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Babel and the languages

Updated on March 14, 2015
The Rosetta stone has three languages side by side. It was the first step in deciphering the ancient languages of Mesopotamia
The Rosetta stone has three languages side by side. It was the first step in deciphering the ancient languages of Mesopotamia | Source

Language, language, language

A friend of mine once told me that when he got to heaven the people he most wanted to meet were the men who designed and built the tower of Babel.

I was more than a little confused at this as we'd been struggling with the basics of learning Arabic and getting into some hilarious situations with the language, "Why? I asked

"So I can kill them!!!" was the reply.

The fact that they'd been dead for thousands of years and were actually probably not in heaven didn't even occur to him.

Language and our use or misuse of language has caused so many problems and confusion. Wars have been caused by misunderstandings, but how did this all start? If Noah and his sons all spoke the same language then how come we have so many languages in our world today.

The Bible tells us a story of how the languages all began, at first glance it seems to say that God created them to confuse men and cause havoc, but what is the truth behind the story. Is there some truth behind the idea that God caused the confusion?

In this hub I want to take a bit of a look at languages and how it all came about.

Pride goes before the fall

That's what the "Good Book" says. And in this case the story seems to indicate it. Did you know that most of the languages we speak today are only about two to two and a half thousand years old!

Some of the languages of the Indian subcontinent would be about 2,500 years old but most of them have the same 'root language' which was the ancient language of Sanskrit which seems to have been written from around 1200 BC.

Possibly the oldest languages that are still in use today are (according to 'http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/oldest.cfm') Greek, Chinese (didn't say the dialect) and Sanskrit which all seem to date from around 1,200 to 1,500 BC. Sumerian, Akkadian and Ancient Egyptian (Coptic still used by a small Christian community in Egypt) are considered much older but regarded as being 'dead language

The fact is that if we take any of the 9,000 or so languages in use around the world today we can follow it back through it's history to the time when in began to morph from the language which it came from and basically trace them back to their 'root languages'. For example English in the form that it is today first began to 'come together' around six hundred years ago, if you trace it further back you can go back to Saxon times when old English first began from the root languages of Old German, Latin, Greek and Gaelic. Every language can be traced back until we are left with a handful of languages. Most Asian languages are related Chinese in some form or other. They were fragmented into the languages we have today. The Bible gives us a story that seeks to explain why it happened (the details of how are a little sparse in the account, but enough is there to give us an idea of what happened)

Recently I was reading that language (or communication) misunderstandings and territory have been the cause of more wars than anything else in history. Even some of the wars that Religion regularly gets the blame for is attributable to misunderstanding of language and the want of territory, even the Crusades actually didn't have as much to do with religion as with the wanting of territory and misunderstanding of language.


And you think Language is easy?

From the flood to Babel

When the Ark came to rest Noah came out and started to till the land by planting crops. Farming is believed to have started in or near the Zargos Mountains (Mount Ararat is just north of them) around 6,000 years ago.

Josephus tells us that when men came out of the ark for centuries they were afraid of another flood. They didn't quite trust what God had said (not unlike today) but eventually we did come down from the mountain passes and onto the plains. The story of the Tower of Babel picks up at that point that man coming from 'the east' comes across the plains of 'Shinar' and begins to build a city there.

The oldest city in existence is actually the city of Jericho in the Jordan valley, but it hasn't always been inhabited. First settled around 9,000 years ago the archeological record shows that it's been totally obliterated twice only to be rebuilt a few centuries later. It was totally destroyed during the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelite forces.

Jericho was first settled at the end of the last ice age (where do you think the water went after the flood) The date given is around 9,000 BC but that's using carbon dating which isn't as reliable as we're told.

The city we're talking about isn't Jericho but traditionally has been associated with ancient Babylon because of the name "Babel" but it's not 100% certain.

"Babylon" in the ancient Sumerian and Akkadian literally means "Gate of God" or "Gate to God" and that's what the people building it intended but the issue is that the ancient city we know as Babylon can only be dated to around 2,500 BC which makes it too young to be the "Babel" of Genesis 11 (Genesis 11 took place around 2,800 BC) but could refer to some of the older ruins found in Iraq. The Hebrew word "Babel" literally means "Gateway of confusion" because of what was about to take place.

