Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Feature or bug?
"And the whole earth was of one language, and one speech."
So begins the eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis. The next eight verses explain the origins of the multiplicity of human languages. The speakers of the single language got proud and decided to build a tower to heaven. God grew annoyed at their presumption. "Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." He did, and people have been speaking many languages ever since.
Modern anthropologists and linguists differ with the biblical version on details but most agree with its premise that human languages evolved from one to many. Yet they disagree with the authors of Genesis on the mechanism. It wasn't an irked God deliberately making languages different but accidental mutations in pronunciation and usage that took hold over time in populations separated by geography or culture.
However they originated, the thousands of human languages are one of the most striking features of life among homo sapiens. For most of the history of our species, the number of languages was growing, as humans colonized new niches.
For the last few centuries, however, the number has been shrinking. Societies aren’t as isolated from each other as they used to be, and their differences tend to erode.
Linguists and others lament the loss of languages. With each language that disappears, a slice of the human experience vanishes.
There’s definitely something to this argument. Yet there's a flip side to the story. The purpose of language is to communicate. And communication is easier when people speak the same language. The fewer the languages, the more likely people will speak the same one.
In some realms of human activity, monolingualism is mandated. Air traffic controllers around the world default to English. Midair misunderstandings can have fatal consequences.
Even where it is not required, a common language is a convenience. It facilitates commerce, government, science and other important parts of life. These advantages are what produces the selective pressure that causes less-used languages to die out.
It's not hard to imagine the trends of recent centuries continuing until humans all speak a single language, or perhaps one of a few. At which point we will be back to the start. Will God step in again and restore Babel? Will language mutate and differentiate as it did long ago? Or will the single language constitute a stable equilibrium that lasts indefinitely?
To predict what God will do is presumptuous—the sort of thing that got the tower-builders into trouble. Better not to go there. Another round of accidental mutation and differentiation seems unlikely, given that human populations are not separated from each other the way they once were. A stable equilibrium seems the likeliest outcome.
But not a necessary outcome. A metaphorical reading of Genesis might substitute human pride for God in causing languages to diverge. Perverse humans had their own reasons to speak differently.
Communication isn’t the only purpose language serves. It marks out different groups. Sometimes this is done quite consciously. Teenagers are constantly devising new slang to confuse their parents. Individuals engaged in a common activity speak in jargon that sets them apart. The Gileadites—in the book of Judges—distinguished themselves from the Ephraimites by the inability of the latter to pronounce the word shibboleth. Scores of thousands of Ephraimites were slain for hissing when they should have been shushing.
Language has been a point of nationalist pride. Nationalist groups emphasize the languages that set their people apart: Catalan and Basque in regions of Spain; Irish (Gaeilge) in Ireland; Hawaiian in Hawaii; Ukrainian (not Russian) in Ukraine; and many others. The founders of Israel reached two millennia into the past to make Hebrew their country’s language.
On balance, the forces that lead to the loss of languages are still greater than those pushing back. A century from now there almost certainly will be fewer languages than there are today. But we’ll probably never get to just one. A little Babel seems built into the human soul.