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I do not intend for this question to incite a debate as to the historicity/validity of the account of the Tower of Babel, I am simply interested in seeing how it fits into the framework of modern linguistic understanding.

The account suggests that today, there should be at most a few dozen (if we take the estimate of ~70 languages to be accurate) unrelated language families* whose proto-languages were spoken approximately 4000 years ago.

What linguistic evidence is there to support/oppose the idea that every modern language can be traced back to one of several dozen proto-languages artificially created c. 2000 BCE? How certain are we of each of these pieces of evidence?**

Are there features present in known languages that are surprising to see based on the theory of language evolution? Conversely, are there features which suggest that languages did in fact evolve from simpler early languages? Are there any seemingly vestigial features that reconstructed proto-languages have, which would suggest that they in fact developed from earlier languages?***

There have been several questions on linguistics.SE regarding the seeming complexity of PIE in relation to modern IE languages, though I have not seen a general consensus on this issue (some answers suggest that this is a non-sensical discussion as it is virtually impossible to measure the complexity of a language, while others suggest that modern IE languages are equally complex, though this complexity no longer lies in the morphology****). Are there analogous discussions about other language families?

I apologize if I have brought up too many discussion points for a single question, but I believe they all relate to the main question, and are meant to incite discussion in these directions.

*Some people argue that it actually suggests that all modern languages are genetically related, though I do not believe that is an accurate conclusion as "[confusing] their speech" more directly suggests entirely distinct languages being introduced.

**For example, as I understand it, we are essentially certain that PIE existed, and was spoken approximately 4500-6500 years ago, whereas current evidence for the existence of a Proto-World language is very controversial. Similarly, I've heard of theories about the cyclicity of language typology which it seems are being given serious research, though are not yet entirely accepted.

***An example in English would be pronouns still having grammatical cases (I vs me, etc.).

****Such discussion is mostly related to more analytic languages such as English or the Romance languages (when compared with Latin), or even German, with its disappearing grammatical cases.

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    Your two points about complexity are not really in opposition to one another. We can postulate that all languages are equally complex while also not really being able to quantify it. Also, I don't understand why the Tower of Babel story puts an upper limit of "at most a few dozen" language families Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 16:31
  • @AzorAhai-him-: Babel origin can't make many more language families than that; but there's multiple hypotheses that can make new ancestor-less language families appearing to you as de-novo later so it's moot.
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 1:31
  • Why unrelated? Confusion is a function of corruption. If the languages had been replaced abruptly with something entirely different, they wouldn't be confused or confounded in their attempts to communicate; it would have been an immediate divorce.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 0:23

2 Answers 2

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The main evidence for this is archaeological, not linguistic. Historical linguistics can come up with plausible reconstructions of proto-languages, talk about whether and how they're related, and even suggest how migrations might have happened—but trying to establish when something happened linguistically ("glottochronology") is very difficult and not especially precise.

Archaeology, on the other hand, can put much more precise dates on artifacts. By tracking the spread of technologies we can sometimes correlate our historical-linguistic evidence to those dates, but the timelines almost always come from the archaeologists, not the linguists.

So while we can tell you that Proto-Indo-European shows signs of developing from a hypothetical "Pre-PIE" (like its bizarre phonology), or that we can make some approximate guesses at the ancestor of Proto-Semitic ("Proto-Afro-Asiatic"), the dating of all these things relies on archaeological evidence. And once you're looking at archaeological evidence, it's much easier to show that there were people in the Americas and Australia well before 2000 BCE (without contact with Europe/Africa/Asia), who couldn't have been involved in a hypothetical Tower of Babel.

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    Strictly speaking that deals with the 2000 BCE point. If it has been say 100 000 BCE, then I suspect the issue that deliberately making different languages mutually unintelligible might be an untestable hypothesis
    – Henry
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 13:34
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    @Henry True; at that point we have to start asking if there's evidence that people were building towers around 100,000 BCE, and then that's 100% archaeology instead of linguistics.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 2:46
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    @Henry Also, genetics says humanity has had at least one extremely narrow choke point, where almost all of every modern human's DNA comes from a tiny number of humans (dozens or 100s), on the order of 150,000 of year ago. See Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam. Distinguishing that event from "did they also build a tower and suddenly split up" is a bit tricky using linguistics. Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 17:55
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    @Yakk-AdamNevraumont, Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam aren't evidence of a genetic choke point, they're simply mathematical artifacts (the fact that everyone's purely male-line ancestors pass through Y-chromosomal Adam says nothing about any other line of ancestry). Full-genome analysis suggests a bottleneck between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, somewhat later than either Mitochondrial Eve or Y-chromosomal Adam.
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 2:56
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I think that you can perhaps shoehorn the Indo-European linguistics into the story of the Tower of Babel, by rejecting all forms of glottochronology (as glottochronology famously dates Proto-Celtic to around 3'200 BC, and Proto-Indo-European much earlier than that), but that you cannot shoehorn the Afro-Asiatic linguistics into the story of the Tower of Babel. The two earliest attested Afro-Asiatic languages were Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian, they were attested at least as early as the early 2nd millennium BC (I don't think any Young-Earth-Creationist would dispute that), and two were not closely related. You cannot reasonably claim Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian were separated only by a few centuries, as the story of the Tower of Babel implies.

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