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LINGUISTICS

AND THE TOWER OF BABEL

(Investigator 24, 1992 May)



About 5,000 languages are in use today! The Bible points to a single original language which became "confused" at the Tower of Babel in Mesopotamia (now part of Iraq). Modern-day linguists do not take the Biblical story (Genesis 11) seriously:
 

"Ever since the turn of the century, the notion that human languages all stem from one ancestral language – monogenesis – has been under an intellectual cloud." (New Scientist 1990 June 16 p. 28)
 
 
Who, then, is right?

In 1786 oriental scholar Sir William Jones, at that time a British judge in India, saw similarities between Sanskrit (a language of India), Greek and Latin which indicated:
 

"a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar than could have been produced by accident."

Since 1786 the Indo-European language family has become the most-studied language group. It's now generally accepted that this group arose from an ancestral language called Proto-Indo-European about 7,000 years ago. At least forty other language families besides Indo-European (and maybe as many as 200) are now recognised. Within each family there is proof of common ancestry. However, links between the forty or so families have not been decisively demonstrated.

However, some "superfamilies" are being proposed. "Nostratic", for example, is defined as the superfamily which includes the language families of Indo-European, Hamitic, Semitic, Uralic, Altaic and (possibly) Korean.

The procedure of seeking "regular correspondences"– which are common attributes in sounds, words and grammar, or consistent differences – permits a few languages to be compared at one time. Conclusions and classifications are built up step by step. This is the "bottom up" approach of the historical linguists. The precision means that the "signal" fades beyond about 6,000 years ago and reconstruction of earlier language is not considered possible.

Joseph Greenberg (b.1914), of Stanford University, California, uses a different approach in classifying languages, called "multilateral comparison". It involves comparing many languages simultaneously and seeking similarities and patterns.

For example, the 25 major languages of modern Europe could be classified just by using their words for "one", "two", "three", "head", "eye", "ear", "nose", "mouth", "tooth". This is a "top down" approach which Greenberg suspects may eventually reach back 100,000 years to the Mother Tongue of all language groups – if there ever was one Mother Tongue.

In the l.950s Greenberg used his "multilateral comparison" to successfully classify African languages. More recently he classified 600 American Indian languages into three language families these being Eskimo-Aleut (of the extreme North of North America), Na-Dene (North West of North America), and Amerind (rest of North America plus South America). This classification has caused much debate since other linguists using the "bottom up" method insist on about 155 language families. (Lewin 1990) This difference chiefly accounts for my earlier statement estimating the language families between 40 and 200.

In effect Greenberg has unified, or believes he has unified, 3/4 of all language families into three superfamilies. These three superfamilies are believed to represent three ancient separate migrations from Asia into America.

The remaining 40 or so language families have also been tentatively grouped in various ways into six or eight superfamilies making about ten superfamilies in all.

One relevance of the classification battle between linguists is whether the tracing of language groups will stop at about 5000 BC or whether a single ancient Mother Tongue could potentially be uncovered.

The Tower of Babel story in the Bible begins:
 

"Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar [Bablylonia/Mesopotamia] and settled there." (RSV Bible 1952)
 
 
Clearly this text discusses a time before the ancient city of Babylon existed.

Archaeologists estimate that Babylon was founded about 2,200 BC. The Babylonians built towers which ascended stairway-like in stages one on top of another. The towers are called "Ziggurats" and about 25 of them were built in different cities.

The Tower of Babel, however (if the story is true), appears to be mankind's first effort at a major construction and so would precede the Ziggurats of history and archaeology.

The writer of Genesis does not say that the Tower of Babel was a Ziggurat. Nor should we conclude that he equates Babel with Babylon although both were in Mesopotamia.
 

The general area of Babylon was settled in prehistoric times and there is some evidence of a previous sacred city there prior to the historic Babylon. (New Bible Dictionary 1982) It is prior to the existence of historic Babylon and prior to the building of the Ziggurats that the Tower of Babel incident (if it occurred at all) must be placed. It is self-evident that there once was a first time when, "men…found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there."

The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia known to history and archaeology were Semitic. The people at Babel, however, or perhaps those in charge, were Hamitic according to the Bible. (Genesis 10:6-14) This too may suggest that the alleged Tower of Babel incident is more ancient than any civilization or culture yet excavated by archaeologists.

Most scientists believe that the earliest humans originated in Africa. Recent research suggests, however, that the main dispersal centre of humans to the rest of the planet was Asia.

