The languages of babel
The origin of languages poses a major problem for evolutionists—how did man come to be a verbalizing creature who can communicate meaningful information through language? Following the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, speculation on the subject became rife. So outlandish was some of it that the Société de Linguistique de Paris placed a ban on all such discussion, which lasted more than a century.1
Modern evolutionists seek answers in primitive ‘symbols’ whereby human language began in ape-like creatures with simple grunts and noises in response to various stimuli, e.g. threatening predators. From these came a sequence of symbols,2 in turn moving on to simple sentences, to ever higher and more complex arrangements of words, and ultimately to abstract concepts.
But evolutionists Christiansen and Kirby are forced to concede concerning language evolution:
There is inevitable scepticism regarding whether we will ever find answers to some of the questions surrounding the evolution of language and cognition.3
And Jean Aitchison cites the renowned linguist Joseph Greenberg:
… the evolution of language as such has never been demonstrated, and the inherent equality of all languages must be maintained on present evidence.4
Hence this ‘grunts-to-grammar’ evolutionary scenario indeed has major problems. One prediction of the theory is that the further back one goes in the history of language in general, and of any language in particular, the simpler it should appear. On the contrary, it becomes more complex, with all manner of grammatical and semantic subtleties that are progressively lost in later language, quite opposite to evolutionary predictions.
To illustrate, the Old English of 1,000 years ago had four cases for nouns, with remnants of a fifth, each duly inflected, plus different inflections in the conjugation of verbs.5 Many of these features were lost even in Middle English, and more still are lost in Modern English, e.g. in verbs the subjunctive mood, and the distinction between second person singular and plural.
Therefore this evolutionary scenario must be seriously doubted.
Japhetic, Semitic, and Hamitic languages
Another problem for the evolutionist concerns the profound differences of structure between the basic language groupings, which seem to be unrelated to each other. Interestingly, philologists, although not believing the Noah account, for a long time classified languages as Semitic, Hamitic, and Japhetic, after the sons of Noah. While these designations are partly the legacy of tradition, secularists in the past recognized that the early history of the Ancient Near East6 reflected in a broad sense the dispersion of nations in three basic streams as in Genesis 10, with their respective language groups. Thus Japhetic referred to the Indo-European language family, Semitic to the languages of the Near East, and Hamitic to those of Egypt and Africa, each quite different from the others, as follows:
- Semitic Family—this resolves into three further sub-categories:
> East Semitic: Akkadian and its dialects. Although Akkadian has to some extent a common stock of vocabulary with West Semitic languages such as Hebrew, much of its vocabulary is distinct, while some—especially the Babylonian dialect—derives from Sumerian.7
> West Semitic: Aramaic, Hebrew, Moabite, Canaanite, Phoenician, Ugaritic, etc.
> South Semitic: Arabic, Ethiopic, Palmyrene, Nabataean.
- Indo-European family: Hittite, Luwian, Palaic, Sanskrit, Old Persian, Classical and Koine Greek, Latin, the old Teutonic and Slavic languages, etc. Links of Hittite and its dialects with Greek, and thereby to the Indo-European languages of Central Europe, have been proposed but the details remain uncertain.
- The Hamitic languages derive ultimately from Egyptian (more below).
A polyglot of unrelated languages
In more recent years this threefold linguistic stream has tended to break up, since there are more early languages stemming from this region than this basic scheme would indicate. Indeed, what is striking about the linguistic landscape of the Ancient Near East is the plethora of unrelated but highly complex languages. However, this is not contradictory to the biblical statement that the descendants of Japheth, Ham, and Shem spread abroad, “each according to their languages” (Genesis 10:5, 20, 31). Rather, what we find is precisely what we would expect from the story of the Tower of Babel.
The first phenomenon
Two phenomena stand out; first, all these languages appear on the scene at about the same time—the mid-third millennium BC on conventional chronology. For secular scholars, their origins remain obscure. This is testimony to the sudden diversity and early ethnic movements of these peoples, as we would expect from Genesis 11:8–9. The main languages and language groups from the Ancient Near East are as follows, and each one is unrelated to any other:
- Sumerian: the original language of Lower Mesopotamia. Still only about 75% understood, it involves a noun or verbal base expressed as a simple syllable or bi-syllable, to which other syllables are added. Its noun can have ten cases, while its verb is highly complex, having an array of prefixed and suffixed particles. A resultant word may express what in English would require a lengthy phrase or even a sentence.
- Elamite: spoken in the south-western part of the Iranian Plateau. A ‘proto-Elamite’ script has been identified, while the underlying language is also not well understood.8
- Egyptian: the language of Pharaonic times was highly complex, and likewise its hieroglyphic script.9 From this came Coptic, a late form of Egyptian, and the whole Hamitic or Afro-Asian family. Though unrelated to the languages of the Semitic world, many of the latter adopted Egyptian loan words.
- Hurrian: the language of the Mitanni kingdom of the mid-second millennium BC.10 It first appears in cuneiform texts of the late 3rd millennium BC.11
- Hattian: the earliest language of Anatolia, of which we have only a few short texts. It should not be confused with the later Indo-European Hittite.12
- Kassite: spoken by the people of unknown origin, but probably from the Zagros Mountains, who overran Babylon in the period following its sacking by the Hittite king Muršilis I (on conventional chronology 1595 BC). This language is only partly understood due to the paucity of texts.
- Etruscan: the language of the Italian residents prior to the Romans, who seem to have settled there during the 2nd millennium BC. While the Etruscans adopted the Greek script (originally Phoenician) during the early first millennium BC, the language itself predates this development by many centuries.
