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Language: The Power of Babel

From evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel’s “Forked tongues: the evolution of human languages” (Planet Earth Online, 23 March 2012), we learn,

There are about 7000 distinct human languages spoken on Earth – that’s more languages for our single mammal species than there are mammal species. … This diversity means we are perhaps the only species whose members cannot all communicate with each other. Indeed, it is as if the different human-language groups have come to act almost like different biological species. But why would humans have evolved a system of communication that effectively cuts them off from other members of their own species? Over the past few years my research group and I have been studying human languages using ideas drawn from the theory of evolution by natural selection, ecology and biogeography, and those studies are providing some intriguing answers to this question.

The author’s account of language is largely ruined by trying to map it on to some version of Darwinian evolution, when the two are mutually irrelevant. Languages don’t just “change”; people change them, according to need.

Pagel went to a great deal of trouble to discover that

We found more languages per unit area in lower latitudes with only a handful at extreme northern latitudes.

Because there are hardly any people up there, that’s why.

If we tried doing different languages for very long, we would end up talking to ourselves, which is one way you can get classed as insane. Howling at the moon is another …

There is a northern Canadian word for that: “bushed.” It means the person has been without human company for too long and has started acting weird, sometimes acting like an animal or believing that some animal out there is a “friend” in the human sense. He needs to be flown back to civilization, pronto. Such people almost always recover quickly, as they relearn human ways.

And the large numbers of different species in the tropics might just reflect the variety and richness of resources in that environment. But, unlike other animals, humans are all the same species, so why are there so many different language groups in this region instead of one large and cooperative society?

Uh, for that see Genesis 11:9. It’s called sin. It explains a lot of things.

A group of Selepet speakers in New Guinea met one day and collectively decided to change their word for ‘no’ from bia to bune, to be distinct from other Selepet speakers in a neighbouring village. The change was made immediately. One can only sympathise with anyone who was away hunting at the time.

Teenagers in in Toronto do this all the time. Often, they are up to no good.

Maybe they have evolved differently from other teenagers … are becoming, over time, a separate species? Lots of adults here think so but not all the evidence is in.  ;)

Pagel tell us, re extinction of tiny minority languages,

There is no reason to believe that this loss of linguistic diversity means the world is losing unique styles of thought; contrary to a widely held belief, our languages do not determine how we think. But the loss of languages often does coincide with the loss of cultural diversity, so the world is steadily becoming a more culturally uniform place.

But whoever thought that language determines how we think? If that were true, why have the four gospels of the New Testament been translated into thousands of languages, making converts to Christianity worldwide?

The fact that some adjustments must be made, for regional differences, is ancient history. The Jesuit Fathers had to do it in Canada 400 years ago: Here’s their version of the nativity, for aboriginal North Americans who had never heard of a sheep or a camel:

When it comes to understanding language, evolutionary biology is apparently a waste of time.

Hat tip: Pos-Darwinista

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4 Responses to Language: The Power of Babel

  1. Oh really? So the Tower of Babel story explains the latitudinal diversity gradient in language diversity?

  2. Hi Nick Matzke: The latitudinal diversity gradient is just nonsense if we don’t factor in actual numbers of human beings. Any group of human beings can start a new language if they want to. Identical twins have been known to do this, creating a pain in the neck for the adults looking after them.

    But in far northern regions, humans are few. It makes no sense to get a new language going, when the big deal is to communicate with anyone who can understand what you are saying. ( = You are a doctor? Please help. My wife has had blood in her urine two weeks … Maybe you can give permission to fly her out to Toronto hospital … ?)

    The iconic Tower of Babel story is as good as any other, and probably better, for explaining most communication problems: People are speaking different languages when they talk to each other, so projects collapse.

  3. Historians have long pointed to the plains of Mesopotamia as the original home of civilization and language. This, in fact, is in full agreement with what is recorded in the Bible. The book of Genesis, in chapter 11, describes an event that took place in the land of Shinar, in Mesopotamia, which provides the needed clue to our investigation.

    “All the earth continued to be of one language and of one set of words,” says Genesis 11:1. The unity, however, was misused by the people in defiance of God’s purpose for them. “They now said: ‘Come on! Let us build ourselves a city and also a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a celebrated name for ourselves, for fear we may be scattered over all the surface of the earth.’”—Genesis 11:4.

    The tower, of course, was the infamous Tower of Babel. Thus, it was in the land of Shinar in Mesopotamia that God confused man’s language. “That is why its name was called Babel, because there Jehovah had confused the language of all the earth, and Jehovah had scattered them from there over all the surface of the earth.”—Genesis 11:9.

    In a book entitled Discovery of Genesis, the coauthors, C. H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson, analyzed dozens of ideographic Chinese characters, including the two mentioned above, and observed that “the characters when broken down into component parts time and again reflect elements of the story of God and man recorded in the early chapters of Genesis.”

    What must be noted, however, is that the Bible does not say that all the other languages developed or derived from the “one language and one set of words” used by the people there at Shinar. What is indicated is that the languages resulting from the confusion were so different from and unrelated to one another that the people had to abandon the construction project and move out “over all the surface of the earth” because they could no longer understand or communicate with one another.

    Evidently what happened was that the confusion process obliterated the original language patterns in the minds of the people and replaced them with new ones. Thus the new languages that they spoke were completely different from what they had known before. These were not offshoots or spin-offs of the original “one language.”

  4. Evolutionary biology is useless in explaining things.
    I believe the bible says somewhere 70 languages came out of babel.
    from this segregation of peoples made it more.
    English only exists as a later segregated history of peoples.
    Mere separation of people does not make new languages.
    It is from deeper realities of segregation.
    probably original peoples were upon migration thrown into needs to finds words for things and this led to bigger concepts in language change.
    All languages are just a tilting away from each other.

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