{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. Misunderstanding because of linguistic difference could have significant and sometimes tragic consequences. Yet it is God who decided to divide man by languages. 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 beyond Mesopotamia, in fact, to places covering a large part of the Eastern hemisphere.

[2] God crushed their pride and their wish to gain fame. Philo Judeus (a Jewish philosopher at the time of Jesus, working in Alexandria, Egypt) said that the Babel-builders engraved the name of every worker upon a brick; yet we do not find in any history the name of even one of these. 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.

The Bering Strait is 80 km wide with a cold treacherous sea between Alaska and Siberia. 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, a land bridge briefly joined North America to Asia. Just before the Bering land bridge was covered by rising seas from the melting of ice sheets, a brief period of warm moist climate occurred. This would have allowed human migration from Asia across the land bridge to North America. Another study concluded that other land bridges opened and closed at about the same time as did the Bering Strait bridge, allowing migration of peoples to distant islands.


How many language families are found in the world today?

There are 7 large language families (each with more than 200 million speakers, indicated by bold words in the following table) and 11 smaller regional language families. (The language family at Kamchatka shown in italics is sometimes classified as part of the Altaic family.)

Linguist Joseph Greenberg proposed 4 language super-families: African (no.1 to 4 in the table), Eurasiatic (5 to 12), Indo-Pacific (13 to 15), language of the Americas (16 to 18).



Language Family






Middle East to northern Africa [Arabic]

Ethiopian, Berber, Southwest Asian

339 million


Niger-Congo (Niger-Kordofanian)

central and southeast Africa [African]

West African, Bantu (Mbuti Pygmy)

358 million



central Africa


35 million



southwest Africa (Kalahari)

San/Bushman, Hottentot




Latin and Germanic, including northern India [European]

European, Iranian, Sardinian, Indian

2.56 billion




Chechan, Georgian

5 million



central Asia and Turkey [central Asian]

North Turkic (some include Mongol, Korean, Ainu, Japanese)

250 million







Uralic (Uralic-Yukaghir)

Russian Arctic coast and Finland

Lapp, Samoyed

22.6 million



southeast India [Indian]

Southeast Indian

222 million



China, east Asia, Tibet [Chinese]

Chinese, Mongol, Korean, Japanese, Ainu, Tibetan

1.28 billion


Tai-Kadai (Daic)



78.4 million




Mon Khmer, Miao-Yao

101 million



Indonesia [Indonesian]

Indonesian, Malaysian, Filipino, Polynesian, Micronesian

311 million


Pama-Nyungan (Australian)

central Australia

Australian aborigine



Papuan (Indo-Pacific)


Melanesian, New Guinean

3.4 million


American Indian (Amerind)

northern Quebec and Labrador, isolated areas in N and S America

South Amerind, Central Amerind, North Amerind

20 million



Alaska, Yukon and NWT

Northwest Amerind



Eskimo-Aleutian (Eskimo-Aleut)

Arctic coast of Canada

Inuit (Eskimo)



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

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

o        Hypotheses for the origin of language can be classified into 3 groups:

o        [1] Imitation hypotheses—human mimicry of naturally occurring sounds or movements: [a] ding-dong hypothesis (sounds of the world), [b] pooh-pooh hypothesis (semi-involuntary cries or exclamations), [c] bow-wow hypothesis (animal sounds), [d] ta-ta hypothesis (hand gestures).

o        [2] Necessity hypotheses—human response to acute necessity in the community: [a] uh-oh hypothesis (warnings), [b] yo-he-ho hypothesis (sounds during communal labour), [c] sing-song hypothesis (laughter, courtship, emotional mutterings), hey-you hypothesis (identity, fear, anger), [d] hocus pocus hypothesis (magical or religious sounds), [e] eureka hypothesis (assigning arbitrary sounds to meanings).

o        [3] Lying or watch-the-birdie hypothesis—human invention for the purpose of lying or deceiving.

o        Christian viewpoint on these hypotheses: We believe that God created the linguistic capacity in man. Since the beginning, Adam and Eve could speak and could understand what God said. 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.

[3] Proto-languages: The existing state of human language suggests that the variety of dialects and sub-languages has developed from a relatively few (perhaps less than 20) languages. These original ‘proto-languages’—from which all others allegedly have developed—were distinct within themselves, with no previous ancestral language. Creationist Carl Wieland rightly remarked: ‘The evidence is wonderfully consistent with the notion that a small number of languages, separately created at Babel, has diversified into the huge variety of languages we have today’.

