Speech and language are among the amazing abilities which set human beings apart from the animal kingdom. Explaining complex ideas to one another is as old as mankind. Explaining where language came from, if one accepts evolution, is an entirely different matter …
One of the great mysteries of life is the origin of language. We use it every day to communicate with each other, but how did it begin? For thousands of years people have sought the answer, and of course in our day many people seek an explanation in terms of a long, gradual development. But is this realistic?
How do we speak? Making sounds
We have two main ways of making speech sounds. One uses the vibrations of the vocal cords, and the other the various hisses and pops of the stream of air being impeded or released in various ways in our mouth and throat. These sounds are modified by the shape and size of the cavities through which the air stream passes, in which the sounds resonate or reverberate. We can control these using the muscles of the throat, jaw, tongue and lips. The brain has a centre which sends instructions to these muscles, telling them to move so that each successive sound is made as we desire.
Of course, speech would be of no use unless at the same time we had the ability to hear the sounds, and to interpret the sequences of sounds as meaningful language. The human ear is an extremely complex organ, which I will not try to describe here. Scientists are studying the way the brain interprets the sounds and processes them to decode the concepts which they represent, and they have a long way to go before we fully understand how it is done.
This whole physiological system has to be fully functional in order to use language successfully. There must be the system to produce speech and the system to hear and interpret it. That’s what makes it so incredible to suppose that we evolved language ability bit-by-bit until it was complete. Where could the information or plan have come from that puts together all the necessary structures in the body as it is formed? Only from the hand of our infinitely wise Creator God!
What is language?
Language is a system of symbols that represent things and ideas. The most obvious symbols in language are the sounds that we say, where a sequence of sounds carries the meaning we want to express. But there are other symbols too, like the writing that you are reading now, and the sign language used by the deaf. Whenever two or more people share a common set of symbols, they are able to use them to share ideas and information. But two people who do not have a common language are unable to communicate much at all. Most of us have heard someone speaking in a foreign language, and we know how hard it is to understand even the least bit. But when someone speaks our own language, we can communicate to the fullest extent.
Symbolizing using sounds
When we speak, we make sequences of sounds that encode the meaning. We call individual units of speech ‘words’, and we string them together in an appropriate order to make sentences.1 Each simple word may represent a particular concept, a thing, an action, or something expressing the relationship between two or more of these. The way we say words can also express how we feel about what we are saying, such as when we emphasize a word, or raise or lower our voice.
Patterns of grammar
The order in which we say words is an aspect of the grammar of our language. Other languages have their own particular patterns, and they can be very different from one another.2 When we learn a language we have to become familiar with its grammatical patterns, so that what we say sounds right and is meaningful to the listeners. It’s no use using the pattern of a different language, since the results always sound quite peculiar, and may even change the meaning totally.
What the Bible says
The Bible doesn’t say anywhere how language began. The existence of language seems to be assumed right from the start—even before the Creation! On the first day of Creation, God said, ‘Let there be light!’ (Genesis 1:3). What God said took place, and light was created. Similarly, God spoke other things, and they too came into being just as He said.
This tells us that God, not surprisingly, already had a means of self-expression, or language, available to use. We know that there was fellowship and full communication among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in Heaven before the Creation began, although we cannot know what kind of language was used. It doesn’t really matter to us whatever means God used to express His will in Creation. The writer of Genesis has simply recorded in his own language both the fact that God spoke and the content of what He said.
The fact that we humans can express ourselves to one another, and to God, in the unique way we do is a reflection of the capacity that God has, since we are made in His image. He is the ultimate source of our facility of language. Then what sort of language did God give Adam and Eve?
God talked with Adam and Eve
God communicated with Adam and Eve, telling them at the outset to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). He also gave them instructions about what to eat and what not to eat. There were other things that God said to them, some of which are recorded, especially in Genesis 3.
Humans had language ability right at the start
Obviously Adam and Eve shared the facility of language with God, so that they could communicate with Him. Their language had to be complete enough for them to understand all that God was saying to them. Unlike all subsequent people born, therefore, some of their vocabulary would have had to have been preprogrammed.3 They must have already understood the grammatical patterns, although they may not have had a full vocabulary to begin with. Certainly their original language had to have been more than a few simple grunts and squawks!4
God named some things, Adam named others
Genesis tells us that when God created some things, He also named them. He called the light ‘day’, and the darkness ‘night’. He also named the heaven, the Earth, and the seas. Although Genesis doesn’t tell us explicitly that He named the stars, Isaiah 40:26 says that He calls all the stars by name.
On the other hand, it was Adam who named the birds and animals (Genesis 2:19), and it was he who named the woman. This is why we say that his vocabulary grew greater, because he gave names to many of the living creatures—cattle, birds, and so on. [Ed: This probably included only land vertebrates (see Naming the animals Creation 18(4):46-49, 1996.)]
Giving a name to someone or something was understood in ancient times to be an exercise of authority. We see from these verses that God exercises authority over day, night, the heavens and their hosts, the Earth and the seas. When Adam gave names to the birds and animals, he was exercising the authority that God gave him in Genesis 1:28 to rule over the living things. And his naming of Eve indicates that Adam was to have headship in the marriage even before the Fall.
Language was given to humankind as a fully functioning system
Adam and Eve’s language must therefore have been a fully functioning system, although it may not have had all of the vocabulary to begin with. That’s just like language today. We have a complete system, and we are able to add new words at any time to cover new inventions and discoveries, and new activities that we perform or observe. So the grammar of language can be thought of as largely independent of the set of words for things and actions. God gave that system to Adam and Eve, along with enough words to understand all that He needed to say in instructing them and sharing fellowship with them. Later on, Adam and Eve could add words as they needed them.
