The Origin Of Languages: The Tower Of Babel And Other Stories

From the Tower of Babel to tales from Africa, Asia and the Americas, discover how different civilizations have tried to explain the birth of languages!
The origin of languages represented by a close up of and old, weathered book with its corner curled upward artistically.

What is the origin of languages? Where there is darkness, mythology has always tried to shine a light. When science can’t explain something, human beings look to myths. With languages, it’s no different. Why do the words we use for things change across borders?

Linguists trying to understand this phenomenon often find themselves hitting a wall, because language is so vast and complex. Legends, however, hold some fascinating insights regarding the barrier of language. From the Bible to Chinese legends, via the Aztec Empire and Australia, come with us around the world in 80 – well, fewer than 80 — myths about the origin of languages.

The Biblical Tower Of Babel

This is one of the Bible’s most famous passages. It even lent its name to Babbel, give or take a “b”. The story is from the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, after the Flood. Noah’s Ark saved all the living creatures on the planet. Humanity, driven by pride, soon resumed business as usual. Back then, so long ago, everyone spoke the same language. After banding together to build a great tower that would reach the heavens, they found themselves punished by divine power.

To undermine their efforts, God confounded their speech. People no longer understood one another: and that was the origin of languages. They forgot about building the Tower of Babel and were dispersed across the planet into linguistic communities. The name “Babel” is linked to Babylon, the ancient city of Mesopotamia, and survives to this day in the name of the Iraqi province of Babel (or Babil).

African Legends On The Origins Of Languages

Linguistically speaking, Africa is an extremely diverse continent. So it makes sense that people have used myths as a way to explain the origin of languages. Here too, a disruptive element put an end to the harmony between humans. But it wasn’t the construction of a tower that incurred the Almighty’s wrath in this case. Instead, a devastating famine befell them, attacking their minds and consuming them with madness. When the evil was gone, it left a terrible aftermath: one language had given way to many. Each village, having been isolated from the others during the crisis, now spoke its own language.

From one end of the continent to the other, the stories and legends of African peoples often echo each other. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, it is said that arrogant humans sought to build a tower to reach their creator, Nyambe. But the building collapsed, some people died, and the chaos that divided them ensued. Anthropologist James George Frazer was one of the first Western researchers to study African mythology on the origin of languages.

Language From The Flames In Chinese Mythology

In Chinese mythology, the diversity of Chinese languages can be traced back to Pangu, the giant born from the chaos that marked the beginning of the world. Upon his death, his body became the world in which the first man and woman lived. The original couple, distressed by their three children’s inability to speak, beseeched the heavens.

To help them, the god asked the father to cut a bamboo cane in three and the mother was instructed to heat the house with a huge fire. The family then approached the hearth. One by one, the three bamboo pieces were cast into the fire. Each time a piece crackled into flame, one of the three children cried out in a different voice. Each of their cries gave birth to a separate language, that of the Lisu, the Han and the Li, China’s three major ethnic groups.

Other Myths On The Origins Of Language

After Africa and Asia, next stop: Australia. Although today English is the island continent’s predominant language of exchange, this wasn’t always the case. Aboriginal languages, now for the most part endangered, were once highly vibrant and diverse. Just a few centuries ago, there were many hundreds of them. So the mystery behind this richness needed to be illuminated.

On Croker Island, just off Australia’s northern coast, the Iwaidja people invoke a very modern symbology. Nowadays, only a few hundred individuals still speak their language. In this fertility-venerating culture, the centrality of woman in the cycle of life is well recognized. The first woman, Warramurunguji, gave birth to many children. To each of these she gifted a land and a language.

Staying in Australia, around the aptly named Encounter Bay, another woman is cited as the origin of multilingualism. Her name is Wurruri, an evil old woman who used her powers to extinguish the fires of humans at night. When she died, the people she had tormented with her black magic were so happy that they carved up her body…to eat it! But even in death, Wurruri had the last word. Those who took part in the feast fell victim to a strange kind of poison. Their tongues were corrupted, and they could no longer understand each other.

At the other end of the planet, the concept for the Tower of Babel seems to reappear, this time among the Aztecs. As in the Bible, a flood befalls the Earth. Only one couple survives: Xochiquetzal, goddess of love and beauty, and her husband Coxcox. They washed up on the summit of a mountain, in Culhuacan, where they established many families. But, seemingly cursed, all of their children remained mute. The parents prayed desperately to the Great Spirit, who sent a dove down to Earth.

Through the dove, each child learned to speak a different language. They then scattered to the four corners of the world to establish different civilizations. According to the accounts of 16th-century missionary Fray Pedro de los Ríos, there are other creation myths resembling the Tower of Babel in Central America. For example, the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico, whose name in Nahuatl (Tlachihualtepetl) means “artificial mountain.” The ambition of seven giants who survived the flood, the gigantic pyramid was burned to the ground by the furious gods. These giants are comparable to the Titans of Greek mythology. Another missionary — Diego Durán, a contemporary of Pedro de los Ríos — was the first to recount this tradition.

No matter the myth, there is often this same concept of an original unity destroyed by an irreversible catastrophe. Luckily, between the Tower of Babel and the Babbel app, the world has changed a lot, and learning languages is now something anyone can access!

A version of this article originally appeared on the French edition of Babbel Magazine.

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