Scientists now think all human beings may once have spoken a single language, just as it says in the Bible. Mind you, this was some 50,000 years ago, when the entire human population numbered no more than 2,000 or so. There is a lot of speculation about what this language might have sounded like. In addition to the usual vowels and consonants, it may have included clicking noises similar to those uttered by such aboriginal people as the Hazda of Tanzania and the Khoisan of South Africa. The evolution of a single mother tongue into the 5,000 languages spoken today is traceable to the migration of Homo sapiens from their original homeland in Africa to all parts of the globe over many thousands of years. The seven major language families are closely associated with genetic branches of the human species resulting from these ancient migrations.
The biblical explanation for the profusion of languages offers some of these same elements but reverses their sequence. In the Genesis account, God first confuses everyone's language, then scatters them over the face of the earth. The occasion for this calamity was the construction of a tower that its builders hoped would reach to the heavens. The Tower of Babel, which is not actually named as such in the story, is derived from an Akkadian word meaning "gate of the god," and is also a pun on the Hebrew verb meaning "to confuse." The tower is believed to have been modeled on the Sumerian ziggurats that were literally built as stairways to heaven. The Hebrew God evidently took a dim view of such overreaching and forced the residents of Babel to abandon construction by confounding their speech.
Unlike similar stories in other ancient Middle Eastern traditions, the biblical version does not end with God destroying the offending tower -- nor does he need to. The world has come into being through his powers of articulation; this same power has been delegated to the creature he made in his own image and then tasked with naming all the other creatures. He recognizes that a single language has given humankind godlike powers, and he can end any challenge to his supremacy by taking it away. God knows that the resulting cacophony of tongues can only end where the world began, in chaos.
Lest we think the formative power of language operates only in the realm of myth, consider the example of Helen Keller. Blind and deaf from infancy, Keller lived a phantom existence in a world that was almost exclusively tactile: the opening of a window, the closing of a door, the sensation of wetness. "I lived in a world that was a no-world," she wrote in her autobiography. "My inner life then was a blank without past, present or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith." The bridge between this no-world and conscious awareness was the association she eventually made between the sensation of wetness and the word "water" that her teacher, Anne Sullivan, spelled out in the palm of her hand. With that single word a new world was called into being as assuredly as God summoned forth light from darkness.
"Swifter than light the world converts itself into that thing you name," Emerson wrote in his journal. Our most basic concepts about the world -- of time and space, self and other -- are learned at our mother's knee. These are not phenomena of nature but constructs of the mind. "The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds -- and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds," wrote the linguist Benjamin Whorf. "We cut nature up, organize it in this way, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way -- an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language."
When we are parties to such an agreement, the linguistic superstructure that frames our world may be invisible to us. We remake the world with our words, and then mistake the one for the other. And then, because there is not one language but many, we assume there is not one world but many. People who speak our language live in our world, which we think of as the real world. Then there are all those other people who do not speak our language, who must be living in a dream world. Religious people and scientists do not speak the same language, and they tend to think of each other this way. They do not see that they are merely cutting up nature in different ways. This is what the Babel story is getting at. We are all confounded in our speech. But no matter how you slice it, we're all still talking about the same thing.
Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality