On the Origins of Language Species
(or: “We don’t know what’s right, except that the Bible‘s account of language origins must be wrong!”)
Way back over eight years ago now, on 26th January 2004, I wrote this article in talk.origins, free.christians and alt.fan.uncle-davey which kicked off no little furore, and got me labelled by Aaron Clausen, a talk.origins regular, as a “science-fiction writer” and “the most dangerous and mischievous kind of Creationist“. He called my account “nothing more than a piece of fiction. It’s like good science fiction, it weaves fact and fiction together in such a way as the improbable seems no more surprising than the probable.” He also wrote on 2nd February 2004 “To my mind, Davey, you are the most mischievous and dangerous kind of Creationist. … You even know the holes in the knowledge of the study of language, and you can use the terminology to great effect. People … seeing your essay, would likely fall for it hook, line and sinker. Because it mixes fact and myth so very well, you give it an air of plausibility.” That was in amongst admitting that he didn’t know any better answer to the origin of language families, and when I asked him what he would tell his kids on the subject if they asked him whether there was a polygenesis of language families or linguistic monogenesis, (this being the sort of thing they ask at the breakfast table in American skeptics’ households) he said he would tell them “we don’t know“.
It seems like even no explanation at all is better for these “knowledge-thirsty” evolutionists than the Bible’s one, if and whenever the Bible invokes supernatural intervention by God, as at Babel. And their counter to the perfectly reasonable claim, (straight out of atheist Conan Doyle, by the way) that if you cannot disprove a theory it must be true, is that that’s the ‘goddidit’ argument, also known as the “God of the gaps” argument. They think that by giving silly, mocking designations to the perfectly logical and consistent lines of thought that Christians have, they have somehow effectively dealt with them. Either that or they make out that the questions which we raise are invalid in some way. In all they do they are like lawyers who, having trouble with the evidence, use odd points of law to attack the procedure, so that justice and fairness and true rationale flee out of the window, pursued by the harrying hounds of unscrupulous rhetoric.
Obviously, I’m not out to deceive anybody or produce fiction or stir up mischief as Aaron Clausen claimed, but I really think that if someone knows the facts about where we are in the reconstruction of earlier languages, and doesn’t have a world view that excludes a priori the chance for God to work directly on the human mind, en masse, they will say that the explanation I gave, based on the Babel account of scripture, is just as valid an account of how we got to today’s languages as any other. Only prejudice against the possibility of such action by God is a reason not to acknowledge that I have offered a workable and valid theory, and one that reflects observable fact more clearly than such theories as would dovetail well with evolutionary views of the origin of man.
Anyway, the person who got me started is ‘Sloggoth’ and he/she is in the quotes.
Some of the following is quoted from the time, and some has been added since to improve the communication of the ideas.
Well, Uncle Davey, you’ve confused a lurker pretty well here. If you would be so kind as to clarify:
When you speak of linguistic evolution do you mean:
1) The evolution of the *capacity for language* in humans? Biological evolution must indeed be able to explain this.
2) What everyone else means, i.e. change in language, such as that which produced French and Spanish from Latin? There is no reason why a theory which deals with genetic change should address a purely cultural phenomenon, beyond explaining how it is biologically possible in the first place.
3) If one cannot trace linguistic evolution beyond the known families, (which probably arose at some time in the past that could very loosely fit the Babel account), then the Babel account is thereby not contradicted?
The way I see it is that what happened at Babel everyone received their own language. Even husbands and wives could not talk and little kids could not communicate with their parents. This meant that in order to have an established family language, families needed to isolate themselves, and then they would all learn the language of the mother of that family, as mothers are and always have been the main one to teach the little children language. The men therefore would also have needed to take their wive’s grammar and syntax, but the wife would in return take a lot of the lexicon from her husband, and in the process already the family language would become at once grammatically simpler but also lexically richer than the Babel exit languages each member spoke. We have the expression ‘mother tongue’ in almost every language but Welsh, which is like the exception that proves the rule, exactly from this time, which was only one generation in the history of man.
That’s right. There was only one generation from Babel in which individual languages became family languages. The majority of the languages that came out from Babel would have gone into disremembrance when that person dies. In some cases the vocabulary will have been loaned into the family language, and in most cases the phonetics will have influenced to some degree the family language. People who had no families and no successors therefore had their individual languages vanish probably without trace.
