A Language for All Peoples
“For then I shall give to 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.”—Zeph. 3:9.
1. What questions arise concerning language?
DID language in fact have its origins in the distant past as men learned to communicate by imitating the grunts, groans and barks of the animal world? If early language was really this primitive, how is it possible that the earliest known languages had complicated grammars? And where did all the languages come from anyway? How did so many languages develop that today there are 2,796 or more spoken languages, with even the most primitive jungle tribe speaking a language? Is it possible that the world of mankind will ever be united by a common language, a language for all peoples, rather than being a world characterized and divided by language barriers?
2. How did language originate, and is its use confined to the earth?
2 The Holy Scriptures, the earliest part of which writings dates back in present form as far as 1513 B.C.E., throws much light on the growth and spread of languages. It reveals that language originated with God. Even before man was created, there was language. Jehovah God is reported in the creation account as speaking to his firstborn Son in the heavenly realms and saying, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.” Appropriately, this Son of God came to be called the “Word” and served as spokesman for his Father, in communicating not only with other heavenly spirit creations but also with man.—Gen. 1:26; John 1:1-3.
3. On what occasions did the angels communicate with men?
3 Centuries later the apostle Paul recognized the ability of those in the spirit realms to communicate, as shown by his reference to “tongues of men and of angels.” (1 Cor. 13:1; compare Job 1:7-12; 2:2-6.) The Scriptural record verifies the fact that angels did communicate with men on various occasions. It was an angel who relayed Jehovah’s words of blessing and promise to Abraham that through his seed all families of the earth would be blessed, while on another occasion Jehovah’s angel announced the good news of Jesus’ birth to shepherds near Bethlehem.—Gen. 22:15-18; Luke 2:8-11.
4. What ability was given to Adam, and how do we know this?
4 Just as Jehovah endowed his spirit sons with this gift of expression, so he did for his human son Adam. Jehovah gave him the ability, not only to speak and understand speech, but also to form new words, thus adding to the language, as he did in naming the animals. (Gen. 2:19) The very fact that Jehovah instructed Adam in the work he should do in filling the earth, cultivating it and having dominion over the animals, as well as warning him against disobedience to His law, showed that God had provided Adam with the necessary vocabulary and knowledge of language to permit him to comprehend these instructions.
5. Why is the knowledge of a language so important to us?
5 However, this gift of language was not shared by the animals. While they may be able to express by sounds feelings of fear, anger, desire and satisfaction, still as lexicographer Koehler wrote: “They lack concept and thought, the essential domain of human language.” So spoken language is a gift man shares with the angels, but not with lower forms of creation. Language is truly a key to knowledge and human cooperation, and forms the basis for the vast majority of all communications. As one encyclopedia states: “Thinking and words go together.” Without words a person would be very limited in the instructions and thoughts he could share with someone else, as any traveler in a foreign land has found. Without words, it appears, we would be limited even in our thinking ability.
6. How and why did the great variety of languages come to be?
6 For over eighteen centuries after the creation of the first man Adam, all mankind spoke the language originally given him by God. (Gen. 11:1) Yet now we find close to 3,000 languages spoken throughout the world, not including numerous regional dialects. How did this occur? The Scripture record reports that it was on a plain in Shinar, after the Flood, that men decided to make a name for themselves by building a city with a tower reaching toward the heavens. Apparently it was to be a center of false worship, as their efforts were contrary to Jehovah’s previous instructions to Noah and his three married sons to spread out and fill the earth. As a result, Jehovah said: “‘Look! They are one people and there is one language for them all, and this is what they start to do. . . . Let us go down and there confuse their language that they may not listen to one another’s language.’ 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.”—Gen. 11:6, 7, 9.
7. (a) What is meant by “families of languages”? (b) How many national and language groups spread out from Babel?
7 How did God confuse their understanding of the original Hebrew, causing mankind to divide up into different language groups? Apparently it was by blotting out the memory of their previous language and substituting in its place new vocabularies and grammars. As students of language recognize, there are various families of languages. There is no evidence that they all go back to the original language of Adam or that they are all variations of Hebrew, but, rather, they stem from the variety of languages that originated at the time of Babel. Each has its own vocabulary and way of forming thoughts, so that people actually think in different language patterns, depending on the grammar and word endings, for example. Thus Genesis chapter ten speaks of the seventy national groups that came from Noah and the languages that God gave at Babel, saying: “From these the population of the isles of the nations was spread about in their lands, each according to its tongue, according to their families, by their nations.”—Gen. 10:5, 20, 31.
