/* */ Rosa Rubicondior: Talking Bible Babble

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Talking Bible Babble

Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)
Continuing the theme in my blog yesterday on the Bible's disconnect from reality, here's an amusing tale from Hebrew mythology tucked away in the Bible, telling of an act of their tribal god:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9

So, if this happened in the real world and the god described was an omniscient god, what would we expect to find? The god's clear intent was that people should not be able to understand one another, so we should see language groups rubbing shoulders on their borders with people who speak an entirely unrelated language. We would expect people speaking similar languages to be separated by great distances so that the chance of them coming up against people who could make a reasonable guess at what they were saying was virtually zero. We would expect to find people speaking a language similar to English to live in, say, South-east Asia or South America, and people who speak a language like Swedish to be found in Africa or Siberia. And of course, we would expect to find people speaking a Bantu language as far away from South Africa as possible, say in Canada, Norway or Australia.

Is this what we find?

Of course not. That's what the Bible predicts we should find so we can be fairly sure reality isn't going to be anything like that.

What we find is a reality about as far away from that as it's possible to get. We find precisely the opposite of what the Bible forecasts, of course.

I'll illustrate this with a few language maps I found with a few clicks on Google.

Well, that's the reality which, as we can see is a very different thing to the one we would expect if the myth of the Tower of Babel in the Bible was correct.

What we see in reality is exactly what we would expect to see if language is an evolving cultural thing which we inherit from our cultures and our parent generation along with our other memes. We see diversification occurring due to isolation for various reasons like political borders, isolating valleys and mountain ranges, different religions or religious sects, etc. We also see remnant populations of earlier language groups isolated within larger populations like the Basques of North-eastern Spain and South-western France.

Some years ago on a night shift, I had been reading Beowulf, the earliest known work in Early English, with translation, obviously. One of my assistants, who is Anglo-Norwegian and speaks both languages fluently as well as Danish, Swedish and German, picked it up with a half-dismissive, "what's this you're reading now?", then she said, "Hey! I can read this, almost! Why are you reading old Danish?" Of course she was right. Beowulf is no more English than it is Danish or Dutch. It was written in a language ancestral to, or at least close to one which was ancestral to Dutch and Danish and close to Swedish and Norwegian.

"Beowulf methelode, bearn Ecgtheowes; 'Hwaet, thu worn fela, wine win Unferth, beorne druncen, ymb Breccan spreace, suaegdest from his sithe. Soth ic talige thaet ic merestrengo maran ahte, aerfetho on ythum, thonne aenig other man.

[Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow: "Well, Unferth my friend, drunk with beer you have talked a great deal about Brecca, told of his adventures. I claim for a fact that I have greater strength in the sea, hardship of the waves, than any other man.]

One of my favourite language groups is the so-called Celtic groups found in the extreme edge of Western Europe. This group is split into two main groups: the Goedelic and Brythonic groups, also called p-Celtic and q-Celtic. They are the Irish and Scots Gaelic, and Welsh languages. They also include Manx (close to Irish Gaelic with some Welsh), Cornish, Breton from France and Galician from Spain (all close to Welsh). They are ancient languages, possibly related to the language spoken in Western Europe before the Roman conquest and maybe even to Cythian, though it's not at all certain that the modern Celts are the same people as the Keltoi, as the Greeks called them or the people the Romans called Gauls.

The terms p-Celtic and q-Celtic come from the ancient words for 'son of' or more precisely, 'of the clan of', map and maq in Welsh and Gaelic respectively. These have become the modern Ap (or Ab) in Welsh and Mac in Scots and Irish Gaelic. How many people today have the name Bevan (Ab Evan), Pritchard (Ap Richard) or Probert (Ap Robert) and how many millions of Macs and Mcs are there? So we can trace these family names back to early origins in earlier languages and to the culturally related device of using a clan name as a surname.

The Celtic word for king is also interesting. Forms of it appear in other related modern languages. It is words like this which show how languages are related. The Gaelic for king is rí. This word takes the form rex in Latin, roi in French and raj in Hindi and Urdu, so showing, along with many other words, how Gaelic, Latin and Hindi are all members of the Indo-European family of languages. From this word, (via medieval French) we get the English words Royal, Regal and Reign. Yes. We still speak a local dialect of Indo-European.

The distribution, differences and similarities of human languages is precisely what we would expect of something which evolved and is still evolving. It is exactly the opposite of what we would see it they had been been spontaneously created by an intelligent god, especially if the intention was to make it so people from neighbouring countries couldn't understand one another. Had the god of the Bible forgotten that people can learn to speak different languages?

Again, the disconnect between the Bible and reality is exposed with a brief look at reality.

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  1. So God was worried by Babel's planned urban development? They obviously didn't get devopment application approval from Yahweh! It would be interesting to know the maximum height a brick/slime structure could sustain and compare it to today's skyscrapers. The bible certainly is unintelligible.

  2. dawkinsassange

    I wondered that too, then I found a picture of it. As you can see it was quite big :-)

  3. It is strange that today we have electronic translators that make speaking to each other in different languages possible, no wrath of God. We also went to the moon without any wrath from God. These are the two reasons this fairy tales gives for God's action. I guess Jehovah has evolved or perhaps doesn't give a shit anymore about what we do..

  4. Thiese verses also show the bible is fiction because the lord would not have to come down if he were omnipresent.

  5. and in a modern sense: We hear constant reference to the 'English Speaking World' But I would suggest that there are even now countless variations of 'Modern english' even among the British isles, Canada, USA, Australia, South Africa and others.
    Indeed, it is not uncommon to find that residents of one part of an 'English speaking' country have difficulty with the language of residents of another part of the same country
    Would that English is the language of London, whilst those across the Atlantic conversin 'American' while we downunder use the Australian language, albeit all similar, although only because of modern electronic means of communication moderating the diversity.
    Then go somewhere like the Philippines, and Whoa! Old American and Tagalog resulting in Taglish, but they persist in calling it English

  6. I wonder why having language all mixed up would thwart the builders from completing their plans. If they were all friendly and congenial before the event, all they had to do was work out a common language, at least a few nouns and verbs, so that they could continue to buy the materials they were buying and the workers could continue to do the work they already were doing. The God of the Bible is so inept and mean spirited! And the writers so poor at creating fiction!

  7. Apparently, someone complained to Facebook that this article is abusive so FB censored it. I hadn't realised FB was acting as a Christian censor for inconvenient arguments.


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