Where Did Language Come From?

Shabaka Stone, c. 710 BC, describing the creation of the world through the spoken word
Wikimedia Commons

Where Did Language Come From?

Evolution, the Bible and archaeology provide two opposing answers.
From the February 2019 Trumpet Print Edition

If everybody’s doing it, that makes it OK. Well, no. But that does make it a cultural universal—the anthropological term for something done, in some form or other, by every human culture around the world. This includes religion, music, art, marriage, war, families, gender roles, laws, taboos, personal names, etiquette, morals and so on. The cultural universal can be difficult for evolutionists to try to explain. In a world where societies are supposed to have migrated, evolved, changed, developed and faced various extinctions separately, how could it be that every culture does these things?

One primary and obvious cultural universal is language. And not just language in general. Many basic elements of language are also cultural universals, used by all humans.

Language is one of our greatest human attributes. The makeup and combined use of the human tongue, larynx and related oral and nasal passageways enable the range and uniqueness of human speech, which is greater than that of any other creature. “Animal language” is a closed system, with a small, finite number of simple, expressible “ideas.” Human language is an open system, infinite in what can be expressed.

Where did human language come from? How did we begin talking and writing? How does evolution explain it, and what does the Bible say? Does archaeology give us any leads as to the earliest development of language?

The Commonality of Language

Aspects of language that are cultural universals include synonyms and antonyms, metaphors, abstract concepts, “bad” words, classifications of various things, personal names and time. Based on his close study of 30 different languages, linguist Joseph Greenberg derived a list of at least 45 separate linguistic “universals.”

Recent scientific studies have helped show that language is hardwired into the human brain. Scanned brains showed common sensitivities to “language universals.” Sound patterns in languages “reflect shared linguistic constraints that are hardwired in the human brain already at birth,” according to the Northeastern University College of Science. For example, one study showed participants foreign or made-up words and asked what imagery the words invoked. For example, participants were asked which of the made-up words baluma and takete represents a round object, and which an angular. They almost always gave the same answer. Another common tendency is to arrange adjectives in the same order, even in a made-up language. There is also our ability to discern words from non-words. The list goes on.

Evolutionary View

Attempts to explain language development using evolution have produced two main strains of thought, both centered around the fact that human language is incredibly complex. Indeed, there is nothing even close to it in the animal kingdom.

Theory one (the “Continuity Theory”): Because language is so complex, it cannot have developed suddenly. It must have developed gradually from our primate ancestors. Thus, primordial “grunts” and “squawks” gradually developed into more precisely vocalized, meaningful words and sentences. Dating for this is wild—perhaps beginning around 2.5 million years ago and culminating in general linguistic “modernity” around 100,000 years ago, at which point different human languages began diversifying. Most linguistic scholars believe the Continuity Theory to some degree.

Theory two (the “Discontinuity Theory”): Because language is so complex and unique to humans, it must have developed suddenly. Had it developed gradually from primate ancestors, then we would expect some forms of human-like language among great-ape “cousins” or among other primates. Language must have rapidly developed, perhaps around 150,000 years ago.

The famous American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky adheres to the Discontinuity Theory, believing that a single, swift mutation caused the ability for human language to be realized. “[S]ome random mutation took place, maybe after some strange cosmic ray shower,” he stated in 2000, “and it reorganized the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain.”

Chomsky cautioned against taking this statement too literally, but insisted it could be a more accurate description of events than other evolutionary explanations. And though his views are generally unpopular, scientists admit that his ideas on language development are being “validated” by new experiments, proving language to be an “innate,” hardwired ability of the human brain.

Within these two theories are a number of other explanations for how language developed—be it initially through gesturing, by replicating sounds of animals or tools, or a development of natural grunts made while heaving objects or getting injured. There is an ocean of theories, few conclusions, and a host of unanswered questions.

Biblical Origin of Language

The Bible doesn’t describe an original development of language. Rather, language is shown to be a trait of God Himself. In just the third verse of Genesis 1, we read, “And God said, Let there be light ….” In the creation account that follows, each feature of our planet was formed with a divine verbal command.

