The Fall of Babel

Languages: there are thousands of the things, although you may only encounter a handful in your everyday life – they’re a bit like religions, in a way. Languages are related to each other and can be grouped into “families,” and it’s this concept that a recent (approximately a month old) That’s a Fact video, Language Families, alludes to:

It looks like it’s been so long since I last tried to embed these that they’ve forgotten to prevent me. Use the link if it stops working.

Here’s a transcript:

Traveling to another country? If you don’t know the language, the people around you might sound like they’re babbling. But where does the word “babel” come from? Well, the Hebrew word babel means mixed, or confusion, and it was the name of a famous place in what is now Iraq.

What would be useful to know is whether Babel (i.e. Babylon) was so named because of its connection with this story, which might go some way to actually supporting this story, or whether the word comes from the already-named city, with the connotations stemming from the story.

The book of Genesis says that everyone used to speak the same language, and out of rebellion against God they gathered together under the dictator Nimrod and built a tower at Babel.

The story of the tower of Babel is contained in Genesis 11:1-9, but Nimrod is not actually mentioned in those passages. His only biblical claim to fame, in fact, comes from the previous chapter (Genesis 10:8-10):

10:8 And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth.
10:9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD.
10:10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

The connection between him and the tower (and his being a “dictator” or “tyrant”) comes from the idea that presumably he must have been King as it was constructed, that his name is supposed to be related to the Hebrew word for “rebel” (but again, is that because the word for rebel is associated with him?), claimed similarities between him and Gilgamesh, and other, increasingly extra-biblical sources. The point is that the book of Genesis doesn’t say half of what people think the book of Genesis says.

The Genesis 11 story implies that all the people of the Earth settled in Babel, and immediately began constructing their tower only to be scattered. If the “beginning of [Nimrod’s] kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh” that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was responsible for the firsts founding, as he could have simply come to power there after the confusion (he certainly had power then, as Erech etc would only then have come to be). But then I may just be reading to much into a myth.

So God destroyed the tower and mixed the one language into many. Since they couldn’t understand each other the people went off to discover new land, and fulfill God’s command to fill the Earth.

I’m not sure why, exactly, this would have caused them to scatter, rather than staying home to try to understand each other. Did God tell them that different cultures shouldn’t live together? I also don’t see where Genesis says that God destroyed the tower, merely that construction ceased.

Genesis documents about 70 different language families, called the Table of Nations, and archeology has confirmed these language groups by studying people groups today.

“Archeology”? The ICR may be thinking of comparative linguistics, or some such field, though that doesn’t mean that looking at ancient cultures is irrelevant.

For instance, Egyptians identify themselves with the word spelled as “MISR.” This traces back to the word in Genesis verses 10:6: Mizraim, the customary name for Egypt in the bible.

Modern Egypt is officially known as Ǧumhūriyyat Miṣr al-ʿArabiyyah – the Arab Republic of Egypt – but I think this is because the Arabs brought the word “Misr” with them from their traditions, and not because the Egyptians have been calling themselves that since the literal, not at all mythical days of Mizraim, son of Ham, son of Noah.

And the number of language families is about the same as the table of nations.

This is perhaps the closest thing to actual evidence provided here, but it doesn’t really work. The exact number of language families varies depending on how you count, and while you could arrive at a figure of “about 70,” you could also come up with a much smaller or even larger number. That’s not really confirmation of the biblical account.

The Yeniseian language family in Siberia, and the North American Na-dené language family share the same grammatical construction – and they’re on opposite sides of the planet.

Yes, on the flat, Europe-centered map presented here (at 1:15) North America and Siberia are a world away, but in the words of Sarah Palin:

They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.

Dené-Yeniseian language familyTo be fair, the actual part of Siberia that the Yeniseian family occupies is some distance away from the western edge of the Na-dené group, but the video colours the whole of Siberia and North America as if they were each monolithic. And in the next couple of sentences they do recognize that you can travel between the two regions.

Clearly, these two families were once one language. They probably separated when their forefathers traveled during the post-flood ice age when the sea level was lower and land bridges let them travel from continent to continent by foot.

Their return to accuracy – the whole “post-flood” bit notwithstanding – only confuses things more. I thought they were trying to show that languages were different, not that they are similar and related even above the family level? What they should see is around 70 distinct language groups that have no genetic relation to each other, not that they came from even earlier groups.

Still, the video concludes:

So remember that while you’re globe trotting each new language you hear is not really new. Each word is more evidence of the accuracy of God’s word.

It looks to me like the curse of Babel has affected the ICR as well – they’ve made a particularly confusing and muddled argument in this video, even more so than usual.

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