The Oldest Language? (A Biblical Perspective)

(   Austin TX March 2003)

As a casual perusal of multiple reference works on this subject will reveal, the question, "Which is the oldest language?" quite easily generates several suggestions which almost always include one or more of the following venerable candidates: (in no particular order) SUMERIAN, AKKADIAN, CHINESE, EGYPTIAN, PHRYGIAN, SANSKRIT, PHOENICIAN, etc., etc. And, such a list, of course, obliges the quester to make his own limited choice...

THUS, a clear-cut answer to the question is not forthcoming, the experts aren't committing, and the end result (if the quester does indeed MAKE a choice) is arrived at kind of like pinning the tail on the donkey.

A fundamental factor which lends to the above-cited indecisiveness in this field of study is the universally held notion (seemingly unassailable) that, historically, language should somehow show a developmental progression ranging from primitive rudiment to modern refinement. However, as the above list indicates, such is not the case! On the contrary, ancient languages are every bit as linguistically refined as the most trafficked languages of today! Furthermore, there is no historical evidence of earlier more rudimentary intermediate languages which provide a bridge between our supposed first grunts and snorts, and the sophisticated cadence of languages such as the above. So until such evidence is definitively in place, the experts remain in a holding pattern and continue to shove palliative lists at us from which we may make our personal choices.

Thus, in dealing with the question, "Which is the oldest language?," we continue to work with a theoretical linguistic model which suggests a developmental pattern which is not consequent with reality. (Kind of like using a roadmap of Ankara to find our way around in Boston. (Kind of like pinning the tail on the donkey...) )

To bypass this unpleasant and unproductive circumstance, may we temporarily chuck the currently preferred model and revisit the most revered and credible historical document in our possession, the Bible, to consider the question at hand ...

[Note that it is not within the scope of this narrative to confirm (or reconfirm) the astounding credibility of the Bible as an unparalleled historical reference document. This is a task for the reader to undertake for himself. The Bible, however, will be used here as the historical reference-of-choice for establishing the conclusions arrived at.]

Using the Bible as our historical reference-of-choice will require ONE necessary, yet reasonable, adjustment in logic. (Have no fear! This logical adjustment is only temporary, for the sake of this discussion. It may freely be abandoned when we're done - or, you may "disconnect" whenever you wish!)

This adjustment in logic follows:
The Bible claims to be a divinely inspired account of creation, and the relevant history of mankind's dealings with God. (2nd Timothy 3:16, Romans 15:4) RULE: Let's magnanimously assume, within the context of this discussion, that this might be true.

With the above rule in place, then the following would also apply: Historically, God was there. He saw it all. He did it all. Therefore, what his professed record says is reasonably worthy of (at the very least!) polite analysis. Interestingly, following through in this tolerant(!) frame of mind brings us to some very intriguing conclusions which apply directly to our "oldest language" question, AND which fit far more harmoniously with what reality suggests...

- If God, the creator of the universe (a universe whose size, balanced complexity and beauty eloquently attest to its creator's consummate power and artistry) made Adam from the dust of the ground, and in his image and likeness (which obviously isn't shabby!) then this guy (Adam) was quite likely NOT some knuckle-dragging, low-brow, worm-grubbing, prognathic klutz who could only grunt in monosyllables, and poke crude marks in the sand with his gnarled and filthy opposable thumb.

- In fact, the Genesis account confirms that an infinitely more refined Adam started out speaking a real language, in a very dignified context, even conversing with God and composing poetry on-the-fly! (Genesis 2:16 ,17, 23; 3:10-context)

- Furthermore, this refined creature had so robust a physiology that he could live for nearly a thousand years(!) (Genesis 5:5) This being the case, then his accompanying neurology must have been phenomenal as well! For this reason alone, we might be justified in ascribing a level of genius to him and his contemporaries that would topple our meager conceptual notions of what genius is...

- It easily follows then that Adam could certainly read and write [a] language. After all, if God created him with all of this implied refinement (including speech - from the git-go!) it takes only a small leap of logic to imagine that he also gifted Adam with normally accompanying language capabilities.

- And, given mankind's unquestioned propensity for keeping written records, we might even conclude that Adam and his refined contemporaries did just that! Like we do today! Amazingly enough, the Bible suggests that this might even be the case!

The Documentary Nature of the Genesis Account
Moses is regarded, without any serious argument to the contrary, as the writer and compiler of the earliest portions of the Bible. However, Moses does not appear on the Biblical scene until the Exodus account. Obviously then, all of the material comprising the earlier Biblical record (i.e., Genesis) had to be provided for Moses through some exterior means. (e.g., oral tradition, divine revelation, prior written records, all of the above, other(?)...)

