Creationism and the Tower of Babel

IT has often been noticed that the splintering of ancient languages into the thousands now in existence can be diagrammed in the form of a branching tree — a dendrogram — visually similar to the results of the Tree of Life Web Project. In fact, linguistic experts are constructing MultiTree, a graphical representation of language relationships.

This “evolution” and “speciation” of language has not escaped the keen notice of the creation scientists at Answers in Genesis (AIG), one of the major sources of young-earth creationist wisdom. They discuss it — in their own way — in this article at their website: Babel Explains Distinct Language Families. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

About 6,912 distinct languages exist in the world today. The Bible says God confounded the language at Babel to separate the people and stop their advance into the heavens.

Smart move. That tower they were building might have gone all the way to the moon. Let’s read on:

Standard theories argue that languages change when people are separated, but the Bible teaches that people were separated at Babel because God miraculously changed the common language. So which story fits the facts? The miracle of Babel or gradual change? How did we get all these languages?

These are the things that occupy the thoughts of creation scientists. We continue:

Actually, separation does tend to produce differences. When people with a common language were separated by, say, an ocean for about 1,000 years, they ended up not being able to understand each other. The Scandinavians in Iceland cannot understand those who stayed in Europe.

[…]

By comparing existing languages with the help of written records, we know that French and Spanish (also, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian) come from Latin. Based on similarities as simple as the numbers un–uno, deux–dos, and trois–tres, we can see evidence of a common source language.

The analogy to biological evolution is all too obvious, but what they’re describing is only micro-change. But when it comes to macro-change … well, you’ll see:

Because languages naturally do change over time, linguists generally suppose that all of today’s languages were produced by changes that we see going on around us now. However, that explanation hits the wall, and fails, at the Tower of Babel.

One might think of this problem as the linguistic Cambrian explosion. Moving along:

The problem is best illustrated by the most widely studied languages of the world, the roughly 449 distinct languages that fall into the Indo-European language family. Approximately 45 percent of the people in the world today speak one of the languages in this group. …

The next most widely spoken language family is the Sino-Tibetan group, which includes Chinese. It is estimated to have about 403 distinct languages and accounts for about 22 percent of the world’s population. … Neither of these distinct source languages, however, can reasonably be dated earlier than the miracle at Babel.

[…]

No one has shown how language families as different as Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Sino-Tibetan could derive from a common source. The same holds for the other 92 families insofar as they have been studied.

It’s not terribly surprising that the origins of distinct language families are murky. Our long-ago ancestors probably shared only a rudimentary language, and when small groups occasionally split off to go their separate ways, it’s not as if each migrating band took with it a copy of the Iliad, which would have preserved their linguistic traditions. Each scattered group was starting with almost nothing. Wildly divergent languages could easily result from such a primitive origin, without the necessity of a miracle to explain it. Another excerpt:

Because God does all things well, nothing half-heartedly or without complete effectiveness, the languages created at Babel will almost certainly turn out to be radically distinct from each other. That is what the current evidence already suggests.

[…]

The rate of change of known subgroups — notably those based on Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, and the Germanic and Slavic languages — shows that the whole number of languages in the world today could easily have been produced within a space of 4,000 years.

This is sounding strangely like the rapid evolution that supposedly occurred after Noah’s Ark, starting with specially created kinds. On with the article:

Is this a problem for secular linguists who supposed that all the languages evolved from a single source language? You bet. Probably future study will enable linguists to reduce the 94 language families currently under study to a smaller number. However — setting aside baseless attempts to arbitrarily force distinct languages and whole families together — the biblical account of Babel is the only explanation that fits the data.

Just as six-day creation and Noah’s Ark is the only explanation that fits the biological data. But you saw that all along, didn’t you?

This is a long article, so we’ll give you only one more excerpt:

Also, we can make a testable prediction: the number of families will be reduced in the future to no fewer than the groups named in Genesis 10 where the Table of Nations appears. That list is by far the best one in existence; and the facts, as far as we know them, are consistent with the Bible.

Well, there you are. Once again, the creation scientists at AIG have come through for us. Now you know that the Tower of Babel is true history. Don’t you feel foolish for having doubted it?

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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21 responses to “Creationism and the Tower of Babel

  1. So, how much language does it take to put brick A on top of brick B?

  2. Doc Bill asks:

    So, how much language does it take to put brick A on top of brick B?

    Quite a bit more than saying: “Oook, oook! Antelope!” Which was probably 10% of the vocabulary at the time our ancestors started splitting off into separate groups.