Normal children in every community have the ability to learn the grammatical system of their own language in their earliest years. It’s fascinating to watch a youngster learning to speak. It’s like a new miracle unfolding before our eyes. It is said that a child can already use all the grammatical patterns of its mother tongue by the time he or she is five years old.5 Children will learn lots of vocabulary after that, particularly in teenage years, but the patterns in which the new words will be used are already in place.
Children of foreign parents, growing up in a community speaking a different language, can learn the grammatical system of both languages with seemingly equal ease. They may take a while to sort out which pattern belongs to which language, but ultimately they get it right. But many adults learning a foreign language are already set in the grammatical and standard sound patterns of their mother tongue, and may find it very difficult to adopt a different pattern fully.
What was the first language?
At the time of the Tower of Babel, all the world spoke a single language (Genesis 11:6). No-one today knows what that language was, and the Bible doesn’t tell us. From ancient times even until today some people have tried to find out what it was. Experiments have been carried out, such as the one by the pharaoh Psammetichus (664-610 bc) in Egypt.6 He is reported to have left two infants in the care of a dumb servant until the unfortunate infants made a recognizable word that could be understood to have meaning. He believed that if the children heard no other speech, whatever they developed by themselves would be evidence of the original language. Eventually one said ‘bekos’ which was found to be the Phrygian word for ‘bread’, so the experimenter concluded that the Phrygian language must have been the original one!
Over the years, many others have thought they could discern the original language through what they perceive to be the perfections of a language in current use. But every living language changes over time. That’s why it is good to have ‘new’ translations of the Bible every 20–25 years, to keep up with the changes that occur (provided they remain faithful to the original text, of course). So whatever languages we find in use today, we can be quite sure they are not the same as an original one spoken thousands of years ago.
Modern languages are so different from one another that a single common source is impossible to find. Even the ancient languages of which we have written records are too different from each other for that. The Hebrew in which Genesis is written is ancient, but we cannot infer that Hebrew was the original language.7 We just don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. In any case, we know that at Babel there was a sudden creation of several new languages, so there would have been no single ‘common ancestor’ language for all of today’s languages. However, each of the several new languages at Babel could diversify, splitting into many descendant languages each being a part of the same language ‘family’.
What does matter is that we have God’s message to us written for our instruction (Romans 15:4). We can understand it and learn to know God through it, because it has been translated into our own language.
Let us simply give thanks to God for giving us this great gift of language, and, obeying Christ’s command to us in Matthew 28:19-20, use it to tell others of His greatness, power, and redeeming love.
Some examples of different grammatical patterns:
|English:||My son||loves||your daughter|
|Latin:||Filius meus||filiam tuam||amat|
|son my||daughter your||loves|
These two sentences say the same thing, but their patterns are different. For example:
- English generally puts the object after the verb; Latin usually, but not always, puts the verb last.
- English puts the possessors ‘my’ and ‘your’ before the noun, Latin puts possessors after the noun.
- Latin uses different word endings that show whether a word is subject or object, masculine or feminine.
Hebrew is different from both of the above, putting the verb before the subject, and using a prefix to mark the object of the verb:
|English:||‘God made the heavens and the earth’|
Evolutionists usually claim that languages evolved from animal grunts. Some even claim that the continuing change of languages is just like biological evolution. However, actual observations of language present a very different picture.
First, ancient languages were actually extremely complex with many different inflections. There is no hint of any build-up from simpler languages. E.g. in the Indo-European family, Sanskrit, Classical Greek and Latin had many different noun inflections for different case, gender and number, while verbs were inflected for tense, voice, number and person. Modern descendants of these languages have greatly reduced the number of inflections, i.e. the trend is from complex to simpler, the opposite of evolution. English has almost completely lost inflections, retaining just a few like the possessive “–’s”.
English has also lost 65–85% of the Old English vocabulary, and many Classical Latin words have also been lost from its descendants, the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.).
Second, most of the changes were not random, but the result of intelligence. For example: systematic sound shifts, forming compound words by joining simple words and derivations by adding prefixes and suffixes, modification of meaning, and borrowing words from other languages including calques (a borrowed compound word where each component is translated and then joined).
Steel, A.K., The devolopment of languages is nothing like biological evolution, CEN Tech. J. [now J. Creation] 14(2):31–40, 2000.
References and notes
- Some languages have long words combining many elements of meaning (e.g. Maori and Welsh), while words in other languages may have few or only one element of meaning. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Towering change, Creation 22(1):22-26, 1999. Return to text.
- ‘Progressive creationist’ Dr Hugh Ross, in trying to refute the plain Biblical teaching of no death before the Fall, argues that Adam and Eve could not have understood God’s warning of death as a penalty for sin unless they had already seen things die. However, we see here that there would have been many concepts which they needed to understand prior to being able to experience them. Return to text.
- The typical evolutionary tale supposes that early man’s language developed from nothing more than animal-like grunts. Return to text.
- Fromkin et al., An Introduction to Language, (2nd Australian edition), p. 359, 1991. Return to text.
- Ref. 5, p. 394, Herodotus, quoted by Fromkin et al. Return to text.
- However, it has been pointed out that it was probably something like it, or else the many obvious ‘word plays’ linking people’s names to relevant things would not work. E.g. Adam/adamah (dust, mud, ground), Eve/‘live, living’ (Gen. 3:20) and Cain/‘gotten’ (Gen. 4:1). Return to text.