You see, this was the mechanism that would have driven people out of Babel into their own place, so that they could quietly re- establish a common language with those who meant most to them, their family, without linguistic interference from all the others who would come babbling over the horizon, preventing their children from achieving any linguistic competence.
Within a further forty years, that one language per family (already maybe only one fifth of the number actually made at Babel) was similar conflating and merging into tribal languages. The basic model would then be the family language of the most dominant family in the tribe. This process took longer than the family language process, as the new languages were being learned as foreign languages by all in the tribe but the dominant family. These dominant families are the ancestors of the aristocratic families that grew up later in almost every culture.
The tribal languages would have taken over from the family languages so that by about four hundred years after Babel the single family language was as redundant and extinct as the single person language had been forty years after the Babel event. But each of these tribal languages would have been a selection of grammars, phonologies and lexical materials that came out of the Babel event. We are told in scripture that God confused the language, which may suggest that he took things which were already in the Adamic language and mixed them up. However, my personal belief is that none of the exit languages had all of the material that was in the Adamic language. When given directly to Adam by God, this language was a perfect thought vehicle for the man that He had made, and to be able to be taught and used by future generations. In Isaiah 65v20 as well as in the early Genesis chapters we see indications that the original plan for the length of human childhood was 100 years, setting up for a lifetime of up to 1000 years. Up to the Flood we see nobody doing any “begetting” until they are over one hundred, that’s for sure. The language given by God originally would have been a rich language taking the full measure of 100 years to acquire from parents and enabling thought and worship on a level unparalleled by people living today. Because there were relatively few of them and the Flood was such a huge cataclysm, we cannot see any indications of the achievements they had made with this linguistic tool, but they must have been amazing.
Once we arrive at post-Flood times and you see in scripture the lives of post-Flood generations going down to below what would have counted as infant mortality before the Flood, people maturing already in the second decade of their lives and then expected to have finished their educations (one of the reasons why there is this conundrum that we barely use a fraction of our brains’ synaptic capabilities – they are still the same size as those brains were which held Adamic, but now our childhoods are too short to learn it properly anyway) so the Adamic language was probably already deteriorating – probably people started to use a debased, pidgin version of the old language at Babel, although as a Community they may still have possessed the totality of it.
So the size of the confounded languages were probably much smaller – it’s reasonable to suggest about 20% of the complexity and richness of the original Adamic language. Each individual language probably held a unique mix and match combination of about 20% of what was in Adamic, but shifted and confused so that Adamic could not be put back together again.
And of such languages, getting back to the story, tribal languages emerge within up to 400 years and we come to the rise of the supertribal language.
Some of these early tribal languages exist until today. Basque is a good example. It isn’t visibly related to other languages around it, it has simply been there, carried in a small tribe in enveloped in the Pyrenees, for thousands of years.
Other tribes conflated again into the supertribe, and the supertribe is where we find the original languages at the heads of the family trees that we can easily recognise. The Aryan supertribe spoke a language whose name we don’t know, but we know it must have existed and we call it Proto-Indo-European. They themsleves could have called it Yaspriyakis, Blurbnurb or something like that, or just “Smith’s Tongue”, for all we know. It was a supertribe, and as with all supertribes, it fell apart, with people who spoke it leaving
and mingling with the languages of the substrate where they went, which were generally tribal, not supertribal peoples, and could not compete with them.
So we have a tendency for common grammatical elements to be seen, but a lot of different lexical stock from the borrowings. Even the supertribe itself had not been stable long when the emigrations started; some thought the word for ‘a hundred’ should be ‘kentum’ and others thought it should be ‘sati’. About all they could really agree on was the words for beech trees, snow, and about twenty other matters.
So the supertribal language was the turning point. From Babel to the supertribal period, maybe a hundred thousand languages got down to maybe ten thousand. After that time the supertribal languages started to have multiple descendents, and even some descendents had multiple descendents themselves, so that they replaced the exit languages being spoken by peoples like the
pre-Celtic cultures of Ireland, and then many of those languages, like Irish Celtic, themselves became forced into a minor role or often made extinct altogether, like Cornish, by more vigorous languages of their distant cousins, such as English.
