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Reference: Language


One of the distinguishing gifts of God to man, essential to all high enjoyment and improvement in social life, and to be prized and used in a manner worthy of its priceless value for the glory of God and the benefit of mankind. The original language was not the growth of a mere faculty of speech in man, but a creation of gift of God. Adam and Eve when created knew how to converse with each other and with the Creator. For some two thousand years, "the whole earth was of one language and of one speech," Ge 11:1. But about one hundred years after the flood, according to the common chronology, and later according to others, God miraculously "confounded the language" of the Cushite rebels at Babel; and peopling the earth by these scattered families of diverse tongues, He frustrated the designs and promoted his own. There are now several hundreds of languages and dialects spoken on the earth, and infidels have hence taken occasion to discredit the Bible doctrine of the unity of the human race. It is found, however, that these languages are distributed in several great classes, which have striking affinities with each other; and as comparative philology extends its researches, it finds increasing evidence of the substantial oneness of the human race and of the truth of Scripture.

The miracle performed at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost was the reverse of that at Babel, Ac 2:1-18, and beautifully illustrated the tendency of the gospel to introduce peace and harmony where sin has brought discord, and to reunite all the tribes of mankind in one great brotherhood.

To the student of the Bible, one of the most important subjects is the character and history of the original languages in which that holy book was written. In respect to the original Greek of the New Testament, some remarks have been made under the article GREECE. The Hebrew language, in which the Old Testament was written, is but one of the cluster of cognate languages, as belonging particularly to the descendants of Shem. A proper knowledge of the Hebrew, therefore, implies also an acquaintance with these of the kindred dialects.

The Shemitic languages may be divided into three principal dialects, namely, the Aramaean, the Hebrew, and the Arabic. 1. The Aramaean, spoken in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia, is subdivided into the Syriac and Chaldee dialects sometimes called also the West and East Aramaean. 2. The Hebrew or Canaanites dialect, Isa 19:18, was spoken in Palestine, and probably with little variation in Phoenicia and the Phoenician colonies, as for instance, at Carthage and other places. The remains of the Phoenician and Punic dialects are too few and too much disfigured to enable us to judge with certainty how extensively these languages were the same as the dialect of Palestine. 3. The Arabic, to which the Ethiopic bears a special resemblance, comprises, in modern times, a great variety of dialects as a spoken language, and is spread over a vast extent of country; but so far as we are acquainted with its former state, it appears more anciently to have been limited principally to Arabia and Ethiopia.

These languages are distinguished from European tongues by several marked peculiarities: they are all, except the Ethiopic, written from right to left, and their books begin at what we should call the end; the alphabet, with the exception of the Ethiopic which is syllabic, consists of consonants only, above or below which the vowel-points are written; they have several guttural consonants very difficult of pronunciation to Europeans; the roots of the language are, in general, verbs of three letters, and pronounced, according to the various dialects, with one or more vowels; the verbs have but two tenses, the past and the future; and the pronouns in the oblique cases are generally untied in the same word with the noun or verb to which they have a relation. These various dialects form substantially one language, of which the original home was Western Asia. That they have all diverged from one parent stock is manifest, but to determine which of them has undergone the fewest changes would be a difficult question. The language of Noah and his son Shem was substantially that of Adam and all the antediluvians. Shem and Heber were contemporary with Abraham, and transmitted, as we have good reason to believe, their common tongue to the race of Israel; for it is not to be assumed that at the confusion of Babel no branch of the human family retained the primitive language. It does not appear that the descendants of Shem were among the builders of Babel, Ge 10:8-10. The oldest records that are known to exist are composed in the Hebrew language. It flourished in its purest form in Palestine, among the Phoenicians and Hebrews, until the period of the Babylonish exile; soon after which it declined, and finally was succeeded by a kind of Hebraeo-Aramaean dialect, such as was spoken in the time of our Savior among the Jews. The West Aramaean had flourished before this for a long time in the east and north of Palestine; but it now advanced farther west, and during the period that the Christian churches of Syria flourished, it was widely extended. It is at present almost a dead language, and has been so for several centuries. The Hebrew may be regarded as having been a dead language, except among a small circle of literati, for about the space of two thousand years. Our knowledge of Arabic literature extends back very little beyond the time of Mohammed. But the followers of this pretended prophet have spread the dialect of the Koran over vast portions of the world. Arabic is now the vernacular language of Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and in a great measure of Palestine and all the northern coast of Africa; while it is read and understood wherever the Koran has gone, in Turkey, Persia, India, and Tartary.

The remains of the ancient Hebrew tongue are contained in the Old Testament and in the few Phoenician and Punic words and inscriptions that have been here and there discovered. The remains of the Aramaean are extant in a variety of books. In Chaldee, we have a part of the books of Daniel and Ezra, Da 2:4-7:28; Ezr 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26, which are the most ancient of any specimens of this dialect. The Targum of Onkelos, that is, the translation of the Pentateuch into Chaldee, affords the next and purest specimen of that language. The oldest specimen of this language that we have is contained in the Peshito, or Syriac version of the Old and New Testament, made perhaps within a century after the time of Christ. A multitude of writers in this dialect have flourished, many of whose writings are probably still extant, although but few have been printed in Europe. In Arabic, there exists a great variety of manuscripts and books, historical, scientific, and literary. A familiar knowledge of this and its kindred dialects throws much valuable light on the Old Testament Scriptures.

