The Origin of Language

Linguists tell us that there are approximately 2,800 languages and 7,500 dialects in existence today, and we speak, think and conceptualize within a language system. All people have language, yet linguists do not know how language originated. Dr. Mario Pei, noted linguist and author, states, "If there is one thing on which all linguists are fully agreed, it is that the problem of the origin of human speech is still unsolved."1 Linguists have speculated upon several evolutionary-based theories which cling to the supposition that man was once speechless. Language, as well as culture, is presented as having developed gradually as man discovered and advanced both language and social skills.

Origin of language theories purport simple explanations as to how man first began to utter speech. Typical theories speculate that language began as a result of:

The names given such theories may vary but the concept is the same. All embrace an evolutionary process in which man, having the physical ability to produce and manipulate sounds, learns to do so in an effort to enhance the quality of group interaction. This gradual process of developing communication is commonly purported to have allowed cultures to appear and advance. Cooperation, organization and education require language skills; those groups best equipped in language are pictured as advancing culturally, while groups without the necessary language skills remain "primitive." On the surface this line of reasoning may appear to have merit. The mind conditioned to evolutionary precepts might eagerly embrace such theories as plausible origins. Also, noting the conceptual simplicity of ancient written records such as hieroglyphics and the known development of dialects within existing language families, it is easy to confuse language development with language origins. However, these theories can be tested.

If language came into existence through an evolutionary process, would we not expect to find relatively "simple" languages among so called "primitive" peoples? Likewise, should there not be evidence of more "complex" languages in "advanced" societies where developing societal institutions both created and demanded more complex language skills? We find that a review of so-called primitive language does not support this speculation.

Upon examining primitive cultures, one might expect to find a spoken system which is at best limited. The "primitive" label itself might lead us to look for simple concepts and simple composition. In the most isolated and primitive systems we might expect little more than monosyllabic words accompanied by occasional body sounds and gestures. Such is the conditioning and imagination of our evolution orientated educational system. The following excerpts from Dr. Pei's The Story of Language lay these assumptions to rest: The language of primitive groups does not cast too much light upon the problem. They are, as a rule, anything but primitive, save with reference to the vocabulary of modern civilization. Linguists who explore these tongues regularly find in them refinements of distinctions and complexities unknown to our languages..and... Primitive tongues have an amazing complexity of objects, concepts and terms for which we, from our supposed vantage point, have no equivalent.3

Swahili has eight noun classes, and Swahili is the simplest of the Bantu languages, some of which have up to twenty six noun classes (by comparison... Romance languages have three - masculine, feminine and neuter; English has one). In a language of Guatemala any verb can have thousands of different forms, by the addition of various endings.4 Javanese has ten words for "to stand" and twenty for "to sit" according to posture, attitude and symbolism. Eskimo has nearly a dozen words for snow indicating that it is soft, loose, hard, packed, frozen, crusted, melting, etc.5 One Pacific Northwest Indian language distinguishes between recent past, remote past and mythological past, while a native Australian language has five future tenses, two for things that will happen today, the others for more indefinite future periods.6

Encyclopedia Britannica bears witness to Dr. Pei's observations: It is, moreover, a total fallacy to suppose that the languages of illiterate or so called primitive peoples are less structured, less rich in vocabulary, and less efficient than the languages of literate civilizations...observation bears out the statement of the U.S. anthropological linguist Edward Sapir made in 1921: "when it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.7

The above illustrates there are no primitive languages, and the evidence certainly does not lend itself to evolutionary theory. To the contrary, what we observe is a process of reduction and simplification in both numbers of languages and complexity. The majority of the world's population now speaks one of 14 languages, Chinese being first and English second, and within all languages there is ongoing change and simplification. For instance, we experience some difficulty with the English of Shakespeare (1564 - 1616 AD), far more with the English of Chaucer (1340 - 1400 AD), and must consider the English of King Alfred (849 - 899 AD) a foreign tongue. The languages of present civilizations appear to be more complex and involved as we trace them back into history, and conversely simplify as we approach their present form. Observable change is in the direction of simplification from a previous highly ordered state, the opposite of the evolutionist's assumptions. What cultural or social necessity within primitive societies requires such complexity of speech, and how is it that so-called advanced cultures communicate and thrive with much less?

