Tower of Babel vs Linguistics – the quest for the first language

Tower of Babel vs Linguistics – the quest for the first language


The Tower of Babel, the story of how one original
language shattered into many, was one of humanity’s early attempts to explain languages. Thousands of years later, linguists investigated
exactly how languages evolved. When they put the pieces together though,
did it look anything like the Babel story? Or was this just a tall tale? So the story goes, the whole earth once spoke
the same language. (Reading Hebrew) vaihi khól ha-‘árets sáfa
‘eháth One day they traveled to the land of Šin‘ar
where they worked together to build a city with a migdal, a tower to reach to the skies. Their Supreme Deity wasn’t having it though
and scrambled their language so they could no longer understand each other. This story stuck. Jewish writers speculated what the original
“Adamic language” was and how many tongues it split into. Was it 70 or 72? A Persian contended Adamic might be Syriac,
while this Syrian went with Hebrew. Europeans claimed everything from Swedish
to… Irish, which apparently just picked out the
best bits of those 72 original flavors. Still, Hebrew remained the prime candidate. After all, it’s the language of the story,
right? Details changed but the interpretation held:
one original tongue, at a single place and time, broke into a bunch of distinct languages,
in order to keep people from coordinating and understanding each other. Then came the 17 and 1800’s. Explorers and trade routes shrank the world. Distant people discovered each other’s languages
for the first time. Intrigued scholars found common patterns that
shifted our view of the world’s languages. Some languages consistently looked a tweak
away from each other. Take Arabic and Hebrew ðiʾib and zəʾev,
ðakar and zaḵar. Behind these words there’s a regular sound
correspondence: where Arabic has ðāl, Hebrew has zain. These were cognates, the same word evolving
differently in different languages. Comparing cognates, a picture emerged of a
family tree! Walking back up the branches of the tree,
you could reconstruct the common ancestor. But testing this method in the wild world,
the trails of cognates didn’t lead back to a single proto-language. No, there were clusters of closely and distantly
related languages belonging to separate families. English, Irish, Greek and even Sanskrit were
clearly part of an Indo-European language family. From the South China Sea to the Eastern Pacific,
the languages of Austronesia all shared their own common ancestor. And Hebrew, once dubbed the original language,
fit snuggly among its kin, one twig of an Afroasiatic family. It wasn’t even the “purest” or best preserved
twig. For example, it wore away consonant distinctions
that its relatives, Aramaic and Arabic, kept. Also, change turned out to be something languages
were doing naturally, all of the time. Babel still held one intriguing idea over
us, though: that original language. See, reconstructions dead-ended several thousand
years back. Beyond that, historical linguists started
to feel like they simply had nothing to say. Nothing to say, eh? Well, tie your own hands, but you can’t hold
back a maverick! So you established families and reconstructed
parent languages. Well, why not do the same thing again: compare
proto-languages for cognates and build families on top of families? Families are coming together! It’s a superfamily!! Enter the late Joseph Greenberg. Classify languages first, he said, then compare
and reconstruct. Classify first? Yes, it’s called Mass Comparison! Take a huge number of languages and look for
patterns in them. Patterns in vocabulary, but also in their
typology, the comparative structure of the world’s languages. You know, stuff like: how many vowels does
it have? What’s its basic word order? He cast his net wide and caught some huge
superfamilies. Indo-European, Turkic, Mongolian, Japanese
and more belong to Eurasiatic. And, this one drew tons of flak, but the complicated
languages of the Americas are one happy Amerind family. Then in the 90’s Merritt Ruhlen ran all the
way. He compared vocabulary from across the globe
and reconstructed 27 proto-words. Here it was: our first look at the parent
of all living tongues, Proto-World! Or Proto-Human or Proto-Sapiens if that’s
your style. Proto-World had words like *tik, *ku, *ma,
*akwa, *kuna! A decade later, he went after the typology
of Proto-World. Apparently, our ancestors spoke their sentences
with a subject, then an object, then a verb. They put adjectives before nouns. And instead of prepositions, they used postpositions. Were we finally staring into the face, or
the tongue, of that long-lost original language? Historical linguists said, neh, and they tore
into these results. These short words could easily be chance look-alikes! You can’t account for borrowings! The meanings of your “cognates” are all over
the place! Your flimsy method lets you base reconstructions
on irrelevant evidence! Thus, they confidently tossed Mass Comparison
into the bins of fringe linguistics. Pseudoscience. And yet Babel’s first and biggest claim lingers. The mavericks still swear we’re onto something. Are we? Or are they telling another tall tale? Stick around and subscribe for language.

