The Origin of Language: Tales from World Mythologies

 

Why don’t all people speak the same language? Surely we did at one point in time. World religions have pondered the mysteries of linguistic diversity for millenniums. Linguists, anthropologists and clergymen offer theories about the origin of language; so do everyday people.

 

Here are two stories about the origin of diverse languages from world mythologies.

The Middle East: The Tower of Babel

If you use the language-learning app, Babbel, or happen to be fond of Jorge Luis Borge’s work, you might recognize the name “Babel.” It actually comes from a story in the Hebrew Bible.

At some point after the Great Flood destroyed most of the world, all of the surviving humans lived somewhere in the Middle East. Everyone spoke the same language. This context is shared broadly in a lot of other myths.

One day, mankind set out to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. When the Hebrew God saw their progress, he decided to separate them and “confound their tongues,” so that people will no longer be able to understand each other. He changed their shared language into numerous different ones; then He scattered humanity around the globe. The town eventually gained the name “Babel” because it was where languages began.

The word “babble” apparently existed when some interpretations of “The Tower of Babel” also known as the “confounding of tongues” was said to be divine retribution for mankind’s arrogance. To build a tower like the one in Babel was mankind’s attempt to compete with the Hebrew God. Therefore, God separated mankind as a punishment. That said, this is just one way to interpret the story: the passage as written leaves God’s motivations fairly vague. As the next tale suggests, language diversity is not necessarily a punishment or a setback.

an illustration by Jesse Cornplanter, a Seneca Native American artist, which depicts a gathering from Iroquois mythology. Sauls International

America: Language and Nature

Natives of Northeastern North America, the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee are a diverse group of six tribes. The myths they tell are part of the same canon, though exact details of their folklore may vary between tribes, villages, and storytellers. [This summary is comprised from information in these two sources.]

Tarenyawagon, who is sometimes called “Hiawatha,” the “Sky-Holder,” or the “Holder of the Heavens,” is a shapeshifter and a creator god. Awakened during a time of violence, Tarenyawagon adopted a human form and then became a patron to the six surviving families. He gave them food and shelter and taught them how to hunt.

When the families recovered, Tarenyawagon led them on a journey. At every stop, he told one of the families to build a settlement. Consequently, the six families separated, and their once-shared language separated as well. Soon each of the six families (five of whom survived) spoke a unique language. These five families then became the tribes of the Five Nations, also known as the Iroquois confederacy.

Tarenyawagon’s motive for helping men is stated nowhere; Perhaps this is a matter of phrasing but while one version of this myth depicts Tarenyawagon as more or less responsible for the new languages (when he renamed the groups, he changed their languages as well), the other source implies the languages just evolved separately. Language isn’t a reward; it’s just a part of nature.

 

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