The Evolution of Language

In a post about five jobs a creationist cannot do, linguistics was included. Since some might be surprised, I thought I’d comment a bit more on that.

Creationists deny linguistics, just as they deny evolution and astronomy and geology, because of an approach to Genesis which they think is literal. In this case, the story in question is the Towel of Babel story in Genesis 11.

There too, as in Genesis 1, they are not consistently literalists. I am quite certain they don’t think that Yahweh had to descend from the sky in order to be able to see the tower.

But that detail is just one element that clues the reader who actually takes the story literally that it is satire. It is literally a satirical account of the Babylonians’ attempt to build the world’s biggest ziggurat, Etemenanki, which they may or may not ever have actually completed, but either way, the constant “under construction” status and appearance of which may have led to the story in Genesis.

The other reason young-earth creationists deny linguistics is that it involves deductive reasoning based on evidence which is precisely of the sort used by modern biologists to reconstruct the history of life on our planet.

If we look at modern-day Romance languages, we can see a resemblance between them. We can also study fossils of an ancient language that was spoken in the same region, Latin. We can spot transitional forms throughout the textual fossil record. But there is no way to “prove” that Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian evolved from Latin, if one is willing to explain away the logical inference from the evidence by saying that God simply created any languages in their present form, and any seeming intermediate states are simply separate languages created by God.

After all, we don’t see one language changing into another in our time, do we? But that shows the idiocy of the common creationist objection. Languages are constantly changing, but over generations, at a rate that is not noticeable to a single individual. Those changes they do witness could simply be called “microevolution” of language. And just as no biologist says that a monkey suddenly gives birth to a human, no linguist says that Japanese might spontaneously become English. Those who suggest that either is what experts think evolution (whether linguistic or biological) is about are either ignorant or liars.

One can use the same deductive reasoning to trace things further back. Latin, ancient Greek, and ancient Sanskrit have similarities of vocabulary and grammatical structure. And so there seems to be a common ancestor of them as well.

Of course, the evolution of English from Old English over the past millennium is accepted by groups like Answers in Genesis. As with Genesis 1, they simply define a language “kind” and an animal “kind” so that they can try not to sound too nonsensical. But when one traces the evolution of language over a thousand years, or two, then it ought to become clear that by the end of the process, one can have several new languages which descended from one that is now extinct.

Change over time. Evolution, diversification, extinction, descent. Deductive reasoning. Everything that allows us to figure things out about the past and draw conclusions – that is what young-earth creationists deny.

  • Jonny Scaramanga

    Thanks for this post. I’m honoured that you linked to my blog. I really admire your work.

  • Ian

    What a great article. Thanks.

    What is your opinion about evolutionary reasoning on religion? Religions develop, split and conform to their cultural environment. They, of course, add a measure of spontaneous generation too.

    But, as I understand it, evolutionary models of comparative religion are so strongly associated with a certain scholarship in the second half of the C20 that they are considered rather toxic in religious studies now. At least, that was the impression I got when I suggested doing work in this area for my thesis.

    • James F. McGrath

      There certainly is significant debate about the application of evolutionary analogy to other areas – an example would be the idea that religion is a “meme” in the sense that Dawkins advocates the use of the term. And there have been criticisms of an earlier sort of “evolutionary” view of religion which – in a manner that reflects a misunderstanding of biological evolution – viewed ethical monotheism as the culmination of a process whereby religious thought improved successively through stages from animism through polytheism to (surprise surprise) the viewpoint of those authors who regarded their own view as the pinnacle of the process.

      • Ian

        Ah! So that was the root of the toxicity then: the idea that evolutionary models of religion lead to a kind of evolutionary progress idea. That makes a lot of sense, thanks. I didn’t get that before.

        Interesting, then, that a feature of biological reasoning that is looong dead is a stumbling block for evolutionary reasoning on other areas.


      • TomS

        The analogy is so strong that the computer programs which have been developed for evolutionary biology have been used in historical linguistics and in another field, the study of manuscript traditions. Also, the model of “common descent with modification by random variation and selection” applies to the working of the adaptive immune system. I would be interested if someone has other examples.

  • plectrophenax

    Great piece. I used to teach linguistics so enjoyed this. I think parts of chemistry are also denied by creationists, since stellar nucleosynthesis argues that heavy elements are made in stars, and released when they explode (and I think some elements are made in the explosions). I don’t think creationists will accept that. I think the theory also predicts the abundance of various elements, so really a very beautiful piece of work.

  • Kagi Soracia

    Got here from the MLK post and was debating whether or not to add this blog to my list of blogs I am following, so I had a quick look at recent posts and saw this one. You’re in.

  • Coleman Glenn

    On a lighter note, Dennis Baron, a language blogger, had a GREAT April Fool’s Day post on “The Great Language Change Hoax”:

  • J

    I didn’t know the tower of babel was a real place. How cool.

  • Paul D.

    Heck, you can’t even believe in Genesis 11 unless you ignore Genesis 10, which presents humanity as already having spread across the earth in diverse ethnic groups and languages.

  • Susan Burns

    Linguistics is a scientific endeavor but is lousy with creationists. I don’t know why you think it is not.

  • TomS

    There is also the question of complex patterns developing without being designed. Of course, many people think that language is deteriorating (and we have to have “grammar police” to keep it from becoming gibberish), but with a study of the history of languages, we see that nobody was around dictating the complex structure of, say, the conjugation of the Latin verb – it arose by a process of something like “random variation and selection”.

  • Steve Douglas

    Historical linguistics is my academic discipline (with Germanic and Indo-European specialities). I’ve lost count of the times I’ve tried to summarize my field by saying that I study how certain languages have changed from common ancestor languages and been asked, “So how does the Tower of Babel play into this?” Not being a jerk, it’s been difficult to try to answer this question honestly when I see the expectation of a reply along the lines of, “Linguistics confims that story!” writ across their countenance.