8. What have scholars learned about languages?
8 As time passed, dialects, even new languages related to these original languages, began to develop due to a variety of factors, such as geographical barriers, distance, association with other peoples and conquests. But, aside from Hebrew, all these language groups or families can be traced back to the cradle of the new languages of the world in the plains of Shinar. Thus language scholar Sir Henry Rawlinson noted: “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.” Another interesting factor about these divinely given languages is that, rather than being very simple and primitive, Science News Letter reports, they were often much more complex than modern European languages. How could this be if languages evolved from the grunt-and-groan stage?
9. What do the Scriptures show as to man’s ability with languages?
9 The dialects and variations within the language families that we have today can be attributed to the ability that Jehovah gave man in connection with language. Just as Adam had the ability to add words to his vocabulary, so man has been able to add to his own vocabulary and even learn new languages. Abraham, for example, apparently had no difficulty conversing with the Hamitic people of Canaan, and no use of interpreters is mentioned. (Gen. 23:7-15) Possibly he knew Akkadian, which was widely used in the area to which he moved. Later, the Biblical account indicates, Joseph learned Egyptian while in Egypt, very likely while a slave for Potiphar, and so he was able to converse freely with Pharaoh. But to avoid prematurely betraying his identity when first talking to his Hebrew brothers he resorted to an interpreter.—Gen. 42:23.
10. How and why did Jehovah demonstrate his ability with languages at Pentecost?
10 It was at Pentecost of the year 33 C.E. that Jehovah again demonstrated his awesome ability in connection with language as the early Christians in Jerusalem were suddenly gifted by the holy spirit with the ability to speak in many languages previously unknown to them. But this time Jehovah added to the knowledge of language that these disciples of Jesus already had, rather than blotting out of memory their native language, as he had done at Babel. The purpose of this gift of additional languages was different also—not to turn men aside from a wrong purpose, but to promote the spread of true worship and a knowledge of the Creator among people of many languages. (Acts 2:1-11) After the time of Pentecost, although those taking up pure worship did not all speak the same tongue, they were united by the common bond of their knowledge of God’s purposes.
UNITING FORCE OF TRUTH
11. In what two ways did the sprit of God act upon the disciples at Pentecost?
11 Jesus had told the apostles in advance that the “helper, the holy spirit, which the Father will send in my name, that one will teach you all things and bring back to your minds all the things I told you.” (John 14:26) It was under the direction of this spirit that Peter gave the powerful witness to the purposes of Jehovah that he did at Pentecost, resulting in the baptism of about three thousand new adherents to the Christian faith. Reverent Jews from at least fifteen different lands who had gathered at Jerusalem were astonished to hear the one hundred and twenty disciples speaking in the many languages of their countries. As they said: “See here, all these who are speaking are Galileans, are they not? And yet how is it we are hearing, each one of us, his own language in which we were born? . . . we hear them speaking in our tongues about the magnificent things of God.”—Acts 2:7, 8, 11, 41.
12. To what did Peter bear witness, and with what result?
12 Peter proceeded in Hebrew to explain this astonishing event by quoting Joel’s prophecy concerning the outpouring of God’s spirit. He emphasized that Jehovah was the one providing the way to salvation, as he highlighted the prophet’s reference to the “last days,” at which time “everyone who calls on the name of Jehovah will be saved.” While calling attention to the powerful works Jesus had performed leading up to his death and miraculous resurrection, Peter highlighted the preeminent position of Jehovah as the Supreme Sovereign. He applied to Jesus the words of David, “I had Jehovah constantly before my eyes; because he is at my right hand that I may never be shaken.” This powerful message moved thousands to embrace heartily the Scriptural hope that was presented to them and their children, even though in time it brought opposition and persecution upon them.—Acts 2:17, 21, 25; Joel 2:32.
13. How was Christianity shown to be a uniting force?
13 The uniting effect of the message there proclaimed was remarkable. People of many lands were brought together as one in faith. As Paul later explained: “You are all, in fact, sons of God through your faith in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one person in union with Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26, 28) Though they spoke many languages, their message was the same. As Paul stressed to the Greek brothers at Corinth, all should “speak in agreement” and be “fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.”—1 Cor. 1:10.
