“Our proto-human ancestors must have had their vocal powers long before they did much at thinking, and their utterances would show much sound for little sense” – Alfred Dwight Sheffield (1873-1961)
In 1866, The Linguistic Society of Paris banned further discussion on the origins of language, not because it wasn’t an interesting question, but they felt that the lack of direct evidence made speculation on the subject an exercise in intellectual masturbation. Until about the 1990’s, social scientists largely stopped trying to figure it out, as it was not considered a fruitful topic for serious study. Those scientists are always so serious. They need to lighten up. Except for chemist and accidental inventor of LSD, Albert Hofmann. That guy knew how to party. Since nobody was particularly interested in the origins of language, origins of the diversity of languages also wasn’t high up there on the research agenda, and polygenetic theories have tended to hold sway (distinct languages originated independent from each other at some time in the remote past). The polygenetic model allows for larger language families, hence the similarities between some languages (e.g. The Romance languages are derived from Latin, and ultimately Latin is part a larger Indo-European grouping of languages with a common root), but most linguists put on the brakes beyond suggesting a rather lengthy list of “proto-languages” such as Proto-Afroasiatic (the ancient parent of various Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew), Proto-Uto-Aztecan (Hopi, Numic, Nahuatl, Paiute), or Proto-Tai-Kadai (various forms of Chinese). The linguists are always careful to warn us that these are language reconstructions showing evolution of groups of languages from a hypothetical common source, not necessarily languages that anyone ever spoke. A minority of linguists out there have explored the possibility of monogenesis, that is, the idea that ultimately there is a common ancestor for all human language (variously referred to as Proto-Human, Proto-Sapiens, or Proto-World). Common wisdom is that Homo sapiens first appeared around 200,000 years ago and started migrating out of Africa about 100,000 years later in the Middle Paleolithic (Stone Age). Nobody can agree whether our earliest ancestors had language proper, with some experts maintaining that the ability to produce complex speech didn’t appear until roughly 50,000 years ago. Before then it was presumably all grunting, whistling, pointing and boy bands. Mass comparison of known languages for common structural features can only take you so far back in time (and linguists generally are loathe to go beyond ten millennia – which is why Proto-Indo European and Proto-Afroasiatic are palatable), and anything beyond that is considered “fringe” science. One of my little quirks (some would call it a pathology) is that whenever I hear the word “fringe”, I go looking for what mythology has to say on the subject. Mythology and folklore are after all how we explain ourselves to ourselves when we can’t find a reliable scientist. A stunning number of folkloric traditions agree that mankind once spoke a common language, but managed to anger some divine critter, leading inevitably to a confusion of tongues and our subsequent diversity of languages.
Genesis is a good place to start, so to speak. See what I did there. The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Genesis mentions that after God’s fit of pique where he flooded the world, a few subsequent generations spawned from the survivors shared a common language, which stands to reason as everybody else was dead. We of course immediately commenced getting all uppity again and in the Land of Shinar (somewhere in Mesopotamia) we started building a tower designed to reach the heavens. While the name “Tower of Babel” is never actually used, the city in which it was built was later referred to as Babel (possibly from the Akkadian babilu, “Gate of God”, or alternatively Hebrew’s babel, “to jumble”). God thought this showed a lot of nerve and put the heavenly kibosh on the project by confounding the speech of the workers and dispersing them.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 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: and they left off tobuild the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:4-9).
The Ancient Greeks concurred that we all spoke the same language in the distant past, and Roman mythographer Gaius Julius Hyginus (64 B.C. – 17 A.D.) said that Zeus thought this was awesome. The Trickster Hermes came along and decided to start trouble by creating a whole bunch of different languages. He was kind of a jerk (gave Pandora guile and deceitfulness as presents, stole Apollo’s cattle, and got all sorts of Homeric epithets like “Leader of Robbers and Thieves”, “Full of Various Wiles”, and “Wily, Shifting, Many-Turning”). The implication was that we all lived in peace and harmony until Hermes went and up-ended our common speech, sowing the seeds for later confusion and strife. Like I said, Hermes was a jerk.
Men for many centuries before lived without town or laws, speaking one tongue under the rule of Jove [Zeus]. But after Mercurius [Hermes] had explained [or created] the languages of men (whence he is called ermeneutes, ‘interpreter’, for Mercurius in Greek is called Ermes; he too, divided the nations), then discord arose among mortals, which was not pleasing to Jove [Zeus] (Psuedo-Hyginus, Fabulae, 143).
Moving back a little in time to our first written records, we see the Sumerian myth of “Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata” Enmerkar of Uruk (thought to be alive somewhere around 2600 B.C) is attested to in the Sumerian King List, similarly equates the time when our languages diverged as a source of later contention between peoples. The text itself seems to have been written around 2100 B.C. It is not entirely clear if Enmerkar was pleading that Enki restore or disrupt the unity of languages.
