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No. 989:
Tower of Babel

Today, let's look for the first language. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

People look for the original Biblical artifacts. They scour Mount Ararat looking for Noah's Ark, and they try to explain the Star of Bethlehem. They ask, "Was there really a flood?" Recently, a Nova program took on the Tower of Babel. But, instead of asking, "Was there really a tower?" it cuts to the underlying question: "Did we all once speak a common tongue?"

Certainly languages evolve and splinter. A linguist studying modern Philadelphians finds it takes only twenty years or so for "bad" to evolve into "byad" or "snake" into "sneak." We listen to the Lord's Prayer as it was said 800 years ago, and we can hardly follow it. The 1200-year-old version is unintelligible.

Trace English back 6000 years, and we reach the so-called Proto-Indo-European language -- ancestor of the Germanic, Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Albanian, Italic, Hellenic, and Armenian language groups. Linguists figured that out 200 years ago by looking at stable words that change slowly --like numbers, body parts, and certain pronouns. In our cousin language of Sanskrit, the word for "three" is "trayas." It doesn't change much.

But languages of the Indo-European family have been written down for 5000 years. We can trace them back. Only a few of the 300-odd languages in the Sino-Tibetan family were written before this century. Now linguists armed with computers try to extrapolate to the parent Oriental tongue. They begin with body parts like eye. It comes out in kindred words like mik, myak, or smik.

Basque, spoken in southern France and northern Spain, has no kinship with any known family of languages. It's called a "language isolate." So geneticists descend on the Pyrenees to sample blood and DNA. Sure enough, the Basque people are as isolated genetically as they are linguistically. Any division from common ancestors, either biolological or linguistic, must have occured very long ago.

And we're left puzzled. Was there ever a single parent tongue? A group of Russian linguists thinks there was, 15,000 years ago. They're trying to reconstruct it. The resulting language is rich in words for animal anatomy and a near-mystical world. But few American academics buy the idea. Anthropologists are pretty sure that human speech is about 40,000 years old. Language would have splintered long since --a mere 15,000 years ago.

Still, language probably did start among one advanced people, then spread and divided. In fact, the Genesis account says that God not only confused language at Babel, but He also scattered the people. And, at least in that sense, the Tower of Babel story seems to be literally true -- after all.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

In Search of the First Language, Nova, aired on KUHT, Houston, December 27, 1994.

I am grateful for counsel on liguistic matters from Dr. J.E. Fadell, UH Library. Notice that my approximations to Philadelphian pronounciations of bad=byad and snake=sneak are rough approximations. One would need the international phonetic alphabet to write these down accurately.


The ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's Palace in 6th-century Babylon
Stereopticon photo courtesy of Margaret Culbertson

The ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's Palace in 6th-century Babylon