One of the most interesting events in the Torah is the incident of the Tower of Babel. The Torah (Beresheet 11:1-9)
relates that at one time everyone spoke the same language, and they assembled together to build a mighty structure – the Tower of Babel. Gd was displeased with this plan, and He dispersed the people and “confounded their language.” This population dispersal led to the development of different nations and gave rise to the various different languages of the ancient world.
And Gd said, “Behold, they are onepeople with one language, and this is what they begin to do. What they propose to do should be withheld from them. Let us descend and confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s language.” And Gd dispersed them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because from there G-d confused their language and scattered them over the whole earth.
The account of the Tower of Babel offers no details about which peoples and languages developed as a result of the dispersal of the population. This information is given earlier, in chapter 10 of Beresheet, which is devoted to the genealogy of Noah’s threesons: Shem, Ham, and Yefet. Each of Noah’s sons is described as the progenitor of more than 10 nations, and a list is given for each son. Of specific interest to us is the fact that the dispersal of Noah’s descendants did not simply result in separate peoples, but also led to the development of separate languages, as explicitly stated in the Torah:
From these [descendants of Yefet] were separated in their lands – each according to its language, by their families, in their nations. (10:5)
These are the descendants of Ham, by their families, by their languages, in their lands, in their nations. (10:20)
These are the descendants of Shem according to their families, by their languages, in their lands, by their nations. (10:31)
Scholars do not agree on the exact geographical locations of the various Noahide languages, but such differences in detail are not relevant for our discussion. We shall compare the development of the Noahide languages, as related in the Torah, with the latest findings in linguistic research. In the eyes of many, the Torah’s description of the spread of languages reads more like a mythological tale than a realistic account of past events. However, in contrast to this widespread misconception, we shall see that the Torah text is, in fact, in agreement with recent discoveries in comparative linguistics.
The Languages Of Shem And Ham
The Semitic and Hamitic languages, attributed to the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem and Ham, are all related, and linguists classify them as belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family of languages (in the linguistic context, “Afro” means North African and “Asiatic” means Middle Eastern). The Afro-Asiatic languages of the ancient world included Hebrew, Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Aramaic, Amorite, Moabite, and Cushite. All these names are familiar from the Book of Genesis.
Because of the close correspondence between these ancient languages and the names appearing in the Torah, they were previously called the Hamito-Semitic family of languages. However, linguists now prefer the term Afro-Asiatic.
It is the Yefetide languages that raise difficult questions about the Torah’s account of the spread of languages. As we will
see, however, the Torah and modern linguistics are, in fact, in close agreement.
The Languages Of Yefet
The most interesting feature of the Yefetide languages is their vast geographical scope. As the accompanying map shows, the Yefetide languages listed in the Torah were spoken throughout Europe and deep into Asia. The European branch of the Yefetide languages extends from Greece through Germany and as far west as Spain, whereas the Asian branch extends from Persia through the ancient Kingdom of the Medes (present-day northern Iran and Afghanistan) and as far east as ancient India(present-day Pakistan).
The Torah’s account of Yefetide languages implies the following:
1.There should be a linguistic relationship between the various Yefetide languages, including ancient Greek and German (European) and ancient Persian and Indian (Asian).
2.The Yefetide languages should show signs of having originated near Turkey, since they all developed during the dispersal of Noah’s descendants after the flood. Recall that Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, which is in eastern Turkey.
3.The most ancient of these languages should have originated around the date of the flood, about 4,000 years ago.
4.The languages of Yefet did not spread by conquest. The Torah implies that the descendants of Yefet developed new languages as they peacefully migrated into previously unoccupied lands in Europe and Asia.
We shall see that all these statements agree with current findings in linguistics.
There are about 6,000 languages in the world today. Most widespread are the languages of Europe, which comprise only
3 percent of the world’s languages, but are the native tongue of nearly half the world’s population.
