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Reference: Tongues, Confusion Of


at Babel, the cause of the early separation of mankind and their division into nations. The descendants of Noah built a tower to prevent their dispersion; but God "confounded their language" (Ge 11:1-8), and they were scattered over the whole earth. Till this time "the whole earth was of one language and of one speech." (See Shinar, The Land of.)

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(See BABEL.) Genesis 10 accords with the modern scientific principle of ethnic subdivision; as races increase they subdivide; thus as mankind spread there was a continual breaking up into a larger and larger number of nations. These were distinct linguistically, and also ethnically "by these (i.e. from the Japhethites just before named the tribes sprang by whom) were the isles (the maritime coasts) of the Gentiles divided in their lands, every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations" (Ge 10:5). The sacred writer at once states the fact of the great multiplicity of languages, and also the resemblance and connection between what at first sight seem distinct tongues. Ethnology speaks of "mother," "sister," and "daughter" dialects, just as Genesis 10 mentions mother, sister, and daughter races. It is the only theory of ethnology which harmonizes with and accounts for the facts of language, as comparative philology reveals them to us.

The general teaching of Genesis 10 is that the nations N. and W. of Mesopotamia and Syria were Japhetic and, within the geographic limits alluded to, comprise seven chief races; ethnology does not contradict this. Moses does not contemplate a scientific scheme embracing all the tribes and nations existing in the world at the time, but a genealogical arrangement of those best known to Moses and his readers. Ethnologists divide the Shemites into five main branches, Aramaean, Hebrew, Phoenician, Assyrian or Babylonian, and Arabian; Moses recognizes four of these, Asshur or Assyria, Aram or Syria, Eber or the Hebrew, Joktan the pure Arabs. Moses adds Elam and Lud, of which ethnology says nothing. He omits the Phoenicians who in his time had not yet acquired importance or moved from the shore of the Persian gulf to the Mediterranean. The Japhetic races spread over all the northern regions known to Moses: Greece, Thrace, Scythia, Asia Minor, Armenia. and Media.

The Hamitic races over the S. and S.W.: N. Africa. Egypt, Nubia., Ethiopia, S. and S.E. Arabia, and Babylonia. The Semitic races in the region intermediate between the Japhetic and Hamitic: Syria, Palestine, northern and central Arabia, Assyria, Elymais, from the Mediterranean to the mountains of Luristan. Thus by their intermediate position the Shemites were in contact with Japhetic races in Cappadocia, and with Hamites in Palestine, the Yemen, Babylonia, and Elymais. The ethnological character of the genealogy (Genesis 10) appears in such gentilie forms as Ludim, Jebusite, and geographical and local names as Mizraim, Sidon; as also from the formula "after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations" (Ge 10:5,20,31). (See GENERATION; on the connection of Canaan with HEBREW.)

This is a trace of the original unity of races so distinct, subsequently, as the Hamitic Canaanites and the Semitic Hebrew. The Hamites and Shemites again meet in Babylon, which Scripture assigns to a Cushite founder, Nimrod, in accordance with recent discoveries of Hamitic inscriptions in the oldest Babylonian remains at Ur. (See BABYLON.) The unity of mankind Paul (Ac 17:26) asserts, "God hath made of one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth." Moreover Christ is the Head of all mankind in redemption, as Adam in the fall of all (Ro 5:15-19; 1Co 15:22,45-49). Again Genesis (Ge 9:19) traces the whole postdiluvian population to Noah, "of the three sons of Noah was the whole earth overspread." Speech is inherent in man as being the outcome of reflection, the Greeks therefore rightly express by the same "word" reason and speech, logos, for reason is inward speech and speech is outward reason.

This is his superiority to brutes; hence to mature Adam's intellectual powers and to teach him the use of language God brought the animals to him to name (Ge 2:19-20). Nouns are the simplest and earliest elements of language; and animals by their appearance, movements, and cries, suggest names for themselves. Whatever differences of tongue arose before the flood, the original unity of speech was restored in Noah. This continued until the confusion of tongues at Babel. God defeated the attempt to counteract His will, that men should disperse systematically, by confounding the tongues of the builders of the intended central metropolis of the world. Oppert identifies Babel with the basement of the great mound of Birs Nimrud, the ancient Borsippa. The confusion consisted in a miraculous forestalment of the wide dialectical differences which ordinarily require time and difference of place and habits to mature; the one common substratum remained. Genesis 10 states summarily the dispersion according to race and tongue, the origin of which Genesis 11 proceeds to detail; in chronological order of events Genesis 11 was before Genesis 10.

Ethnology and philology tend more and more rewards recognizing the unity of mankind; unity amidst variety is the general law. A substratum of significant monosyllabic roots is at the base of all languages. Three classes of tongues exist: the isolating, the agglutinative, and the inflecting. In the isolating there are no inflections, no ease or person terminations, no distinction of form between verb, noun, adjective, preposition, and conjunction; the bare root is the sole substance. In the other two the formal elements represent roots; both these and the radical elements are monosyllabic. There are two kinds of roots, predicable and pronominal; the predicable constituting the material element of verbs, nouns, and adjectives; the pronominal that of conjunctions, prepositions, and particles; the pronominal especially supplies the formal element, i.e. the terminations of verbs, substantives, and adjectives.

