“Did human language begin in Genesis (at the Tower of Babel)?
No scholar that I’ve read doubts that the Tower of Babel narrative is grounded in actual history in some way or another. The actual structure is commonly believed to have been a large ziggurat devoted to Marduk, a Mesopotamian god, by king Nabopolassar (c. 610 BC) (1). The general story is that the construction of this structure was to be a challenge to God (Gen. 11:4), and in response God confused their languages (Gen. 11:9). This of course would cause havoc, and the people as a result scattered (Gen. 11:8). But how do we explain the confusion of languages? Is this the place in history were all human languages originate?
In short, no; at least if one trusts the biblical testimony that precedes the Babel story. For example, before the Babel episode there are different languages already associated with the various clans that descended from the sons of Noah (Gen. 10:5; 10-12; 18b-19; 20; 30-32). In other words, languages existed in the world before the Tower of Babel came onto the scene, according to the Bible.
Secondly, the author of this narrative in Genesis employs phenomenological language whereby he is only speaking of the people groups known to him although he does so in a sort of “universal” way (2). Thus the biblical author is describing the origin of language-groups associated with the cultures in the ancient Near East at the time the text was initially composed (+- 1400 BC). This has precedent in the Genesis flood myth where the author of the “Bible uses universal language to describe local events of great significance” (3). This is also coupled with common use of “hyperbolic language to describe an event that devastated or disrupted Mesopotamian civilization” (4) So, we clearly read the universal language in the narrative (“the whole world” (Gen. 11:1-2), “all the earth” (Gen. 11:8-9), and that “over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:9-10)) which actually refers to the known world of our ancient author. This is because life 4000 years ago was very limited and anything a person knew about the world would have been very narrow. What they would know of the “world” would be confined to a local geographical area in which they lived. Our best ancient evidence, the Babylonian Map of the World, is the oldest known world map that we have. It depicts the world as two concentric circles containing sites of Assyria, Babylon, Bit Yakin, Urartu, a few other cities and geographic features all surrounded by ocean (5). This is what the “world” was to the ancients, namely being the “known” world.
Thirdly, the spreading out of languages at the Tower of Babel is widely seen by scholars to be an etiological myth in the way that it is a pre-scientific explanation of the origin of languages (6) (7) (8). This is quite understandable given the ancient context of the biblical author. So, given these several lines, I wouldn’t say that all language originated from the Babel narrative.
1. Harris, S. 2002. Understanding the Bible. p. 50–51.
2. Gordon, B. 2014. “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: A Biblical and Scientific Critique of Young-Earth Creationism” in Science, Religion and Culture, 1(3): 144-173.
3. Young, D. 1995. The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence.
4. Young, D. 1995. Ibid.
5. The Oldest Map of the World in Existence. Available.
6. Metzger, B. & Coogan, M. 2004. The Oxford Guide To People And Places Of The Bible. p. 28.
7. Levenson, J. 2004. “Genesis: introduction and annotations” in The Jewish Study Bible. p. 29.
8. Graves, R. Patai, R. 1986. Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis. p. 315.