100 comments

  1. You're Hebrew is weird and heavily affected by Ivrit. If only because you put the stress on the ultimate syllable in every word, which is not the case.

    Anyway, the Bible story is not that G-d created languages there, because the Bible–right before that very story–lists that different families had different languages. (It's also a little strange because suh-fuh (edge, riverbank, mustache) is not even the usual word for language, as that honor goes to luh-shone (tongue).) Instead, there were already plenty of languages extant, but they also had a universal language, which was presumed to be Hebrew. At the Tower, G-d took away that language, or at least mixed up their usage of it.

    Fwiw, Jewish belief is that there were 70 prime languages other than Hebrew, though Aramaic and Hebrew are considered distinct, so your classification might be different.

    I just found your channel and am loving it. The extra little animations you throw in much appreciated. Thank you for a job well done.

  2. Is it possible that people spread around the world and developed different languages after their populations isolated? Nah, they built a fucking tower.

  3. ‘MERICAN is the only important language in the world anyways. So call me don, but I don’t give a flying frick.

  4. Fun fact…. Japan , Korea , China are separate language families completley evolving by themselves… despite all three cultures sharing sooo many similarities. Korea is even comprised of 60% or so Chinese and Japanese words. Then another 5% English loan words. People often think Japanese and Korean.. or Korean and Chinese are related. They are actually complete differnt families, evolving separately.

  5. C'mon, how simplistic was that video? If homo-sapiens originated in Africa, as current genetic theory holds, then obviously any candidate for a proto language would have to be of African descent, and since we are talking tens of thousands of years back, and we know how easily languages mutate even within a space of 100 years, it would be impossible to reconstruct such a language. And of course it's very likely that geographically disparate groups may have come up with protolanguages separately. And who still believes in the Tower of Babel story, that's as naff as saying that the world was created in 6 days… I was expecting the title to this video to simply be a metaphor for something deeper – I was wrong!

  6. Logically, if humans (by which I mean Homo sapiens sapiens) had a single origin point then that original group would have had a single language. Since as far as I know humans did in fact originate in one particular area in the Horn of Africa, then yes, there almost was a single original language, which i've seen referred to as Ursprach, though I'd be extremely doubtful about attempts at reconstructing it.

  7. I personally don't believe in the theory that the first human being is transferred from Africa .It may happens that at different part of world different human species are evolved in approximately same period of time an all the different species of human develop there own language according to there geographical location

  8. It doesn't appear that western and southern sub-saharan languages were include. Perhaps that's a missing piece of the puzzle.

  9. just do not read the bible it confuses people . there is not original language there was 7 languages as there are 7 races.

  10. Most of human history lays in a verbal ,and not written period,therefore i believe is impossible to go back so far ,where to find the first language.Anyway right know is agreed that it started in Africa,where the humanity originated.

  11. We must be careful, because spoken language is quite a different issue than written language. Please, hear me:
    In order to more properly identify where the first languages came from, one would have to follow the lineage of spoken languages and not necessarily the lineage of written texts. Why? Many may have spoken completely different tongues, and yet adopted a similar algorithm and style of organized writing.
    In fact, listening to similarities in speech such as Turkic and Mongolic would be a viable way of determining a common ancestor of speech. It can be done today, listen to Portuguese, then listen to Spanish, then listen to English… and the common ancestor? Or was there a mixture of common ancestors?
    One would have to take into account conquering kingdoms such as Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, Rome… didn't they have influence on world languages? World texts? How would these events change our orderly timeline of text and speech?

