Posts Tagged ‘Babel’

I’ve been intrigued by Biblical Hebrew’s lack of verb tenses (past, present, future) and what it might have to say about the psychology of the people who originally spoke it.

Considering the Bible account, it seems likely that Hebrew or something like it was the original human language. According to one way of thinking, the worshipers of the true God would not have gotten involved in the rebellious centralization and tower-building project of Nimrod and his cohorts, so presumably their language would not have been confused (see Gen 11:1-9). So the language of Jehovah’s true worshipers would have been preserved, and this would be the one in which the Bible got written.

Although the Bible writers were able to express ideas of past, present, and future, time as a factor in Hebrew verb expression has a relatively low priority. Rather, Hebrew verbs are expressed in two states, perfect (action completed) and imperfect (incomplete action).

Kyle M. Yates, in The Essentials of Biblical Hebrew, writes:

The time as understood in most modern languages is not the same as that of the Semitic mind. The discernment of the time of an action is not of vital importance to the Hebrew thought pattern. It is necessary for the Indo-germanic thinker only to fit the action into his overemphasized estimation of time. The understanding of the condition of the action as to its completeness or incompleteness was sufficient generally to the Semite and if not, there was some word of temporal or historical significance which would bring time into focus.

So the question is, what does this indicate about the psychology of the original speakers of this language? Did they have a different view of time from modern humans, because they had a longer lifespan (and originally the prospect of living forever)? Interestingly, the Bible encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures (Vol. 1, Watchtower, 1988) follows this line of thinking:

If, as the Bible indicates, Hebrew was the original tongue used in Eden, this lack of emphasis on verbal time may reflect the outlook of man in his perfection, when the prospect of everlasting life was before Adam and when life had not been reduced to a mere 70 or 80 years.

— ARK, 3 Dec. 2010

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I recently finished reading The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language, a fascinating book by Edenics scholar Isaac E. Mozeson.

Edenics is a linguistics project undertaken to study the original human mother tongue called Edenic, the language given to Adam in the garden of Eden. Mozeson is the leader of a group of scholars working on Edenics.

Wikipedia entries related to this idea include “Adamic Language‘” “Proto-World Language,” and “Monogenesis.”

Whereas Mozeson is an independent scholar, Merritt Ruhlen is a more credentialed linguist, a Stanford professor who advocates a monogenetic view of human language. I previously reviewed his book The Origin of Languages: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue — also a fascinating book — see my previous entry, “Ruhlen’s ‘The Origin of Language’ Points to Common Source for All Tongues.”

Mozeson is one of those investigators unlikely to receive much credence from mainstream academia. For one thing, the use of the phrase “intelligent design” in his title is likely to turn away all but the most open-minded of academics.

However, on a more substantive level, one of Mozeson’s key premises flies in the face of conventional linguistic theory, which maintains that words are for the most part arbitrary. Most linguists recognize that humans are innately programmed for language, but they maintain that the words themselves are essentially arbitrary sounds that have arisen and developed over time.

Mozeson, however, asserts that the Edenic program in the human brain naturally inclines humans to assign certain meanings to certain sounds. Humans now speak different languages because of the confusion and dispersion that took place at Babel as describe at Genesis 11:1-9 — go here to see those verses in the King James Version; here you can look them up in the modern New World Translation.

Another departure from mainstream linguistics — although a more subtle departure — is Mozeson’s reconstruction of Edenics by comparison of cognates (similar word forms found in different languages) in many languages at once. Such a method is not unknown in linguistics — this is the kind of method Ruhlen uses, as did his predecessor Joseph Greenberg, also of Stanford.

On page 50, Mozeson points to the obvious cognation of English eye with Hebrew ayin, supported by Chinese yan and Eskimo iye. However, to mainstream scholars any relation between Hebrew and non-semitic languages is anathema. Mozeson writes about such words,

They ought to be called cognates, but linguists would never concede that the English and Hebrew words share a common ancestry.

Admitting such a relationship would take academics in an uncomfortably non-atheistic direction.

Mozeson’s book provides many interesting examples of global cognates and shows their potential relationship to Biblical Hebrew, which he believes is the surviving language closest to the original Edenic. That makes sense, as Noah’s son Shem and other faithful descendants would not have joined in the rebellion at Babel and would not have had their languages confused.

On page 108, Mozeson makes a good case for an Edenic source for the English word market and its cognates in other modern languages: commerce, market, mart, mercantile, mercenary, mercer, merchant, mercury, and merchandise.

Mozeson connects all these cognates with Edenic Mem-Khaf-Resh, meaning to sell.

As another example, he asserts that

The Edenic SHOR (bull) became the Aramaic TOR (bull). This is how Latin and Spanish got words like TAURUS and toro.

While Mozeson’s ideas are interesting and worth considering, I wonder if he is too liberal in defining cognates. Is he cherry-picking?

Mozeson often connects words as cognates even if their consonants appear in a different order.

So, for example, the Edenic for word, Da[V]aR, (Daled-Bhet-Resh in Hebrew), is a permissible cognate to English WORD. Consonants have shifted through a process called metathesis so that D-V-R has become V-R-D (or WoRD).

