Dictionary.com

Have you heard the story of the Tower of Babel? According to the Bible, all of humanity lived together in harmony, until God decided to confuse the languages and spread the people across the Earth.

This story points to one of the great mysteries of human culture: why do we all speak different languages? Our ancestors probably began using language between 200,000 to 50,000 years ago. (Can’t remember how Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons are different? Learn how to keep them straight here.) As language evolved and moved across the globe, it changed.

In the same way that geneticists trace how genes are inherited over generations, linguists follow how specific elements of language flow into other languages. Just as you inherit brown eyes from your parents, you learn that a table is called a table and that an adjective precedes the noun it modifies. By tracing languages this way, historical linguists map how languages relate to each other.

Some languages, though, lie outside of these trends and relationships. Basque, a language spoken in Spain, is unrelated to the Indo-European languages spoken around it. Languages that cannot be tied to others are called language isolates. One language isolate, Ket, astounds linguists around the world.

Ket is spoken in Siberia, a remote part of Russia north of Mongolia. However, linguists have been unable to discover how it related to the languages spoken nearby, the language family known as Sino-Tibetan. Ket is not a tonal language like Han Chinese, the most widely spoken language in the Sino-Tibetan family, and its structure differs as well.

In 2008, Edward Vajda, a historical linguist, proposed that Ket was related to languages in the Na-Dene family. This shocked the world of linguistics. Why? The Na-Dene language family is spoken by Native American peoples in North America, thousands of miles from Siberia. However, in his analysis, Vadja traced their similarities and has convinced many other linguists that these two disparate languages are in fact siblings.

What do you think of tracing languages like genes? Do you believe that languages can migrate like people?

271 Comments

  1. Creationist -  June 27, 2012 - 3:46 pm

    To: Bob

    In response to question: 3. Seeing how many times the Bible has been right against all popular opinion and “scientific proof/evidence”, I see this to be no different. In an example of, let’s say, Tiktaalik, all “scientific proof/evidence” showed that this was a “missing link” no longer missing. The bible says that the earth was created…… main stream says that it evolved……(see article further up)….. The mainstream were certain that Tiktaalik was the transitional form from fish to amphibian and confidently said that it is solid proof against the bible. Now, they have found foot prints, dated BEFORE Tiktaalik. So they are doing a complete rethinking of evolution. From solid for Tiktaalik, to now against it and it has been thrown out the window. Bible: 1 Mainstream: 0 It will not be long until this happens with linguistics. Sincerely, Creationist

    Reply
  2. Bob -  June 25, 2012 - 3:47 am

    Also to set the record straight on a couple of other statements that I’ve seen recur in the comments here.

    1) The theory is not that the Na-Dene languages evolved from Ket, it is that the Na-Dene languages and Ket share a common ancestor, just as the Germanic languages (which include English) and the Slavic languages (which include Russian) are related by a common ancestor, the theoretical/reconstructed Indo-European. Reconstructed because whatever the common ancestor was, it was never written down.

    Before you come in with Bible-based arguments about how it’s “only a theory” and therefore wrong because the Bible says otherwise, take a bit of time to read up on the subject of phonology and language change, and how linguists arrived at the Indo-European theory. It’s a process that we can observe happening today.

    2) Although the links between Siberian and Native American people are fairly clear, the fact that two people share a language doesn’t *necessarily* mean that the people are related genetically. Languages spread in different ways. Consider the the number of Africans who now speak Portuguese and French as their native language because of colonialism, or the millions of people from all over the world living in N. America who know no other language but English, including, relevantly, the majority of Native Americans these days. Many people who consider themselves Turks today are genetically closer to the ancient Greeks or Hittites than anybody in Central Asia, where the original Turks came from. These things happened in the ancient world as well, though not on the scale they do in today’s world of mass communication.

    3) To the “The Bible says so, so it’s true, because the Bible says it is” crowd – your arguments are laughable. When you draw a “scientific theory” based on

    a) a previously held conclusion that it is true; and
    b) selective dismissal of any an all evidence to the contrary,

    then your arguments are not only laughable, they’re pathetic, and an excellent indication of how desperate people are to avoid using the brain that God supposedly gave them.

    Reply
  3. Bob -  June 25, 2012 - 3:03 am

    It’s not “shocking” to find this relationship, but it is a great surprise, because up to this point, no definitive link had been drawn between any Old World and North American native language despite many attempts.