- Indus Valley language: the script of this very early culture remains undeciphered, and the underlying language remains unknown. Linguist Barry Fells attempted a decipherment in the 1970s, concluding that the script was alphabetic, with six vowels and 24 consonants, while the language, again complex in structure, was clearly Indo-European, in turn a direct ancestor of Sanskrit.13 While not all have accepted Fells’ decipherment, the Sanskrit connection makes it highly plausible.
The second phenomenon
These ancient languages of the Near East (and Old Europe) are all long extinct, including the early Indo-European—so much so that several, such as Sumerian, Elamite, Hurrian, Etruscan, Kassite, and Hattian are even now not fully understood, although for the first four we have a fair number of texts. However, we can observe that some of the vocabulary of these ancient languages passed into later languages, notably Hittite words which passed into Greek and Latin, and from there to the languages of Western Europe, e.g. wātar: water. Akkadian words can be traced in either Latin or Arabic, and via these even into some modern languages, e.g. gammalu: camel; šamaššammu: sesame (literally, “oil of plant”).
Meanwhile, apart from the Semitic, Hamitic, and Japhetic language groups, other distinctive linguistic groups, viz. those of Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Far East, must also have resulted from the Babel event. However, unlike the early languages of the Near East, the early history of these languages is lost in the mists of time. Most of these are still spoken, as follows:
- The Slavic languages of Eastern Europe and Russia, which belong to the eastern family of Indo-European languages, along with other closely related Baltic languages of the same family such as Lithuanian and Latvian.
- Uralic Group: this includes Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and other languages spoken around the Baltic region, and thence further east. However, they are distinct, and bear no relation to the Slavic languages mentioned above.
- Altaic Group: Turkish, Mongolian, Korean, Japanese.
- Sino-Tibetan Group: Tibetan, Burmese, Old Chinese.
From Shin‘ar to the whole world
According to Genesis 11:2 the confusion of languages occurred in “the land of Shin‘ar”, also mentioned in Genesis 10:10 and 14:1. This undoubtedly refers to Lower Mesopotamia: the association with other known cities of that region in 10:10, and the destination of Shin‘ar for the Jewish exiles in Daniel 1:2 make the identification certain.
Contrary to what one sometimes reads in commentaries on Genesis,14 these disparate languages were not a natural development from a single original over time. When we study ancient languages and their geographical distribution, the evidence is instead consistent with what Genesis describes: a sudden, supernatural act of God which created a whole suite of unrelated but highly complex languages. The result was the array of languages in the Near East, as cited above, which all appear at the same time—the second half of the third millennium BC.15
While early, highly complex Near Eastern languages resulting from the Tower of Babel event remained spoken languages for several centuries, most eventually died out: some sooner (e.g. Sumerian and Hattian); some later (e.g. Hurrian and Etruscan). However, others (or their linguistic descendants) persisted due to the consequent dispersion of the respective people groups across Asia to the Far East: i.e. the Uralic, Altaic, and Sino-Tibetan groups mentioned above. Meanwhile in Europe, the Near East, and Africa the three major language streams of Japhetic, Hamitic, and Semitic consolidated into the Indo-European, Afro-Asian, and Semitic families.
Since Genesis describes real history—as affirmed by the New Testament writers and Jesus Himself—it is no surprise that the linguistic landscape of the Ancient Near East fits with the data of Genesis.
References and notes
- Christiansen, M.H. and Kirby, S., Language Evolution: consensus and controversies, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7(7):300, 2003. Return to text.
- Christiansen and Kirby, ref. 1, pp. 301–2. Return to text.
- Christiansen and Kirby, ref. 1, pp. 301–2. Return to text.
- Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? 4th edition, New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 240, 2013, citing J. Greenberg, The nature and uses of linguistic typologies, International Journal of American Linguistics, 23(2):75, 1957. Return to text.
- Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, Fifth Ed., Oxford, Blackwell, 1992, p. 62. Return to text.
- ‘Near East’ is used here in the strict sense to refer to the Syria-Palestine region through to the Iranian Plateau. The ‘Middle East’ is properly the region from Afghanistan to Myanmar, and the ‘Far East’ is Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, etc. The use of ‘Middle East’ for Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, etc. is the erroneous creation of modern journalism and politics. Return to text.
- Huehnergard, J., A Grammar of Akkadian, Winona Lake, Eisebrauns, pp. 599–603, 2005. Return to text.
- Gragg, G.B., Less-Understood Languages of Ancient Western Asia, in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (CANE), Vol. IV, New York, Scribner’s, pp. 2162–63, 1995. Return to text.
- Gardiner, A., Egyptian Grammar, 3rd Edn, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, pp. 438, 443–542, 1957. Return to text.
- Gurney proposes that while Hurrian was the language of the populace of Mitanni, the empire was ruled by “a caste of Indo-Aryans”, whose language had affinities with Sanskrit. See Gurney, O.R., The Hittites, Penguin Books, p. 107, 1990. Return to text.
- Edzard, D.O., Sumerian Grammar, SBL, Atlanta, p. 4, 2003; Wilhelm, G., The Hurrians, Warminster, Aris & Phillips, p. 7, 1989. Return to text.
- Gurney, ref. 10, p. 101; Gragg, ref. 8, pp. 2174–76. Return to text.
- Fell, J, Part 2: Barry Fells’ Revolution in Deciphering Old World Scripts, 21st Century Science and Technology, Summer, p. 53, 2001. Return to text.
- As discussed in Aalders, G.Ch., Genesis, Volume I, Bible Student’s Commentary Series, Engl. Tr. Zondervan, pp. 253–4, 1981. Return to text.
- Care must be taken to distinguish the (later) written attestation of a language from its actual (earlier) existence as a lingua franca, which can be a gap of centuries. This is particularly so with Etruscan, and possibly Elamite. Return to text.