The Gift of Language
WITHOUT language, you would not be able to read these words. Without language, you could not talk to other people, or even write them a letter.
Language is the means by which feelings or thoughts are expressed, or communicated. The tongue plays a most active part in expressing one’s thoughts and the English word “language” indicates this, as it comes from the Latin lingua, meaning “tongue.” The Hebrew and Greek words for “tongue” also signify “language.” The Hebrew term for “lip” is used in a similar way.
Language is most intimately associated with the mind. It is the mind that employs the speech organs—throat, tongue, lips and teeth—as its instruments. Thus, the Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Thinking and words go together. For thinking, to be clear, has to rely upon names [or nouns] and their various associations with one another. . . . While some minor reservations are justifiable there is an overwhelming mass of evidence . . . that fortifies the contention stated above—no words, no thinking.”
Origin of Speech
But how did such a valuable thing as language begin? Encyclopedias generally say that no one knows how it began. A common theory is that it started long, long ago as grunts, groans and barks. But what are the facts?
For one thing, knowledge about language does not go back beyond six thousand years. In fact, Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics G. L. Trager says: “Historical knowledge about existing languages goes back only a few thousand years.”
Did language really start with simple grunts and barks? An article in Science Illustrated of July 1948 stated: “Older forms of the languages known today were far more difficult than their modern descendants . . . man appears not to have begun with a simple speech, and gradually made it more complex, but rather to have gotten hold of a tremendously knotty speech somewhere in the unrecorded past, and gradually simplified it to the modern form.”
Linguist Dr. Mason also points out that “the idea that ‘savages’ speak in a series of grunts, and are unable to express many ‘civilized’ concepts, is very wrong.” He adds that “many of the languages of non-literate peoples are far more complex than modern European ones.”—Science News Letter, September 3, 1955.
The evidence is thus against any ‘evolutionary’ origin of speech or of ancient languages.
On the origin of language, lexicographer Ludwig Koehler wrote: “There has been, especially in former times, much speculation as to how human speech ‘came into being.’ Writers strove to explore ‘animal language.’ For animals also are able to express audibly by sounds and groups of sounds their feelings and sensations, such as contentment, fear, emotion, anger, sexual desire and satisfaction in its fulfillment, and perhaps many other things. However manifold these [animal] expressions may be . . . they lack concept and thought, the essential domain of human language.”
After showing how men can explore the physiological aspect of human speech, Koehler adds: “But what actually happens in speech, how the spark of perception kindles the spirit of the child, or of mankind generally, to become the spoken word, eludes our grasp. Human speech is a secret; it is a divine gift, a miracle.”*
A Divine Gift
According to the Holy Bible, man was created about six thousand years ago. It reveals that the first human, Adam, was created with a vocabulary, his language being a divine gift. Thus, rather than Adam’s learning to speak by imitating the animals, beginning with grunts and growls, as is taught by evolution, the facts as set down in the book of Genesis are that Adam made almost immediate use of his power of speech by bestowing names upon the various animal creations. Without the divine gift of language the newly created man would have been no more able to understand verbal instructions from his Creator than the unreasoning animals.—Gen. 1:27-30; 2:16-20; 2 Pet. 2:12.
So, while only man of all earth’s creatures has the ability of true speech, language did not originate with him, but with his All-wise Creator, Jehovah God.
Even before man’s appearance on the universal scene, language had been employed for untold ages. For the Christian apostle Paul makes inspired reference to “tongues of men and of angels.” (1 Cor. 13:1) Here, then, is another divine gift—the ‘tongue of angels.’ Almighty God has long been speaking to his angelic creatures in their ‘tongue’ and they ‘carry out his word.’ (Ps. 103:20) He and his spirit sons do not rely upon an atmosphere, which makes possible sound waves and vibrations necessary for human speech. So angelic language is obviously beyond human conception or attainment. To talk with men as God’s messengers, angels therefore had to use human language.—Gen. 22:15-18.
How Human Languages Began to Multiply
Language scholars estimate that today there are about three thousand spoken languages used on the earth. Some are spoken by hundreds of millions of persons, others by a few hundred. How did all these come about? Bible history alone explains the origin of this diversity in human languages.
Up until some point after the global flood of Noah’s day, all mankind “continued to be of one language and of one set of words.” (Gen. 11:1) The Bible indicates that the language later called “Hebrew” was the original “one language.” It preceded all other languages. But this does not mean that all other languages stemmed from and are related to Hebrew. Then where did the other languages get their start?
The Genesis account describes the uniting of some part of the post-Flood human family in a project opposed to God’s will. Instead of spreading out and ‘filling the earth,’ they wanted to centralize human society. They concentrated on a site that became known as the plains of Shinar in Mesopotamia. Evidently this was also to become a religious center, with a religious tower. (Gen. 9:1; 11:2-4) However, Almighty God broke up their project. He did this by confusing their common language. This made impossible any coordinated work on their project. It led to their scattering to all parts of the earth.—Gen. 11:6-9.
Available non-Biblical evidence is in harmony with this account. Concerning the focal point from which the spreading of ancient languages began, Sir Henry Rawlinson, Oriental language scholar, observed: “If we were to be guided by the mere intersection of linguistic paths, and independently of all reference to the Scriptural record, we should still be led to fix on the plains of Shinar, as the focus from which the various lines had radiated.”
