Where Do All Our Languages Come From?
IMAGINE what our lives would be like without language—no friendly conversation, no exchange of useful knowledge or experiences, nor would you be reading this magazine. And most important of all, no printed Word of God for mankind’s instruction, comfort and hope.
Without language, how could this world function? Upward of three thousand languages are spoken on the earth today, and more than a thousand of these in Africa. How did they all develop? Were the older languages uncultured, and are the modern ones refined? As to complexity, how would you rate such tongues as Sanskrit and Zulu?
A young child learns to speak one or more languages by the age of three. This is considered by some the most difficult intellectual accomplishment a human is ever called upon to perform. “Human speech is a secret; it is a divine gift, a miracle,” wrote the renowned lexicographer Ludwig Koehler. The book Evolution (Life Nature Library), commenting on man’s ancestors, says: “They were only able to survive . . . by developing a system of communication among themselves. . . . An ape man of about one million years ago . . . possibly mastered a few speech sounds.” So the question arises: Is language an invention of man or a gift from God?
Did language really develop through the grunts and growls of some ape-man? If so, ancient languages should be crude and primitive, with modern languages becoming more complex and efficient. Linguists say that about 50 percent of earth’s inhabitants speak languages belonging to the Indo-European language family. The oldest known languages of this family include Sanskrit and Greek. How do these ancient languages compare with modern ones?
Consider Greek, in which there is an abundance of ancient literature. “Our records do not show us an uncultured language slowly evolving a literature from crude beginnings,” wrote Greek scholar Dr. B. F. C. Atkinson. Concerning the writings of the Greek poet Homer, who lived about the eighth or ninth century BCE, he said that these “stand in the first rank not only of Greek literature of every period but also of the known literature of the world.”
Sanskrit, which is no longer spoken, was a language of India. The oldest literature written in this tongue dates to about 1100 BCE, but European language scholars first discovered it about two hundred years ago. One of them, Sir William Jones, stated: “The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident.”
Another important language family is the Semitic. What has come to be known as Hebrew, a member of this family, is evidently the oldest of the languages. The Bible began to be written in Hebrew in the year 1513 BCE. How does it compare with modern tongues?
Hebrew is very expressive and concise, lending itself to a vivid description of events in a minimum of words. The Hebrew vocabulary has been skillfully constructed with words that involve the senses of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling. Thus, they paint mental pictures for the hearer or reader. Because of its brevity, in translation it is often necessary to use auxiliary words to bring out the full flavor of the Hebrew verb. Take, for example, the first verse of the well-known Psalm 23:1: “Jehovah is my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing.” That represents a sentence of eight words containing thirty-six characters, whereas in Hebrew it is said in four words with only thirteen characters. Brilliantly efficient, is it not?
Of the 1,000-odd languages spoken in Africa, some three hundred have a remarkable similarity in their unusual grammatical structure. Known as the Bantu language family, they are spoken in most regions south of the equator. “Bantu,” meaning “people,” is a word common to these languages, hence the name “Bantu family.” Linguists believe that the Bantu family descended from a parent language spoken in central West Africa more than two thousand years ago.
One of the Bantu languages is Zulu, the most widely used tongue in southern Africa. How does it compare to the modern Afrikaans, derived from the old Dutch and which has become one of South Africa’s official languages? Zulu has a much more complicated grammatical form and is difficult for an adult to learn; few English or Afrikaans people have mastered it. In 1927 Clement Doke published Text-Book of Zulu Grammar, which, twenty-seven years later, in the fifth edition, included the following words by the author: “With the language of a people, the more one studies it, the more wonders one discovers in it . . . I have but scraped the surface in regard to many of the phenomena which abound in this rich Bantu tongue.”
What do the above facts indicate? As evolutionist Ashley Montagu admitted: “Many ‘primitive’ languages . . . are often a great deal more complex and more efficient than the languages of the so-called higher civilizations.” Clearly, language did not have crude beginnings.
To settle the issue as to the origin of language, consider the following conversation as recorded in the Hebrew tongue about thirty-five hundred years ago:
“Moses said, ‘O LORD, I have never been a man of ready speech . . . I am slow and hesitant of speech.’ The LORD said to him, ‘Who is it that gives man speech? . . . Is it not I, the LORD? Go now; I will help your speech and tell you what to say.’”—Exodus 4:10-12, The New English Bible.
The question now arises: If the power of speech is a gift from God, how did differences develop?
Isolation of groups of people from one another is a factor. New situations bring about the formation of new words. New dialects begin to form. And it is not difficult for students of language to discern that all the tongues within a language family are from a common source. But how did the unmistakable differences of language families develop?
Interestingly, language scholar Sir Henry Rawlinson wrote: “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.”
That observation agrees with the Bible, which shows that God created the first man with language and the ability to use it well. After the flood of Noah’s day, it tells us, “all the earth continued to be of one language and of one set of words.” However, in time, disobedient men, with their one common language, united in a harmful scheme. Instead of scattering throughout the earth as God commanded, they converged on the plains of Shinar and began to build a city, Babel, and a tower for practicing false worship.
In order to carry out his will, the Creator took action against the rebellious city builders. Genesis 11:9 informs us: “That is why its name was called Babel, because there Jehovah had confused the language of all the earth, and Jehovah had scattered them from there over all the surface of the earth.”
Today the Creator’s wisdom is being made available far and wide by the fact that his Word, the Bible, is now translated into over seventeen hundred languages, representing about 97 percent of earth’s inhabitants.
The Bible’s explanation of the origin of languages is reasonable and in agreement with the facts. Evolutionists’ theories of their origin in ‘grunts and growls of ape-men’ is contrary to the facts.
That a young child has the ability to master the language of its parents is a marvelous gift from God.—James 1:16, 17.
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A young child learns to speak one or more languages by the age of three
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At Babel new languages were born from which our present-day languages descend