In sum, if we have had six thousand years since Babel, one of those thousand has seen the rise of the linguistic supertribe, and the other five thousand has seen mainly supertribal languages disintegrating into the language families we know today (and others which have gone extinct with no trace). In some parts of the world smaller languages, even ones that have resulted from supertribal disintegration, have started to grow again into supertribal languages, so the whole ebb and flow described here is something which didn’t necessarily happen just once in that length of history.
Incidently, even broader groups than Nostratic have been proposed, including attempts to reconstruct words of Proto-World. Unfortunately the only one I recall at the moment is rather indelicate.
There’s every chance that we can guess at a word that was in the vocabulary of somebody who walked out of Babel, maybe in a sound-shifted or abbreviated form. After all, all the material in every tribal or supertribal language came from someone or other’s Babel exit language. It’s not common for languages to invent words, so even ‘shit’ has good cognates in Greek. If we say that ‘skata’ is closer to the Babel exit languages, because we can tell it didn’t go through the Germanic sound shifts which we know all about thanks to the Brothers Grimm, then we can assert with a good probability of truth that some rather powerful man or his wife, with a penchant for talking about his or her bodily functions, received the ancestor word for ‘skata/shit’ in his or her personal language at Babel. It is very interesting how reluctant mankind is to introduce linguistuc material out of nothing. Almost everything is a loanword or a calque or an omatopoeia, or a contraction of other words. Even on the internet existing language was massaged to create the terms we are now using worldwide over the last 25 years. Very little by way of truly random words have been used. Even the search engine “Google”‘ links from “go ogle” and “Facebook” comes from two very basic monosyllablic English words.
Anyway, this account, which has no shortage of fantasy in it as I am more than aware, and make no apology for in the face of the fantasy required to make a dinosaur drawing complete with colours and habits from a couple of bones, this being the sort of trick on which most people’s understanding of evolution seems to base, is consistent nevertheless with both on the one hand the observable fact that we cannot get back any further than PIE or PFU, and find further common ancestors, obviates the absurd and counter-intuitive notion that language systems fairly equal in complexity could have evolved in the human race at different times and places, but without the organs of speech of the races then changing so that an infant could not acquire a perfect accent in a non related system, and where we do not see easier grammars compounding into harder grammars, but rather the reverse, and one the other hand it is consistent with what scripture says about language origins.
And so, in conclusion, evolutionary science is at odds with what is known of philology, and the Bible is not.
By the way, in the rest of the original talk.origins discussion, it became apparent that the evolutionists have nothing to offer but rhetoric, and try to divert the uncomfortable topic onto archaeology, where they attempted to argue from negatives assuming that Babel hinges on the archaeological work of Babylon, when there is no reason at all to expect to find any traces of Babel and its tower. However large it was, it was doubtless less in terms of mass of fabric than the Berlin Wall was, and people recycled that in the space of a few months, let alone a few thousand years. If anything has changed, and any evolutionist has something to offer which is new, please go ahead and make your comments.
I remind evolutionists reading this article of their right of immediate and public reply on the bulletin board of this site, which as I said earlier is not edited or moderated except for things that are illegal and for spam.
I hope Christians are encouraged by all this not to believe that science has all the answers, it doesn’t. But as we see evolutionists, especially those who are only using the evolutionary fallacy as their charter for atheism or apostasy, will fill in the gaps between real science and their world view and then try to convince us that this philosophical putty of theirs is good science too.
(DJJ, based on material added to the old site usenetposts.com 29/4/04, original debate from Jan-Feb 2004, now with 25% added material)
- Babel…. (maddmedic.wordpress.com)
- The Bigger Picture (kenyanvoice.wordpress.com)
- God’s Mass Deportation Policy (vridar.wordpress.com)
- Creationist: Science Begins with the Bible, Not the Facts (patheos.com)
- Ruse: creationism the fault of Gnu Atheists who don’t study enough (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
12 thoughts on “On the Origins of Speeches”
This judgmental event of the confusion of tongues makes me wonder how individual persons could maintain pair bonds and keep their families together. If so that right after forgetting the adamic language and gaining unique replacements for every single person, i don’t see how a family could understand one another and stay whole unless the respective languages they spoke were similar enough to permit comprehension. Or else, if the languages/dialects were provided at random, how could a husband speaking Turkish, for example, attempt to communicate with his Welsh-speaking wife? Also a man in love with a girlfriend speaking gibberish may be forced to find a different woman to marry who speaks a language within his language family.
