt just like He did in the first man Adam. It would certainly have been quick and brought total confusion. Rapid separation into new language groups would soon have followed, setting the stage for the development of modern languages to commence.
However, the Genesis text does not go as far as saying God gave the people new languages; it merely says that “God confused their language”. So I suspect that this suggestion goes a little too far to be correct.
The events at Babel teach that God’s purpose was to remove the common element in men’s speech both to enable and to force mankind to obey His wise order to populate the whole world. He achieved that most effectively. Any attempt to reverse this by a new and uniform world language simply will not work.
References and notes
- It has been frequently claimed (Lewis, M.M, Infant Speech, 1951) that all children use most of the sounds of the world’s known languages during their babbling stage, from birth up to eighteen months, later discarding sounds not in their eventual repertoire. Theorists vary in interpreting this, but it does seem to point to the unity of all human speech, as does a rather different approach which states that all languages talk about the same basic things in the same proportions, (Lakoff, G., Theory of ‘Generative Semantics’, Irregularity in Syntax, 1970) and all basic grammars are similar. (Chomsky, N., Theory of ‘Generative Grammar’, Syntactic Structures, 1957) Although the world’s languages are diverse in form, they are similar in the range of phonetic elements they employ. Similarly, there are those who point out that first person singular pronouns all over the world contain a nasal consonant, and that we can find common sounds in words for ‘nose’, etc. But by the time we reach this level of generalisation we haven’t said very much since there are also notable exceptions. Personally, I think that what we find in common relates to the general capacity of man to speak at all, rather than producing evidence for a common source. Return to text.
- Dr. A. Wiseby (Language Psychologist) personal communication, 1981. Return to text.
- Two ways of understanding this biblical text have been suggested: (1) The ‘scatter first’ theory which argues that God decided to confuse the language (11:7) and therefore scattered the people (v.8) to achieve this. (2) The ‘confuse first’ theory, which notes that in 11:9, which repeats verses 7 and 8, there seems to be a clear order of events—confuse then scatter. The ‘scatter first’ theory needs as much time as the evolutionists need to develop the modern languages, so it doesn’t even fit the biblical date for Babel of only several thousand years BC. It doesn’t even fit theistic evolution theories, since Babel occurred in historic rather than prehistoric times. I firmly believe that it was ‘confuse first’ because that is what the text says in simple English. Even the Hebrew verb form in 11:8 indicates a subsequent event, and means literally ‘he caused them to scatter’. Return to text.
- Genesis 9:1. Return to text.
- Even petroleum or kerosene sniffing has been reported to have distorted the language of many people using it, and the suggestion was that it affects intelligence. There was plenty of bitumen around at Babel (see Gen. 11:3). Return to text.
- The three major rhythmic types are: (1) Stress-timed, as with English, German, Russian, etc., (2) Syllable-timed, as with French, Hindi, Gujerati, etc., (3) Tonal, as with Chinese, Luo, Thai, etc. Return to text.
- We must remember, of course, that rhythm alone is not a distinguishing mark for language families. However the reason I feel rhythm changes have played a part is that something like deafness is needed to upset this feature of languages. Return to text.