The Tower of Babel is a biblical account of human arrogance and divine intervention. Yet for a linguist, this narrative is particularly interesting for another reason: it attempts to explain the origin of the world’s many different languages. The Tower of Babel was built by humanity in an attempt to reach heaven, causing God to intervene; making them all speak different languages, inhibiting their communication and thus the continuation of their overambitious project. While this religious narrative offers a rather simplistic explanation of languages as being divine in origin, finding a scientific answer for the question “What is a language?” is a far more complex task.
At its most basic level, one could define a language simply as a means of communication. However, such a basic explanation would necessarily be as vague as a divine one. Animals communicate, while the German writer and forestry expert Peter Wohlleben has even argued that trees can “talk” to each other. Does this mean that we should therefore speak of a “tree language”? It would seem that defining a language simply as a means of conveying information through communication remains insufficient. At the other end of the spectrum, there are claims such as that made by the American poet and existentialist Walt Whitman. He argued that language is the sum of all human experience. This extreme range in definitions remains the central to the issue of definition, and it becomes ever more evident that there is no simple answer to this question, as the never-ending discourse in linguistics also demonstrates.
Another approach involves looking back at history and the evolution of languages. Taking the Indo-European language family as an example, linguists have reconstructed the common ancestor of all its different languages, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). From this presumed origin, various language families such as the Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Slavic or Indo-Iranian branches have evolved, comprising the vast majority of languages spoken today in Europe as well as a significant part of Asia. Although these differ in terms of pronunciation, spelling and are therefore different families, they are all descended from PIE, and exhibit sufficient differences in grammar to allow a distinction between them to be made. Yet what about languages within the same families, yet are mutually intelligible, for example Ukrainian and Belarusian which have an 80 % rate of mutual intelligibility? How can they be classified as distinct languages rather than mere variations of the same language? There are a variety of factors which come into play in this context, ranging from inter-linguistic exchange, such as the borrowing of vocabulary, to the influence of geographical borders or nationalist narratives, which have had an impact on minority languages for example. Likewise, there is the question of how to distinguish a language and a dialect from one another. Naturally this introduces additional complexity to the discussion – complexity that remains far too great for the scope of this article, which only aims to provide an introduction to this topic.
Ultimately, it remains extremely difficult, if not impossible, to offer a precise definition of what constitutes a language. What we can conclude with certainty however, is that language and languages remain at the core of human life and influence every aspect of it. This of course includes the fact that they will never cease to be an object of constant fascination for us linguists.
By Cristina Coellen