The classification of the world’s languages is a major area of linguistics research. Scholars compare various languages, seek correspondences between them, and group related languages
It has long been obvious that almost all the European languages are related. French, Italian and Spanish stem from Latin; the Scandinavian languages are very similar; and German, Dutch, and English share many words, as do the Slavic languages. Careful studies of vocabulary, syntax, and phonology have established that, with four exceptions, all the languages currently spoken in Europe belong to a single family.
As one leaves Europe, the situation changes radically. The languages of the neighboring countries of Turkey, Georgia, and the Middle East are unrelated to those of Europe.
In the 18th century, linguistic opinion was at variance with the Genesis account of the Yefetide languages. At that time, linguists believed that there was no connection between the ancient languages of Asia and Europe, whereas the Yefetide languages include both Asian languages (e.g., ancient Persian and Median) and European languages (e.g., the ancient languages of Germany and Greece). Moreover, between the Asian Yefetide languages and Europe lie the countries of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Syria. In none of these intervening countries is a European language spoken.
These facts clearly present a problem, because they seem to be inconsistent with the Torah’s statement that all the Yefetide languages are related.
The Indo-European Family Of Languages
Sanskrit: A Linguistic Surprise
One of the most important events in the history of linguistics was the shattering of the belief that there is no relation between European and non-European languages. The linguistic bomb shell fell in 1786, when Sir William Jones, an English oriental scholar serving as a judge in India, made an extraordinary discovery. While in India, Jones had taken up the study of Sanskrit, the extinct language of the earliest literary and religious texts of India. Even after it was no longer spoken, Sanskrit continued to be the language of scholarship and literature, similar to the role of Latin in the West at the time of the Renaissance.
In his “Third Anniversary Discourse” to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Jones made the following observations regarding Sanskrit and its relation to European languages:
The Sanskrit language has a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek and more copious than Latin. It bears to both of them astrong affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar… so strong that no philologist could examine these three languages without believing them to have sprung from a common source. Also Gothic [ancient German] and Celtic had the same origin as Sanskrit, and Old Persian should be added to the same family.
Jones identified a deep connection between the ancient languages of Europe and Asia. This brilliant observation was subsequently studied and developed by many linguists. In 1813, the English scholar Thomas Young introduced the term “Indo-European” for thiswidespread family of languages. The Asian branch of the Indo-European languages is not restricted to Sanskrit, ancient Persian, and a few other languages; Asia is the homeland of over 40 percent of the Indo-European languages.
The Language of Ancient Turkey: Another Surprise
An important discovery in the study of Indo-European languages was the deciphering of the language of ancient Turkey. The course of events has been described as follows:
In the late 19thcentury, excavations in Turkey uncovered thousands of tablets in an unknown language. These tablets remained a mystery until 1917, when scholars were astonished to find that this language belonged to a previously unknown ancient branch of the Indo-European family. This language, called Anatolian, is the earliest Indo-European language discovered to date.
The Problem Solved
At one time, it was thought that there was no connection between the European languages and those of Asia. However, according to the Torah, the Yefetide languages include both European and Asian languages. Thus, there was a discrepancy between the Torah and linguistics regarding the relationship between the European and the Asiatic languages.
Today, linguists recognize that the Indo-European family of languages links ancient Asian languages with ancient European languages, in precise accord with the Torah’s list of Yefetide languages. Moreover, in the Asiatic country of Turkey, the ancient Anatolian language (known as Old Hittite) was also found to be an Indo-European language. (In modern Turkey, an unrelated Altaic language is spoken.) It thus emerges thatall the Yefetide languages belong to the same Indo-European family of languages, in agreement with the description given in the Torah.
The Ancestral Homeland
Of The Indo-European Languages
Once it became clear that Indo-European languages are found in both Asia and Europe, scholars naturally began to wonder about the origin of this widespread linguistic family. Had it originated somewhere in Asia and then spread westward to Europe? Had it originated in Europe and then spread eastward to Asia? Perhaps ithad originated near the European-Asian border, say in Turkey, and then spread both eastward into Asia and westward into Europe? The last scenario corresponds to the account given in the Torah.
