Any means, vocal or other, by which feelings or thoughts are expressed or communicated. Generally, however, language means a body of words and the methods of combining these as understood by a community of people. The Hebrew and Greek words for “tongue” signify “language.” (Jer 5:15, ftn; Ac 2:11, Int) The Hebrew term for “lip” is used in a similar way.—Ge 11:1, ftn.
Language, of course, is most intimately associated with the mind, which employs the speech organs—throat, tongue, lips, and teeth—as its instruments. (See TONGUE.) Thus, the Encyclopædia Britannica (1959 edition) 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.” (Vol. 5, p. 740) Words are man’s principal means of receiving, storing, manipulating, and transmitting information.
Origin of Speech. The first human, Adam, was created with a vocabulary, as well as with the ability to coin new words and thus expand his vocabulary. Without a God-given vocabulary the newly created man would have been no more able to comprehend verbal instructions from his Creator than were the unreasoning animals. (Ge 1:27-30; 2:16-20; compare 2Pe 2:12; Jude 10.) So, while only intelligent man of all earth’s creatures has the ability of true speech, language did not originate with man but with man’s All-Wise Creator, Jehovah God.—Compare Ex 4:11, 12.
On the origin of language, the well-known 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, threat, anger, sexual desire and satisfaction in its fulfilment, 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, he 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.”—Journal of Semitic Studies, Manchester, 1956, p. 11.
Language had been employed for untold ages prior to man’s appearance on the universal scene. Jehovah God communicated with his heavenly firstborn Son and evidently used him in communicating with his other spirit sons. Hence that firstborn Son was called “the Word.” (Joh 1:1; Col 1:15, 16; Re 3:14) The apostle Paul made inspired reference to “tongues of men and of angels.” (1Co 13:1) Jehovah God speaks to his angelic creatures in their ‘tongue’ and they ‘carry out his word.’ (Ps 103:20) Since He and his spirit sons are not reliant upon an atmosphere (which makes possible the sound waves and vibrations necessary for human speech), angelic language is obviously beyond human conception or attainment. As God’s messengers, angels therefore employed human language to talk with men, and angelic messages are recorded in Hebrew (Ge 22:15-18), Aramaic (Da 7:23-27), and Greek (Re 11:15), the cited texts being written in those languages respectively.
What accounts for the diversity of languages?
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), about 6,000 tongues are spoken today throughout the earth. Some are spoken by hundreds of millions of persons, others by fewer than a thousand. Though the ideas expressed and communicated may be basically the same, there are many ways to express them. The Bible history alone explains the origin of this strange diversity in human communication.
Up until some point after the global Flood, all mankind “continued to be of one language [literally, “lip”] and of one set of words.” (Ge 11:1) The Bible indicates that the language later called Hebrew was that original “one language.” (See HEBREW, II.) As will be shown, this does not mean that all other languages stemmed from and are related to Hebrew but that Hebrew preceded all other languages.
The Genesis account describes the uniting of some part of the post-Flood human family in a project that opposed God’s will as stated to Noah and his sons. (Ge 9:1) Instead of spreading out and ‘filling the earth,’ they determined to centralize human society, concentrating their residence on a site in what became known as the Plains of Shinar in Mesopotamia. Evidently this was also to become a religious center, with a religious tower.—Ge 11:2-4.
Almighty God gave their presumptuous project a setback by breaking up their unity of action, accomplishing this by confusing their common language. This made impossible any coordinated work on their project and led to their scattering to all parts of the globe. The confusion of their language would also hinder or slow down future progress in a wrong direction, a God-defying direction, since it would limit mankind’s ability to combine its intellectual and physical powers in ambitious schemes and also make it difficult to draw upon the accumulated knowledge of the different language groups formed—knowledge, not from God, but gained through human experience and research. (Compare Ec 7:29; De 32:5.) So, while it introduced a major divisive factor into human society, the confusion of human speech actually benefited human society in retarding the attainment of dangerous and hurtful goals. (Ge 11:5-9; compare Isa 8:9, 10.) One has only to consider certain developments in our own times, resulting from accumulated secular knowledge and man’s misuse thereof, to realize what God foresaw long ago would develop if the effort at Babel were allowed to go unhindered.
