Mythical Beginnings

The reason why translation and translators exist is, of course, because of the fact that there is a huge diversity of languages in the world. There are many theories and hypotheses as to the reason for the evolution of language and the divergence of the world’s languages but some of the most interesting ‘hypotheses’ are the mythical stories that seem to accompany people everywhere around the world.

Most of us know the Babel myth. Some call it a fable, some call it a legend, some even say that it is a lesson to be learned. Let us have a look at the origin of the story of the Tower of Babel/Babylon (as found in the Holy Bible):

BabelNow all the earth continued to be of one language and of one set of words… And they began to say, each one to the other: “Come on! … Let us build ourselves a city and also a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a celebrated name for ourselves, for fear we may be scattered over all the surface of the earth.” And Jehovah proceeded to go down to see the city and the tower that the sons of men had built. After that Jehovah said: “Look! They are one people and there is one language for them all, and this is what they start to do. Why, now there is nothing that they may have in mind to do that will be unattainable for them. Come now! Let us go down and there confuse their language that they may not listen to one another’s language.” Accordingly Jehovah scattered them from there over all the surface of the earth, and they gradually left off building the city. That is why its name was called Ba′bel, because there Jehovah had confused the language of all the earth, and Jehovah had scattered them from there over all the surface of the earth.

Humanity has long sought explanation for the divergences in human languages. In fact, every tribe, nation or people on every continent seems to have their own ‘language divergence’ myth. Interestingly, the people of the island of Hao in French Polynesia have an almost identical myth in which God chased the builders away in anger, destroyed the building, and changed their language, so that they spoke diverse tongues.

There is a Mexican legend which talks of the giant Xelhua constructing the great Pyramid of Cholula, in order to reach heaven. However, the gods were angry at his audacity, burned the building and destroyed it after which each separate family received a language of its own.

The Wa-Sania people of East Africa believe that all the the peoples of the earth spoke only one language but following a terrible famine, a sickness fell upon the people driving them all mad. They wandered about in all directions, jabbering strange words, and from this wandering and jabbering the world’s languages evolved.

On the other hand, Hindu mythology states that:

There grew in the centre of the earth the wonderful world tree, or knowledge tree. It was so tall that it reached almost to heaven. It said in its heart, “I shall hold my head in heaven and spread my branches over all the earth, and gather all men together under my shadow, and protect them, and prevent them from separating.” But Brahma, to punish the pride of the tree, cut off its branches and cast them down on the earth, when they sprang up as wata trees, and made differences of belief and speech and customs to prevail on the earth, to disperse men upon its surface.

Aztec mythology describes the story of a cataclysmic flood where only one man Coxcox and one woman Xochiquetzal survive. They have many children who are unable to speak but are endowed with language by a magical dove. However, each child is given a different language and as such they cannot understand one another.

The Iroquois God Taryenyawagon leads his people on a long journey showing and directing his people to settle in different places and because of this journeying and ‘resettlement’ their language changed into many.

The Gunwinggu tribe of Northern Austrailia describe a goddess who during the mythical dreamtime gave each of her children a language of their own to play with. A tribe from South Australia, on the other hand give us a delightful story which suggests that language diversity stemmed from cannibalism:

In remote time an old woman, named Wurruri lived towards the east and generally walked with a large stick in her hand, to scatter the fires round which others were sleeping, Wurruri at length died. Greatly delighted at this circumstance, they sent messengers in all directions to give notice of her death; men, women and children came, not to lament, but to show their joy. The Raminjerar were the first who fell upon the corpse and began eating the flesh, and immediately began to speak intelligibly. The other tribes to the eastward arriving later, ate the contents of the intestines, which caused them to speak a language slightly different. The northern tribes came last and devoured the intestines and all that remained, and immediately spoke a language differing still more from that of the Raminjerar.

Sometimes, fiction, legend and story are far more interesting than fact.


8 thoughts on “Mythical Beginnings

  1. Up until today, I wasn’t aware that there are so many fascinating legends and mythical stories explaining the divergence of languages in the world.
    That’s a really interesting post 🙂

  2. True, sometimes fiction is far more intersting than reality. What is surprising, most of the legens or myths tell that people used to speak one language. Than something happened – Pyramid of Cholula was burned or people ate meat in different sequences – and they started to speak differently. There’s got to be something about it..:)

  3. The tree of knowledge, great flood… it sounds familiar:) Perhaps those legends were created in those days when all the people spoke one language:)

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