December 31, 2007

Mailbag: the comparative theology of linguistic diversity

Following up on yesterday's post "The science and theology of global language change", Cosma Shalizi writes:

I cannot, to my shame, recall whether the Qu'ran includes a version of the Babel story, but there is a famous passage where it seems to look favorably on this sort of diversity (49:13, Pickthall trans.):

O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.

Similar 30:22,

And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colours. Lo! herein indeed are portents for men of knowledge.

Arguably 11:118 is to a similar vein,

And if thy Lord had willed, He verily would have made mankind one nation, yet they cease not differing.

(Pickthall was an English convert, and self-consciously tried to make his translation sound like the King James Bible, which I find dubious but it's public domain now.)
See more generally.

I wonder, have these verses ever been used as the basis for language documentation, preservation or revival?

With respect to the Babel story, a bit of web searching turns up two koranic references to an unnamed impious tower, involving Pharaoh and Haman but not linguistic diversity. Sticking with the Pickthall translation:

28:38 And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I know not that ye have a god other than me, so kindle for me (a fire), O Haman, to bake the mud; and set up for me a lofty tower in order that I may survey the god of Moses; and lo! I deem him of the liars.

40:36 And Pharaoh said: O Haman! Build for me a tower that haply I may reach the roads,
40:37: The roads of the heavens, and may look upon the god of Moses, though verily I think him a liar. Thus was the evil that he did made fairseeming unto Pharaoh, and he was debarred from the (right) way. The plot of Pharaoh ended but in ruin.

Marc van Oostendorp writes:

Obviously, the most famous story about linguistic diversity in the Bible is Genesis 11. But there was linguistic diversity even before they built the tower. Genesis 10 lists the children of Noah after the flood, and where they went to live. Gen 10:5 then says that they went there 'each with their own tongue, according to their clans in their nations'. I once read about a theological debate about this apparent inconsistency, but I don't remember what the outcome of this debate was.

For those people who believe in the New Testament, there obviously also is the story of Pentacost, when Jesus' disciples start speaking in tongues, and this is considered to be a gift of God.

David Eddyshaw writes:

I'm probably one of a rather small proportion of LL readers who actually *is* a Biblical inerrantist.

I can't see myself why believing the Babel story would entail denying subsequent changes in language. I haven't ever heard of anybody who did make this deduction, though I don't doubt there are some out there. (I know a really excellent surgeon, who is highly intelligent and incidentally one of the nicest people I've ever worked with, who believes that Heaven is a cube, based on a totally literal interpretation of the book of Revelation which I would have thought would have astonished the author of the book).

Come to that, as a Brit, I may well not be very like a typical American inerrantist. When I lived in Nigeria I used to know quite a lot of missionaries from the US, and found that in their terms I often counted as a dodgy liberal theologically (I appreciated the thrill).

FWIW there are quite a number of different attitudes to the Bible held by people all of whom would sincerely describe themselves as inerrantists. It's not always clear a priori what "counts" as an error, so denying their presence can amount to rather different things in practice. Evidently- parallel passages in Kings and Chronicles, for example, have (very) different numbers for sizes of armies; unless you magic away all such instances as convenient textual corruption, you have to accept that there are errors ("errors"?) which don't matter. In the UK at any rate, I've yet to meet anybody who truly maintained the contrary.

In practice, I've found that most people happily apply labels like "inerrantist" to themselves and blithely leave worrying about the details to theological geeks. It's a pretty standard trope in sermons that pretty few of us who claim to believe in Biblical inerrancy are all that familiar with the actual book in any detail. But mutatis mutandis, that applies to pretty much everybody outside their own areas of geekitude, I suppose.

Well, there's the same Occam's Razor argument as in the case of biological evolution -- some may find it odd to suppose that diversity (of languages or of species) is of two kinds, one natural and the other miraculous. If natural processes can create some languages and species, why not all? I guess that there's no problem here for those who think that the world mostly runs on naturalistic principles, with occasional divine interventions ad libitum.

Bill Poser writes:

M____ R_________ [someone who was in grad school with Bill] experienced a problem with the story of Bab-el when we were students. The orthodox believe that Hebrew was the first language. (God knows all languages, but the angels know only Hebrew, which puts paid to that Joan of Arc nonsense...) It seemed to her that the arguments for a relationship between Hebrew and Arabic were sound, but she wasn't sure that this view was consistent with the Torah: if Hebrew is the first language and existed prior to the sundering of languages at Bab-el, and if Arabic is one of the many languages resulting from the sundering, could there be a relationship between them? She was going to ask her tzadek. I don't know what answer he gave.

George Corley writes:

Reading your post Science and Theology of Language, I was reminded of a passing mention of linguistics buried in the Creation Museum -- which was recently built by Answers in Genesis to present archaeological evidence in the framework of the Biblical creation myth. The museum itself includes pseudoscientific explanations for everything from carnivorous animals to the disappearance of the dinosaurs and in the framework of that mythos while explicitly rejecting "Human Reason" (actually stating such in several displays) in favor of "God's Word".

The relevant panel is here:

The section includes a radial diagram of language families with Babel at the center, with the text:

The Bible claims that God created a number of human languages at the Tower of Babel "according to their families." Nineteenth-century linguists argued that languages evolved slowly, one by one. Today linguists recognize languages fall into distinct "families" of recent origin.

I'm sure you can see the fallacies of the statement rather quickly. Notably, the phrase "according to their families" does not appear in the Babel myth, but rather comes from the wrap up to the Flood story, describing the origins of different peoples and languages as originating from Noah's three sons.

The Creation Museum is, of course, among the most extreme creationist organizations there are. I don't think there's any mention of the Babel theory among more moderate Christians.

Sally Thomason discussed the Creation Museum's linguistic theories last summer -- see "Creationist Linguistics", 8/1/2007. As she suggests, the panel's theory seems to be that all the distinct language families -- between whom no relationship can be proved, due to the inevitable decay of evidence with time -- originated at the babelian dispersion, with further subdivision by natural evolutionary processes since then. This seems analogous to the view that some taxonomic level of plants and animals (genera? famlies? kingdoms?) was created by the intelligent designer, with finer distinctions evolving by darwinian means. I guess that creationists do believe something of the sort, though perhaps it's that the species level was created, with subspecific variation evolving by natural processes.

[Update: Matthew Watson has drawn my attention to this discussion, which basically confirms in a more detailed way the theory that "each distinct language family is the offshoot of an original Babel 'stem language' which did not arise by change from a previous ancestral language".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 31, 2007 06:08 AM