    What were the first forms of organized text? These may be pictographic texts such as Egyptian or Mayan writing. Yet if the first and father of modern organized written text was introduced after the Tower of Babel, then following the trail of written texts to determine where spoken languages came from would be impossible.
    Is there evidence for a "father" of written text? (a singular origin of modern characters)

    Having a set of common ancestor languages would approve of the Bible's record. Having one singular ancestor would seemingly not approve, yet is there a singular tongue, or a singular text that is original?
    If modern organized written text originated in one place, you would see a common ancestor in writing styles. At the same time, people groups would be speaking differently, yet sharing the same ancestor of organized text. Many different spoken languages may have adopted a single similar written text base. Is there proof of this? Yes.

    Hebrew's origin appears to be proto-Aramaic (we're talking about written text and speech), so Biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, etc. and the Afro-Asiatic languages all have a common ancestor in text and speech.
    But wait, Latin sounds completely different, and yet shares a common ancestor of proto-Aramaic stylized text… how do we explain this?

  12. I am amazed at the extent to which all the tendentious claims have been made about the origin of languages and some letters, but without taking into account one of the largest groups of languages, and these are the Slavic languages.
    Also, history is not taken into account, many are overwhelmed, so in some attachments there are complete inaccuracies.
    The contributions from all videos are as if the history of the past 80 years is only taken into account.
    At least read the information about the Vienna Congress of Great Powers from 1814-1815.
    When somebody who speaks in the Slavic language is hearing or reading the Sanskrit language, how to much there are similarity.
    Also with Persian.
    Not to mention the words from the Vedas that we use in coomon speackin till now:
    Voda = water , vodka =small water
    Vid , videti = sight, to see
    Ved , vedati , pripovedati =to tell
    Uvideti = to know
    vada = deep
    Vidati = to heal
    Sutra = tomorrow
    Uch , Uchiti = learn, learn
    Svastika = sister in law
    Sad , sada = now
    Saditi = to take seads on ground
    Sedeti = have a seat
    Vatra = the fire
    Um = the mind Om , omaja =misleading
    Bojati = be afraid of
    Svrati = to come back , to come here
    Boriti = to fight
    mati , matera = mother
    Dom = home with roof
    Stan = apartment, place for sleap.
    ……to many…

  13. First language came from Elda. Noah migrated to middle east asia brought by great flood. Elda language was spoken in Ancient Babilonia! Until God gave confusion to the arrogant humans by putting new language to their mouth. That Elda is present day Philippines!the closest language to first human language is Tagalog!

  14. (PIE) = proto Indo Europian, Language, this don’t have anything to Europian lango( east/West Europe language family), for example- En Anna Va( Hebrew/Sumerian/Akkadian/Korean/ Tamil/Elamite)= My Brother come/English, or ( Milk-English), = Pal ( Tam+ Sum + Akkadian),

  15. Languages have obviously mixed and died out. So we all speak something with multiple inheritance. And there have been loots of languages that have died out with maybe some traces left in current languages.

  16. The flaw in proto-language is that there was never a proto-population. People have always been diverse, whether it's now or 100K years ago.

  17. Before being written, it's spoken.
    Before being spoken, it's thought.
    Our brains, and the mind they create as a sustained self, are compelled by accidents (spoken, written) to express the output of the mind's brain through rules for the spoken and written languages.