[4] Linguistic stocks: Evidence exists in predynastic times in Mesopotamia (before 2700 BC) of the presence of three linguistic stocks: Japhethites, Semites (a language akin to Hebrew and Arabic), and the Sumerians. (according to V. G. Childe)

[5] Linkage between language stocks: Hervas, a Spanish Jesuit, wrote a famous 6-volume Catalogue of Languages, published in 1800. He proved by a comparative list of declensions and conjugations that Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Amharic are all but dialects of one original language and constitute one family of speech, the Semitic.

o        The idea of deriving Japhetic languages from Semitic languages has been studied. It was found that parallelisms exist, not merely for a few possibly borrowed words, but for a vast number of words which are basic to any vocabulary: numerals, personal relationships, household objects, things of prime and immediate importance for individual survival or well-being, and so forth.

o        A similar result is found between Hamitic languages and Semitic languages.

o        Therefore, all 3 major language groups are related.

[6] Monogenesis: It is a hypothesis that there was one single protolanguage (the “Proto-World language”) from which all other languages spoken by humans descend. Is there any evidence that mankind did at any time within the last few thousand years share a single language, as seems to be clearly implied by the wording of Genesis 11:1? The linguists Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen advocate such a position. For example, the sound ‘Ma’ seems to universally mean ‘mother’.

[7] One original language: Non-Christian linguistics scholar, Max Muller in his classic work The Science of Language, while denying that any light on the subject could be derived from the biblical story, argue that there was nothing unreasonable in the idea of there having once been a single language shared by all men.

o        His analysis of languages from all over the world had led him to group them into categories which he terms respectively the radical, the terminational, and the inflectional.

o        China’s Place in Philology,” has collected a large amount of fact tending to show that the early Chinese in its monosyllabic radicals presents root forms traceable into all the stocks of human speech in the Old World.

[8] Evidence of one original language: Linguists have found connections between quite dissimilar languages, such as the Aryan group, the Semitic group, the Chinese and Polynesian. C.R. Conder [“On the Comparison of Asiatic languages” (1894)] used examples taken from 12 languages: Sumerian, Egyptian, Aryan, Hebrew, Assyrian, Arabic, Turkic, Finnic-Ugric, Mongol, Cantonese (southern dialect of Chinese), Proto-Medic, and Susian. Then 172 root forms were examined in the 8 classes, each root being traced through virtually all the listed dialects or languages in every case. He 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.

o        The 8 classes were used for sensations connected with various organs: [1] life or breathing with the nose; [2] light, sight, and fire, with the eye; [3] sound, with the ear; [4] movement, with the leg, [5] swallowing, eating and drinking with the mouth; [6] holding, and striking, with the hand; [7] work, which is not very clearly distinguishable from the preceding class; [8] love and desire.

[9] Linguistics consistent with the Bible: All these results of research in linguistics, including one original language, proto-languages, and linguistic stocks, are consistent with the Biblical record.


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, supported by some Church Fathers including Augustine, Jerome, and Origen.

Custance believes that the language of Eden was a language similar to Hebrew, perhaps Aramaic. 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. The Scripture lends some support to this conclusion because:

o        The word woman is a translation of a Semitic word which is the feminine form of the word for man. Man is Ish, woman is Ishah. In no other language does it appear to be true that the word for woman is the feminine form of the word for man. Compare, for example, the Latin: vir for man, mulier for woman; the Greek. aner for man, gune for woman. In English the word woman is a broken down form of an original “woof-man,” which meant “the man who weaves.” In Spanish the forms senor and senora may seem at first sight to be parallel, but senor is not really the word for “man” nor senora the word for “woman.” They are more exactly titles of courtesy like “sir” and “lady” in English. This exceptional circumstance in the story of Adam and Eve is in itself some evidence that Semitic was the form of speech which Adam employed, since it would seem only natural that the first human being should have named his companion by a modified form of his own name.



        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).

        Custance quoted the following story to illustrate the universality of the language of heaven: Two believers from different countries met at a conference and observed in one another the unmistakable evidences of their common faith. They approached each other with outstretched hands in welcome and, though quite unable to speak a word of the other’s language, communicated perfectly when the one said, “Alleluia!” and the other replied instantly, “Amen!”