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08.10.2018 14:22    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  berechit  noah  

“By their lands—each with its language”

One of the more intriguing narratives in the book of Genesis is the story of the tower of Babel.  The Torah describes a period in which all mankind spoke the same language, and gathered together in order to build a huge edifice—the tower of Babel.  This plan was not pleasing to the Holy One, blessed be He, so He scattered mankind and confounded their language.  This scattering of population led to the development of different nations and the emergence of different languages in the ancient world.

The story of the tower of Babel does not describe in detail which nations or languages developed as a result of this scattering of population.  This information is given us in chapter 10, which lists in detail the descendants of Noah’s three sons—Shem, Ham and Japheth.  Each one of Noah’s sons is described as the ancient progenitor of ten or more nations, the Torah providing a list of their progeny.

We are particularly interested in the fact that in the wake of Noah’s sons being scattered and different nations emerging there also developed different and varied languages, as described in Genesis:

The descendants of Japheth:…From these the maritime nations branched out…by their lands—each with its language—their clans and their nations.  (10:5)

These are the descendants of Ham, according to their clans and languages, by their lands and nations. (10:20)

These are the descendants of Shem according to their clans and languages, by their lands, according to their nations.  (10:31)

Many consider the Torah’s account of the spread of different languages as mythological and devoid of any factual basis, but we shall see that this idea is mistaken and that what is said in Genesis is actually consonant with recent discoveries in comparative linguistics.

The Semitic and Hamitic languages, associated with the descendants of Shem and Ham, are all connected one to another and include Hebrew, Akkadian,[1] Egyptian, Aramaic, Amorite, Moabite and Ethiopic—names with which we are familiar from the book of Genesis.  However what the Torah says about the languages of Japheth’s descendants raises many questions.

The most interesting characteristic of the languages of the descendants of Japheth is their broad geographical distribution.  As we see from the map, the languages of Japheth’s descendants as mentioned in the book of Genesis were spoken throughout Europe and into the depths of Asia.  The European branch of these languages extended from Greece through Germany and westward as far as Spain.  The Asiatic branch extended from Persia through the kingdom of Media (modern-day northern Iran and Afghanistan), as far east as ancient India (modern-day Pakistan).

What Scripture says about the languages of the descendants of Japheth implies the following:

  1. There should be a linguistic connection between the various languages of the descendants of Japheth, which include ancient Greek and Old German (Europe), as well as Old Persian and Old Indic (Asia).
  2. There should be indicators of what the Torah describes, namely that these languages stemmed from a common source somewhere around Turkey, for they all developed in the wake of the dispersal of Noah’s descendants after the Flood.  Bear in mind that Noah’s ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat, in eastern Turkey.

Below we shall see that these expectations match the findings of linguistic studies.  The classification of languages is a major branch of linguistics.  Scholars compare different languages, looking for linguistic connections between them, and group related languages into families.

It has been clear for quite some time that all the European languages are related to one another,[2] but as one moves on towards Asia the situation changes completely.  The languages spoken in the Asian countries neighboring Europe—Turkey, Georgia, and the Middle East—are not related to the European languages.  This fact seems to contradict the hypothesis that all the languages of the descendants of Japheth are related.

A discovery of great importance in the history of linguistics shattered a previously accepted notion that there is no connection between the European languages and the Asian ones.  The bomb in linguistic research was dropped in 1786 by William Jones, who studied Far Eastern languages.  Jones discovered a connection between Sanskrit and ancient European languages, and wrote as follows:

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists:  there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.[3]

In 1813 we first encounter the term “Indo-European languages” to describe this broad range of languages.  The Asiatic branch of Indo-European languages includes not only Sanskrit, but also ancient Persian and other languages.  Asia was the birthplace of around half of the Indo-European tongues.

Another important discovery was the deciphering of the language spoken in ancient Turkey.  Professor Jared wrote:

The next breakthrough was the late-nineteenth-century discovery of a mass of ancient Egyptian diplomatic correspondence.  Most of it was written in a Semitic language, but two letters in an unknown language remained a mystery until excavations in Turkey uncovered thousands of tablets in the same tongue.  The tablets proved to be the archives of a kingdom that thrived between 1650 and 1200 BC and that we now refer to by the biblical name “Hittite.”

In 1917 scholars were astonished by the announcement that the Hittite language proved on deciphering to belong to a previously unknown, very distinctive and archaic, now-vanished branch of the Indo-European family, termed Anatolian…This remains our first direct evidence for the existence of any Indo-European language.[4]

Today it is recognized that there is a connection between the ancient Asian languages and the ancient European ones, exactly as in the list of tongues spoken by the descendants of Japheth, as presented in Genesis.  Furthermore, it has been discovered that Anatolian, a language that was spoken in ancient Turkey (also known as ancient Hittite), was also an Indo-European language.  (The language spoken in modern-day Turkey does not belong to the family of Indo-European languages.)  Thus we see that all the tongues spoken by the descendants of Japheth belong to the same family—that of the Indo-European languages—as it says in this week’s reading:  “The descendants of Japheth…branched out…each with its language” (Gen. 10:2,5).

When it became clear that Indo-European languages were spoken in Asia as well as Europe, scholars began to wonder about the origins of this extensive family of languages.  For generations, linguists endeavored to find the cradle of the Indo-European tongues, or as they said, to solve “the puzzle of Indo-European languages.”

Colin Refrew, a professor of archaeology at Cambridge University, is a highly reputed expert in Indo-European languages.  In his book, Professor Renfrew presents the evidence in support of his hypothesis that cradle of the Indo-European languages was in Turkey.  He asserts that “…central and eastern Anatolia was the key area where an early form of Indo-European language was spoken before 6500 BC.  From there the distribution of the language and its successors into Europe was associated with the spread of farming.”[5]

Now let us summarize the results of linguistic research into the family of Indo-European languages, and compare these findings with what is said in the Torah:

  1. The Genesis list of the tongues of the descendants of Japheth matches the Indo-European family of languages.
  2. Anatolia, which is in Turkey in the region of the mountains of Ararat, where Noah’s ark came to rest, has been identified by Professor Renfrew as the place from which these languages spread to Europe and Asia.

Thus we see that current linguistic knowledge coincides with what is said in this week’s reading.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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