  18. I believe Malay is the first human language and even the language of divine paradise/heaven because it sounds so beautiful and elegant as well as soothing; even more beautiful, elegant, soothing, pleasant, gentler, smoother and cooler than english, spanish, italian, french and all the world languages put together! ^^

  19. Hey NativLang! As always your videos are a delight, informative enough to still be interesting to someone with a little more linguistic knowledge (certainly more fun than much of the dusty literature on the topic), while still being understandable and accessible to someone without background knowledge. I say this as someone who not too long ago pulled all their linguistics knowledge from self-studies and youtube, while by now I've actually taken it to heart and made it my major in university. I have a suggestion/request/topic that could be fun, in the unlikely case you ever read this comment. I'm just going to somewhat copy the comment that I posted on Xidnaf's video on Proto-World, if that is alright with you 🙂

    While I love this video and Proto-World is a fun thought-experiment, I personally love the Isolate theory far more, not only because I feel it is much more consistent with current understanding than the idealized Greenberg-y Babel-theory (that would practically require language to come from a single Adam and Eve, which is just not realistic), but also because it would mean that language diversity would have been indefinitely higher in pre-history. This would have been due to the small and isolated hunter-gatherer tribes of humans dappled all over the globe and not really coming into contact much for the vast majority of the history of our species (and likely even before that), which is just far more interesting than every language coming from a single ancestor (which we couldn't even hope to ever reconstruct anyway).

    I love language family trees as much as the next guy, but isolates don't get enough love. They show so many possibilities about human speech that we wouldn't even consider if we just looked at the few huge language families that are slowly sucking up all that diversity into a melting pot and called it a day. Isolates and tiny language families are often treated as the exception, even though at least 2/3 of all existing language families have less than 6 members, often only 2 or 3, and more than 150 CURRENTLY KNOWN languages (not counting extinct ones) are considered complete isolates. In reality, those huge families like PIE, Semitic and so on, are far more of an exception, or rather a comparatively recent phenomenon that arose through conquest, migration and colonialisation.

    And while I'm at it, while I'm by no means any kind of expert (shoddy 2nd sem linguist here), I feel like citing Greenberg's shallow and flawed mass-comparisons as support for a Proto-world without an explanation as to why they're so controversial is a little shaky. I realize that the entire theory is shaky, but i think you know what I mean. Campbell and the others actually have a fair point, there are only so many sounds the human body can produce, some of which are unmarked, easier and therefore more common than others, thus certain sound combinations repeat themselves naturally across languages that aren't the least bit related. The entire topic of macro-families IS incredibly speculative of course, and as I said, I defintiely see the appeal, but in my opinion, just from looking at both available literature and youtube-content, not enough light is shed on the other side of the discussion, which is a shame. Everyone (understandably) always jumps onto the idea of a mother language for all of humanity, because it is simple and idealistic, and certainly also because our brain is hard-wired to find patterns in anything, even where none exist but chance. I would love to see a video that touches the topic of isolates and their implications a little more!

    Anyway, thanks again for the awesome content you continuously provide, and whatever you do, have a nice day, week, year, and so on 🙂

  20. I'd say there had to be some kind of proto-language at some point, but what it was and how it was spoken is a thing we would need a time machine to investigate.

  21. @ 1:12 – The scripture doesn't say God created new languages. It says God confused their speech, meaning He took away their language. So every language, post Babel, is man made. What's interesting is that from the Flood to Babel, was 400 years, in which time they spread from Ararat to Shinar and built 8 cities: Calneh, Akkad, Uruk, Babel, Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah & Resen.

    So there has to be a trace of a common script, from Ararat through all 8 cities of Shinar & Assyria.
    But it cannot be Cunieform, nor pictographic summerian, as they are both related to the Aramaic / Hebrew language family, which is a post Babel language.

    I suspect the Elites have already found many artifacts from, that 400 year period, with the original language on it, but have horded it away, to prevent lending any credibility to the Holy Hebrew Scriptures.

  22. Everyone knows geez is the first language on the planet. Which comes from Eritrea and North Ethiopia. Also where the first person is from on earth. Coincidence, I don't think so. It's sad that the Greeks and Jews, Arabs, learned everything they know from this region and didn't give the proper respect when it was due. Now the truth is upon us. It's also recorded that this region is the land of Punt later known as Hamasian land of HAM/Asian the Tigrinya people are still the biggest population of Eritrea and north Ethiopia and still known as the Hamasian people. I am a Ethiopian professor of History in London, England.

