{23}   STUDY: Confusion of Languages


        Language is one of the great barriers to human communication. It is as great a barrier as colour and ethnicity, if not greater. Why did God divide man by language? Are there any evidence that there was one language in the world at one time? What was this universal language like?


Why did God need to confuse the languages of man at Babel?

In Gen 1:28, God instructed Adam and Eve to “multiply and fill the earth.” In order to wisely manage all of Earth’s resources for the benefit of all life, the whole globe needs to be occupied. But it seems that man failed to carry out this instruction and did not move too far from the original settlements in Mesopotamia.

In Gen 9:1, God again instructed Noah and his sons to “multiply and fill the earth.” In Gen 11, we see that God’s command was again ignored for many generations after Noah. Mankind had settled in only one geographical region.

At Babel, people on Earth, with a single language and a single nation, embarked on an ambitious building project, the construction of a huge city and a high tower in pursuit of two stated goals:

[1] To prevent human emigration beyond the boundaries of Mesopotamia, that is, to prevent their dispersion: Josephus commented that this was in disobedience to the command of Gen 9:1, to replenish the Earth. God commanded them to scatter. No, they said, we will live and die together.

[2] To express pride in their own achievements and to make themselves a name: they would achieve something to be envy of by future generations.

The confusion of languages in Babel achived two results shattering the two goals.

[1] God forced man to obey His command to fill the Earth for their own survival’s sake. This can be deduced from the place names mentioned in Genesis. In Gen 1—9, the place names mentioned were only in the environs of Mesopotamia. From Gen 10 onward, likely after Babel, we encounter references to places covering a large part of the Eastern hemisphere.

[2] God crushed their pride and their wish to gain fame. In addition, since Babel, God has kept the nations geographically and politically separated to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

How did man spread out to inhabit the whole world?

After the confusion of languages, people were inclined to find and stay close to anyone with whom they could communicate. God could have caused each individual to speak a different language. But, apparently, God caused the people from the same tribe or clan or family to speak the same language so that they could converse with each other but not with people from other tribes or families. As a result, nations formed along language lines.

The world was created and formed by God in such a way as to produce land masses and oceans in just the right balance for life. He also fashioned its geography and geophysical forces so that, at just the right time and in just the right places, conditions would foster the separation of the peoples and ensure their staying separated.

Geographers have long noted, with awe and amazement, that virtually all Earth’s continental land masses lie in climatic zones suitable for human habitation. Moreover, the continents and major islands are nearly contiguous so that man could migrate on land for great distances. However, some water barriers still presented a formidable challenge to people in ancient times. For example, North and South America are cut off from Eurasia by the Bering Strait; Indonesia is separated from mainland Asia by the Strait of Malacca; Australia is divided from Indonesia by the Torres Strait; and the English Channel flows between Britain and the rest of Europe. These water bodies, though not very wide, were found to be barriers difficult for ancient people to cross.

However, a 1996 geological and paleontological study established that between 40,000 and 11,000 years ago, the sea level was much lower than today because of the existence of huge ice sheets covering all sub-arctic regions including Alaska and Siberia. As a result, land bridges connected the continents and the islands, and could allow migration of peoples to all parts of the world.

Are all languages in the world originated from a single language?

Man’s linguistic ability: When God created the first human beings—Adam and Eve—He created them in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). This likeness unquestionably included the ability to engage in intelligible speech via human language. In fact, God spoke to them from the very beginning of their existence as humans (Genesis 1:28-30). Hence, they possessed the ability to understand verbal communication—and to speak themselves.

Origin of languages: Linguists have tried to find out the origin of language, just like scientists try to find out the origin of life. They have invented many different hypotheses but none is supported by the majority of linguists. We believe that God created the linguistic capacity in man. No wonder linguists could not definitively support any one of the hypotheses in explaining the origin of language. On the other hand, these hypotheses may be useful in explaining the development of languages through time, that is, how new vocabulary and new usages of existing words develop.

Evidence of one original language: Linguists have found connections between quite dissimilar languages. Conder examined 172 root word forms in 12 very different languages and concluded that all three large families (Semitic, Hamitic, and Indo-European) were probably united as a single language until something occurred to begin their independent development. Even non-Christian linguists support the hypothesis of one original language for man.

What was the original speech of man used by Adam?

Modern Christian scholars generally believe that the original language used by Adam until Babel was Hebrew, or at least a language similar to Hebrew. The reasons include:

[1] The names of the immediate descendants of Noah (in Gen 10) were the real names which those people originally bore and are not merely transliterations. They are still traceable, though in modified forms, very extensively among their living descendants who, however, have no recollection of their meanings. Further, these names as given have meanings in Semitic but not in Japhetic or Hamitic languages.

[2] In Genesis 4, which deals specifically with the history of man from Adam to Noah, there are a number of references to persons, places, and events that throw unexpected light upon the subsequent human history even down to the present time. But this light is obtained only if the key words in these references derive their significance from their meaning in Semitic.

[3] If a Semitic form of language was the language of Noah, then presumably it was similar for Adam.


        Because of human pride and disobedience, human language was confused. Now, different ethnic groups cannot easily communicate. Yet through the power of God, the process was temporarily reversed at Pentecost in Ac 2:5-13. At the end of the world, the diverse peoples will come together as a single people of God (Rev 7:9).