Genesis is a book about how things began, and one of its many remarkable stories concerns the origin of the world’s languages. According to Genesis, the languages of today originated rather late in history, when people in Mesopo-tamia were building cities. A man called Nimrod was forging the world’s first kingdom out of the first cities, and intended Babylon, or Babel, to be its political and religious capital. Within the capital, a brick-built tower soared towards heaven. Then God came down, and not liking what he saw, confused their language. They scattered across the whole earth and thereby confused the language of all the earth.
Truth or fiction? Probably our initial reaction is fiction. On the other hand, Genesis presents the story on the basis that it really happened, at a definite time in a definite place. Suppose that it did, or that you met someone who had investigated the story and believed that it did. What kind of evidence might persuade you that he was right?
Having thought about it a while, you might ask for three kinds of evidence. First, since the story is an Israelite tradition about an event that took place outside Israel, you might ask whether there was any reflection of it in the traditions of Mesopotamia, the country concerned. Second, you might want some evidence that languages had not evolved from animal grunts over hundreds of thousands of years but could, whether or not they all did, have originated just a few thousand years ago. And third, you might ask to see some archaeological reflection of the event: not only of its impact directly on Mesopotamia but also of the processes, whatever they were, that subsequently caused languages originating at Babel to be spoken by peoples all over the world.
Myth, it must be said, is not a straightforward kind of evidence. We are used to the fact that ancient societies remembered the past in terms of stories about gods, processing historical experience according to a view of reality very different from our own. The Babel story itself touches on this when it implies that the leader of the country, a man called Nimrod, knew the supreme deity the Israelites called Yahweh. The tower which he built was a ziggurat – a brick-built mountain with a stairway to heaven – and that detail links him with the polytheistic system. Ziggurats were the most prominent features of Babylonian cities right down to the first millennium BC, and their express function was to allow the gods – sons of the supreme deity – to descend from heaven so that they could take up residence on earth. Was it the introduction of polytheism that provoked Yahweh to confuse Babel’s language?
If the confusion of language was provoked by an ideological revolution that had no interest in remembering the event for what it was, it may be precisely the rise of polytheism that testifies most directly to the event. Genesis might preserve the only historical account of the event (albeit a highly worked-up version of an originally oral tradition) because only the Israelites – and even then, only a small minority of them – remained untouched by that revolution.
as many as were put there [in those lands],
the speech of man that had been one.
The story appears in a tale about Enmerkar king of Uruk, the king who introduced the worship of Inana (pictured above receiving wedding gifts from the king) and built a temple for her there; that is, he introduced polytheism into the city. Previously, the only god worshipped in Uruk had been Anu, god of heaven.
We are used to the idea that man evolved from the apes, but do investigations support the idea that language had an evolutionary origin? Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most famous of contemporary linguists, writes of the ‘hopelessness of the attempt to relate human language to animal communication’. Our brains, uniquely, are hard-wired for grammatical communication from birth. ‘Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world.’
Evidence of creation and design is also what strikes us when we study how languages change over time. No aspect of language is immune from change: the way words are pronounced, the meaning of words, vocabulary, even systems of grammar – all are in a state of constant flux. We see this in the history of our own language. The language of the Anglo-Saxons differed enormously from that of Chaucer, Chaucer’s was different from Shakespeare’s, Shakespeare’s different from our own. Languages evolve, and much like biological species, they split away from their ancestral stocks and diversify. But what we don’t observe is languages becoming more complex over time. If anything, they become less complex.
Similarly, linguistic complexity is not, as anthropologists in the 19th century predicted, related to level of culture. If language developed from non-symbolic grunts hundreds of thousands of years ago when man lived by hunting and gathering, we might suppose that the languages of modern hunter-gatherers would be more rudimentary than those of city-dwellers. They are, in fact, no less complex, no less ‘advanced’. The history of language seems to have proceeded independently of cultural development. Indeed, the complex languages of latter-day hunter-gatherers leaves one questioning whether the history of man’s cultural development has anything to do with biological evolution.
As populations increase, geographically expand and lose contact with each other, languages ‘speciate’ into new languages. Over time whole families of languages come into being, just as, for example, finches and dogs have diversified over time to produce biological families. Although there are over 6,500 languages in the world today, they boil down into a much smaller number of families, and these into a still smaller number of superfamilies, each with a common ancestor. Leaving aside the languages too poorly known to be classified, researchers have established that nearly all of them can be reduced to just 17 such superfamilies. Furthermore, with one exception, none of these superfamilies seem to have a history older than 5-6,000 years. Only Afro-Asiatic, including Arabic and the ancient languages of Egyptian, Akkadian and Hebrew, has a demonstrably older pedigree.
These findings are of crucial importance for the Babel thesis. While it would be difficult to imagine 6,500 individuals or groups, each with their own language, dispersing from Babel, to postulate 16 or so dispersing from there and then multiplying by ordinary processes of linguistic change is quite conceivable. Genesis implies that Babel was built soon after the cities of Uruk and Nineveh, indicating a date not much before 3000 BC for the confusion. Correspondingly, a maximum time depth of 5-6,000 years is what we can infer for all but one of the superfamilies. The existence of one exception, and one only, merely strengthens the case. Afro-Asiatic represents those languages that, partly because of proximity to Babel, escaped the confusion and descended from the original language. They include, significantly, the language in which Genesis was transmitted and written down.