Philology, the comparative study of languages, generally classifies languages into distinct “families.” The “parent” language of each major family usually has not been identified; much less is there any evidence pointing to any one “parent” language as the source of all the thousands of tongues now spoken. The Bible record does not say that all languages descended, or branched off, from Hebrew. In what is commonly called the Table of Nations (Ge 10), the descendants of Noah’s sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) are listed and in each case are grouped ‘according to their families, according to their tongues, in their lands, by their nations.’ (Ge 10:5, 20, 31, 32) It appears, therefore, that, when miraculously confusing human language, Jehovah God produced, not dialects of Hebrew, but a number of completely new languages, each capable of expressing the full range of human feeling and thought.
Thus, after God confused their language, not only did the builders at Babel lack “one set of words” (Ge 11:1), one common vocabulary, but they also lacked a common grammar, a common way of expressing the relationship between words. Professor S. R. Driver stated: “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.” (A Dictionary of the Bible, edited by J. Hastings, 1905, Vol. IV, p. 791) Thus, different languages require quite different thought patterns, making it difficult for a new learner to ‘think in the language.’ (Compare 1Co 14:10, 11.) This is also why a literal translation of something said or written in an unfamiliar language may seem illogical, often causing persons to say, “But it doesn’t make sense!” So, it appears that, when Jehovah God confused the speech of those at Babel, he first blotted out all memory of their previous common language and then introduced into their minds not only new vocabularies but also changed thought patterns, producing new grammars.—Compare Isa 33:19; Eze 3:4-6.
We find, for example, that certain languages are monosyllabic (made up of words of only one syllable), such as Chinese. By contrast, the vocabularies of a number of other languages are formed largely by agglutination, that is, by joining words placed side by side, as in the German word Hausfriedensbruch, which means literally “house peace breakage,” or, in a form more understandable to the English-speaking mind, “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 (verb forms); others, such as Chinese, have none. Countless differences could be cited, each requiring an adjustment in mental patterns, often with great effort.
Apparently the original languages resulting from divine action at Babel in course of time produced related dialects, and the dialects frequently developed into separate languages, their relationship to their “sister” dialects or to the “parent” language sometimes becoming almost indistinguishable. 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 geographic barriers, wars and conquests, a breakdown in communications, and immigration by those of another language. Because of such factors ancient major languages have fragmented, certain tongues have partially merged with others, and some languages have disappeared completely and have been replaced by those of the invading conquerors.
Language research provides evidence in harmony with the preceding information. The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “The earliest records of written language, the only linguistic fossils man can hope to have, go back no more than about 4,000 or 5,000 years.” (1985, Vol. 22, p. 567) An article in Science Illustrated of July 1948 (p. 63) states: “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 forms.” 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,” and that “many of the languages of non-literate peoples are far more complex than modern European ones.” (Science News Letter, September 3, 1955, p. 148) The evidence is thus against any evolutionary origin of speech or of ancient languages.
Concerning the focal point from which the spreading of ancient languages began, Sir Henry Rawlinson, Oriental language scholar, observed: “If we were to be thus 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.”—The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1855, Vol. 15, p. 232.
Among the major “families” listed by modern philologists are: Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Afro-Asian, Japanese and Korean, Dravidian, Malayo-Polynesian, and Black African. There are many tongues that till now defy classification. Within each of the major families there are many subdivisions, or smaller families. Thus, the Indo-European family includes Germanic, Romance (Italic), 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.
From Abraham Onward. Abraham the Hebrew evidently had no difficulty in conversing with the Hamitic people of Canaan. (Ge 14:21-24; 20:1-16; 21:22-34) No use of interpreters is mentioned, but then, neither is such use mentioned when Abraham went to Egypt. (Ge 12:14-19) He probably knew Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) because of having lived in Ur of the Chaldeans. (Ge 11:31) Akkadian for a time was an international language. It is possible that the people of Canaan, living in relative proximity to the Semitic peoples of Syria and Arabia, were to a degree bilingual. Then, too, the alphabet gives clear evidence of its being of Semitic origin, and this could also have exercised considerable influence toward the use of Semitic tongues by persons of other language groups, particularly rulers and officials.—See CANAAN, CANAANITE No. 2 (Language); WRITING.
Joseph, who likely learned Egyptian while a slave of Potiphar, employed an interpreter when first talking with his Hebrew brothers upon their arrival in Egypt. (Ge 39:1; 42:6, 23) Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s courts, doubtless knew several languages, Hebrew, Egyptian, probably Akkadian, and perhaps others.—Ex 2:10; compare verses 15-22.
