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Tower of Babel
Naturalism vs Babelism
The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is the ancient Hebrew account for linguistic diversity. Biblical literalists regard it as factual, like the whole of Genesis (except for the solid dome of the sky), but the actual facts show linguistic creationism, or Babelism, to be impossible.
Although the various language ancestors (Indo-European, Hamito-Semitic, Sino-Tibetan and so forth) seem to be unrelated (though there is a chance that the root for "milk" may be shared, if still obscured), this does not mean an original unified language was instantly split into the ancestors of the modern ones. First of all, we know that languages speciate quite naturally; we have seen, in the course of history, how the original Latin has split into Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian among others. If so then why should the origin of the language ancestors be different? It is not necessary that there should be a single ancestor for all languages; mankind inhabiting different geographical regions may have developed language independently in each region. Either way - single ancestry or convergent development - language speciation is entirely natural. In any case, the burden of proof is on the Babelists, who have failed to produce evidence of an original Adamic tongue.
Another point is that, for languages to speciate, they must be geographically separate, otherwise a mixing of features may prevent speciation (case in point: British English and American English are kept a single language by modern communication devices). A speciation of a single ancestor into Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan could happen only after the respective populations emigrated to their separate regions. But the story of the Tower of Babel would have it that they dispersed after linguistic separation, which is an impossibility, and even if it had so happened by divine intervention, we would see many more signs of language-mixing in the new ancestor-languages.
Summary: the story of the Tower of Babel is mythical, not historical. Though the ultimate ancestry of languages, being prehistorical, is still a matter of conjecture, the present state of affairs is different than if the Babel story had actually happened. Naturalistic evolution of languages is the only correct way of accounting for the amazing linguistic diversity of today. For some detail on how this happens, see Linguistic Evolution.
Notes on Pidginisation
The chief objection to a Genesis-literal account of linguistic diversity is the complexity of the language ancestors and the problem of pidginisation. A pidgin is a minimal language subset used for communication between people who do not understand one another's language. For example an American and a Chinese who need to communicate form an English-Chinese pidgin. The salient feature of pidgins is that they are minimal, that is, grammatical idiosyncracies are reduced to a minimum in order to facilitate communication.
The argument is that, had linguistic branching occurred before the dispersal of the speakers - that is, while they could still be in the same location to communicate with others - the result would be pidginisation of the ancestral tongues. In contrast, what we find about some of the ancestral languages is great grammatical complexity. For example, Proto-Indo-European had at least eight cases, three numbers (including dual), three genders and an elaborate verb system with conjugation for persons, numbers and aspects. Proto-Semitic had at least three noun cases. Had there been contact between the ancestral speakers, pidginisation would have ensued, and the languages would have lost their grammatical complexities. An example of real-world pidginisation effects is that upon Italian during World War II: the Italo-English pidgin had all verbs conjugated in infinitive form alone. Since the ancestral languages show no signs of pidginisation, this can only mean that the event of the Tower or Babel never occurred.
The American Heritage Dictionary has some very nice articles on the ancestral Indo-European and Semitic languages and what can be inferred about their speakers; this supplies an additional difficulty: inferred homelands. To summarize, while the Semitic languages have an inferred Middle-Eastern homeland, the Indo-European ones have a homeland to the north, most likely just north of the Black Sea, where donkeys, lions, and elephants are rare and snow is common.
Article started by Shlomi Tal