If, from this short list of source possibilities, we concentrate only on the avenue of prior written records which Moses likely had in his possession, then the documentary nature of the Genesis account takes on substantial significance as it relates to our question: "Which is the oldest language?".

For example, many Biblical scholars are of the opinion that the occasional colophons found in the Genesis account are indications of narrative references or inclusions from prior records or documents. The precise nature of colophonic protocol, as it was understood and used by ancient chroniclers, is not clearly understood today, however, the presence of these colophons in the Genesis account strongly supports the theory that Moses did indeed have access to documents harking from the most ancient periods of mankind's Biblical history. In any case, can one imagine a credible historian NOT having access to such sources, or using them!

[The reader may pursue a study of documentary "colophons" and their historic usage on his own. (see also, Hebrew:   תולדות   "Toledoth")]

Assuming then, that Moses had access to such documents and included them (or referred to them) in his Genesis account, we may build upon some of their historical (and implied eye-witness) commentary as it pertains to early language:

Tower of Babel: A Critical Focal Point in the [Biblical] History of Language...
Regarding events at Babel, (Genesis chapter 11) we are told that, just prior to the time of the attempted construction of the tower, (c. 2300 B.C.E. (c. 100 years after the Deluge) ) all the earth was still speaking one language. (Genesis 11:1) This is, obviously, a very important and helpful statement because it allows us to make some founding assumptions: (Please excuse the obviousness of these assumptions, but listing them here helps congeal their significance in the mind of the reader.)

1.) Up until the incident at Babel, mankind spoke a single language. (i.e., the language in question.)

2.) This means that any supposed historical documents which originated from the time prior to Babel were recorded in the language in question.

3.) Thus, the possible historical chroniclers who could have written such documents, e.g., Adam,(?) Methuselah,(?) Enoch,(?) Noah,(?) Noah's sons,(?) etc., all spoke the language in question.

4.) Furthermore, it is reasonable to conclude that, because the action of God to multiply the language of mankind at Babel was a PUNITIVE action, those of mankind who were still regarded with favor by God, (and who were, therefore, NOT the object of this punitive action) would have continued to speak the language in question AFTER the incident at Babel.

(Bear in mind here that Methuselah lived right up to the time of the Deluge and was, therefore, a contemporary of Noah and his sons, who survived the Deluge and were around during the time of the incident at Babel. (We may blithely assume that Noah and his sons were regarded with favor by God(!) and, therefore, did NOT have their language affected.) )

5.) Notably, at this approximate critical juncture in history, (c. 300 years after the incident at Babel) we find Abram, (Abraham) a contemporary of Noah's son Shem, appearing on Biblical radar. The Bible calls him "a Hebrew," and "God's friend." (Genesis 14:13, James 2:23) It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Abraham spoke the language in question.

6.) The language in question was Hebrew.

AGAIN: The substantive CONNECTING assumption here, which ties the language of Abraham to the "one language" spoken by mankind prior to the incident at Babel is, that the action of God to multiply mankind's language was PUNITIVE. Therefore, the few of mankind who were still in God's favor at that time, would NOT likely have been affected.

Cave Canem...
It would be good to remind the reader that the conclusion arrived at here (i.e., that Hebrew is the oldest language) is based upon perfectly reasonable assumptions - which in turn, are based upon the RULE stated above and reiterated here: "Let's magnanimously assume, within the context of this discussion, that [the Bible record] might be true."

For those readers with a bent for historical linguistics, who may at this point be in the painful throes of conflicting theoretical apoplexy, please be reminded: The logical adjustment underlying the rule (and allowing for the stated assumptions) is only temporary, for the sake of this discussion. It may freely be abandoned when we're done - or, you may "disconnect" whenever you wish!

However, as in any objective attempt at inquiry into controversy, it is always worth considering (very carefully) the invasive impact that ones bias has on the process - particularly as it applies to this subject. Admittedly, the roads of bias can go off in countless directions, but the bias being challenged here is the big one, mentioned at the outset of this discussion, i.e., that it is almost universally and unassailably presumed that mankind (cf, 'new man' and neander (as in Neanderthal, fr. Greek: neoV anhr "New Man" and German: Thal "Valley") ) started out as some "knuckle-dragging, low-brow, worm-grubbing, prognathic ["valley-boy"] klutz who could only grunt in monosyllables and poke crude marks in the sand with his gnarled and filthy opposable thumb," etc.