I think that this theory of every person receiving his/her own language apart from an ordered dispensation to unite families seems a little implausible, and perhaps detrimental to society ever reforming after Babel.
There were not any language families then. This came about only much later. Hundreds and hundreds of years later.
It says in the Bible that they could not understand one another. Not one family another. So if we are going to place faith in a Biblical account (which so-called rationalists baulk at anyway) then it seems at least consistent to believe what it tells us in each detail given rather than make up our own version of it.
Only if you cannot understand anyone at all do you need to grab the people you love closest and flee the nucleus. If families already understood each other the need to scatter would be obviated. You go with your wife to a remote location so that you can set about trying to learn how to communicate with her again.
God knew that the love of people to each other would be stronger than the effort needed to learn or teach a language. Were this not so, no baby would learn to speak. Society was always going to reform by the same token, but this kick-started the flowering of many societies and cultures and was a wonderful act of creation by a loving God, who even in His chastisements presents opportunity and blessing.
It’s an excellent question.
Here’s my answer: if you find your nearest family members do not understand you and vice versa but there are people outside who do, then sure, the marriages will be attained because the couple don’t understand each other and each can find others who do understand them.
If you are in a situation so dramatic that you suddenly understand nobody, not your nearest and dearest and nobody outside either, then the panic really starts to set in, only tempered by an awareness that everyone is in the same boat.
Now remember that humanity was not that populous at the time. Probably we are within a dozen generations or even half a dozen from Noah even allowing for the possibility that Genesis didn’t intend the generations to be complete and taken chronologically literally (which begs the question why the life times of these early fathers of humanity are even recorded for us). And so in the Biblical context we have people numbering probably not more than ten thousand or so, at this point. They had all no doubt heard of Noah who lived a long time after the Flood and might even have still been around at this point. So they knew that they had been supposed to fill the earth. They simply had started to regard that with skepticism and done their own thing instead, but on seeing such a supernatural disaster upon them, and each marked out as co-responsible by the fact that his or her language was no longer shared by another living soul and the only one left to talk to was God, would this not refocus them on what they had heard about God and disregarded, namely the command to go forth, multiply and replenish the earth?
Well you can’t replenish the earth without grabbing your wife and family and heading off in a unique direction. So that’ll be what they did.
The sight of other families heading off will have shown the slower of mind what to do, until only a remnant remained in the city.
The city which may have gone on to be Babylon, or it may be somewhere else and Babylon named just in memory of that older other place. Either way Babylon as a centre of sin is a Leitmotif of scripture from Genesis right through to Revelation.
Remember though that we are not really dealing with Turkish and Welsh. Both these languages have come a long long way from their respective ancestor languages coming out of Babel. God tells us he confused their language. I take this to mean that the initial Adamic language was perfect and rich, designed for people who wouldn’t be dying after 70 years but living eternally. Mortal, sinful man had probably already degraded this, and what God did was to scramble, sample and permutate sounds, structures and vocabulary out of the initial language into the single person languages. That would be like getting dealt an individual hand of linguistic cards out of an Adamic deck. Your groping attempts to understand wife and children were in this analogy an exercise of putting cards on the table and agreeing what structures, sounds and vocabulary would be selected for the family use. The wife being the main raiser of the children would be the dominant influence, hence we say mother tongue to this day, whereas the strongest man, even having adapted his own language to that of a compromise favouring his wife, would have been in a position to dictate the tribal language once tribes formed which would have started happening within a few generations. And eventually you would get supertribes with languages like PIE (I don’t believe in Nostratic but PIE no doubt did exist but for only a couple of generations at best before it started breaking up and the opposite direction of linguistic development began. The one we know and love from seeing how Latin gave us all the Romance languages, etc. But this has to be understood as the reverse swing of a pendulum initially pushed the other way at Babel.