On that day when there is no snake, when there is no scorpion, when there is no hyena, when there is no lion, when there is neither dog nor wolf, when there is thus neither fear nor trembling, man has no rival! At such a time, may the lands of Cubur and Hamazi, the many-tongued, and Sumer, the great mountain of the me of magnificence, and Akkad, the land possessing all that is befitting, and the Martu land, resting in security — the whole universe, the well-guarded people — may they all address Enlil together in a single language! For at that time, for the ambitious lords, for the ambitious princes, for the ambitious kings, Enki, for the ambitious lords, for the ambitious princes, for the ambitious kings, for the ambitious lords, for the ambitious princes, for the ambitious kings — Enki, the lord of abundance and of steadfast decisions, the wise and knowing lord of the Land, the expert of the gods, chosen for wisdom, the lord of Eridug, shall change the speech in their mouths, as many as he had placed there, and so the speech of mankind is truly one (“Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata”, trans. Kramer, 1968).
Basically, as soon as we started scribbling things down, we began complaining about the fact that everybody was talking funny, speaking different languages, misunderstanding each other, and pined for a dimly remembered time when we all shared a common vocabulary. Now this situation must be a logistical nightmare for your various gods. Translation costs must have skyrocketed when we all stopped praising the gods in the same language. I mean, imagine you’re a god and all infallible, yet you start delivering misdirected smitings because your Ugaritic translator was out sick that week. This is bad for one’s omnipotent reputation. There seems to be a common motif that a certain pridefulness resulted from our ability to talk to each other in a shared language. This is one of the best arguments for polytheism that I’ve ever heard. If you’re a monotheistic god, it stands to reason that generally it makes your life easier when everybody is on the same linguistic page. One language for one god makes a great deal of sense from an economic perspective at the very least. If the heavens are populated by a pantheon of rival gods, all angling for supremacy, you would wholeheartedly approve of a situation where only you could understand your worshippers. Cuts down on those pesky converts. It certainly makes it a little more difficult to steal the followers of another divinity, but also plays to your base. And eventually some smart ass is going to start taking notes on your divine pronouncements, so you have to choose your language carefully to avoid transcription errors. For example, lots of people have been running around devoutly praising “Jehovah” since the 11th Century A.D. This is the Latinization of the Hebrew term “Yahweh”, the tetragrammaton (YHWH). Hebrew characters are generally consonants, and in Modern Hebrew, you just sort of know which vowels go where. Masoretic (classical) Hebrew texts used what’s called vowel-pointing (dots, lines, and dashes above or below consonants that told you how to pronounce the vowels). The problem is that pious Jews are not allowed to actually pronounce the name of God (Yahweh), and simply say “Adonai” (my lord) when they encounter the tetragrammaton. Just in case, the Masoretic texts replaced the proper vowel pointing for Yahweh, with the vowel pointing for Adonai, so that it would be very difficult to actually make a mistake and absent-mindedly read the name of god, which was translated by later scribes as Jehovah. This could get very confusing were you a deity who had gotten used to being called Yahweh for the past two thousand years. Hindu mythology goes with the notion that an overly proud weed caused the problem.
The Hindu legend of the “Confusion of Tongues,” is as follows: There grew in the centre of the earth, the wonderful “World Tree,” or the “Knowledge Tree.” It was so tall that it reached almost to heaven. “It said in its heart: ‘I shall hold my head in heaven, and spread my branches over all the earth, and gather all men together under my shadow, and protect them, and prevent them from separating.’ But Brahma, to punish the pride of the tree, cut off its branches and cast them down on the earth, when they sprang up as Wata trees, and made differences of and speech, and customs, to prevail on the earth, to disperse men over its surface (Doane, 1910, p36).
Where do these trees get off, right? I for one have always been suspicious of vegetables. It does seem a tad unfair that because some supernatural tree got too big for his britches that the rest of us were eternally doomed to be easily identified as tourists, but them’s the breaks. A Bantu tribe called the Wa-Sania identified the diversification of languages with a kind of madness, and anyone who has tried to understand the arcane and often arbitrary rules of the English language can attest to this having a certain resonance.
The Wa-Sania of British East Africa say that of old all the tribes of the earth knew only one language, but that during a severe famine the people went mad and wandered in all directions, jabbering strange words, and so the different languages arose (Frazer, 1919, p384).
The hill peoples of Assam, a region between India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh ascribe our inability to understand each other (as well as the differences between tribes) to an unexplained onset of confusion between three brothers on a rat hunt.
In explanation of their separation into tribes with different languages, they relate that the three grand-sons of the above chief, while one day all playing together in their house, were told by their father to catch a rat, that they were busy about it, when being suddenly struck with a confusion of tongues, they were unable to affect their object. The eldest son spoke the Lamyang, the second the Thado, and the third, some say, the Waiphie and some the Munnipore language. Thus they broke into distinct tribes (McCullloch, 1859, p56).
Australian aboriginal folklore explains language diversity through the effects of an ill-deserved cannibalism of an angry old lady by various tribes. Each tribe ate a different part of the corpse, and consequently started speaking slightly differently.