According to the standard view, there must have been at least as many languages 5,000 years ago as there are today. Yet, if we trace today’s 6,500 languages back to that point, we arrive at just 16 ancestral languages, plus those belonging at that time to Afro-Asiatic. In the space of 5,000 years 16 languages took over the whole world! So what happened, in this view, to the other 6,484 or so? With the possible exception of some language groups in the Americas and a small number of scattered ‘isolates’, they all perished – a process of extinction that continues apace even today, crushed beneath the juggernaut of European civilisation and its Indo-European languages. We have to postulate a sweeping and extraordinarily relentless process of language replacement on a global scale. But this is just what the Babel story implies: the language of one city was confused, and in consequence – before our very eyes, inasmuch as we can reconstruct the last 5000 years – the language of all the earth became confused. With the exception of Afro-Asiatic, the primeval language or languages were all supplanted.
Can we, then, be more specific about the processes by which the existing pre-Babel languages were replaced? Initially the processes are unlikely to have differed much from those which are known from historical research. By far the most common mechanism has always been the rise of elites – small groups of men who have power over the rest of society because of their prestige and self-promoting ideology.
The emergence of elites is what characterises the onset of the Early Bronze Age around the beginning of the third millennium BC. The previously egali¬tarian social order of Europe and the Near East was shattered, replaced by totalitarian regimes in which the majority were subservient to a ruler and his associates. Similarly, the rise of civilisation in Egypt and China was essentially a story of kings who claimed to have divine authority to rule and thereby channelled the resources of society so that they themselves received glory, wealth and power. But in reality they usurped God; they had established a kingdom where, Macbeth-like, other spirits reigned. Mesopotamia’s revised version of the creation story, known as Enuma elish, virtually admitted as much. State-sponsored polytheism, springing up alongside kingship, promoted the veneration of the sons of God and the overshadowing of the Creator. In other places, conditions did not favour the rise of high civilisation, and instead the emerging elites took the form of warrior chieftains, or shamans. What all had in common was the claim that their power, knowledge and authority came from above. Those who desired to be associated with their prestige therefore spoke as they spoke. The new languages of Babel spread from the top down.
In Mesopotamia itself the first great king was Nimrod. Research in modern times has enabled us to identify this figure. He was Enmerkar, priest-king of Uruk, the first king for whom for whom we have an archaeological record, and, as portrayed on cylinder seals, a mighty hunter, just as Nimrod was a mighty hunter. We can also identify the point in time when the Babel event happened. Right through the fourth millennium Uruk had been growing in size and power, far beyond any other city, and, as in the Genesis account, it was now projecting its power north as far as Nineveh and beyond. It was also justifying its domination theologically. Early on, Mesopotamia had known only one god: Anu, or ‘Heaven’. His personal name was Ya, or Ea (sometimes written Aya), the same god who was later to introduce himself to the Israelites as Yah/Yahweh. But now, people were told, Ea, god of heaven, had transferred his royal power to his daughter Inana, and in sexual union with him she, in turn, had given it to the king of Uruk. The myths in effect portrayed her as legitimising human rule on earth in place of God.
Again, these developments are reflected in the archaeology of the time. Uruk’s main temple, dedicated to Anu, was pulled down and a new one erected to Inana. To emphasise Inana’s takeover, the new temple was even called ‘The House of Heaven’. Government buildings were erected next to the temple.
And Babel? This was the site to which, needing a more central location, the king of Uruk transferred his administration as the empire grew. He built a temple there and next to it a tower, linking heaven and earth. It was to be the ‘gate of God’, Bab-El, the place where the supreme deity could come down and take up residence next to the king. But God, it seems, was not pleased. When he came down, it was to bring division, not unity. About 3200 BC (carbon date) we see Uruk’s proto-empire collapse, its colonies abandoned and the country disintegrating into a network of competing city-states, each with its own king.
From the unfinished political and religious capital of this empire men dispersed with their new languages, on foot and by boat, to find new homelands. By 2500 BC the linguistic map of the Near East was transformed. Apart from the pre-Babel language of Akkadian, there were now, within 800 miles of Babel, no fewer than seven unrelated languages: of the 16 or so primary languages that can be deduced for that time, a third of them were clustered in the Near East. There were two such languages within Mesopotamia itself: Akkadian and Sumerian. At a loss to account for this situation, archaeologists refer to it as ‘the Sumerian problem’, for their speakers were ethnically indistinguishable: they had the same material culture, worshipped the same gods and lived side by side in the same cities.
If the upheavals of the Early Bronze Age reflect the immediate outworkings of the Babel event, they also give us some insight into why God came down to confuse the city’s language. The Mesopotamians, Genesis says, wanted to make a name for themselves, and it was clear that eventually nothing would be impossible for them. Nimrod’s empire-building in the Hebrew record and the corresponding rise of Uruk in the archaeological record foreshadowed a kingdom that would one day embrace the whole earth, materially rich, licentious and opposed to the Creator, so that heaven and earth would be divorced forever. As history was to show, the disruption of Babylonian power could not entirely prevent this from happening, but it did, for a time, inhibit it. The builders of Babel dispersed to other lands and founded rival centres of power, other Babels, so that world domination by a single power, if not impossible, would be a long way off.
Perhaps it has not been until our own generation that the inhibiting effect of linguistic confusion has begun to wear off. The nations of the world interact as one global community. We have seen new power structures arise and new ideologies, new, more sophisticated towers of Babel. Western civilisation, with its capitalism and limitless technology, now dominates the earth. Its wise men have persuaded almost everyone that there is no Creator, only man, god-like in knowledge and power, who in his wisdom has discovered the ultimate secret, that heaven and earth and every creature in them came into existence by themselves. What terrible nemesis are we preparing for ourselves? Until 2001 no building more aptly symbolised the new Babel than the World Trade Centre, at its completion the highest building on earth. Was its fall a sign that the days of ‘Babylon the Great’ are also numbered?