Were there some who could not cope with this? Who simply locked themselves in a room and rocked themselves to oblivion? Probably yes. But probably not the majority. Even if it had been the majority, it would not matter as they died off and their space on earth taken by the descendents of such who understood what the punishment had been for, who understood that their God had spoken, did not need to ask Him to speak again but just gone on with it like Geoff Boycott, putting in the runs and delivering Bablexit.
The alternative title says it all. As the star rating describes it, magnificent post. I always enjoy reading your thoughts on these things. It gets on my nerves sometimes how Atheism, Evolution and science are somehow seen as the same thing. Most Atheists I know have never studied, or for that matter had anything to do with the science they claim refutes the Bible. Sort of like the professing Christians who have never read the Bible, I guess.
When Noam Chomsky visited Oslo University, he shared his view on the origin of language. He thought the capacity for language might have evolved several times in humans, as a mutation in the brain, and gone extinct several times as well, before finally spreading in the population. I think it’s far-fetched, but I thought I’d share it since it’s relevant.
Chomsky is an intelligent man, as people go, but he is unfortunately not inspired by the spirit of truth. There are several cases where I would take issue with him, not on such observations he makes based on facts, but on how he interprets them, which invariably run out of the so-called rationalist consensus and therefore, in his attempts to make them consistent, he often gets completely back to front.
Capacity for language as a mutation in the brain is an absolute classic. As if anyone could demonstrate human language appearing from nowhere in a community that happened to have all evolved a capacity for it by mutation but there was no reason why this should have been a survival trait since one person cannot make a language.
Moreover, despite all the nonsense about opposable thumbs whites of eyes and all that nonsense, the single biggest feature that distinguishes humans from other creatures is the presence of language based thought. Given the length of time they give us, how could this feature not have emerged among other apes also, especially when it’s a no-brainer that it would have been key to our own survival, were evolution true.
The human brain observably hates creating original language. As Chomsky being a linguist should know better than most, we hate to do it. We always think about where a word came from and what it sounds like and why it means that and isn’t just silly gobbledygook. This kind of linguistic brain would baulk at creating language from nothing. Even Volapuk and Esperanto, along with the bulk of other conlangs, take their stock from existing languages and simply slice them and cut them differently. And the fact is that among humans there are no half-languages. There are no races among the ones discovered, even the Tasmanians with their most primitive technology, that have shown languages not capable of generating complex thoughts of the kind shared with the rest of humanity.
Another case where Chomsky seems to be barking up the wrong tree is when he says that something is lost from the brain at six years of age which means that after this time the child cannot learn languages as well as before. The observation is correct, but the reasoning is back-to-front. We don’t LOSE anything at six years old, what we gain is the ability to learn consciously, which means we switch on our conscious memories. As the conscious act of memorising is a short-term memory function, as soon as we attempt the learning of language with didactic means we lose the unconscioys approach to language acquisition which we had as children. The only way to retrieve it is to have a learning system which doesn’t require conscious memorization – the very reason why the Goldlist method works when done properly as that’s precisely what it aims to do.
Exactly. Chomsky is perhaps rightly called the father of modern linguistics, but everyone interprets the evidence (which is of course the same for everyone) through the lens of their own world view. Some even accuse him of getting old and stubborn about his theories, not wanting to change them to account for new evidence, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. I would guess there are many youngsters who would like to be the one to challenge Chomsky himself, and so would at least attempt to criticize his work.
However, criticism is certainly due when it comes to language acquisition after the age of six. We gain, or learn, lots of other things when we grow up, and six years is the age for starting elementary school in many countries, including Norway. Children younger than six don’t (usually) go to school, and there could be a connection between school and the ability to learn consciously. The child starts school and is told that he is now learning. Then again, the age might be a coincidence, or the school age could be six precisely because that’s the age where children start learning consciously.
I was a volunteer in the translation of a book called “How to Teach Your Baby to Read” into Norwegian some years back. I translated only one chapter, but I got a free copy of the book in return (the English original; the translated version sadly never got printed, because the original authors wouldn’t allow it). Since it’s not relevant to me in the foreseeable future, I haven’t read it, but it seems that the general idea is to take advantage of the child’s ability to learn unconsciouly (or rather, the lack of ability to consciously learn) to teach children as young as 2 years old how to read. Maybe I should read it simply for the insight into general acquisition of knowledge, be it language, literacy, or mathematics (which I would imagine a very young child could also learn; they never cease to amaze me).
