Linguistic Confusion and the Tower of Babel
‘Now the whole earth had one language and few words.’ (Genesis 11:1)
This is right before the story of the tower of Babel. It has been argued, however, that Genesis Chapters 10 and 11 are chronological, and that differentiation of language was already cited several times in Chapter 10 (10:5, 20, 31). It’s been noted that the Hebrew word for “earth” (eretz) can mean many things, including the entire world (e.g., Genesis 1:1, 15; 2:1, 4), but also things like the “land” or “ground” of countries, such as Egypt (eretz mitzrayim) and Canaan (eretz kana’an), the dry land (Genesis 1:10), and ground from which seeds grow (Genesis 1:12). The New American Standard Bible translates eretz: country or countries 59 times, ground 119 times, land 1638 times; compare to earth, 656 instances, and world (3).
The context indicates very strongly that Genesis 11 is not talking about the entire earth, but rather, the land which is described repeatedly as the place where the events occur: southern Mesopotamia, or Sumer, as it was known at the proposed period of history. That was already seen in the related passage of Genesis 10:8-12, and numerous times in Genesis 11: “Shinar” (11:2), “a city” and “the city” (11:4-5, 8), called “Babel” (11:9):
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
I’d like to speculate a bit about Babel. Some have argued that what was in the mind of the author was not language in reference to the entire world, but rather, a lingua franca, meaning a common or bridge language, or one that is common as a second language across widely different groups of people. Historically, such languages included Akkadian, Babylonian and Aramaic in ancient western Asia, Koine Greek, Latin (which functionally lasted until the 18th century), Italian, French, Spanish and English. In this understanding, Sumerian was the lingua franca c. 3000 B.C. in (at least the self-understanding of) Mesopotamia. The Babel story might be thought to possibly be a “morality tale” of the demise of Sumerian language and culture.
Sumerian is believed to be a language isolate, meaning that it was unrelated to any other language. It was also the first written language in the history of the world. Now, it may be that Genesis 11 reflects this unique historical circumstance, where we have the first complete writing system ever in history, and a language isolate at that. This would have been pretty dominant in 3400-3000 B.C. among Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia. Perhaps it was all they knew. Then when different languages started showing up, maybe an oral tradition began to the effect that this was a judgment upon the Sumerian-speaking (and cuneiform-writing) Sumerians, who had seemed so dominant.
Written language is not the same thing as spoken language. It may very well be that Akkadian started to be widely spoken in Mesopotamia before it borrowed cuneiform as its writing method, too (as eventually 15 languages did). The biblical text refers to the Sumerians not being able to “understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7). That’s talking, and it need not necessarily be related to writing at all. So it could have been that spoken Akkadian was part of the confusion referred to in the Babel story. It started being spoken in Mesopotamia around 2,800 B.C. This would correspond to a “late” date of the building of the tower of Babel, which I estimated provisionally to be from 3000-2800 B.C. That gives us a real possibility of linguistic confusion: from the first written language and the lingua franca and language isolate to a multi-lingual environment.
Related to the above analysis is the understanding of the collapse of the Mesopotamian Uruk culture (c. 3300-3000 BC: called the Jemdet Nasr period). Uruk colonies in the north ceased to exist, and other large cities throughout Mesopotamia declined greatly in population. Some believe that this was caused by climate change and/or drought, including a dramatic temperature increase and a trend toward aridity in the area. That may very well be (we know that the region became much less fertile over time), but it doesn’t rule out clashes that come from language differences.
In God’s providence — as I have argued many times — natural events may be and are incorporated into the divine plan. Whatever, or however many, the reasons, the end result was “a sharp decrease in population” in southern Mesopotamian cities around 3000 BC, which is, of course, quite consistent with the biblical report of people in these regions being “scattered ... abroad from there” (Genesis 11:8). This is fascinating, because now we have not only strong suggestions of linguistic discord at this particular time, but also a scattering or migration out of the area, which was precisely what we needed to find to corroborate the text.
It’s also possible that this scattering of people brought about the confusion of languages in the first place, rather than vice versa. If this is actually the intended meaning of the Genesis text, it’s harmonious with how linguists usually explain the ongoing development of different languages. The biblical text seems to allow the possibility of a more gradual change of language, rather than instant confusion. It may be identifying Babel or Shinar as the place where the dispersion of people began.