Monosyllabic roots are the common feature of all of the Indo European family. Bisyllabism prevails in the Semitic family, especially in the verbs, but these also are reducible to monosyllabics, consisting of consonants at the beginning and at the end; the stem thus enclosed at both ends was precluded from external increment, but by internal modification of vowels produces economy of material, simplicity, and dignity. In the agglutinative family the relational elements are attached to the predicable theme by mechanical junction, the individuality of each remaining still. The inflecting languages must have been once agglutinative, and the agglutinative once isolating. If the relational and the predicable elements of the isolating be linked together, it becomes agglutinative. If the material and the formal parts are pronounced as one word, eliminating the sounds that resist incorporation, the tongue becomes inflecting.

Moreover, no sharp line of demarcation separates the three: the isolating are not wholly so, the agglutinative as the Finnish and Turkish are sometimes inflecting, the inflecting as Hebrew is often agglutinative and has separate particles to express relations; the Indo European (inflecting) appends to its substantival stems suffixes of case and number; the Ural Altaian (agglutinative) adds governing particles, rendering them post positional instead of prepositional; the Semitic expresses grammatical variations by vowel changes within the root, the Indo European by affixes without. The steppes of central Asia have always been the home of the agglutinative, the nomadic life expressing itself naturally in giving prominent distinctness to the leading idea in each word, thereby giving ready communication between families which associate only at intervals; the inflecting tongues on the other hand express higher social cultivation. Outward circumstances, position, and disposition, all combined, have modified language.

In grammar too correspondences occur between the three great classes. The isolating, in the absence of grammatical forms, collocate the words in a somewhat logical order. Herein our inflecting, highly cultivated, English tongue exhibits a resemblance; the subject preceding the verb, and the verb preceding the object; also subject, copula, and predicate. In the agglutinative the principal word comes last, every qualifying clause or word that precedes being sustained by it. Thus, the syntactical arrange

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The belief that the world, after the Flood, was re-populated by the progeny of a single family, speaking one language, is reconciled in the Bible with the existing diversity of tongues by a story which relates how the descendants of Noah, in the course of their wanderings, settled in the plain of Shinar, or Babylonia, and there built of brick a city, and a tower high enough to reach heaven, as a monument to preserve their fame, and as a centre of social cohesion and union. But the Lord discerned their ambitious purposes, and, after consulting with the Divine beings who constituted His council and court (cf. Ge 1:26; 3:22), frustrated their design by confounding their speech, so that concerted action was no longer possible for them. In consequence, the name of the city was called Babel (see below), and its builders were compelled to disperse over the face of the earth (Ge 11:1-9).

The story belongs to a class of narratives (of which there are several in the Bible) intended to explain the origin of various institutions, or usages, the existence of which excited the curiosity of a primitive race. Among these was the prevalence in the world of different languages, which contributed so greatly to produce between the various peoples, who were thus unintelligible to one another, feelings of mutual suspicion and fear (cf. De 28:49; Isa 28:11; 33:19; Jer 5:15). The particular explanation furnished was doubtless suggested partly by the name of the city of Babel, or Babylon (which, though really meaning 'gate of God,' was by a popular etymology connected with the Heb. word b

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The special purpose of this act of God was to distribute mankind. They had said, "Let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." God nullified their design by so confounding their language that they could not understand one another's speech. They left off building the city, and were scattered abroad. Ge 11:5-9. The gift of tongues at Pentecost in no way rescinded this, though by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit those from a distance of various languages heard, each in his own tongue, the same gospel. The apostles had never spoken those languages before. The learned have devoted much labour in the endeavour to discover the links that exist in all known languages; but it would require divine power to remove in any practical sense the divergencies.

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Tongues, Confusion of.

The unity of the human race is most clearly implied, if not positively asserted, in the Mosaic writings. Unity of language is assumed by the sacred historian apparently as a corollary of the unity of race. (This statement is confirmed by philologists.) No explanation is given of the origin of speech, but its exercise is evidently regarded as coeval with the creation of man. The original unity of speech was restored in Noah. Disturbing causes were, however, early at work to dissolve this twofold union of community and speech. The human family endeavored b check the tendency to separation by the establishment of a great central edifice and a city which should serve as the metropolis of the whole world. The project was defeated by the interposition of Jehovah, who determined to "confound their language, so that they might not understand one another's speech." Contemporaneously with, and perhaps as the result of, this confusion of tongues, the people were scattered abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth, and the memory of the great event was preserved in the name Babel. [BABEL. TOWER OF]

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See Tower

Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar. --In the Borsippa inscription of Nebuchadnezzar there is an allusion to the confusion of tongues. "We say for the other, that is, this edifice, the house of the Seven Lights of the Earth, the most ancient monument of Borsippa, a former king built it [they reckon forty-two ages], but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time the earthquake and the thunder had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had been split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps." It is unnecessary to assume that the judgment inflicted on the builders of Babel amounted to a loss, or even a suspension of articulate speech. The desired object would be equally attained by a miraculous forestallment of those dialectical differences of language which are constantly in process of production. The elements of the one original language may have remained, but so disguised by variations of pronunciation and by the introduction of new combinations as to be practically obliterated. The confusion of tongues and the dispersion of nations are spoken of in the Bible as contemporaneous events. The divergence of the various families into distinct tribes and nations ran parallel with the divergence of speech into dialects and languages, and thus the tenth chapter of Genesis is posterior in historical sequence to the events recorded in the eleventh chapter.