  3. To my knowledge, no linguist is suggesting that there was originally only one “language”. It is entirely probable that by the time humans were speaking what would be considered a complete language, numerous variations would have already existed. For the Babel story to be other than just babble, there would have to be compelling evidence that in fact only one language existed prior to the tower, and thereafter there were suddenly numerous fully developed languages. After all, this is recent “history” and should be within our ability to investigate.

    Also, for the story to be literally true, we have to buy into the idea that an all-knowing god would believe that humans were capable of building a tower of stone and mud-bricks tall enough to reach heaven. Either he was mistaken (not an option to the AIG writers), or else he located heaven at about 500 feet above the ground in those days. He must have moved it since.

    Which means that someday, when we send humans out into the solar system, we will have to worry about getting too close to heaven again – if we do, everyone on the spacecraft will suddenly start speaking new, mutually unintelligible languages.

  4. Ed says:

    Also, for the story to be literally true, we have to buy into the idea that an all-knowing god would believe that humans were capable of building a tower of stone and mud-bricks tall enough to reach heaven.

    Not only that, but all humans would have been living in one city-state, all speaking the same language, and capable of some kind of architecture. Sort of an overgrown Eden, with no one living elsewhere. Then — Kaboom! — multiple languages and dispersal from the common center.

  5. According to AIG, Babel happened about 2,200 BCE. (yes, I had to look – but only using a mirror, since looking directly at the AIG web site may cause brain melt-down). The believe that the world was essentially one nation up to that time.

    The great pyramid was built about 2500 BCE or a little earlier. AIG probably has an explanation but I could only read so much. Maybe someone will invent an app that will read the daily AIG web page in spoken english and insert a laugh track at the end of every sentence. That could actually be quite popular… it could be done in a sort of pompous John Cleese voice…

  6. So, what’s funnier: two very distinct language families, Sumerian (actually, just a language isolate) and Afroasiatic (which includes Ancient Egyptian and all the Semitic languages) are known to predate Babel, or that ancient people couldn’t learn languages?

    I’m going with B, because reading the Bible often involves learning dead languages, like Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew. Oh, and then you send your missionaries to learn heathen-speak and teach them the Bible.

  7. “Because God does all things well, . . . . . . .”

    Then why did she put my sometimes swollen prostate around my urethra?
    God has shown herself repeatedly to be a poor designer, and a poor builder.

    She really ought to get another day job.

  8. Like “huh what” hinted at above, I wonder why AIG felt no need to address the fact (or, as they might suggest, “claim”) that there were not only multiple languages but actual writings in both Egypt and Sumer before 2400 BCE, showing the existence of multiple languages.

    ??

  9. retiredsciguy

    waldteufel writes,
    “Because God does all things well, . . . . . . .
    Then why did she put my sometimes swollen prostate around my urethra?”

    As punishment? Have you been a bad boy?

  10. Enter Sandman:

    So…this Tower of Babel thing…big wasnt it?

    Ah yes…towered so high God decided to stop them building it bigger….

    O Rilly…… okaaay…… so where was it?

    In Babel….

    Which we now know is an oblique reference to Babylon…. yes?

    Er…yes.

    SO….based on the “one third rule” of building….thats one third down (foundations) for every two thirds up…..the foundations for this tower must have been massive….

    Er…yes….I suppose so….

    Good, so we agree on that. So, if this tower were built a few thousand years ago…. 4 thousand wasnt it?… WHERE ARE THE FOUNDATIONS????

    Ah….erm……God destroyed them.

    Ah yes the old God Did It argument again……so you dont agree that the story was probably the reaction of some ignorant Cannanite sh*tkicker goat herder who travelled past Babylon, an extremely diverse city with many different languages spoken and some big big tower like ziggurats, went home to his tumbledown hovel and told his “fishermans tall tale” of towers reaching to the sky and people babbling in various languages he was too ignorant to understand, and that this slipped into the mythos cycle that became their Holy Books….??? No…. thats just a bit too probable and natural and explaination?

    NO NO NO……GOD DID IT. Naaa naaan naa naaaa naaa Im not listening!!!! You are victimising me! Im being discriminated against! You are going to hell you satanist atheist scum! AAaaraarargh!!!!

    Well thanks for tuning in folks. Be sure to drop in next week when Ill be asking Her Ratzinger aka The Rat In The Hat whether, after he is dead, he will be cannonised as the patron saint of kiddy fiddlers…..

  11. Ed, there are a few people who propose a single origin for all known languages.
    See the Wikipedia article “Proto-Human languages”.

