The Language of Babel
Generally, I believe that the necessity of our journey to meet God is the fundamental lesson of the Tower of Babel. However, there is another side to this story that surprised me during my years of studying historical linguistics at the University of Georgia. One of the central principles of historical linguistics is that languages all around the world degrade over time. I am sure that does not surprise ya’ll.… But it’s true. For example, generally English has two forms of most nouns, singular and plural. However, in ancient Greece, their 4th graders had to learn ten forms of each noun. And, kids who were learning Sanskrit had to learn twelve forms. Verbs were even more complicated. Imagine how much more exciting spelling bees were in those days!
Today, we settle for “R U home?” or we lace our conversations with emojis. We think we are being clever, but sometimes we are making our lives more difficult. For example, English had a perfectly good second person singular pronoun, thou. And thou paired perfectly with the second person plural pronoun, you. So, if you wanted to send one of your three kids to the store to pick up toilet paper, all you had to say is, “Thou, go to the store.” Simple. However, our recent ancestors thought that was too easy. So, they tossed thou on the linguistic scrap pile and you was forced to fill in for both singular and plural. But, this little move actually made our modern lives more complicated. Today, if you want to send one of your three kids to the store, you say, “You, go to the store.” And, in the confusion, there is a good chance that two or three might grab their bikes and head down the road. So, we have to clarify. That means we need a new plural version of you. And now we can welcome ya’ll and, in extreme cases, all ya’ll to the English language. This is not an English specific problem. All languages devolve.
Therefore, if languages devolve, then what happens when you start working backward? You (or all ya’ll) will find that ancient languages are incredibly complex, formal, detailed, and intricate. So, what happens if we keep going back in history, beyond the oldest, most complex forms of the languages we know? If the trend holds, what would you expect to find? Would we discover even more complex languages, or would the complexity curve to go the other direction, down toward more rudimentary forms of speech? Would we look for humans grunting random syllables, or drawing emojis on the ground, while pointing to the rocks needed for their tower? At least for me, I find it hard to believe that humans developed incredibly, complex languages on the front end, only to let them degrade and devolve on the back end of history. Language, like everything else in our world, seems to be bound by the Law of Entropy.
Instead, like the complexity and fine tuning of creation itself, I believe language is something God provided, in all of its intricacy, from the beginning. After all, language is the way we think and reason. We process and engage the world in language.
So, perhaps there is another reason this story of the Tower of Babel has been passed down to us. When we trace languages back, we find that they exist in language families. Each separate family changed over time in relatively predictable ways. For example, the languages in the Indo-European family, including English, German, Greek, Russian, and Hindi, may seem very different, but they are related and follow similar patterns. The same is true of the Semitic family, which includes Hebrew, Arabic, and Amharic. As time passed and people spread out over the earth exploring new places, each language in the family handled the linguist family rules a bit differently. The sounds of words, spelling and elements of grammar changed. But, their foundational connection remained. For example, Hindi and English may seem to be estranged, but they are still very much part of the same family.
However, when we look at the major families themselves, they definitely do not appear to be related at all. Consider the Indo-European and Semitic families in particular. They are very, very different in some basic ways. In fact, these families are so different, that I believe they were changed from the outside and not the result of any natural linguistic degradation or sound change. Let me give you a little example. Let’s play a game of Words with Friends. If you had these two letters “P_T” on the screen what words could you form? Pit, pot, pat, put, pet. Now, is the meaning of these words related in any way? Not at all! Each of these words have completely different definitions. Why? Because in this Indo-European family the vowels are used to change the meaning of words.
When we turn to the Semitic family, vowels have a very different function. If we were playing Words with Friends at the Semitic language family gathering, pit, pot, pat, put, and pet would not represent words with different meanings, but different grammatical forms. P_T would give you the basic idea of what the word means, but the vowels would tell you how it functions in the sentence. For example, the letters H-L-Kh in Hebrew produce a word that has something to do with walking. Halakh would be the verb “to walk,” while helakh is a “traveler.” Generally, in the Semitic family, the root consonants carry the meaning of the word and the vowels let you know how it fits into a sentence. (Once I figured this out, it made my Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary tests much easier!)
Here is my point. I do not believe that this type of foundational change in a language occurred over time or by accident. Something happened at the most basic level which made communication impossible. If something like that where to radically change the way humans communicate in such a profound and lasting way, I would imagine it would be worth writing about. So today, each time we need to use Google Translator or turn on subtitles, we are reminded of a group of folks who wanted to force God to fit neatly and safely into their world. We are also reminded that we are called to journey to God, an adventurous and courageous journey.