14. How should our gift of speech be used, according to David and Paul?
14 The important thing in the minds of Jesus and his early disciples was to use their tongue to praise their Creator. They felt as David had when he prayed, “O Jehovah, may you open these lips of mine, that my own mouth may tell forth your praise.” (Ps. 51:15) Even though told by the rulers to desist from their ministry, they declared: “We cannot stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) However, it was not just by speaking of things pertaining to God’s purposes that they showed their desire for right speech, but also by their manner of speech in everything. As Paul counseled the Ephesian congregation: “Let a rotten saying not proceed out of your mouth, but whatever saying is good for building up as the need may be, that it may impart what is favorable to the hearers.”—Eph. 4:29.
15. What promise is given in Zephaniah 3:9, and why is it important to us?
15 Can we use the gift of language from Jehovah in a similar way today? Certainly we can, and the prophecy of Zephaniah foretold that it would be done. The context shows that Jehovah has determined to gather the nations to pour out upon them his burning anger, which results from his judicial decision against them. Will some escape this judicial decision and Jehovah’s anger? That we can enjoy his favor is seen by his prophetic assurance: “For then [or during the “last days”] I [Jehovah] shall give to 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.” Indeed, if it were not for speaking the pure language and calling on Jehovah’s name, as Peter had explained, there would be no way to escape Jehovah’s denunciation upon the nations. Yet Joel assures us: “There will prove to be the escaped ones, just as Jehovah has said, and in among the survivors, whom Jehovah is calling.”—Zeph. 3:8, 9; Joel 2:32.
16. (a) How can we learn the “pure language”? (b) What indicates that Christendom has not mastered it?
16 Have you been learning the “pure language” necessary for survival? Just as each language has a distinct pattern of words and grammar, so the truth, as it comes in God’s word the Bible and as he has revealed its understanding to us in these “last days,” has a pattern that we can come to learn, an inner harmony. It is based on the theme of God’s kingdom of righteousness. Once a person learns this “pattern of healthful words,” as Paul described it, by coming to an accurate knowledge of the Scriptures, then he can speak it without hesitation to others, not accenting or coloring it with unsound doctrinal twistings. (2 Tim. 1:13; 2 Pet. 3:16) That Christendom has not learned this “pure language” is clear from the confusing mixture of Scriptural and philosophical “dialects” she speaks. And far from calling on “the name of Jehovah,” orthodox religionists of Christendom prefer to reject that name for the ambiguous term “the Lord.”—2 Pet. 2:1; Matt. 7:15-23.
17. In what way is this language “pure,” and how extensively is it spoken?
17 How happy we can be to realize that Jehovah does have faithful witnesses throughout the earth who have learned this “pure language”—over one million six hundred thousand of them in more than two hundred lands—who are pleased to call upon his name and to serve him “shoulder to shoulder,” though they come from a great variety of national, racial and language groups. They are united as the early Christians were in a pure worship to Jehovah’s praise. Regardless of their using any of the various translations of the Bible in the 1,500 languages into which it is translated, at least in part, they still speak with agreement on its basic teachings. Thus their language is “pure,” not just in being acceptable to God-fearing people, but also in being unadulterated or uncorrupted in its presentation of Jehovah’s purposes.—John 8:42-47; Jas. 3:10, 11.
18. How did Zechariah foretell an addition to the work referred to at Acts 15:14 for our day?
18 The result of speaking the truth freely to others was well foretold in the words of Zechariah: “It will be in those days that ten men out of all the languages of the nations will take hold, yes, they will actually take hold of the skirt of a man who is a Jew, saying: ‘We will go with you people, for we have heard that God is with you people.’” (Zech. 8:23) Have you, too, joined yourself with those whom Jehovah has been gathering out of all nations as his name people? It is urgent to do so now.—Acts 15:14.
19. How is the “pure language” made understandable to us?
19 Speaking any language, including the “pure language” of truth, does not come without effort. Before we can speak what is pleasing to our Creator we have to learn what it is. As in learning a new language, we find many previously strange expressions in the “pure language.” We learn what the kingdom of God really is, about the “great crowd” who serve Jehovah in the “last days,” about the impending destruction of “Babylon the Great” just before the rest of this worldly “system of things” goes down at “Armageddon.” We are forewarned, too, about the coming attack of “Gog of Magog.” We need not be discouraged if at first it is difficult to learn some deep spiritual truths. It was only due to the outpouring of Jehovah’s spirit that the clearer understanding of Jehovah’s purpose was opened up to the early followers of Jesus at Pentecost, and today it is due to Jehovah’s spirit upon the “faithful and discreet slave” class that we have the understanding of Jehovah’s purposes, which we can share with others.—Matt. 24:45-47.