The oldest cities on Earth

show route and directions
A markerBabylon, Iraq -
Bābil, Iraq
get directions

Traditional site of the Tower of Babel

B markerIrbil, Iraq -
Erbil, Iraq
get directions

One of the three oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth. Believed to be 6,500 years old

C markerAleppo, Syria -
Aleppo, Syria
get directions

One of the three oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth (going back 6,000 years)

D markerDamascus, Syria -
Damascus, Syria
get directions

Also one of the three oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth (between 6,000 and 6,500 years old)

E markerJericho, Israel -
Jericho
get directions

The oldest city on the Earth believed to be one of the first ever dating back to 7-9,000 BC (end of the last Ice age)

The Tower of Babel

They came to a plains and decided to build a City, but at the center of the this city would be a structure that celebrated mans greatness. One that would reach right into the heavens itself, that was the dream, but the reality would be very different. The Tower would never be completed, somehow confusion would enter in and and they would end up fighting between themselves and the Tower would never be finished.

We don't really know where the Tower was (we suspect it was in Babylon) but from archeology and what we've discovered we have a good idea of how it would have looked if ever it got finished.

What the 'Tower' may have actually looked like. The Mesopotamian Ziggeraut
What the 'Tower' may have actually looked like. The Mesopotamian Ziggeraut | Source

Spot the similarity?

Mayan Temple. Dating to around 900 AD (five hundred years before Columbus)
Mayan Temple. Dating to around 900 AD (five hundred years before Columbus)
This funeral temple dates to around 600 AD It's also Mayan!
This funeral temple dates to around 600 AD It's also Mayan!
This one's an ancient Hindu temple. See the similarity to the others and the Ziggeraut?
This one's an ancient Hindu temple. See the similarity to the others and the Ziggeraut?
They ancient Ziggeraut
They ancient Ziggeraut | Source

Before Babel there was one language

From the BBC no less!!

This is only the first fifteen minutes of the documentary that runs for nearly an hour, but it gets the message across. Babel was a real event!

Actually I was really surprised to find that video.That was something that i would have expected from a Christian site but not from the good old 'Beeb' better known as the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation. The epitome of the establishment and not one to go 'rocking the boat' by saying that the Bible might actually be right in what it claims, but there it is!!).

It was originally thought that Hebrew was the original language that was the 'mother' of all the languages that we have today.

English is related to the languages of India!!! (watch the video, it's amazing) and are grouped into the family of languages called 'indo European'

Where it really gets strange is the further you go the more you see connections. This video talks of the indo-european languages but there are two of those languages that are related to the Semitic languages!!! Finnish and Hungarian are unusual in that while they are indo-european they are also related to Arabic, Hebrew and Amharic! (the three Semitic languages still spoken widely today).


What was happening?

The Bible doesn't often give a 'blow by blow' account of something. Writing was precious in ancient times and often what was recorded was simply a brief summary of the events to explain the situation but the real purpose of the stories is to explain why somethings happened. The real purpose of the story of the Tower of Babel is to explain why the languages came about. they came about because of mans pride.

That's what the Bible tells us was happening, but it also tells us that man had begun to 'spread out' over the earth. They'd gotten over their 'distrust' of God's promise not to flood the earth and had begun to build cities further afield.

Part of the goal of building the Tower would be to unify men with one religion but that religion would have mans achievements at the center. They would be able to claim a gateway into heaven almost giving man a way into heaven without the need for a 'god'

We may not have a blueprint of what the Tower looked like (a tower maybe?) but if we look at the pictures of the temples from around the world (all of which were built before the western missionaries got to the places although in India the Apostle Thomas got there before the temples were built) we can see the pattern of a tower with a place of worship at the top.

Man had started to grow his own crops and had worked out the seasons so the next thing to do was to give himself a point of reference to tell when the seasons were and when the best time to plant crops was, in this way he becomes the 'Master of his own fate' and with the most ancient temples found that's exactly what you find. Stonehenge was a center of druid worship but it was also a celestial computer to tell man when the seasons would change and when to plant crops.

All this would have been fine, until the arguments started!!! Who would control it? Whoever controls the site has the information they need and an control life not just for themselves but for the rest of Humanity.

This pretty much sounds like today with the earth's resources. Whoever controls the resources controls the planet. But it's not necessarily the one on whose land those resources are located but the one who knows what to do with them (and how to do it) controls it.

Do you think that there's anything to learn from the story?

The story of the Tower can be just a story or can we take it as a commentary on trying to control others by controlling the resources we're given?

See results

God steps in

Didn't God give the earth to all of mankind? Didn't he tell us to tend the earth, does that mean that a few 'elite' people get to decide what's best for the planet? or are we all supposed to play a role?

We may never fully understand why God stepped in so drastically and confused the languages, something seemingly contradictory to his command to tend and are for the earth (surely it's done better when we all speak the same language isn't it?) but maybe it's something to do with preventing an 'elite' from taking over and acting like God deciding what's right for man. who lives, who dies and who gets the wealth

What i do know is that he did step in and because of that we have so many more opportunities to do the right thing than would have been available without the languages

What are your thoughts?