Aramaic in time replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca, or international language, being used even in correspondence with Egypt. However, by the time of Assyrian King Sennacherib’s attack on Judah (732 B.C.E.), Aramaic (ancient Syrian) was not understood by the majority of Jews, though Judean officials understood it. (2Ki 18:26, 27) So, too, the Chaldean language of the Semitic Babylonians, who finally conquered Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E., sounded like those “stammering with their lips” to the Jews. (Isa 28:11; Da 1:4; compare De 28:49.) Although Babylon, Persia, and other world powers carved out huge empires and brought under their control people of many languages, they did not eliminate the divisive barrier of language differences.—Da 3:4, 7; Es 1:22.
Nehemiah showed great concern upon learning that the sons of mixed marriages among the returned Jews did not know “Jewish” (Hebrew). (Ne 13:23-25) His concern was for pure worship, as he recognized the importance of understanding the Sacred Scriptures (till then available only in Hebrew) when these were read and discussed. (Compare Ne 13:26, 27; 8:1-3, 8, 9.) Oneness of language in itself would also be a unifying force among the people. The Hebrew Scriptures doubtless were a major factor in the stability of the Hebrew language. During the thousand-year period of their being written, virtually no change in language is noted.
When Jesus was on earth, Palestine had become, to a considerable extent, a polyglot, or multilingual, region. There is solid evidence that the Jews still retained their use of Hebrew, but Aramaic and Koine were also spoken. Latin, too, appeared on official inscriptions of the Roman rulers of the land (Joh 19:20) and was doubtless heard from Roman soldiers stationed there. As to the language generally spoken by Jesus, see ARAMAIC; also HEBREW, II.
On the day of Pentecost, 33 C.E., the holy spirit was poured out on the Christian disciples in Jerusalem, and they suddenly began speaking in many languages that they had never studied and learned. Jehovah God had demonstrated at Babel his miraculous ability to place different vocabularies and different grammars in the minds of people. At Pentecost he did so again but with a major difference, for the Christians suddenly gifted with the power to speak new languages did not forget their original tongue, Hebrew. God’s spirit here was also effecting a very different purpose, not of confusing and scattering but of enlightening and drawing together persons of honest heart into Christian unity. (Ac 2:1-21, 37-42) From then on God’s covenant people were a multilingual people, but the barrier created by language difference was overcome because their minds were filled with the common or mutual language of the truth. In unity they spoke in praise of Jehovah and his righteous purposes by Christ Jesus. Thus, the promise at Zephaniah 3:9 saw a fulfillment as Jehovah God gave “peoples the change to a pure language, in order for them all to call upon the name of Jehovah, in order to serve him shoulder to shoulder.” (Compare Isa 66:18; Zec 8:23; Re 7:4, 9, 10.) For this to be so, they should “all speak in agreement” and be “fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.”—1Co 1:10.
The ‘purity’ of the language spoken by the Christian congregation was also because of its being free from words expressing malicious bitterness, anger, wrath, screaming, and similar abusive language, as well as being free from deceit, obscenity, and corruptness. (Eph 4:29, 31; 1Pe 3:10) Christians were to put language to its most exalted use, praising their Creator and upbuilding their neighbor with wholesome, truthful speech, especially the good news about God’s Kingdom. (Mt 24:14; Tit 2:7, 8; Heb 13:15; compare Ps 51:15; 109:30.) As the time neared for God to execute his judicial decision upon all the nations of the world, Jehovah would enable many more to speak that pure language.
The Bible began to be written in the Hebrew language, and some portions were later recorded in Aramaic. Then, in the first century of the Common Era, the remainder of the Sacred Scriptures were written in Koine, or common Greek (though Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew). By then a translation had also been made of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Called the Septuagint, it was not an inspired translation but, nevertheless, was used by the Christian writers of the Bible in numerous quotations. (See INSPIRATION.) So, too, the Christian Greek Scriptures and eventually the whole Bible came to be translated into other languages, among the earliest being Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Persian. As of the present time, the Bible, the whole or in part, is available in upwards of 2,000 languages. This has facilitated the proclamation of the good news and thus has contributed to overcoming the barrier of language divisions for the purpose of uniting people of many lands in pure worship of their Creator.