    I’m really rather dismayed at all the biblical referencing here. I think even the most fundamentalist Christian today can accept that 1) Heaven isn’t a place up in the sky, and that consequently 2) No tower, no matter how high, would have gotten there or been any threat to God. Considering that humans cannot survive on the highest moutaintops (which are well within the troposphere, and nobody has seen any flocks of angels flapping around the peak of Everest) because of lack of oxygen, even if some ancients did make a giant tower they would have been cut short by their inability to work.

    The ways that languages diverge through isolation and evolve until they are incomprehensible has been well documented and researched; all the Bible thumping in the world won’t change that. Or is Babelism destined to be the new fundamentalist cause, along with creation “science?”

    Reply
  4. Tru -  June 24, 2012 - 2:26 pm

    We’re all related in some way,shape or form;duhhh! God separated us to take on differences in the gene pool and inorder for a stronger gene to be made we must combine them! He works in mysterious ways; things are enevitable

    Reply
  5. Jordan -  June 24, 2012 - 12:52 pm

    @Christan (May 7, 2012 at 10:07 am)
    Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Those were the five my teacher told me, at least. I looked it up, and there are A TON.
    Reading through the comments, I’ve noticed that religion, politics, etc. always leads to arguments and/or long discussions. I doubt anyone will even see this, because there’s so many other comments!
    Also, with all the religion comments, (please don’t hate on me for saying this) maybe every religion, and the scientific theories, are all true, just different parts of it, and everyone just processed it differently.
    -Jordan

    Reply
  6. Gone2Asgard -  June 23, 2012 - 11:09 am

    Don’t forget the effects of cyclic global climate change on human populations and their localized dialects. Last ice age was about 10K years ago.

    He who from the heavens came…the ancient astronaut theory would explain much in theology/mythology/ancient architecture. How conceited are we to believe we are the pinnacle of universal evolution? One person’s “higher power” is another person’s “Anunaki”.

    Everyone talks about their version of heaven after death but not once have I spoken to a deceased person inquiring the truth of what’s on “the other side”. Better for us to understand where the energy originates at conception to induce life in order to fully understand what happens to our life energy after death.

    Reply
  7. Joe -  June 22, 2012 - 11:38 pm

    I thought it interesting that a scientific discovery linking two distanced languages had turned so quickly into an evolution vs. creation, left vs. right, argument.

    But to answer the questions the article asked of us readers. In my opinion, while genetics and linguistics may have some similarities, it’s tough to compare them on a deeper level. Your parents can’t decide the color eyes or hair you inherit from them, but they can choose (if they wish) which language you are to learn first.
    I believe languages can migrate, yes. But only with a group of people acting as its vehicle. The English language migrated to the US and Australia because the English people that moved there carried it with them. Fair?

    Reply
  8. chAIns -  June 22, 2012 - 5:31 pm

    I like the summary of The Tower Of Babel!! You all have some great theories. I think languauge may have migrated possibly by “Ancient Explorers”. Think, more or less; emissary.. One culture sends out a brave group from their tribe. Who then treks until a friendly tribe, unlike theirs, is found. A few of the group shares information with that tribe. Thus transferring cultural information and influences. The group then moves on, minus the few who spoke with the tribe. They return home with their knowledge. The rest look for another, different tribe in which to benefit from. And the process carries on..
    With that simple gathering of information about borders, weather, and hunting game, cultural influences and nuances are passed on. Languages, tactics, and ideas for example.

    Reply
  9. anne -  June 14, 2012 - 12:24 am

    Human back then wanted to reach heaven so they made the tower of babel, so God decided to confuse their languages. the way the first paragraph was stated was kinda wrong.

    Reply
  10. Matthew Dunn -  June 7, 2012 - 12:38 pm

    This makes perfect sense, if human beings (i.e., ancient Native Americans) did in fact migrate across the ice bridge covering the Bering Strait.

