Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Confusion of Tongues 

The dispersion was one of those epic events that had vast cultural consequences, on a par with the destruction in the Americas at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, the flood, or the Diaspora. One gets only a cursory view of the event from the scant three verses devoted to it in Genesis, but it was of tremendous import for the subsequent history of mankind. It shattered a culture, broke up families, and forever divided once friendly peoples. Language can be such a divisive thing; but it very effectively achieved the Lord’s purpose in populating the earth.
One gets the impression that prophets had warned of the impending event, otherwise how would Jared have known it was going to happen . Or perhaps it was a gradual process, slowly spreading throughout the population. But however it occurred, it effectively stopped the work on the Tower of Babel. The Book of Jasher describes the event thus:
And God said … Come let us descend and confuse their tongues, that one man shall not understand the language of his neighbor, and they did so unto them. And from that day following, they forgot each man his neighbor's tongue, and they could not understand to speak in one tongue, and when the builder took from the hands of his neighbor lime or stone which he did not order, the builder would cast it away and throw it upon his neighbor, that he would die. And they did so many days, and they killed many of them in this manner… And those who were left amongst them, when they knew and understood the evil which was coming upon them, they forsook the building, and they … became scattered upon the face of the whole earth. And they ceased building the city and the tower; therefore he called that place Babel, for there the Lord confounded the Language of the whole earth; behold it was at the east of the land of Shinar. And as to the tower which the sons of men built, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up one third part thereof, and a fire also descended from heaven and burned another third, and the other third is left to this day, and it is of that part which was aloft, and its circumference is three days' walk. And many of the sons of men died in that tower, a people without number 4.

Here Jasher notes that not only were the people scattered, but also many were killed in the destruction of the tower. This account suggests that the confusion came upon them gradually, even as they were working on the tower. It describes the destruction of two thirds of the tower by earthquake and heavenly fire. Other accounts state that the destruction was by wind, but however it was accomplished, the Lord apparently destroyed the building to the extent that it, and the site, were forever abandoned. As to the circumference being three days walk, or approximately 40-50 miles, this seems a little exaggerated. Perhaps it refers to the area that was devastated in the destruction of the site.

Cleon Skousen describes the confusion of tongues as a reverse “gift of tongues”1. Instead of the normal gift of tongues wherein two speakers of different languages can understand one another, in this case speakers of the same tongue were unable to understand those speaking their former language. But it seems that it was more than this because it resulted in a variety of completely different languages, not just variations of the same tongue. Whether this came about quickly, or over a period of time, we do not know, but the result is evident in the distinct cultures throughout the world that we see today.
It appears to me that the Lord actually changed the mental processing of the audible symbols that make up language so that the same sounds took on different meanings. Then over time, the languages gradually diverged into dialects and then evolved into new languages, just as we see language changing in our day through the introduction of new expressions, slang words and variations in pronunciation.
The historian Josephus gives us a slightly different account of the confusion of tongues.
When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners [at the time of the flood]; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them divers languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion. The Sibyl also makes mention of this tower, and of the confusion of the language, when she says thus: ‘When all men were of one language, some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven, but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon.’ After this they were dispersed abroad, on account of their languages, and went out by colonies every where; and each colony took possession of that land which they light upon, and unto which God led them; so that the whole continent was filled with them, both the inland and the maritime countries. There were some also who passed over the sea in ships [could this have been referring to the Jaredites, at least in part?], and inhabited the islands: and some of those nations do still retain the denominations [names] which were given them by their first founders; but some have lost them also, and some have only admitted certain changes in them, that they might be the more intelligible to the inhabitants 2.
This account brings out several interesting points. First the Lord did not want to utterly destroy them as He had the people at the time of the flood. He just wanted them to obey him and disperse. Second, the event must have been very memorable as the event was recorded for posterity in the name Babylon-an event so noteworthy that an apostate city and kingdom were named after it. Third, they went out in colonies. We have one such colony in the people of Jared recorded in the Book of Ether. They were inspired and led by God, but who is to say if there were not others that were so inspired and guided by His hand. Josephus intimates that these colonies in fact settled where God had inspired them to go. Fourth, some of these colonies crossed the sea and inhabited the islands. Here he is probably referring to those groups settling around the Mediterranean, however, it is possible that anciently they were also aware of the Jaredite's odyssey across the ocean to the Americas, after all, they hadn’t left in secret or hidden their departure. Fifth, the lands were named by, and possibly after, their first founders and the leaders of the respective colonies.

Exactly how disruptive was the confusion of tongues? Did it extend clear down to the individual level? Were families in fact broken up and divided? Jared asked his brother to “Cry unto the Lord, that he [the Lord] will not confound us that we may not understand our words .” This intimates that Jared thought that he might be divided from his brother and his friends, so the possibility did exist. Perhaps he had even seen it happen to others. It is unlikely that minor children would have been separated from their parents, but separation at any other level was possible and probable, except as in the case of Jared where the Lord intervened.

What about the original language? This was probably the Adamic language, or a variant of it, which had been spoken before the flood and was passed down by Noah and his family to their posterity. I assume that the Lord was referring to the Adamic language when he tells Mahonri
And behold, when ye shall come unto me, ye shall write [the account of his vision] and shall seal them up, that no one can interpret them; for ye shall write them in a language that they cannot be read. For behold, the language which ye shall write I have confounded .
If this is the case, then the Jaredites obviously did not speak the Adamic tongue, following the dispersion, as some have assumed. Their language would have been confused along with the rest of the inhabitants of Sumer, but in a manner that they all understood each other and could freely communicate within the group.

What language did the Jaredites end up with? If we consider the Olmec/Jaredite comparison, then we might have some clues. It is currently felt that the Olmecs spoke a language that was the forerunner of Mixe-zoquean, a language that is still spoken by about 300,000 Native Americans in southern Mexico. However, this hypothesis is still being debated. On the other hand, Mariano Veytia, recording the traditions of the Aztecs, relates “In this confusion of tongues, they say that seven families found themselves to be of the same language, which was Nahuatl, and today it is known as the Mexican language [not referring to Spanish but to the language of the Mejica].” This Nahuatl language is currently in use by about 1.5 million Native Americans who mainly live in Central Mexico.

1.  Skousen, Cleaon.  The First 2000 Years.  p. 237.
2.  Josephus.  Antiquity of the Jews.  Book I.  Ch. 4:3.
3.  Nibley, Hugh. Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites. The Departure.
4   Jasher Ch. 9:32-35.

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