The Blessing of Babel

Nola Stephens, a linguistics professor at Covenant College, believes God designed the world for linguistic diversity and used the Bible to explain why during her presentation at the Linguistics Lecture Series.

PROVO, Utah (Nov. 2, 2017)—Have you ever wondered what a perfect linguistic system would look like? Nola Stephens, associate professor of linguistics at Covenant College, took the question one step further. “If there had never been the Fall,” she asked, “what would language look like? Would we have multiple languages, or would we all be speaking the same language?” Although petite and polite, Stephens has a bright, expressive face and a big personality, which helped transform a potentially complicated subject into a delightful hour of historical interpretation. During her lecture for the Linguistics Lecture Series, Stephens took the audience on a whirlwind Biblical analysis of the virtues and vices of linguistic diversity.

Stephens admitted that bridging language gaps between people is time-consuming, expensive, and complicated. “ A lot of you [might] have thought that life would be easier or the world would be a better place if we all just spoke the same language,” Stephens said. “So, why don’t we?”

Many Christians would point to the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel to answer this question. “The predominant interpretation of this [account] provides a rather bleak view of linguistic diversity. Basically it’s a punishment for sin.” Stephens continued, “As linguists, we’re invested in [linguistic diversity] being a good thing. Stephens believes the interpretation of the Babel narrative is essential to Christian linguists. “[An] alternative interpretation [is] that what God did linguistically, in separating the languages at Babel . . . was actually a blessing. Is this a possible, faithful interpretation of the scriptures?”

A helpful insight into understanding the Babel story is gaining a more precise meaning of the Hebrew verb that is commonly translated to “confound” or “confuse” in English. In actuality, that verb is only ever found again in the scriptures when describing the mixing of ingredients for baking. Stephens believes the mistranslation happened due to the negative predisposition of the translators toward the event. “If you translate this as mix, it’s a little less obvious from the start that this is a terrible thing that happened.”

Stephens then turned her attention to a commandment that the Mormon community knows well, but in more nuanced context. “When God created Adam and Eve, He [gave] them what some refer to as the cultural mandate, [or] the scatter command. It’s the idea that they should go and replenish, or fill the earth.” God once again gives this commandment to Noah’s sons after the flood but instead of spreading out, they build the Tower of Babel “lest [they] be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” as Genesis reads. “It seems they weren’t particularly interested in fulfilling the cultural mandate,” Stephens commented.

Stephens proposed that God could have “[expedited] the separation process for them” one of two ways. He could have immediately divided the language of people at Babel, after which they naturally spread out from each other. Another option is one that Stephens cited from BYU linguistics professor Dallin D. Oaks: God first separated the people at Babel and let diverse languages develop over time. Thus, as theologian Mark Kreitzer put it, “Ethnolinguistic diversity is the result of the blessing and commandment [of] the original cultural mandate.”

Linguists know that when a group of people spread out, their language inevitably diverges due to a phenomenon of language called linguistic productivity. Productivity “is basically the ability to make new sentences, and new phrases, new words, and be understood when you do it,” Stephens explained. Without productivity, language would stay uniform, but “it just wouldn’t have the communicative power that it has,” Stephens commented. Stephens continued by explaining that some of her colleagues have wondered if linguistic productivity came about as a result of the Fall. She replied, “I think there’s actually good Biblical support for thinking that productivity was a part of language that God wanted it to have from the beginning.” She reminded the audience that the first task God gives Adam in the Garden of Eden is to name the animals. “What were people doing in the Garden of Eden? Linguistics! God has just spoken the world into being and then He lets Adam be creative with his speech too!”

Furthermore, the first human sentence spoken by Adam in the Garden of Eden is certainly productive. In Genesis, Adam says about Eve, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Stephens laughed and admitted, “That’s a weird thing to say.”. No one could have said that sentence before Adam. “I’m personally convinced that if sin hadn’t entered the world, we would still have linguistic diversity, because it seems that this is the way God designed language.”

So if God intentionally created linguistic diversity, that raises the question, why did He do it? “I think His glory is manifested in the diversity of the world’s languages,” Stephens said. “When you look across the structures of human language, I think you look at that as a Christian linguist and think, ‘Wow! My God is amazing and creative,’ and I think He wanted us to enjoy that.” In addition to beauty, Stephens believes linguistic diversity teaches the human family an important lesson. Diversity can often lead to frustration, leaving us wanting unity instead. “Having one language isn’t going to get you the kind of unity that you want,” Stephens said frankly. “I think this desire for unity points us to the only real, satisfying kind of unity we can get: a unity in Christ.”


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language ’18) 

Olivia covers events for the Department of Linguistics of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international relations.


Photos from Wikimedia Commons, Covenant college, Fotothing