20. What is included in speaking the “pure language”?
20 This heightened appreciation for Jehovah’s Word and our relationship to him motivates us to “take refuge in the name of Jehovah.” It brings about a change in our hope for the future, so that we put our trust now in Jehovah’s kingdom of righteousness rather than in the things of this world. It moves us to share this wonderful prospect with others. We learn that those speaking the “pure language” must also live up to it. Such ones “will do no unrighteousness, nor speak a lie, nor will there be found in their mouths a tricky tongue.” (Zeph. 3:12, 13) What a joy to be able to share with over one million six hundred thousand who have already learned this “pure language” in teaching it to others! Only this accurate knowledge of the truth as Jehovah is revealing it through his organization today can unite men of all nationalities and languages to work shoulder to shoulder “for the faith of the good news.”—Phil. 1:27, 28.
OPPOSITION TO THE PURE LANGUAGE
21. How did the disciples of Jesus react to efforts to stop their ministry?
21 Since Jesus encountered opposition from opposers of the truth, the same can be expected by those following his course now. (John 15:20) What will be our reaction? Remember that even though Peter and John were put in prison for declaring the good news of coming “seasons of refreshing” from Jehovah, they were not frightened into quitting, but continued the very next day giving a bold witness to the religious rulers of the people. Even after being strictly instructed not to say anything more, they declared: “We cannot stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.” In fact, they prayed that Jehovah would give them strength ‘to keep speaking his word with all boldness.’—Acts 3:11, 19; 4:20, 29.
22, 23. How have efforts to stop the preaching of the good news been overcome in Gabon and Cameroon?
22 Efforts have been made in modern times also to stop the preaching of the good news. A report from Gabon in West Africa says: “Though conditions are still very difficult, the brothers are not discouraged. They are just learning to live with the new circumstances. One overseer explains: ‘Jehovah’s power is manifest and he strengthens us during our persecutions. The fear we had at the beginning of the ban is transformed into courage, and rashness into prudence. From a weakened state we have become strong and our unproductive state has changed to one of fruitfulness. In our congregation already we have seen the addition of ten new publishers in six months, and in less than a year we have baptized fourteen persons. Obedience to Jehovah has brought his blessing.’”
23 In neighboring Cameroon, eleven brothers were rounded up in their homes by the police and taken to jail. They had not even been holding a meeting or witnessing to others when arrested! For three weeks they were held in a little cell where the heat was almost unbearable. But they realized that this was an untouched field for preaching. So all day long they witnessed; as prisoners left and others replaced them, they just kept preaching to different persons, much the same as when they were free to go from house to house. At last report one brother still had not been released simply because Bible literature had been found in his home. But the ten who were released came out of prison rejoicing over the privilege of having been entrusted with the good news about God’s kingdom and having had opportunity to speak about it to others.—1 Thess. 2:1-4.
24. What effect has the “pure language” had on Jehovah’s people, and to what do they look forward?
24 Whether under opposition or not, the important thing for each of us is to use our gift of language to please our Creator. Having learned of Jehovah’s wonderful purposes, we have the privilege to bring this message of hope and life to others. Whether we are well educated or not, Jehovah can strengthen us to share his purposes with those who love what is right. Despite the many languages spoken by Jehovah’s servants throughout the world, still all are united by the “pure language” of Scriptural truth. If we are truly thankful for this gift of language, then we will want to use it to Jehovah’s praise. If we do this now, then we can look forward to seeing the time during Christ’s Kingdom rule when ‘every tongue will openly acknowledge that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’ (Phil. 2:11) It seems reasonable to conclude that at that time all faithful mankind will be united not only by the bonds of pure worship but also by the further blessing of a single language for all peoples, understood by all, and made possible by the heavenly Kingdom rule of the grand Creator of language, Jehovah.
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Garden of Eden—THE FIRST LANGUAGE WAS HEBREW
Babel—ALL OTHER LANGUAGES STARTED AT BABEL
Plains of Shinar