Languages originated from an ill-tempered old woman. In remote time an old woman named Wurruri lived towards the east, and generally walked with a large stick in her hand to scatter the fires round which others were sleeping. Wurruri at length died. Greatly delighted at this circumstance, they sent messengers in all directions to give notice of her death. Men, women, and children came, not to lament, but to show their joy. The Raminjerar were the first, who fell upon the corpse and began eating the flesh, and immediately began to speak intelligibly. The other tribes to the eastward, arriving later, ate the contents of the intestines, which caused them to speak a language slightly different. The northern tribes came last, and devoured the intestines and all that remained, and immediately spoke a language differing still more from that of the Raminjerar (Taplin, 1874, p46).
The Maidu, an indigenous tribe in California tell a story of their ancestors where when the world was young, our common language was broken into languages only each husband and wife pair could understand, forming the many different tribes from their children. The Maidu spirits were kind enough to explain the new vocabularies, but associated it closely with differences in law and culture.
Up to this time everybody spoke the same language. The people were having a burning, everything was ready for the next day, when in the night everybody suddenly began to speak a different language. Each man and his wife, however, spoke the same. Earth-Initiate had come in the night to Ku’ksu, and had told him about it all, and given him instructions for the next day. So, when morning came, Ku’ksu called all the people together, for he was able to speak all the languages. He told them each the names of the different animals, etc., in their languages, taught them how to cook and to hunt, gave them all their laws, and set the time for all their dances and festivals. Then he called each tribe by name, and sent them off in different directions, telling them where they were to live. He sent the warriors to the north, the singers to the west, the flute-players to the east, and the dancers to the south. So all the people went away, and left Ku’ksu and his wife alone at Ta’doiko (Dixon, 1902, p44-45).
The Quiches of Guatemala, preserving Mayan myths from the Popul Vuh, spoke about the hunger and misfortune of the first four men who found themselves suddenly unable to understand each other.
Tulan was a place of misfortune to man, for not only did he suffer from cold and famine, but here his speech was so confounded that the first four men were no longer able to comprehend each other. They determined to leave Tulan, and under the leadership of the god Tohil set out to search for a new abode. On they wandered through innumerable hardships. Many mountains had they to climb, and a long passage to make through the sea which was miraculously divided for their journey from shore to shore. At length they came to a mountain which they called Hacavitz, after one of their gods, and here they rested, for here they had been instructed that they should see the sun. And the sun appeared. Animals and men were transported with delight. All the celestial bodies were now established. But the sun was not as it is to-day. He was not strong, but as reflected in a mirror. As he arose the three tribal gods were turned into stone, as were the gods—probably totems—connected with the wild animals. Then arose the first Quiche city (Spence, 1972, p25-26).
World population in 10,000 B.C. (as far back as most linguists are typically willing to project common roots for languages, when they are interested in such things at all) is estimated to have been about 1 million people. In 70,000 B.C., some theories, particularly ones emphasizing very ugly climactic catastrophes, have suggested that there were less than 15,000 critters we would consider relatively human scampering about in small, widely separated bands. Their brains were no smaller than ours. Their vocal apparatus was not significantly different than ours. We currently have about 6900 distinct languages, with thousands of more languages that are extinct. In Papua New Guinea alone, 832 languages are spoken by a population of 4 million people. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that someone is playing a cruel joke on us. How many wars have started because I was praising your haircut, and you thought I was insulting your mother? How many holy wars have been fought because my god’s name is a transcription error of your god’s name? Each language has its own grace, beauty, and those things which are more eloquently expressed than others, but as each and every myth about the origins of language diversity notes, the confusion of tongues is associated with the introduction of discord into human affairs. Perhaps Ludwig Wittgenstein was bemoaning precisely this fact when he observed, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”.
Dixon, Roland Burrage, 1875-1934. Maidu Myths. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1902.
Doane, T. W. 1852-1885. Bible Myths And Their Parallels In Other Religions: Being a Comparison of the Old And New Testament Myths And Miracles With Those of Heathen Nations of Antiquity, Considering Also Their Origin And Meaning. 7th ed. New York: Truth Seekers, 1910.
Frazer, James George, Sir, 1854-1941. Folklore In the Old Testament. London: Macmillan and co., limited, 1919.
Kramer, Samuel Noah. The “Babel of Tongues”: A Sumerian Version, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1968.
McCulloch, W. Account of the Valley of Munnipore and of the Hill Tribes With a Comparative Vocabulary of the Munnipore And Other Languages. Calcutta: Bengal Printing Co., 1859.
Spence, Lewis, 1874-1955. The Popol Vuh: the Mythic And Heroic Sagas of the Kiches of Central America. New York: AMS Press, 1972.
Taplin, George. The Narrinyeri: an Account of the Tribes of South Australian Aborigines Inhabiting the Country Around the Lakes Alexandrina, Albert And Coorong, And the Lower Part of the River Murray: Their Manners And Customs. Also, an Account of the Mission At Point Macleay. Adelaide: J. T. Shawyer, printer, 1874.