One of the pitfalls in understanding language is in equating language with literacy (the ability to read and write). When observing ancient writings such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics one must keep in mind the primacy of speech in language. In societies where literacy is commonplace, one is apt to think of language as a system of writing which may be spoken. To the contrary, Language is a system of spoken communication that may be represented in various ways of writing.8 The written word only represents the spoken language, and whereas some written systems may perform well, others may not. Truly scientific studies of the origin of language can begin only as far back as written records exist. There is clearly a sizable gulf between real or supposed origins and existing written records, a gulf not open to scientific scrutiny.

In many countries today, literacy is still the privilege of the minority, and not all languages are written. Both Eskimo and Zulu are reported to have vocabularies of 20,000 plus words (thousands of words in excess of the vocabulary used by the average college student), and until recently, these languages were unwritten. Some African and South American Indian languages remain unwritten. Even in literate societies, we learn to speak before we learn to write, and we act as speakers and listeners more than writers and readers. Cultural and economic needs obviously play a part in the development of written systems, but there is no evidence that they played a similar role in speech development.

There is an alternate theory of origins which is not only overlooked but dismissed by the scientific community. Generally viewed as a children's story, it specifically addresses the origin of diverse languages. It is the story of Babel as found in Genesis 11:1-9. This account relates that the descendants of Noah were of one language. They were in the process of building a city and a tower when, through Divine intervention, their speech was suddenly divided. Their inability to communicate led to their dispersal throughout the earth. Two important elements of this account attract our attention: (1) the sudden division of speech and (2) the scattering abroad upon the face of the earth.

Genesis 11:7 relates, ...let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. Implied is the suddenappearance of different and fully developed languages. They could still speak, but they couldn't understand one another. Rather than the one common unifying language that they previously possessed, we may surmise that suddenly there existed several different groups speaking languages unknown to the other groups. No longer able to communicate, their cooperation and mutual interest ceased. Existing evidence supports the understanding that these original languages were completely developed and organized. Languages fall into families, within these families, resemblances and development can be traced back to a common source, but there is no relation or similarities between families. Thus the Biblical account goes hand in hand with the linguist's conclusion that major language groups are not related, but arose (or came into being) independently.

The scattering of the population likewise deserves our attention. When God blessed Noah, His instructions were, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth (Genesis 9:1). Yet, in the Babel account, the people wanted acity and a tower, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth (11:4). Using division of speech, God achieved the replenishment (thefilling) of the earth. As a result, we find different language families in different parts of the earth. The European community is of one family, the Asian of another, the African of another still. Although major continents contain more than one language family, the boundaries between these family territories remain relatively distinct even in our present age.

"One might question how different cultures with different languages in different parts of the world might share a common tradition. Although not lending themselves to evolutionary explanation, these traditions certainly compliment and support both the sequence and the events related in Genesis. The common tradition of the flood is intelligible only on the supposition that such an event actually occurred, and that it was experienced by a common ancestry."

Henry Halley in his Bible Handbook offers a bit of evidence which supports the common ancestry of the varied peoples and language families existing today: "Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Hindus, Greeks, Chinese, Phrygians, Fiji Islanders, Esquimaux, Aboriginal Americans, Indians, Brazilians, Peruvians, and indeed every branch of the whole human race, Semitic, Aryan, Turanian - have traditions of a Great Deluge that destroyed all mankind, except one family, and which impressed itself indelibly on the memory of the ancestors of all these races before they separated.9" Mr. Halley reviews the flood traditions of ten cultures, all variations of the Genesis account. One might question how different cultures with different languages in different parts of the world might share a common tradition. Although not lending themselves to evolutionary explanation, these traditions certainly complement and support both the sequence and the events related in Genesis. The common tradition of the flood is intelligible only on the supposition that such an event actually occurred, and that it was experienced by a common ancestry.

Considering the results of language research, it is difficult to understand why linguists and educators cling to evolutionary theories of language origin. These theories are not subject to verification by the scientific method, a fact recognized as far back as 1866 when the Linguistic Society of Paris, perhaps the foremost academic linguistic institution at the time, instituted a ban on papers on the origin of language. And yet, the Biblical account, the source which they reject, goes hand in hand with observable evidence. Though the wise of this world declare the origins of languages to be unsolvable, the servants of the Most High should not be found "speechless" on this subject.

Jim Washeck, St. Peters, MO

1 Mario Pei, The Story of Language (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott, Co., 1965), p. 21.
2 Ibid. p. 27.
3 Ibid. p. 118
4 Ibid. p.124
5 Ibid. p. 119
6 Ibid. p. 129
7 "Language". The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Volume 10, p.648
8 Ibid. p. 648
9 Henry H. Halley, Halley's Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids; Zondervan Publishing House, 1965) , pp. 75-76