Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010-11 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

People have an incredible drive and ability to communicate with one another. Clever animals such as chimps may make special sounds to warn about the approach of a hungry leopard, for example. But we communicate using language, which sets us apart from all other creatures (Genesis 1:27).

Dominated by the Creator-evading philosophy of our age, researchers have tried hard to narrow the huge “communications gulf” between animals and humans, whom they regard as simply evolved animals. Some chimps have been trained by people to associate words with particular objects, and some have achieved a very basic form of sign language.1

Some birds, though not supposed to be our close evolutionary cousins, are even more clever, despite having relatively much smaller brains than chimps. “Alex,” an African gray parrot, was able to recognize and name some one hundred different objects, as well as their colour, texture, and shape. He could also count up to six.2 But Alex’s remarkable trained talent pales into insignificance next to the built-in abilities his human teacher would have had, even as a very young child. 

From an early age, we share information with each other—not just about the objects in the world around us, but about abstract things like thoughts, feelings, and ideas. We can use language to project into the past and future too. 

Who Are We?

Our communication also reflects that we have true self-awareness, an idea of ourselves and our place in the world as unique individuals. For some time, evolutionists became optimistic that they could show that chimps and orangutans also possessed this; when an ape saw an unexpected marking on itself in the mirror, it would inspect that part of its actual body. However, more than one researcher is realizing that this response does not indicate true self-awareness. Evolutionist Daniel Povinelli from the University of Southwestern Louisiana said in 1996 that he was becoming “much more open to the possibility that chimps may not develop a mental understanding of themselves and others, at least not to the extent that preschool children do.”3

Humans, however, are capable of much more. Even young children have been shown capable of having a “theory of mind”; they can speculate about what another person might be thinking. Povinelli also said: “By 3 to 5 years of age, children conclude that their peers behave according to unseen beliefs, intentions, and other mental states”—while “chimps may not try to decipher others’ minds in this way.”4 A chimp mother may be seen to grieve on losing an infant, but other chimps, unable to consider what she is feeling, will not comfort her. 

Povinelli’s negative results on chimps were reported with cautious, almost grudging, wording at times. Nevertheless, the results of his studies indicate that “humans operate in a mental realm that may stay off-limits to apes and other animals . . . .”

But there is more. No ape or any other animal exhibits “recursion”—one concept inside another one.  Young children regularly use recursive concepts, e.g.: “Samantha thinks Susan doesn’t want to play with her.” (Susan’s unwillingness to play is the concept within the concept of Samantha having thoughts.) 

The Gift of Language

The spoken word is our primary means of communication, but language can exist independent of speech or hearing, as the sign languages used by deaf people demonstrate. Language involves using a code, a sequence of symbols placed in a particular sequence, to represent the ideas we want to convey. When we speak, the code symbols are particular sounds. Writing and reading are also ways of expressing our gift of language using visual symbols—the letters of a particular alphabet replace the sound symbols they represent. A message can, however, be transmitted using different symbol types—for example, the dots and dashes of the Morse code, Amerindian smoke signals, or the 1s and 0s of digital coding, stored as magnetic patterns on a hard drive. In sign languages, hand shapes and gestures form the symbols.

Symbols are arranged into groups—words—each with a particular meaning. In spoken and sign languages, the words are put together using certain sets of rules called grammar, in specific patterns or sequences known as syntax.6

When we understand a message, it means we have deciphered the code—because we have learned the convention behind it. Neither symbols nor words mean anything in themselves. For example, if you, blindfolded, drew four Scrabble letters in the order G-I-F-T, to someone who has learnt the “key” to unlocking the code of English, that sequence means a “present.” But if you had been brought up to speak German, it would mean “poison”!  

When young children learn a language from their parents, they don’t need complicated lessons in vocabulary, comprehension, and grammar—all those rules are just picked up naturally as they grow. Once past our early childhood years, that ability mostly disappears, and we have to learn new languages the hard way. I was fortunate enough to grow up bilingual.7 It is not uncommon for children to learn three, four, or even more languages before the age of 7 or so, automatically keeping them separate and mostly unconfused, despite sometimes greatly differing rules of grammar. They just absorb them with ease from the surrounding grownups. 

Could Language Have Evolved?

Trying to explain how our astonishing language ability could have evolved from “primitive grunts” is very difficult; there are no proposals even partway convincing to most evolutionists themselves. For some time, it was thought that language was just something “learned,” but it seems likely now that the capacity for developing language and grammar is something “hardwired” into us from birth.  

Observed: The Birth of a Language

One of the most fascinating evidences for this innate capacity for language involves some five hundred children in Nicaragua, deaf from birth. Until 1980, when schools for the deaf were set up there, they had been living all over the country. They gestured to communicate with their hearing relatives but had no established form of sign language. When they came together in the schools, though, they quickly developed their own unique sign language among themselves. This language had its own vocabulary, rules of grammar, and syntax—a fully fledged language that had no precedent. The “hardware and software” that must already be in our amazingly designed bodies to enable such a thing to develop “naturally” is inconceivably complex—imagine some futuristic computer program with the ability to design totally new programs. Truly we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14).

