The single language referred to in the early chapters of the book of Genesis (11: 1) and spoken by the inhabitants of
the world from Adam to the Tower of Babel is fertile ground
for speculation. Even some scholars, who would not give
much credence to these chapters, postulate a proto-world
language, with cognates1 between widely different languages
sometimes cited as evidence of an original language. For
example proto-Indo-European deik2 ‘to point’, hence
Latin digitus ‘finger’ and Greek deiknumi ‘to show’ can be
compared with Eskimo tik ‘finger’, Nilo-Saharan dik ‘one’,
proto-Austro-Asiatic tak ‘one’ and Turkish tek ‘only’. 3
The early chapters of Genesis make several important
points about the world’s first language that can be
1) Adam named every living creature that God brought
to him (Genesis 2: 19), but on what basis? Did he just
invent a combination of sounds or did he try to describe the
creature before him, in which case in what language? Did
this mandate extend to other areas too and were any of these
terms preserved in later languages?
2) The Table of the Nations (Genesis 10: 1–32) divides the
peoples of the world into three groups—the descendants of
Noah’s sons Japheth, Ham, and Shem. A total of 70 nations
are listed. There is no simple link between descent from a
particular son of Noah and language, but generally speaking
Japheth fathers the Indo-European-speaking peoples, Ham,
the Hamitic-speaking peoples and Shem, the Semitic-speaking peoples. 4
3) The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11: 1–9
gives an explanation for linguistic diversity and makes three
a) Originally there was just one universal language (11: 1).
b) When the LORD confused the language of the people,
new languages were miraculously generated. What and how
many of these new languages there were is unknown, but the
result of the LORD’s action was clear—confusion (11: 9), the
people were unable to understand each other and so scattered
over the face of the whole earth.
c) The location of this incident is placed in Shinar which
may be the land inhabited by the Sumerians, i.e. southern Iraq
(11: 1). The city, of which the tower was a part, was Babel
(‘confused’), the Hebrew word for Babylon (11: 9).
4) Whatever language was spoken before the Tower of
Babel, the writer (or compiler) of Genesis views that world
from his later Hebrew perspective thus:
a) Adam means ‘man’ and also sounds like the Hebrew
b) Cain (4: 1) sounds like the Hebrew for ‘brought forth’ or
c) Nod (4: 16) means ‘wandering’.
d) Seth (4: 25) probably means ‘granted’.
e) Methuselah (5: 21) would seem to be a combination of the
roots mt ‘to die’ and šlḥ ‘to send’, significant perhaps that
according to Genesis’ own chronology Methuselah dies
in the year of the flood.
f) Noah (5: 29) sounds like the Hebrew for ‘comfort’.
It is evident that the writer of the early chapters of
Genesis seems to enjoy ‘playing with words’ for literary effect.
Over the last 200 years or so linguists have developed
a discipline that can be termed ‘historical linguistics’.
Where sound changes can be traced over the centuries
in written texts the principles behind these changes can
then be extrapolated back into the past to deduce so-called
‘protolanguages’. The precise reconstructed forms of given
words in protolanguages will often differ from scholar to
scholar and sometimes the strange signs and symbols used
seem to obscure rather than elucidate the sound changes that
are being advanced.
Language families and isolates
In the modern world there are 7, 102 known languages. 5
Most of the world’s languages can be grouped into what are
commonly called ‘language families’. The largest 11 families
are made up of over 100 languages each and account for
5,384 (75%) of the world’s languages. 6 Smaller language
Making some sense of Babel and afterwards
Paul J.N. Lawrence
The statements made about language in the early chapters of Genesis are summarized before looking at the ‘Tower of
Babel’ and the confusion of languages that resulted. A brief survey of the world’s main language families is presented
together with a rudimentary look at the phenomenon of language ‘isolates’ and the sheer variety of grammatical structures.
This article focuses on the Semitic and Indo-European language families and considers some Hebrew nouns where
connections with other families are evident and others where they are not. Historical linguistics says that each word tells
its own story, but what can we learn from that story?