The effort to locate the original homeland of the Indo European languages – the so-called “Indo-European problem” – has occupied generations of linguists.
The deep similarities between the various Indo-European languages clearly indicate that all of them derived from a single ancestral language, older than Sanskrit, Greek or Latin. This ancestral language, called “Proto-Indo-European,” or PIE, was reconstructed by studying cognate words (words of common origin) in the various Indo-European languages. For example, a comparison of the English word birch, the German birke, the Lithuanian berzas, the Old Slavonic breza, and the Sanskrit bhurjaindicates that there existed a parent word for birch tree in PIE. From the vocabulary of PIE that was thus constructed, linguists developed a picture of the world inhabited by its original speakers and their environment before their dispersal from their original homeland.
From such studies, it is possible to estimate when PIE was last spoken. Professor Jared Diamond of the University of California noted that the words that appear in PIE, and, even more important, the words that are absent, serve as an indication of which items were used by these ancient people. The absence of a word indicates that the object in question was unknown to the speakers of PIE. For example, there is no word in PIE for “iron,” suggesting that iron was unknown until after the breakup of PIE. Combining these results with archeological evidence about when various items first came into use, Diamond has estimated that PIE began to develop into daughter languagesabout 4,500 years ago – a period which closely corresponds with the date of the Flood
A New Proposal for the Ancestral Homeland of PIE
Such considerations are also helpful in determining the location of the ancestral homeland of PIE speakers. Over the years, many possible homelands have been proposed, including Central Asia, Northern Europe, Central Europe, and north of the Black Sea.
Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archeology at the University of Cambridge, is a leading authority on Indo-Europeanlanguages. In his book, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, Renfrew stresses the importance of archaeological evidence in determining the ancestral homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Critically reviewing the various suggestions and explaining their shortcomings, Renfrew asserts that “these proposals do not provide the solution to the Indo European problem.”
Professor Renfrew then marshals the evidence in favor of his new proposal that the first speakers of Proto-Indo-Europeanlived in Turkey. He concludes that “central and eastern Anatolia [present-day Turkey] was the key area where the early form of Indo-European was spoken. From there, the distribution of the language and its successors into Europe was associated with the spread of farming.”
In an article entitled “The Origins of Indo-European Languages,” Renfrew states:
Almost all European languages are members of a single family [of languages that spread by peaceful diffusion… The traditional view holds that the ancestralPIE language was spread by nomadic horsemen who lived north of the Black Sea. These mounted warriors conquered indigenous peoples and imposed their PIE language, which eventually evolved into the European languages we know today… I here offer a different view, based on new insights. According to this view, the spread of the Indo-European languages did not require conquest. On the contrary, it was a peaceful diffusion from its origins in Anatolia [Turkey] and the Near East.
The Biblical Text
Having presented the linguistic evidence regarding the
Indo-European family of languages, we return to the questions posed earlier regarding the Yefetide languages.
1.The Torah’s list of Yefetide languages is completely consistent with the Indo-European family of languages. These include many European languages, as well as the Asian languages of Persian, the language of the Kingdom of the Medes, and the ancient language of Turkey. All of these appear on the Genesis list of Yefetide languages.
2.The location of theoriginal homeland of the Indo-European languages is a subject of debate. Professor Colin Renfrew identifies Anatolia (present-day Turkey) as the place from which these languages spread throughout Europe and Asia. This location agrees with the landing siteof Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat.
The rival theory suggests the northern shore of the Black Sea as the place of origin of these languages. This locale is not far from Turkey, which lies on the southern shore of the Black Sea, Thus, the rival theory is also in reasonable agreement with the Torah.
3.The date proposed for the beginning of the separation of
Proto-Indo-European into daughter languages (about 4,500 years ago) is close to that of Noah’s flood.
In conclusion, we find that current knowledge in linguistics is in full agreement with the Torah’s account of the languages of the descendants of Yefet.