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LANGUAGE, the faculty of human speech, concerning the origin of which there have been entertained different opinions among philosophers and learned men. The Mosaic history, which gives us an account of the formation and first occupations of man, represents him as being immediately capable of conversing with his Maker; of giving names to the various tribes and classes of animals; and of reasoning consecutively, and in perfectly appropriate terms, concerning his own situation, and the relation he stood in to the other creatures. As in man's first attempt at speech, according to this account, there appear no crudeness of conception, no barrenness of ideas, and no inexpressive or unappropriate terms, we must certainly infer, that God who made and endued him with corporeal and mental powers perfectly suited to his state and condition in life, endued him, also, not only with the faculty of speech, but with speech or language itself; which latter was as necessary to his comfort, and to the perfection and end of his being, as any other power or faculty which his Creator thought proper to bestow upon him.

Among the antediluvians there was but one language; and even now the indications that the various languages of the earth have had one common source are very convincing. Whether this primitive language was the same with any of the languages of which we have still any remains, has been a subject of much dispute. That the primitive language continued at least till the dispersion of mankind, consequent upon the building of Babel, there seems little reason to doubt. When, by an immediate interposition of divine power, the language of men was confounded, we are not informed to what extent this confusion of tongues prevailed. Under the article Confusion of Tongues some reasons are given to show that the primitive language was not lost at that event, but continued in the form of the Hebrew.

There are, however, other opinions on the oft disputed subject as to the primitive language. The Armenians allege, that as the ark rested in their country, Noah and his children must have remained there a considerable time, before the lower and marshy country of Chaldea could be fit to receive them; and it is therefore reasonable to suppose they left their language there, which was probably the very same that Adam spoke. Some have fancied the Greek the most ancient tongue, because of its extent and copiousness. The Teutonic, or that dialect of it which is spoken in the Lower Germany and Brabant, has found a strenuous patron in Geropius Becanus, who endeavours to derive even the Hebrew itself from that tongue. The pretensions of the Chinese to this honour have been allowed by several Europeans. The patrons of this opinion endeavour to support it, partly, by the great antiquity of the Chinese, and their having preserved themselves so many ages from any considerable mixture or intercourse with other nations. It is a notion advanced by Dr. Allix, and maintained by Mr. Whiston, with his usual tenacity and fervour, that the Chinese are the posterity of Noah, by his children born after the flood; and that Fohi, the first king of China, was Noah. As for those which are called the oriental languages, they have each their partisans. The generality of eastern writers allow the preference to the Syriac, except the Jews, who assert the antiquity of the Hebrew with the greatest warmth; and with them several Christian writers agree, particularly Chrysostom, Austin, Origen, and Jerome, among the ancients; and among the moderns, Bochart, Heidegger, Selden, and Buxtorf. The Sanscrit has also put in its claims; and some have thought that the Pali bears the character of the highest antiquity. All these are however useless speculations. The only point worth contending for is, that language was conveyed at once to the first pair in sufficient degree for intellectual intercourse with each other, and devotional intercourse with God; and that man was not left, as infidel writers have been pleased to say, to form it for himself out of rude and instinctive sounds. On this subject the remarks of Delaney are conclusive: "That God made man a sociable creature, does not need to be proved; and that when he made him such, he withheld nothing from him that was in any wise necessary for his well being in society, is a clear consequence from the wisdom and goodness of God; and if he withheld nothing any way necessary to his well being, much less would he withhold from him that which is the instrument of the greatest happiness a reasonable creature is capable of in this world. If the Lord God made 'Adam a help meet for him,' because 'it was not good for man to be alone,' can we imagine he would leave him unfurnished with the means to make that help useful and delightful to him? If it was not good for him to be alone, certainly neither was it good for him to have a companion to whom he could not readily communicate his thoughts, with whom he could neither ease his anxieties, nor divide or double his joys, by a kind, a friendly, a reasonable, a religious conversation; and how he could do this in any degree of perfection, or to any height of rational happiness, is utterly inconceivable without the use of speech.

If it be said, that the human organs being admirably fitted for the formation of articulate sounds, these, with the help of reason, might in time lead men to the use of language. I own it imaginable that they might: but still, till that end were attained in perfection, which possibly, might not be in a series of many generations, it must be owned that brutes were better dealt by, and could better attain all the ends of their creation. And if that be absurd to be supposed, certainly the other is not less absurd to be believed. Nay, I think it justly doubtful, whether, without inspiration from God in this point, man could ever attain the true ends of his being; at least, if we may judge in this case, by the example of those nations who, being destitute of the advantages of a perfect language, are, in all probability, from the misfortune of that sole defect, sunk into the lowest condition of barbarism and brutality. And as to the perfection in which the human organs are framed and fitted for the formation of articulate sounds, this is clearly an argument for believing that God immediately blessed man with the use of speech, and gave him wherewithal to exert those organs to their proper ends; for this is surely as credible, as that when he gave him an appetite for food, and proper organs to eat and to digest it, he did not leave him to seek painfully for a necessary supply, (till his offence had made such a search his curse and punishment,) but placed him at once in the midst of abundant plenty. The consequence from all which is, that the perfection and felicity of man, and the wisdom and goodness of God, necessarily required that Adam should be supernaturally endowed with the knowledge and use of language. And therefore, as certain as it can be, that man was made perfect and happy, and that God is wise and good; so certain is it, that, when Adam and Eve were formed, they were immediately enabled by God to converse and communicate their thoughts, in all the perfection of language necessary to all the ends of their creation. And as this was the conduct most becoming the goodness of God, so we are assured from Moses, that it was that to which his infinite wisdom determined him; for we find that Adam gave names to all the creatures before Eve was formed; and, consequently, before necessity taught him the use of speech. It is true that many languages bear marks of being raised to their improved state from rude and imperfect elements, and that all are capable of being enriched and rendered more exact; and it is this which has given some colour to those theories which trace all language itself up from elemental sounds, as the necessities of men, their increasing knowledge, and their imagination led to the invention of new words and combinations. All this is, however, consistent with the Scripture fact, that language was taught at first by God to our first parents. The dispersion of mankind carried many tribes to great distances,