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 English word “language” 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, of course, is most intimately associated with the mind, which employs the speech organs—throat, tongue, lips and teeth—as its instruments. Thus, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1959 ed., Vol. 5, P. 740) 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.” 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 the unreasoning animals. (Gen. 1:27-30; 2:16-20; compare 2 Peter 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 Exodus 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 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, 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, Vol. I, No. 1, January 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.” (John 1:1; Col. 1:15, 16; Rev. 3:14) The apostle Paul made inspired reference to “tongues of men and of angels.” (1 Cor. 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. To talk with men as God’s messengers, angels therefore employed human language, and angelic messages are recorded in Hebrew (Gen. 22:15-18), Aramaic (Dan. 7:23-27) and Greek (Rev. 11:15), the cited texts being written in those languages respectively.
MULTIPLICATION OF HUMAN LANGUAGES
According to language academies, about 3,000 tongues are spoken today throughout the earth. Some of these are accredited as languages, others are classified as dialects; some are spoken by hundreds of millions of persons, others by fewer than a thousand. Though the thoughts expressed and communicated are basically the same, there are thousands of 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.” (Gen. 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. (Gen. 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.—Gen. 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 both 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 Ecclesiastes 7:29; Deuteronomy 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. (Gen. 11:5-9; compare Isaiah 8:9, 10.) One has but to consider certain developments in our own times, resulting from accumulated secular knowledge and man’s misuse thereof, to realize what God foresaw as due to develop long ago if the effort at Babel were allowed to go unhindered.
How was the ‘confusing’ done?
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. As we have noted, the Bible record does not say that all languages descended or branched off from Hebrew. In what is commonly called the “Table of Nations” (Genesis chapter 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.’ (Gen. 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, the builders at Babel not only did not have “one set of words” (Gen. 11:1), one common vocabulary; they also did not have a common grammar, 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.” (Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible, 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 1 Corinthians 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 Isaiah 33:19; Ezekiel 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, more understandably 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 (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.
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 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, certain tongues have partially merged with others, and some languages have disappeared completely, replaced by those of the invading conquerors.
Language research provides evidence in harmony with the preceding information. Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics G. L. Trager says: “Historical knowledge about existing languages, goes back only a few thousand years.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1959 ed., Vol. 13, pp. 698, 699) An article in Science Illustrated of July 1948 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) 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 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.”
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. 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 (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.
FROM ABRAHAM ONWARD
Abraham the Hebrew evidently had no difficulty in conversing with the Hamitic people of Canaan. (Gen. 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. (Gen. 12:14-19) He probably knew Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) due to having lived in Ur of the Chaldeans. (Gen. 11:31) Akkadian for a time was an international language. It is possible that the people of Canaan, living in relatively close proximity to the Semitic peoples of Syria and Arabia had, in the centuries following the Deluge, adopted Semitic speech or were to a degree bilingual. Then, too, the alphabet gives clear evidence of 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 ALPHABET; CANAAN, CANAANITES; 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. (Gen. 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. (2 Ki. 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; Dan. 1:4; compare Deuteronomy 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.—Dan. 3:4, 7; Esther 1:22.
Nehemiah showed great concern upon learning that the sons of mixed marriages among the returned Jews did not know “Jewish” (Hebrew). (Neh. 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 Nehemiah 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.—See HEBREW, II (Question of the Language’s Stability).
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 the koine Greek were also spoken. Latin, too, appeared on official inscriptions of the Roman rulers of the land (John 19:20) and was doubtless heard from Roman soldiers stationed there. As to the language generally spoken by Jesus, see ARAMAIC (What Language Did Jesus Speak When on Earth?); 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. On 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 that of confusing and scattering but of enlightening and drawing together persons of honest heart into Christian unity. (Acts 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. (Eph. 4:25) Thus, the promise at Zephaniah 3:9 saw 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 Isaiah 66:18; Zechariah 8:23; Revelation 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.”—1 Cor. 1:10.
The ‘purity’ of the language spoken by the Christian congregation was also to result due to its freedom 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; 1 Pet. 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.—Matt. 24:14; Titus 2:7, 8; Heb. 13:15; compare Psalm 51:15; 109:30.
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 the koine or Common Greek (though Matthew reportedly wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew). By then a translation had also been made of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Called the “Septuagint Version,” 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, in whole or in part, is available in 1,337 or more 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.