The Bible states that animals were created “after their kind” (verses 21, 24-25). Humans, though, were not—they were created after the God kind: “in our image, after our likeness” (verse 26). As such, man was given the divine ability to think and translate thoughts into words. After creating man and woman, God immediately spoke to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply …” (verse 28).

The first reference to writing may be in Genesis 4:26, which can be translated as “to read, to publish the name of the Lord.” Whatever the case, writing is inferred as developing early in human history.

Another significant biblical point about language is that God allowed man flexibility and creativity in developing his vocabulary, coining new words. God brought the animals to Adam “to see what he would call them; And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all …” (Genesis 2:19-20; New King James Version).

The biblical view explains not only why all mankind (and only mankind) has language, but also why mankind universally shares the smaller unique aspects of language.

The biblical account makes no significant mention of language development after creation until at the tower of Babel. “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” (Genesis 11:1). After the Flood, the growing multitudes gathered in the plain of Shinar in order to establish a powerful, compact civilization and to build a tower that would reach unto heaven—a tower that, later accounts explain, would enable man to survive another flood, in defiance of God.

Verses 6-8 state: “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth ….”

God foresaw the rapid development of evil designs among a people of one language living in one place. So He intervened to confound the language, forcing man to spread out around the world with those of his own language.

This explains early major changes in languages and the existence of “language isolates”—languages with no known connection to or development from other languages. From those primary, separate languages, minor developments of languages and dialects occurred naturally over thousands of years, bringing us to the point today where there are over 7,000 different languages around the world.

The biblical account explains why language is exclusively human and why it is hardwired into our brains and vocal anatomy: because God deliberately designed it as such.

What does archaeology tell us about this cultural universal?

Early Language

According to the biblical account, man has been speaking and writing for around 6,000 years—the full course of his existence. Archaeologists have dated the earliest discovered, generally accepted use of written language to around 5,500 years ago.

This definitely supports the biblical record. If humans really started to evolve in “speaking” 2.5 million years ago, and reached linguistic “modernity” 100,000 years ago, then nearly 95,000 years is a long time to wait before recording the spoken word on “paper.”

And it wasn’t just one single, isolated culture that began writing 5,500 years ago. From this time and just after, several peoples and cultures from different areas in and around the Middle East and Asia started writing. In fact, the dates for early writing across certain countries are so similar that scientists argue over which language developed first.

Some of the earliest examples are the Indus script (India, undeciphered, around 3500 b.c.), Sumerian cuneiform (Iraq, 3100 b.c.), Proto-Elamite cuneiform (Iran, undeciphered, around 3100 b.c.), and Proto-Egyptian hieroglyphs (around 3300 b.c.). The earliest-discovered texts are generally in the form of pictographs—simple images representing ideas that gradually morphed into even simpler yet more abstract signs.

Debate abounds regarding the dating, and even authenticity, of earlier discoveries of writing, such as the European Vinča symbols (dated roughly to 5500 b.c.). Excluding these controversial items, the general consensus for writing is that it originated in the fourth millennium b.c.

Biblical Account and Archaeology

The Bible first describes language in the context of God speaking in order to create the Earth. An interesting creation myth from Egypt centers around the god Ptah, the Egyptian creator-god of the universe. According to the seventh century b.c. Shabaka Stone, Ptah gave spoken commands to bring the world into being and to bring up dry land from the waters that covered the Earth. The similarity to the earlier Hebrew account reflects a similar memory of Earth’s origin and of claims that speech was already established at the start of man’s existence.

The biblical account of the tower of Babel and the resulting development of languages was recorded by various cultures around the world. Variations on the idea can be found in such far-flung places as Korea, Mexico, Kenya, Estonia, Guatemala, Greece and Alaska. These cultures join with the ancient Middle Eastern traditions held by the Sumerians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syro-Phoenicians and Hebrews. (Read our in-depth article on the parallel tower of Babel accounts at theTrumpet.com/16106.) According to biblical chronology, the incident and spreading of languages probably occurred around 2250 b.c.