  12. Once again, you, like most critics of ID/creationism, leave out the best part. Namely, Robert Pennock’s excellent book “Tower of Babel,” which discusses linguistic evolution and cleverly compares it to the “evolution”, branching “phylogenies” and all, of the anti-evolution movement, inlcuding the then (1999) relatively new ID strategy.

    ID peddlers wisely avoid pretending that the Bible’s “Babel” story can be taken literally. It would not surprise me if many IDers have publicly admitted that languages indeed have evolved, given their frequent admission that our lineage goes back millions of years, and their occasional admission that we share common ancestors with other species. But that’s a far cry from refuting AiG, which no “big tent” IDer would dare do.

  13. TomS

    I stand corrected – apparently there are some linguists that argue for a single language. Of course, it would have to have existed well before recorded history, and probably during the time when there was a very small human population. I think SC is right in his comment that if there was a common language, it would have been quite simple.

    Early language… “ooh, babe picking berries”
    More evolved language… “Honey, I was just helping her gather a few berries, honest, nothing was going on, really, hey – you want another piece of this nice antelope meet I have grilling on the fire?”

    Certainly within the “biblical” timeframe, whatever that is, there were already numerous languages being spoken world-wide, and probably even within the tribal societies of the middle east. I don’t think AIG can postulate a timeframe for babel that wouldn’t be instantly dispelled by records of diverse languages already being spoken. They either have to argue the dating of our archeological past, which creates all sorts of problems, or declare that the tower of babel was a local event, which takes away it’s meaning as a just-so story.

  14. Just to make some speculations on a common ancestor for all of the languages that we know about today:

    It would have to have existed before the dispersion of human populations into the Americas and the Pacific. That’s quite a while before the earliest recorded languages – Egyptian and Sumerian, roughly 3000 BC – and the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European – maybe 5000 BC? It would have to be at least 10,000 BC, wouldn’t it?

    But it doesn’t have to be the only language around at that time. There might have been multiple origins of human languages, and it’s only a matter of chance that the only survivors are descendants of that one last common ancestral language. And there could have been a long time (tens of thousands of years?) available for that common ancestral language to have developed from the first human language, and it might have had multiple roots. The last common ancestor might have been a mixed language.

  15. retiredsciguy

    Since language is learned and not genetic (instinctive), there’s no compelling reason to believe there must be a single, common ancestral language. Many languages could have developed independently.

  16. Are we supposed to take these people seriously?

    Really?

  17. Gabriel Hanna

    Clearly if the Tower of Babel had really been built, or was so likely to be built that God needed to preempt it, then the laws of physics were very different in those times. Apparently they are just whatever God needs them to be. AIG should come out and say so.

  18. Hum… Well, seeing a tower being built to heaven and going into a rage and changing everyone’s language, which incidentally contributed greatly to a lot wars, racism, general unpleasantness, and destroying the thing instead of the rational thing of, you know, just asking them to stop and explaining why, would be on par for AiG god. At least their god is consistent in his actions, if not the way AiG intends. Oh, and lets not go into that after this, he decides to abandon the rest of humanity, and take away the truth of existence which was vital to his whole ‘save humanity’ plan, and focus his entire attention on one not very virtuous band of desert nomads, coincidentally condeming billions to eternal torment. Yep, great guy…

  19. … The Bible says God confounded the language at Babel to separate the people and stop their advance into the heavens.

    That is why God also does not allow airplanes, skyscrapers, rocket ships, balloons, hang gliders, construction cranes, Sequoias, mountaintops, big ladders, or really tall stilts.

    On further consideration, the really tall stilts are such a bad idea that they might actually be allowed, but all that other stuff is right out.

  20. Tomato Addict says:

    That is why God also does not allow airplanes, skyscrapers, rocket ships, balloons, hang gliders, construction cranes, Sequoias, mountaintops, big ladders, or really tall stilts.

    Exactly. That’s why airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center.

  21. one more teeeeeeeny leeeeetle issue with the Tower story….

    I know you lot in the US get a pretty compromised education in the sciences, but surely you remember materials technology aspects of physics?

    Stone and mud brick have certain (tensile?) strengths, and these dictate how high you can build with them. As an example….The Great Pyramid uses whopping big blocks of stone because if it didnt the bottom layers would be crushed by the pressure of the upper ones.

    Saw a program on TV about this very problem….see build higher than the Great Pyramid and it starts crumbling apart….and as for sun baked mud bricks….well 200ft is your limit.

    Not so tall after all