  23. Well, even if you're not religious, science suggests that humans all came from one place in Africa, and they must have formed the beginnings of what we know as language. Ergo, we can infer that humans spoke a common language at one point, and separate languages evolved as groups of people went their separate ways and became isolated from one another. Moreover, there is one particular region that's credited with being the place of the dawn of civilization.

  24. The story of Babel talks about how one language was at the beginning and suddenly all of these other languages appeared at once. It has nothing to do with one original language that evolved into current languages. How the heck did you miss the fact that those two are mutually exclusive? The fact that we cannot find an original mother tongue from which all others evolved is actually evidence that the story is true. I'm not saying that I believe or that you should, but to ignore this huge detail and not even address it as a question is a huge disservice to your channel. I think that you got your wires crossed on this one.

  25. In an experiment we looked at, there were birds who were deprived of birdsong from their parents so they didn't learn to sing birdsong, and the sounds they vocalized were described as "harsh-sounding". However, after 2 generations or so, their vocalizations started to resemble birdsong again, despite never having had exposure to birdsong before. This led to speculation that if you shut off an infant from any language contact, for a few generations, they may start to speak Proto-human. (I'm assuming this draws on the theory that language is innate though). I think this was called "the forbidden experiment" because it's unethical to do it to a baby.

  26. I would think that whether or not language came from one proto language would depend on whether or not Homo sapiens actually developed the ability to communicate with speech while being located in one general geographic area right? If people started moving around before being able to communicate with language, it makes more sense that there would be multiple proto languages. And doesn't it make more sense to look for patterns in words that it would have been necessary to communicate originally? Like I read that one hypothesis on the origin of language is that it may have been a way for caretakers to communicate with their children when they were just out of sight hunting/gathering. And of course there probably were ways to communicate other things like how to make tools or where to find food. It would make sense to look for patterns in words that would have communicated those concepts. but also there's some difficulty because culture influences language a lot. How do we know that the first human culture emerged after language and not that language emerged as a way of expressing more complex culture? Anyway interesting video. Really got me thinking.

  27. Its okay to call this mysterious deity “God”. Also, the people were split by God into probably unrelated languages. You cant disprove that this happened. But a very interesting subject, I love linguistics, dont get me wrong. But I dont feel it goes in the way of the Bible. In many cases it enhances it, really

  28. We call the first language paleo-Hebrew today it is the first language.
    This is the same as dating fossil by the geologic column and the geologic column by the fossils, just because you invent a classification doesn't magically give you the right to invent a time line out of pure fantasy just to fit your theory.
    The more you study the Bible and real observable science the more obvious it becomes that the Bible is absolutely historically correct.

  29. Obviously there had to be less languages back in the day than now. And i have no idea what prof you have or where you go to school, but the single parent language ISN'T far-fetched.

  30. 4:15 OH MY GOD IN ITALIAN WE SAY "ACQUA" FOR "WATER" AND IT'S EXACTLY THE SAME PRONUNCIATION OF "AKWA"

  31. In terms of the actual myth, God could've split one common tongue, which theists would probably assume was the tongue which god spoke or something w/e, into a number WITHOUT much or any, or derivational, commonality. This would fit into the story and create our current observations, a number of families all derived from the various proto-languages which can't be traced back. I wouldn't say this is the case, but it fits with observation and the linguistic-creation myth.

  32. The acquisition of a primitive language occurred in a population of Homo erectus after a 2nd duplication of the SRGAP2 allele at 2.4 million years ago. Language has had about two million years to diversify in various human populations.

