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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Confusion of Tongues

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is a memorable event, which happened in the one hundred and first year, according to the Hebrew chronology, after the flood, B.C. 2247, at the overthrow of Babel; and which was providentially brought about, in order to facilitate the dispersion of mankind, and the population of the earth. Until this period, there had been one common language, which formed a bond of union, that prevented the separation of mankind into distinct nations.

2. There has been a considerable difference of opinion as to the nature of this confusion, and the manner in which it was effected. Some learned men, prepossessed with the notion that all the different idioms now in the world did at first arise from one original language, to which they may be reduced, and that the variety among them is no more than must naturally have happened in a long course of time by the mere separation of the builders of Babel, have maintained, that there were no new languages formed at the confusion; but that this event was accomplished by creating a misunderstanding and variance among the builders, without any immediate influence on their language. But this opinion, advanced by Le Clerc, &c, seems to be directly contrary to the obvious meaning of the word שפה , lip, used by the sacred historian; which, in other parts of Scripture, signifieth speech, Psalms 81:5 ; Isaiah 28:11 ; Isaiah 33:19 ; Ezekiel 3:5 . It has been justly remarked, that unanimity of sentiment, and identity of language, are particularly distinguished from each other, in the history: "The people is one, and they have all one language," Genesis 11:6 . It has been also suggested, that if disagreement in opinion and counsel were the whole that was intended, it would have had a contrary effect; they would not have desisted from their project, but strenuously have maintained their respective opinions, till the greater number of them had compelled the minority either to fly or to submit. Others have imagined, that this was brought about by a temporary confusion of their speech, or rather of their apprehensions, causing them, while they continued together and spoke the same language, to understand the words differently: Scaliger is of this opinion. Others again account for this event, by the privation of all language, and by supposing that mankind were under a necessity of associating together, and of imposing new names on things by common consent. Another opinion ascribes the confusion to such an indistinct remembrance of the original language which they spoke before, as made them speak it very differently; so that by the various inflections, terminations, and pronunciations of divers dialects, they could no more understand one another, than they who understand Latin can understand those who speak French, Italian, or Spanish, though all these languages arise out of it. This opinion is adopted by Casaubon, and by Bishop Patrick in his Commentary, and is certainly much more probable than either of the former; and Mr. Shuckford maintains, that the confusion arose from small beginnings, by the invention of new words in either of the three families of Shem, Ham, and Japhet, which might contribute to separate them from one another; and that in each family new differences of speech might gradually arise, so that each of these families went on to divide and subdivide among themselves. Others, again, as Mr. Joseph Mede and Dr. Wotton, &c, not satisfied with either of the foregoing methods of accounting for the diversity of languages among mankind, have recourse to an extraordinary interposition of divine power, by which new languages were framed and communicated to different families by a supernatural infusion or inspiration; which languages have been the roots and originals from which the several dialects that are, or have been, or will be, spoken, as long as this earth shall last, have arisen, and to which they may with ease be reduced.

3. It is, however, unnecessary to suppose, that the primitive language was completely obliterated, and entire new modes of speech at once introduced. It was quite sufficient, if such changes only were effected, as to render the speech of different companies or different tribes unintelligible to one another, that their mutual cooperation in the mad attempt in which they had all engaged might be no longer practicable. The radical stem of the first language might therefore remain in all, though new dialects were formed, bearing among themselves a similar relation with what we find in the languages of modern Europe, derived from the same parent stem, whether Gothic, Latin, or Sclavonian. In the midst of these changes, it is reasonable to suppose that the primitive language itself, unaltered, would still be preserved in some one at least of the tribes or families of the human race. Now in none of these was the transmission so likely to have taken place, as among that branch of the descendants of Shem, from which the patriarch Abraham proceeded. Upon these grounds, therefore, we may probably conclude, that the language spoken by Abraham, and by him transmitted to his posterity, was in fact the primitive language, modified indeed and extended in the course of time, but still retaining its essential parts far more completely than any other of the languages of men. If these conclusions are well founded, they warrant the inference, that, in the ancient Hebrew, there are still to be found the traces of the original speech. Whether this ancient Hebrew more nearly resembled the Chaldean, the Syrian, or what is now termed the Hebrew, it is unnecessary here to inquire; these languages, it has never been denied, were originally and radically the same, though, from subsequent modifications, they appear to have assumed somewhat different aspects.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Confusion of Tongues'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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