On the topic of Babel, a friend of mine mentioned that he had heard a Jewish interpretation of this even to mean that it was not the languages themselves that were confused, but rather the way in which people conversed, or something like that. Apparently it was because of the word used for “speech”, but I don’t know enough Hebrew to read the account yet. I do know that there are Jews that seek to unite the Torah with various other ideas (e.g. evolution), and this could be linked to one of those attempts.
I think that some children are certainly able to learn to read before six, but I wonder whether this is conscious learning or the result of some dextrous introduction by a parent. In my case I cannot remember the act of learning to read and yet I was measured at seven years of age to have a reading age of twenty-one. When my mother told the headmistress of the school that she didn’t want me to learn this silly teaching alphabet called ITA they had in those days (it was withdrawn of course and it’s a wonder authorities weren’t sued in widescale class actions over it) the headmistress pooh-poohed her and said that I had obviously remembered the books which had been read to me. So my mother said “could he already have memorised this morning’s newspaper?” and that’s what the headmistress proceeded to test me with. At that point, she kind of shut up. But I don’t remember how it was I got to that level and I am not sure it was even a conscious learning effort.
When it comes to people rationalising away or giving “understandable” reasons for various miracles or divine interventions, there is usually something which shows that the rationalising answer doesn’t quite fit the point. So it is here. How would it be that simply changing the way people converse would mean that they would run away to all four corners of the globe? Humans were and remain social, apt to urbanise and stick together. What other than a fundamental confounding of language would have that effect? That’s why I cannot envisage anything other than a total linguistic mix-up, such that each person woke up that morning with a language as unique to him or her as the pattern of his or her fingerprints or retinas.
If this is a problem to people, then too bad. If a person cannot believe in God being able and willing to accomplish that kind of intervention, what kind of a resurrection are they looking for? What kind of a new heavens and a new earth?
I know people, including myself, who learned how to read before starting school, but I don’t remember how I learned it. I do remember learning the alphabet, because I had written lines of letters on a piece of paper and asked my mother to read it, which she did. And it turned out that in this chaos of letters, I had written my first word, “gøy” (meaning “fun”). Then I really wanted to learn the alphabet well, and asked my father to write it out for me. I think at that point I started reading Donald Duck comics and Latin dinosaur names one letter at a time, which usually enabled me to understand what word it was, but I had trouble the first times I read double consonants. Soon, I could read the comics, and I had a big box full of my fathers old ones so I wouldn’t run out. It wasn’t until second grade that I got into reading books, though. I tried to read the Bible as well, starting in Genesis 1, but I don’t think I ever got to chapter 4. Incidentally, I also had a simplified Bible where I read the Babel account.
I think it’s pretty easy for a child to learn how to read as long as the process is interesting and fun (like reading comics). It’s not done in a day, though. I have a Chinese friend who also started reading pretty early. She had books which had pinyin above the hanzi, just like Japanese furigana, which she used from she was around 4 years old, I think.
I looked at the words used in Genesis 11; in the first verse, the words used are שָׂפָה and דְבָרִים the first means”language, speech, choice of words, lip” (according to http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D7%A9%D7%A4%D7%94 and my lexicon, but the Wiktionary entry is probably Modern Hebrew. Also, Youngs Literal Translation uses “pronunciation”) and the second means “words”. Hebrew has at least two words for “language”: לָשׁוֹן (“tongue”, quite literally) and שָׂפָה. It is probable that the latter has different connotations and convention of usage, as it is very uncommon for a language to have complete synonyms. However, if the interpretation is by a speaker of Modern Hebrew, the connotations may be different, especially if it’s based on “gut feeling”. The most likely reading to me is still that it’s talking about language. If it doesn’t, then we have one language gradually developing into all the world’s languages, which seems unlikely to me.
It is very true that trying to explain away the miracles of God doesn’t work well. There is no reason to believe that Christ’s resurrection is anything other than a literal one, and that is not less miraculous than the confounding of languages. If one takes everything in the Bible to be a metaphor or parable, then the call to repent makes no sense, nor does anything else, really. If God gave the early Christians the gift of tongues at Pentecost, then He would be more than able to give the people of Babel new languages.