An ancient Sumerian epic, dating to around 2100 b.c., called “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta,” has dialogue regarding the sending of tribute to build a tower at Eridu in Sumer. (Sumer is the equivalent of the biblical “Shinar,” within which the tower of Babel was built. Additionally, there are further parallels between the city Eridu and biblical Babel, including a partially completed tower.) Partway into the long inscription is this passage: “Chant to him … the incantation of Nudimmud: ‘… the whole universe, the well-guarded people—may they all address Enlil together in a single language! … for the ambitious lords, for the ambitious princes, for the ambitious kings—Enki, the lord of abundance … shall change the speech in their mouths, as many as he had placed there, and so the speech of mankind is truly one’” (emphasis added).

Here we read, in the context of attempting to build a tower, an incantation to try to cause people to all speak the same language. We see that the “lord of abundance,” Enki, had “placed” many languages among the nations—and this incantation was intended to enable mankind to work together in one language. Other translations of the text bear even closer resemblance to the biblical confusion of languages. Here is another translation of the same passage: “Once … the whole universe, the people in unison, spoke to Enlil in one tongue. … Then Enki, the lord of abundance … changed the speech in their mouths, brought contention into it, into the speech of man that had been one.”

The connections with the biblical account are clear. It is consistent with the Earth being of one language at the time of the Flood with Noah’s family. The confusion of languages by divine intervention in Genesis 11 is evident. And in this Sumerian story, the ruler, to accomplish his goals, wanted a restoration of language unity after it had been changed and confused. These connections are reinforced by the similarity in date between this text and the biblical chronological date for the tower of Babel episode.

Again, traditions of a “tower of Babel” confusion and spread of languages can be found all over the globe. One could almost call it a “cultural universal.”

Conclusions

So what does it all mean?

As maligned as the biblical account is, it fits the material discoveries. Only deliberate creation satisfactorily explains how language is hardwired into human beings. It explains how our language is so entirely different and infinitely more complex than that of any animal and is worlds apart from our supposedly “closest cousins,” the great apes. The general biblical time frame for man’s existence matches with the general chronology of the earliest archaeological discoveries of writing, stemming from exactly the same parts of the world from which mankind is said to have emerged. The biblical account of the development of different languages, starting at the tower of Babel is found in different national histories all over the world. A common idea points to a common experience—the reality that our forefathers really were dispersed according to their new languages. Even the biblical account of Earth being created by the spoken word is corroborated by archaeological discovery.

A small scientific movement provides evidence for the world’s languages going back to one original mother tongue: “Edenic.” Comparing words for various items across languages reveals core similarities—“shadow-like” trace elements pointing back to what the original language of man may have been and sounded like. Researchers in this field have pointed to this “Edenic” language, from which various languages were divided, as being very similar to Hebrew. (A thorough text on this subject is The Origin of Speeches, by Isaac Mozeson.)

The evolutionary concept of language, however, is entirely speculative. It provides no concrete answers—only raises more questions. Really, the Discontinuity Theory—which is far less popular but is gaining some validation through scientific linguistic experiments—is closer to the biblical account.

According to the evolutionary hypothesis, language should be evolving from its “primitive” forms thousands of years ago as society “progresses.” Instead, languages worldwide have been measurably devolving from higher, more complex forms. Just as the physical world is subject to degradation and degeneration, so is language. Witness the change from Shakespearean, King James Old English to today’s emoji-riddled text language and barely coherent street slang. Akkadian, the lingua franca of ancient Mesopotamia, is an early cuneiform script that “should” be extremely simple based on its age. It is actually incredibly complex (and only redeciphered in the 19th century). Similar examples exist around the world.

The Bible has much to say on the history of language. It also describes the future of language. Zephaniah 3:9 prophesies of a time when mankind will return to one language, just as in the days following the Flood. But this will be a somewhat different language. It reads: “For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent.”

This describes a time following the coming of the Messiah, when mankind will not have the same inventions of evil as at the tower of Babel. The corrupt, devolved languages of our day are to be replaced by a pure language, from which mankind will together serve God with one mind.

The history of language helps prove the veracity of the Bible. Together with other cultural universals, the biblical account of man’s common heritage, going back to the original single created family, is made plain.