    Reply
  11. Georgette Bastin -  June 7, 2012 - 4:40 am

    I do beleive languages can migrate but, what the point trying to trace them when one still cannot traced one owns genes as widely as one would wish today in an easy way, or am I wrong to think so.
    Georgette
    Martinique

    Reply
  12. J Collins Meek, PhD -  June 6, 2012 - 1:41 am

    Biblical tradition has it that the lost tribes of Israel are scattered over the whole earth. In this light, finding that a Siberian language and a native North American language are related is not surprising. – Doc Meek, docmeek.com

    Reply
  13. Lisa -  June 5, 2012 - 5:16 pm

    I concur with the first part of the statement by Nathanael on June 3, 2012 –
    The cultural isolationist policies of the “Religious Right” are glaringly visible in all these pro-American-Christian, biblical literalist/ anti-any-other-vantage-point comments. It’s so sad that so many people shut their eyes to anything outside their socially inherited narrow beliefs; that they self-impose ignorance on their minds when the Web has opened up the whole world to them. They strap themselves to the time and place in which they were born, when there has been so much research done over the ages to enlighten ourselves about the past and the paths humankind has taken.
    This is a testament (sorry, but the word can be applied to other things than your religion) to the lack of education in the USA – and that is just how Big Money wants to keep things. It’s one of the reasons they pretend to support Christian fundamentalism. That’s the same principle that the Catholic Church has used since its inception – control the way people contrive to understand the unknown, and you control them absolutely.

    I’m also amazed (though I shouldn’t be) that so many people who are making comments on dictionary.com – a site devoted to broadening one’s knowledge – can’t put together a cohesive sentence (with those who are not native English speakers being excepted.) It’s the reason I can’t stand Twitter and won’t use it. Ironic, isn’t it, that those using Twitter with its disregard for proper grammar, syntax, spelling, etc. are commenting on an article which uses the Tower of Babel as an illustrative device?

    Reply
  14. john van nguyen -  June 4, 2012 - 10:36 am

    conclusion, yes languages can migrate, or move along slowly througout the land, and may change while it travels to its destination

    Reply
  15. OrangeKoala -  June 4, 2012 - 6:57 am

    Its obviously because when native Siberians crossed the ice bridge to Alaska and settled down in places like Arizona, they brought aslightly different version of their language so that means the Na-Dene family originates from Siberia and Northern Asia.

    Reply
  16. Nathanael -  June 3, 2012 - 4:31 pm

    @ann lee

    Why do you think the author risks ridicule just for mentioning the Bible? What a perverse world you must live in. If he’d mentioned instead, say, the The Dhammapada, the Upanishads or the Torah I suppose you would have had no objection.

    The Bible is the source of much of the West’s shared mythology; the story of Babel is well-known to all — even to you. If you thought the author was arguing for the literal truth of the story simply by introducing his topic with it, with all due respect, you’re looking for excuses to be insulted.

    However, the story never really answers the question it asked: what are the origins of Ket? That it is related to Da-Nene is interesting, however, Da-Nene is, by the theory, a descendant of Ket, and thus the discovery still tells us little about where Ket comes from, only where it went to.

    And yes, the Bering land bridge theory is a well-known and accepted theory for origins of North American peoples (though recent archaeological work is suggesting multiple origins). It’s only surprising to me that linguists hadn’t investigated a possible link earlier. Since Native Americans (both North and South) originated in Asia, it would be only natural to assume linguistic origins there as well.

    Of more concern is the rapid disappearance of languages in the twentieth century. In North America alone there are currently about 165 indigenous languages, but only eight are spoken by more than 10,000 people, and 75 (45%) are today spoken by only a handful of older people; they will be extinct within a generation.

    Reply
  17. Leila -  June 3, 2012 - 2:46 pm

    Who ever wrote this article stating, “…According to the Bible, all of humanity lived together in harmony, until God decided to confuse the languages and spread the people across the Earth” is incorrect and should not quote anything from the Holy Bible unless they give accuracy. People who are ignorant of the word may read this , consume it and actually believe God would just interrupt the harmony of speaking one language amongst people just to do so. It should state that harmony of speaking one language was interrupted due to the misbehaving of mankind. Mankind wanted to out smart God by building towers that would reach the heavens to keep them from dying in another flood, make a name for themselves if successful and paid the price (Gen. 11). Therefore confusion and being scattered was a cursed among mankind. When you tell a story, tell it the right way. God exist and watches all.

    Reply
  18. John -  May 31, 2012 - 1:44 pm

    @Archon,

    No way they can do it! What he/she said is “true” science. The Bible’s message harmonizes 100% with it, too!

    John

    Reply
  19. Creation77 -  May 27, 2012 - 1:35 pm

    @ Archon

    So, if you doubt what Creationist is saying, and can prove every thing that he/she says false, then do it! Please! And you can add in your own arguments if you want.

    Reply
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