For example:
 

"Even if our true ancestors were still restricted to Africa 130,000 years ago, Asia must have been the primary dispersal centre for the subsequent radiation of modern humans around the rest of the world…" (Stringer 1990)
 
 
Of course Mesopotamia is in Asia. However as noted above, humans (according to the Bible) migrated there "from the east" – doubtless from somewhere in Asia.

We should not exclude the possibility that other groups split off from this migration prior to arriving in Mesopotamia. After all, one reason for building the Tower was "lest we be scattered" and such a fear of being scattered would have substance if clans and families had already split off earlier. (Genesis 9:4)

Georges Roux (1980) divided Mesopotamian "proto history" into six divisions each characterised "by a distinct cultural assemblage" these being:

Hassuna period        c.5800-5500 B.C.
Samarra period         c.5500-5000 "
Halaf period             c.5300-4500 "
Ubaid period            c.4500-3500 "
Uruk period              c.3500-3100 "
Jemdat Nasr period   c.3100-3000 "

The Sumerian civilization had its beginnings in the Ubaid period. How or where the Sumerians originated is unknown. (pp. 88-89) Goux asks:
 

"Again there are in ancient Mesopotamia literature place names that are neither Sumerian nor Semitic, but do they necessarily represent the traces of an older and exclusive population?" (p. 88)
 
 
Obviously we cannot yet link up the Tower of Babel with established history. A theory put forward in 1952 is that southern Mesopotamia is slowly subsiding while being built up by sediments brought by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Someone who takes the Bible seriously might therefore speculate that remains of the Tower of Babel or of the people who tried to build it lie somewhere many metres below what is currently called "virgin soil".

At Babel the people said:
 

"Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar."
 
 
Trying to determine a possible date by finding out when bricks were first burnt and bitumen first used as mortar doesn't get us very far. Desmond (1987) puts the first use of bitumen as "glue" at 2500 BC. Bricks were apparently first baked around 4000 BC and first burnt around 3000 BC. (Merit Students Encyclopedia 1976) Clay figures of animals and humans, however, were first fired about 11,000 BC. (Desmond 1987)

The account in the Bible goes on:
 

"And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language… Come let us go down, there and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.'" (11:6-7)
 
 
The word translated "language" is actually the Hebrew for "lip". The same word occurs also in verses 1 and 9. We also see "lip" referring to speech or language in Isaiah 19:18; Ezekiel 3:5-6; Zephaniah 3:9.

What, then, is the Bible saying happened at Babel?

Most Christian Fundamentalists and sectarian groups will say that God instantaneously created a number of different languages, implanted one or another of these .in the mind of each person, and erased memory of his previous language. In other words the whole episode was a miracle.

Of course if we postulate such a miracle in which a number of new grammars and new vocabularies were created instantaneously, without them having a previous history, we would predict that modern linguists will not trace all languages to a Mother Tongue. If "God" created, say ten new languages the linguists may ultimately trace languages back to 11 original ones and then find themselves permanently stumped.

The Tower of Babel story may, however, allow for another interpretation. A number of seemingly miraculous occurrences reported in the Bible have turned out to be natural events spectacularly timed. The tumbling walls of Jericho may have been knocked over by an earthquake. (Nur 1991) The stopping of the Jordan was probably caused by a huge landslide up-river. The Red Sea incident when the Egyptians drowned during the Exodus may have been due to a "storm surge" – a meteorological event. (Brunt 1990)

Similarly, it may not strain interpretation too far if we understand the "confusion" at Babel as a largely natural occurrence.

Suppose groups and clans of pastoralists already had some differences in their language, perhaps already several dialects. Their vocabulary is appropriate to their wandering lifestyle and lacks words for technologies which settled people would have. It's a language of "few words" as the RSV Bible puts it. For the purpose of promoting unity, perhaps a national identity, they embark on a massive joint project – a huge Tower.

Different clans specialise in different necessary technologies – shaping of bricks, baking of bricks, scaffolding, architecture, transport, organizing, food distribution, etc. Different clans therefore coin different new words to try to describe what they're doing. This, together with the previously existing verbal differences, and because the construction being attempted is too complicated anyway, leads to increasing "confusion". Gradually the different clans give up, go different ways, and gradually their differences in language develop into different languages.

If this scenario is accepted as fitting the Bible account then the prediction is that modern linguists could and even will eventually trace all language to one original Mother Tongue.

The phrase "one language and few words" needs a little comment since some Bible translations say: "one language and one speech."

If we translate the Hebrew literally we get "one lip and one words". "Lip" as discussed above means "language". The word "one" in the phrase "one words" is apparently seen by the translators of the RSV as being equivalent to "few". Strictly, this should be demonstrated to be right and not merely assumed. The number of different Hebrew words in the Old Testament is about 6,500. We might expect then that the "few words", if this translation is right, were significantly less than 6,500.