The Real Origin of Language 

The Bible makes it plain: the first couple were not created from animal ancestors, but Adam was made directly from raw elements (“dust”) and Eve from his rib.8 Like ours, their bodies contained incredibly complex micromachinery, programmed to be able to pass on those programs to their descendants. Even though we speak of the “miracle” of birth, we were not miraculously created in the way they were.9 Rather, the incredible mechanisms for reproduction, which show us massive amounts of programmed information being transmitted down a chain, speak of the immense creative power and intelligence of God, the master Programmer and Designer. 

Consider this, too: Adam and Eve, created as adults, had to have full language ability from the first, so as to understand God and each other in that perfect world before sin. None of us pops into the world with that ability; even though we have the mechanisms to learn, even to create language with astonishing ease, we have to absorb word meanings and the rules of grammar from the world around us as we grow up.10 We do this via our designed vocal equipment and brain machinery. But the first couple required more—a “built-in” knowledge of the language rules (grammar) and word meanings (vocabulary).11 Unless they already knew the meaning of each word God spoke to them soon after their creation, they could not have understood Him.12

Languages—Always Changing

There is another historical instance recorded in Genesis of God directly programming new language—in fact several languages—into people. That happened at the Tower of Babel, Genesis 10

There are thousands of languages in the world today. In one modest-sized country alone, Papua New Guinea (PNG), there are well over six hundred separate languages. Does that mean that each one of those thousands of languages arose at Babel? Definitely not. For one thing, Genesis implies that the extended family group associated with named individuals stayed together; it makes sense for God to ensure that each such group spoke the same language. Being so soon after the Genesis Flood, this was not a huge population, and it seems there were at most several dozen languages created instantly.  

All the other languages arose afterwards, by a simple process for which there is evidence. When groups with the same language then live apart without interaction, their language changes quite rapidly. After only a few hundred years, they may no longer understand each other. A likely reason for PNG’s many languages is its rugged mountain ranges—groups living only a few miles apart “as the crow flies” may have had no interaction for centuries.   

Modern Dutch, German, and English (and Scandinavian languages) are very obviously related. This shows they came from a common source; going backward in time, they are closer to each other.13 That’s why, visiting a centuries-old Dutch cemetery in Melaka, Malaysia, my German-English background enabled me to understand almost everything written on the tombstones, whereas I can decipher only a much smaller percentage of modern Dutch text. The changes in these languages were rapid and substantial.  

French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian are also an obviously related group that has diverged from a “common ancestor” language. But are they completely separate from the Germanic group discussed earlier? No. The evidence shows that many such groups can in turn be “joined together” going backward, forming one large related “language family” called “Indo-European,” which would have started off as one language. 

It would suit evolutionary ideas, of course, if languages could all be traced back to one language. But the evidence supports Genesis, not language evolution. There are in all some twenty or fewer language families such as Indo-European—e.g., the family of Asiatic languages, including Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. None of these shows any sign of being related to any other. In short, there is no “tree of language” with one stem but rather a mini-orchard of language families. The stem of each tree is one of the original totally separate languages created at Babel, so it’s no wonder that the tips of the branches in each “family tree” (today’s languages within any one family) show no connection at all to those of any of the other trees. Once again, we see that relying on Genesis history makes sense of the evidence in the real world.

Endnotes:

1. At the time of writing, one of the leading researchers claiming to show “human-like” features in animals, Harvard Professor Marc Hauser, is being investigated for “irregularities” in his data, which cast a shadow over all of his work—see “Harvard star in misconduct probe over monkey minds,” New Scientist, 21 August, 2010, p. 14. 

2. See creation.com/bird-brain-matches-chimps.

3. Science News, Vol. 149 No. 3, January 20, 1996, pp. 42–43.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. In English, “The cat has bitten the dog” is the proper syntax or word order, whereas in German, it would be “The cat has the dog bitten.” 

7. German and English. 

8. Note that when the periosteum is left intact, ribs routinely regenerate; Adam did not have to walk around with a defective ribcage. See the booklet Adam’s Rib: Creation and the Human Body on creation.com/store.

9. That does not mean that God is not involved when things occur “naturally,” but it does not involve the extraordinary operation of God as in miracles like raising the dead, and creation itself.

10. The rare and tragic cases of truly “feral” children, those only ever having interaction with wild animals rather than humans, show the need for human contact to develop language. If left for too many years before being reclaimed by society, they may never learn to speak. 

11. Some have speculated that the original language was Hebrew, but we can’t know for certain what it was or whether it even survived the Babel event. Even if it did, languages can become extinct. 

12. This provides an obvious answer to the Bible critic’s claim that Adam could not have known what death was when God warned him of it. It is also relevant to any discussion of Adam naming some (not all) of the kinds (not species) of creatures as God brought them to him.  

13. Globalization and television operate to oppose this by moving languages closer together again but in a different way—e.g., since WW2, hundreds of English words have found their way into the German language.

14. See creation.com/bird-brain-matches-chimps.

Dr. Carl Wieland is the Managing Director of Creation Ministries International (CMI) in Brisbane, Australia. Originally a medical doctor; he has headed the Australian Creation ministry for more than twenty years. A well-known speaker and writer on Creation issues, he also served as a director of one of the largest Creation organizations in the USA while it was still a part of the same grouping. CMI currently consists of seven international affiliates, including an office in Atlanta. The Creation magazine he founded now reaches subscribers in more than 140 countries.

Publication date: October 5, 2012