I've laid out a few ideas here and tried to show that the story of the Tower is rooted in reality. But what are your ideas on the subject? put them down in the comments and lets see if we can get a conversation going.

I hope you enjoyed the hub.

Blessings

Lawrence

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    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      I enjoy these subjects too. I'm sure you'll find the one on genetic Adam fascinating as well

      Lawrence,

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 2 years ago from North America

      This is an interesting discussion. I'll be reading your other Hubs soon. Thanks!

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Patty

      You're right with a lot of the things that you mention in your comment. Some languages have concepts in them that aren't found in others and they create issues themselves. For example in Greek there are three words for Love yet in English we have only the one word and have to use whole sentences to transmit the meaning.

      One example to me as to how languages change over time is the Kurdish language. 2,100 years ago there was only one language, then along came the Romans who conquered half of their homeland, they managed to check the Romans but for five hundred years their homeland was a battleground between two empires.

      After the Romans the Ottoman Turks got part of the land and were there for centuries.

      Over the centuries the Kurds in their homelands started to adapt their language so that today there's not one but three languages.

      You brought up some really good points about the DNA markers that point to common origins. Actually another hub of mine (Creation Myths part 1) has a video by the National Geographic that traces the DNA search for 'Genetic Adam' that you might be interested in.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 2 years ago from North America

      I like what you wrote here. Finding the link between Finish and Hungarian many years ago in a research paper was a thrill for me. Finding a few words sounding alike and meaning the same in Zulu and Oneida (cousin -- kayise/kyahse, for example) was stunning. Since then we've traced some DNA markers as well.

      In workshops with the original language of the Old Testament, we were instructed that men attempted to reach God in Heaven before it was their time for the afterlife and perhaps because they, like Satan, wanted to "be like the Most High" - or at least see Him. God did not throw humans down to be with Satan, but gave them leniency and confused their languages so they could not succeed in their building. I like that and I think at least part of the story is true, if not much of it.

      Since all concepts do not exist in all languages, we have much to learn to understand one another. It's difficult. At the same time, as speakers of languages move further away from the source and as the generations proceed, languages change as Catherine reminds us. I think people who land on Mars will likely be making new words; new dialects or slang will differ between the groups of all the languages that go there - between privatized missions and NASA missions, JAX missions, other governments, space tourists, asteroid miners, scientists and non-scientists, many others. We're at the best place to trace everything back to the start, if ever we can do so.

      I reviewed a fictional film some time ago about tracing the languages back to the first spoken words and I think the researcher went mad.

      Anyway, I say that if all humans have, generally, 46 chromosomes, then we are all related (somewhere in time). As we move toward the present, we find we are more closely related to some than to others, and that includes languages. I've had fun researching some of that. Humans could have fun instead of war.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Catherine

      Distance and isolation was the issue. The story of the Tower is the story of man trying to fight against those changes. He was also trying to set himself up as the object of his own worship. Glad you enjoyed the hub

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      We have different languages because language changes over time, and eventually they differ so much they are a different language. It's a kind evolution like with species in biology. If there is no written language the change happens even faster, and if the language dies out, there are no "fossils." Look how American and British English differ. The tower of Bible story is a "just so" story like a story explaining why zebras have stripes. Voted up ++

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I believe we had different languages because language changes over time. Look how American and British English have diverged. Before written language, it was even easier for language to evolve into a new language. Any language not written down is lost forever because it changed into something else and left no record behind. The tower of Babel is one of those "just so" stories, like a story that explains why zebras have stripes.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Say yes

      I think you're right on the money! I wanted to take a look at any evidence for all the languages having a common ancestor. God never does something without good reason and finding the evidence helps us understand what was going on

      Glad you found it fascinating I enjoyed writing it

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Paul

      I love the early parts of Genesis too. The book tells stories with meaning. Not just good stories but explaining why and how God shows his love and Care. Glad you enjoyed the hub

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Billybuc

      Thanks for the compliment. I love telling stories and like to write in a way that people can take something away. If they do that then I'm a happy writer.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 2 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Fascinating hub!

      My understanding is that God confused the languages because building one big empire was dangerous; too much control in one place. Also, it was to scatter people throughout the Earth, which was what He meant to happen originally. As it is, a big evil empire did rise out of that place; it was called Babylon. The reason it wasn't more powerful or evil is because of the huge variety of languages, and people scattered throughout the Earth.

    • Paul K Francis profile image

      Paul K Francis 2 years ago from east coast,USA

      I find the early tales in Genesis most interesting and enjoyable when read as stories. But they are also more than mere stories, because God is always there behind the action. Nice hub, great info. Thanks.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's always enjoyable reading a hub written by you, and taking a journey through your mind. I love stories....true or fiction, there is something to be learned from them all if we are willing to open our minds and hearts.