If the quester is convinced that this is the case, then of course, his investigative modality will likely comply with the underlying notion. AND because this "Neanderthal notion" is almost universally assumed to BE the case, it appears that the bias in question applies. It is, therefore, not surprising that NEARLY ALL explanations of language origin paint this unholy picture of a bunch of bungling uncomposed simians grubbing for worms and stumbling upon linguistic cognizance - by pure accident! AND that, therefore, historical language development should present itself as proceeding from crude rudiment to modern refinement.

It is merely being suggested here, that this prosaic, over-used and bias-induced model MAY NOT apply at all! AND, as has been demonstrated here, our historical reference-of-choice (the Bible) presents a diametrically opposed and far more dignified picture.

A Related and Interesting Speculative Exercise:
Proceeding on the basis of the foregoing assumptions, (i.e., that Hebrew is the oldest language, and that Moses had access to extremely ancient source documents in Hebrew when compiling and writing Genesis) we might give our attention to an intriguing segment of the Genesis account which has been cited by Biblical scholars as possibly representing one such document. It is comprised of the text of Genesis 1:1 through Genesis 2:4.

If this segment of text does indeed represent the content of a single ancient source document which Moses had in his possession, it would be interesting to speculate a bit on its nature...

To this end...
We know with reasonable certainty, based upon paleographical evidence, that Hebrew script style has presented itself over historical millenia in two broad alphabetic formats. Each format, of course, has its own set of innumerable possibilities for stylistic and [writer-]idiosyncratic variation, but in general, these script styles are:

1. Modern. (variously called "square," "Aramaic," "Babylonian," "Assyrian," inter alia(!?) ) Traditionally, and in the opinion of most gurus, this style hails from around the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon, c. 600 B.C.E. Remarkably, it is therefore, about 2600 years old!

2. Ancient. (variously called "Phoenician," "Canaanite," "paleo-Hebrew," "pre-exilic Hebrew," "old Hebrew," inter alia(!?) ) This script style antedates the former, and is, therefore, (and remarkably!) FAR OLDER than 2600 years!

Regarding these two script styles, the following chart is presented which equates them letter-for-letter alphabetically. At the top is a common variation of the modern Hebrew script style. Below it, is an acceptable variation of the ancient Hebrew script style.

Using the ancient script style presented in this chart, the document in question, comprised of the text of Genesis 1:1 through Genesis 2:4, (as represented in the Masoretic text) is speculatively reviewed in the following links: The first link displays the text in question as it may well have appeared while in Moses' possession c. 3500 years ago. The second link displays exactly the same text, line-for-line, as it appears in modern Hebrew. The third link displays the same text in line-for-line English translation, and the fourth link provides access to a downloadable MP3 audio reading of the text in Hebrew.

Genesis Document:
Example in Ancient Hebrew Script

Genesis Document:
Line-by-Line Equivalent in Modern Hebrew Script

Genesis Document:
Line-by-Line English translation

Genesis Document:
(MP3 Downloadable Audio File in Hebrew)
Size: 8.3 M

Source Text Used in Reading:
Masoretic Text as Presented in
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
Published by
Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart

Inasmuch as such a document may indeed have been in Moses' possession, its provenance would obviously trace back to a much earlier period. The question of which period (i.e., "how far back?") is anybody's guess.

We may reasonably surmise that the ancient script style presented here could very well have been, at the time of its demise, AT LEAST as old as its modern counterpart (i.e., c. 2600 years) and more likely, much older! Thus, audaciously peering thru the OPPOSITE END of the "opticon" of standard historical theory, we would then see a divinely organized nation (Israel) with an already substantial [Hebrew] literary tradition, entering the eastern Mediterranean region for conquest, (c. 1500 B.C.E.) and influencing its subjugates with THEIR (Hebrew) culture, language and script, rather than the other way around, as many subject-pundits would have us believe.   [cf, article: Who Done It?! (Aaron's Bad Day) at this website.]

Given the above, it is not at all outside the realm of reason and possibility to suppose that the document in question might represent one of the first official records to be entered into the ancient repository of written history. Furthermore, on the basis of the ancient script style demonstrated here possibly being at least 2600 years old at the time of its demise, (and more likely, much older!) that would place its temporal realm of practical usage well before the flood! AND, noting the typical longevity of the residents of that era, (Genesis 5) which include our supposed keepers of inspired documentary tradition, (and appreciating the remarkably stabilizing influence that these long-lived individuals would have exerted on the "one language" spoken by all mankind prior to the building of the Tower of Babel) we may suppose that our document could very well have been recorded, in Hebrew, at the very dawn of mankind's existence.