    The Pleistocene Period, beginning about 1.8 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago began a period of constancy and continuity that promoted the evolution of hominids on the African savannahs.  There are a constellation of genes that govern intelligence in primates and humans, the IGF2 receptor gene, GABA receptors, COMT and ASPM and VAMT2 (the "spirituality" gene) included but we don't have the genomes of most prehistoric hominids but the evolution of general intelligence in early hominids did leave  indicators on their cranial endocasts that signaled the development of abstract thought (the ability necessary to conceive of a supreme or father/mother being), those being the areas identified with the use of language.  These are the Broca's Area consisting of Brodman's areas 44 and 45 on the inferior third frontal convolution on the left hemisphere,
    temporo-parietal region and the Wernike's Area at the temporo-parietal lobes.  These areas can be seen in a lower developed state in the Chimp brain (Yes, chimps have very rudimentary language as anyone, like myself, who
    has studied them can attest), a  slightly larger state of development in Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus (Holloway, 2004), in Homo habilis and increasing levels of development in H. erectus, sapiens, sapiens neandertalensis.  Nothing is a better "signal" of the ability to abstract than the development of speech and language.  I am a "language freak" and I believe it developed during the environmental constancy of the lower Pleistocene as groups of hominids became organized hunter-gatherers and communicated with each other
    with signals, perhaps imitations of birds, animals and natural sounds. Relics of this earliest "language" may survive in the South African Khoisan "click"  languages. Anyone who thinks Homo erectus got in groups to the area of Peking/Beijing without language is way off the mark.  I think the acquisition of language, however primitive in syntax, was the identifying feature of the Genus Homo.

  33. Nice video man <3 Searching as a non linguist didn't lead to a satisfying result but your vid did. Thanks a lot <3

  34. I feel like the most likely option is that there were two, or at most three, original proto languages that developed independantly

  35. The first human original language was Hebrew, it was the language of Adam and Eve. and their offspring. Babel was the origin of dispersed people and all languages and all sensible people.
    For idiots that sprang up recently believing in so called evolution; maybe you nincompoopts did evolve from chimpanzees’ since you all think with monkey brains. 😆😂😂🤣

  36. متحدثي الإنجليزية يعتقدون أنهم كل شيء في هذا العالم وأن لغتهم هي اللغة القوية !!

    ههههههههههههههههههههههه أين العرب المتخبئون

  37. Or the original pre-Babel language doesn't exist anymore and it was obliterated when all of the other languages were generated…

  38. The word for “I” in these languages:

    P.I.E: mi
    Finnish: mena
    Nepali: m

    (The first one is a proto, but the other two aren’t)

  39. Well there was most certainly an original proto-language, according to paleo-records humans migrated around the world. If you follow that logic backward there would inevitably be a point of origin for modern people and their language would be the first language spoken. But recent evidence suggests that human migration began before homosapien.

  40. As awesome as it would be and as much as I wish there was a first language, I'm gonna have to accept the theory that languages were created numerous times in different parts of the world, and they all evolved into more languages.

  41. The first language (tongue) was uttered by God. The first language was “the truth.” The language that was confused WAS NOT the first language (the truth).

    The one language spoken of at Gen 11:1 that was confused was not the first language. It was a language not of truth, not of God. Attempting to identify what that language was is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it was not the language of God (the truth).

    Today, this world is full of languages in which truth is not spoken. These are languages of men. Via these languages, many veritable Towers of Babel have been constructed that glorify men and not God.

    What was confused long ago was the one thought process of a world that sought to make its own way apart from God which would not have been in fulfillment of Gods purpose for His earth.

    Today, we see a world confused and divided because it does not know the one true language: The Truth.

  42. MWT=MWRT=MVRT=MORT
    MN=reMAIN, reMNant
    RA=RA (Egypt to Polynesia ???)
    Search Wiktionary for these words in Ancient Egyptian
    Te/Ta/To=Te/Ta/To (PIE to Polynesia ???)

    PIE to Chinese
    Ti Ni 你
    Ta/To/Te Na, Nei (colloquial) 那, Proto-Mon-Khmer *nɔ'

  43. Proto-world seems a lot more natural to me than esperanto or toki pona, is there a proto-world language course or textbook anywhere?

  44. For sure it wasn't Aramaic or Hebrew…stop putting these letters and language that they were first..enough with your nonsense…they are not the beginning of anything!

  45. The tower of Babel story never says that there was a root language only that there was a common language that all humanity spoke. The text says that the Lord confounded their language.

    So it actually makes sense that their are many root languages. This common language is lost forever.

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