Before the Tower of Babel the Bible speaks of "one language. Immediately after Babel this is described as "confused … language". (11:7, 9) The word is still "lip".

Only when discussing times long after Babel does the Bible use the word "tongues" which often meant distinct languages. (Genesis 10:5, 20, 31; Esther 1:22) Perhaps this also indicates progressive change rather than miraculous substitutions of languages in human minds.

Proof of a single language must wait for the future. One group of linguists of Soviet origin is practising "deep reconstruction" to try to reconstruct extinct languages. Common elements in words of different but related languages become reconstructed words of their supposed proto-language.

Aaron Dolgopolsky (University of Haifa) is a Russian linguist who emigrated in the 1970s. He has apparently reconstructed about 1,500 words of Nostratic a language last believed spoken about 15,000 years ago. Nostratic is the proto-language of Indo-European and of four or five other language groups. (Lewin 1990)

Most scholars regard the Tower of Babel report as pure myth. At least one scholar, however, takes it seriously although less literally as my discussion. Dale S DeWitt (1979) locates the events in Sumerian history.

He gives the account a local rather than a universal sense. He refers to a text from the Third Dynasty of Ur, which says that the Sumerians once had one language but that Enki (one of the main gods) had confused their speech. DeWitt attributes the linguistic break-up to invasions by foreigners such as the Amorites and Elamites. He notes that the Bible sometimes attributes historical events to divine causes. Oven-fired bricks and ziggurats were around by or before the Third Dynasty of Ur. In addition when the Third Dynasty collapsed the Sumerian peoples underwent extensive scattering.

I've taken Genesis 1.1 in the universal sense – that all peoples and languages are claimed to be descendants of the builders at Babel and of their immediate ancestors. Such a universal interpretation seems to follow obviously from the previous chapters of Genesis. Lots of critics, however, who advocate what is called the Documentary Hypothesis see Genesis as a hotchpotch of different documents. If this idea is correct then my appeal to earlier chapters may not mean much. However, the Documentary Hypothesis is under attack and renewed research into the patterns and narrative structure of Genesis has commenced (Garrett 1991)

I began by wanting to use the Bible to predict whether linguists who believe in monogenesis will win out or whether their opposers will. Despite complications in interpretation my prediction is monogenesis. In making this prediction it's assumed that the "confusion" of "lips" was a natural rather than a supernatural event and that the story was intended to explain the beginning of all languages everywhere instead of only the languages in one area.

If the first assumption is rejected but the second retained (and the Babel story still taken seriously) then the prediction would be that linguists will trace all languages back to as many languages as began at Babel.

I've failed to establish much of a definite nature. Some Bible statements applying to the Abraham-Moses period are historically confirmed but everything earlier such as the Tower of Babel story remains hidden to scientific investigation for the present.

Although the idea of one original Mother Tongue has been under an "intellectual cloud" already the situation has changed:
 

"the hypothesis of the monogenesis of language is one that most linguists believe to be plausible."
(Scientific American 1991 April p. 79)
 
 
In my discussion I've ignored the chronology given in the Bible but may discuss that topic another time.
 
 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brunt, A. 1990 The Red Sea Crossing, Investigator No. 4, September.
Desmond, K. 1987 Inventions Innovations Discoveries, Harwin, Britain.
DeWitt, D. S. 1979 The Historical Background of Genesis 11:1-9; Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22, pp. 15-26.
Funk & Wagnall's New Encyclopedia 1983 Volume 3 – Babylon.
Gamkrelidze, T. V. & Ivanov, V. V. 1990 The Early History of Indo-European Languages, Scientific American, March.
Garrett, D. 1991 Rethinking Genesis, Baker Book House, USA.
Greenberg, J.H. 1987 Language in the Americas, Current Anthropology, Volume 28, Number 5, pp. 647-652.
Lewin, R. 1990 Ancestral Voices at War, New Scientist, June 16, pp. 24-29.
Merit Students Encyclopedia 1976 Volume 3 – Brick and Tile
Nur, A. 1991 And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, New Scientist, July 6
Renfrew, C. 1989 The Origins or Indo-European Languages, Scientific American, October.
Ross, P. E. 1991 Trends in Linguistics, Scientific American, April.
Roux, G. 1980 Ancient Iraq, Penguin, Britain.
Stringer, C. 1990 The Asian Connection, New Scientist, November 17, pp. 23- 27.
Unger, M.P. 1983 Unger's Bible Dictionary, Paperback Edition, Moody, USA.
Wigram, G. W. Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament, pp. 325-334; 651-652; 1213-1214.

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