Maybe calling on metathesis in this manner is not outside the bounds of accepted linguistic methods, but I suspect that Mozeson will be subject to criticism on this front. Critics will say he is playing fast-and-loose with the methods of comparative linguistics.

Regardless of his potential vulnerabilities, Mozeson’s work is intriguing and worthy of consideration. I do have one larger criticism, though — or perhaps it’s more of a question for consideration:

Is Edenics as currently practiced too narrow in scope?

Mozeson’s arguments seem limited to lexical issues — the words themselves and how they were changed among the different human families present at Babel and their descendants.

But should we assume that, when human languages were confused during the late third millennium BCE, only the human lexicon was involved? Could other aspects of human speech have been affected as well — grammar, modality, semantics?

ARK — 24 Oct. 2009

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From what I understand, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is just a hypothetical construct — hypothetical because no writings in PIE exist and no scripts are known that were used to write it. PIE is reconstructed based on its supposed daughter languages.

My question is whether some of the hypothetical daughter language groups — Proto-Germanic, Anatolian, Romance, Celtic, etc., might actually be remnants of the breakup at Babel around 2,000 BCE. How that breakup looked at the time is not specified in the Bible account.

PIE might have been one of the languages that emerged from the confusion. Then its speakers might have migrated north into Anatolia, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Western Asia, etc.

Or PIE might just represent similarities among various split-up language groups that came out of the confusion.

Just thinking out loud.

ARK — 28 Sept. 2009

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I recently finished reading The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue, by Stanford linguist Merritt Ruhlen.

Ruhlen’s approach to language classification and historical linguistics is controversial. Ruhlen believes there is good evidence for a “Proto-Sapiens” language that existed 30,000 or more years ago and that it is possible to identify some lexical characteristics of that language through comparative analysis of today’s language families.

Ruhlen has drawn fire in part because most historical linguists think it is impossible to reconstruct any language older than about 6,000-8,000 years. Ruhlen believes his comparative method is able to reconstruct language much older than that.

One of the most exciting aspects of The Origin of Language is that Ruhlen allows the reader to do some exercises in comparative linguistics for himself. Ruhlen provides tables of words from various languages and language families and lets you do comparisions between words to identify cognates across language groups. For example, by giving you word tables to solve, he helps you to learn experientially that the word AK’WA or something very like it is actually a global cognate and possibly a part of what Ruhlen believes was humanity’s mother tongue.

This multilateral comparative approach to historical linguistics is controversial because mainstream historical linguists traditionally use vertical reconstruction to reconstruct proto-languages. I gather that Indo-Europeanists are especially annoyed with Ruhlen because they would like to claim that Proto-Indo-European can’t be shown to be related to any other language family.

ARK — 6 July 2009

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Spading Up Ancient Words, a book written in 1984 by Dr. Erich A. von Fange is available in its entirety at this web location.

Von Fange was a professor of psychology and statistics at Concordia University, in Ann Arbor, Michigan from 1962 to 1987. He studied archaeology, ancient history, geology, and paleontology from a Biblical framework, and apparently Spading Up Ancient Words is based on some of his research.

Von Fange’s book appears to be related to Edenics (see “Does all language have a common origin?”), which makes it interesting as a resource for our purposes.

Chapter 2 contains an interesting analysis of the names used in the pre-flood world.

ARK — 19 March 2009

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Did humankind have a common language in ancient times? Did that language include a written form?

Relevant to that question, an article from today in the Daily Galaxy got my attention: “Ancient Language of Universal Symbols Discovered.”

The article connects ancient petroglyphs discovered around the world and claims that they all represent a common ancient script sometimes called Old Negev (see here for a discussion of Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, including Old Negev) and apparently called First Tongue by some (here is an unattributed article on that topic).

Here’s an interesting chart comparing glyphs found in Colorado with Hebrew. Here’s a map showing locations of petroglyphs around the world.

The Daily Galaxy and First Tongue articles seem to be written more by “fringe” researchers, but that doesn’t mean their ideas should be automatically discounted.

For a more mainstream academic approach to Petroglyphs, see the Wikipedia entry. See also the Rock Art Research Institute, which focuses primarily on African petroglyphs.

ARK — 3 March 2009

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The best-known source answering this question is Genesis 11:1-9, which says that after the Deluge all humans spoke the same language but that Jehovah confused the languages of humanity to disrupt their unification and empire-building efforts. Read the account by looking it up here in modern language or here in the King James Version.

In the academic world, the best-known current scholar who advocates a monogenesis theory of language origin is Stanford anthropology professor Merritt Ruhlen. His 1994 book The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue is very interesting and readable for the non-linguist. He includes a number of do-it-yourself exercises that allow you to reconstruct for yourself the “family trees” of the various human language families.

As I understand it, Ruhlen’s views are controversial in the linguistics community and his methods of comparing cognates among languages are criticized.

Also of interest and much more controversial is the Edenics movement (see the “Adamic language” entry at Wikipedia), which maintains that all current human tongues are based on a proto-Hebrew tongue that was confused at Babel but that continues to be the basis for all human language.

Edenics’ top evangelizer is Isaac E. Mozeson, who I believe is an independent scholar. His book The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language is interesting and charmingly non-academic in tone.

ARK — 11 February 2009

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