Changed Thought Patterns and New Grammars
It appears that when miraculously confusing human language, Jehovah God did not produce merely dialects of Hebrew. He produced a number of completely new languages, each capable of expressing the full range of human feeling and thought.
Thus the builders at the Tower of Babel did not continue to have “one set of words,” one common vocabulary. They also did not continue to have a common grammar or a common way of expressing the relationship between words. Professor S. R. Driver states: “Languages, however, differ not only in grammar and roots, but also . . . in the manner in which ideas are built up into a sentence. Different races do not think in the same way; and consequently the forms taken by the sentence in different languages are not the same.”
Hence, different languages require different thought patterns, making it difficult for a new learner to ‘think in the language.’ This is also why a literal translation of something said or written in an unfamiliar language may seem illogical, often causing persons to say, in effect, “But that doesn’t make sense!” So it appears that when Almighty God confused the speech of those at Babel, he first blotted out all memory of their previous common language. Then he introduced into their minds not only new vocabularies but also changed thought patterns, producing new grammars.
We find, for example, that certain languages are monosyllabic; that is, made up of words of only one syllable. Chinese is an example. By contrast, the vocabularies of a number of other languages are formed largely by agglutination; that is, by joining words placed side by side. For example, the German word Hausfriedensbruch literally means “house peace breakage.” More understandably to the English-speaking mind, it means “trespass.” In some languages syntax, the order of the words in the sentence, is very important; in others it matters little. So, too, some languages have many conjugations (or verbal forms). Others, such as Chinese, have none. Countless differences could be cited, each requiring an adjustment in mental patterns, often with great effort.
Families of Languages
The tenth chapter of Genesis contains what is commonly called the “Table of Nations.” It tells how seventy families, peoples or nations descended from Noah’s three sons, Japheth, Ham and Shem. In each case these are grouped “according to their families, according to their tongues, in their lands, by their nations.”—Gen. 10:5, 20, 31, 32.
Today we find that philology, the comparative study of languages, generally classifies languages into distinct “families.” Among the major “families” listed by modern philologists are: Indo-European, Semitic, Hamitic, African Negro, Sino-Tibetan, Japanese and Korean, Uralic and Altaic, Dravidian and Malayo-Polynesian. However, there are still many languages that defy classification today.
Interestingly, the “parent” language of each major family usually has not been identified. Certainly there is no evidence pointing to any one “parent” language as the source of all the thousands of tongues now spoken. The evidence, instead, points to the many “parent” languages begun at Babel.
Evidently the original languages resulting from the divine action at Babel in course of time produced related dialects. These dialects often developed into separate languages. Even Shem’s descendants, who apparently did not figure among the crowd at Babel, came to speak, not only Hebrew, but also Aramaean, Akkadian and Arabic.
Historically, various factors have contributed to the change in languages: separation due to distance or geographical barriers; wars and conquests; a breakdown in communications; and immigration by those of another language. Due to such factors ancient major languages have fragmented. Then, too, certain tongues have partially merged with others. Some languages have disappeared completely, replaced by those of invading conquerors.
The Indo-European Family
Within each of the major families there are many subdivisions or smaller families. Thus, the Indo-European family includes such branches as Germanic (or Teutonic), Romance (or Latin-Romance), Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Greek, Celtic, Albanian and Armenian.
Most of these smaller families, in turn, have several members. Romance languages, for example, embrace French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. The Germanic branch includes English, German, Dutch-Flemish, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish.
The most widely used of all language families, the Indo-European tongues are spoken by about 50 percent of earth’s population. This family of languages is called “Indo-European” because of their location, being found in India and Europe; and they are grouped together because they appear to have had a common ancestor, which may well have been Sanskrit. These languages have clearly defined parts of speech, such as nouns, pronouns, verbs, and so forth. And their words are inflected, that is, slightly changed, usually in the endings, to show changes in gender, number and case. Also, the fact that these languages have certain simple words, such as “mother” and “father,” in common, suggests a common ancestry. Thus “mother” is mat, in Russian; mater, in Latin; mata, in Sanskrit; madre, in Spanish; meter, in Greek; and mutter, in German.
Of all the Indo-European languages, Greek is, next to Sanskrit (no longer spoken), the oldest, and it is considered by many to be the language most highly developed as well as the most clearly defined.
Will the time ever come when the use of a multiplicity of languages will cease? Well, after the global flood all the earth was of one language before large numbers of humans at Babel went contrary to God’s will for post-Flood mankind. As a result, their language was confused at Babel. After the end of this system of things, all mankind will be in harmony with God. (2 Pet. 3:5-7, 13) In God’s new order it seems reasonable that there will be a return to one language for all mankind. Whether that language will be man’s original tongue, Hebrew, or a blend of Hebrew with the most delightful aspects of other languages or something different, the Bible does not discuss.
Truly the gift of language was one of God’s great gifts to man. It is a precious treasure. How blessed men are that they can communicate with one another through the power of speech!
Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol. I, No. 1, January 1956, p. 11.