Language is Supernatural

Is language natural or spiritual/supernatural? Humans, who are uniquely made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), have complex linguistics and writing systems. Ever notice how a 2-year-old child can learn to repeat and use human words passively simply by hearing them. Even children of deaf adults (CODAs) learn to sign by watching their parents and only learn speech from hearing other humans talk. Babies don’t have to be taught how to say the sounds they just instinctively speak what they hear and get better with practice.

Meanwhile, dogs and cats don’t ever learn to replicate human speech. Animals have basic communication but they never develop reading and writing. Parrots and few birds can mimic sounds in general (not just words), and apes like orangutans can be trained to sign, but they will never understand the meanings of what they are doing. Pets and circus animals can be trained to respond to certain words and perform certain acts, but that is operant conditioning made by treats (or electric shocks). This is not the same as an actual internal ability to communicate abstract ideas across space and time.

I say all of that to point out this, the fracturing of languages at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) must have been a supernatural event since there is no natural mechanism to do such a thing. In addition, we can see the reverse of this in Acts 2 when the holy spirit fills the believers on Pentecost/Shavuot and gives them the ability to speak in “other tongues” or languages. This allowed them to share the gospel with Jewish believers from the diaspora who had lived in other countries and learned other languages who came to Jerusalem for Shavuot. One event separated one language into many, and the other united them into one.

In Acts 2:5-24, the holy spirit was distributed to all of the disciples in the upper room, and they started speaking in tongues. There were many people in the crowd in Jerusalem from other countries who spoke various languages and were there for Pentecost. These people were amazed, but there were skeptics in the crowd (in verse 13) who were saying that the people speaking in tongues were drunk. Then Peter corrected the skeptics and pointed to Joel 2:28-32 as evidence of a fulfilled prophecy of the holy spirit.

These skeptics said they sounded drunk, despite the fact others could clearly hear these “Galilean Jews”, speaking in the languages of various ethnic groups from the Middle East, Mediterranean Europe, and North Africa. What happened? How can one person hear drunk babbling and another hear the gospel in their own language? At first one may think that the people speaking in tongues were each speaking different languages on their own, i.e. one person speaking Greek, another Ethiopian, another Arabic, etc. But the skeptics thought they were all drunk, which means they probably heard random babbling from all of them.

Even if someone only spoke one language, they would be aware of the existence of other languages, especially in the Levant, which is right in the middle of Eurasia. So people living there would have been used to others speaking foreign languages. Therefore, it seems illogical for these people to conclude that all these people were drunk because they were speaking another language. Wouldn’t a person just assume that the orator is simply speaking to one group of people that share that language since they are speaking a foreign language?

So why did they think the people were babbling drunkards? What if it wasn’t one spirit-filled person each speaking a foreign language, but rather all of them were babbling in the natural and only those whom God opened the ears of through the spirit heard the gospel in their own language? Meaning that only the people who heard the interpretation were amazed, and the people who called them drunk couldn’t hear because their ears were closed spiritually?

In Jeremiah 5:21 it says the hard-hearted people have eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear, which Jesus quoted in Mark 8:18 when talking about the hard hearts of the Jews in his day. Paul quotes something similar from Isaiah 64:4 when talking about the power of the spirit and how it distinguishes believers from the world in 1 Cor 2:9-12. So there was a supernatural reunification of languages through the holy spirit for those who had “ears to hear” (Matt 13:9-17, Isa 6:9-10). In other words, this was a reverse of the Tower of Babel incident. Furthermore, 1 Cor 2 also gets into how God reveals things to humans supernatural by his spiritual, so in order to communicate with us, God must have invented language.

1 Cor 2: (NLT) 9 That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”[Isa 64:4] 10 But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. 11 No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. 12 And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us. 13 When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. 14 But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. 15 Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others. 16 For, “Who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him?”[Isa 40:13] But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ.

Job 39:13-17 God gives an example of how animals don’t have the wisdom that humans have, using an ostrich.
Job 39: 13 “The ostrich flaps her wings grandly, but they are no match for the feathers of the stork. 14 She lays her eggs on top of the earth, letting them be warmed in the dust. 15 She doesn’t worry that a foot might crush them or a wild animal might destroy them. 16 She is harsh toward her young, as if they were not her own. She doesn’t care if they die. 17 For God has deprived her of wisdom. He has given her no understanding.

The existence of the International Phonetic Alphabet alludes to the possibility that all languages were once one unified language. The IPA was created in the late 19th century as a standardized written representation of phonemes (speech sounds) that exists across all documented languages. This way people didn’t need to make pronunciation keys for every document. As of 2005, there are about 107 segmental letters in the IPA. It’s kind of like the periodic table of phonetics. The original period table was incomplete but based on the rules that govern atoms. There were predictions based on missing elements that hadn’t been discovered, and holes were left for those elements until they were discovered. Similarly, the IPA has holes awaiting confirmation of the existence of certain sounds in a human language, based on the fact that there are a finite number of shapes that the human mouth can make to create phonemes.

This implies that there is a predefined set of sounds in the human language just like there is a pre-defined set of chemicals in nature that are not graphic on the period table along with some man-made elements that break down almost as soon as they are made. If we can recognize that God created a predefined set of natural elements, then surely we recognized that language itself also is a part of a direct creation by God, rather than evolving over time by random chance. New elements don’t pop up in nature randomly, the rules are fixed, yet these elements can be combined to make new compounds. Likewise, all human languages contain the same sounds which are limited by the anatomy of the human mouth, yet the various combinations of specific sounds that are selected and excluded in each language group create new languages. Animals have yet to do what humans do, whether it be making new languages or combining new chemicals, meaning this is all a part of our uniqueness as beings made in the image and likeness of God. Psychologically, humans have been anatomically designed for speech with long windpipes and smaller mouths and the ability to control the speed of our breath, which is something creatures can’t do.

In conclusion, if a modern person traveled back in time to that location and recorded it with their phone, it would just sound like babbling. But if that time traveler (let’s assume an English speaker), was a believer and filled with spirit, I think the spirit would have allowed them to personally hear the gospel in their language, despite the fact modern English wasn’t developed yet. This is a supernatural event and human language itself may not be explainable in a naturalistic evolutionary framework but rather it is a unique attribute of God himself passed on to humans, just like our abilities to manufacture new products through chemistry.

One more thing:

The Great commission according to Matthew 28:18-20 is to teach all nations. The word nation in the new testament is translated from the Greek word ethnos (ἔθνος) which is where we get the English word ethnicity. This means that biblical nations aren’t specifically referring to nation-states but rather people groups (ethnicities). This goes back to the ethnic separation by language at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 10 and 11. This may imply that the return of the messiah will be when all ethnic groups have the bible (either written or audio/video recording) in their language. Something to ponder.

Resources:
More on the IPA – Wiki
Crash Course Linguistics Phonetics Pt 1
Crash Course Linguistics Phonetics Pt 2