The Origin of Language

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s studied conclusion is that “language is an old topic in Western philosophy,” and “begins to take on greater importance in the seventeenth century” until, at last, in the twentieth century, “it becomes close to obsessional.” He notes that “all major philosophers have their theories of language,” with some making language central to their philosophical reflection. The debate among them is over the very nature of language.1

What is the origin of language? The very mention of a word, phrase, or sentence implies the origin and existence of language and establishes the use of words for interpersonal communication and fellowship. While the secular “theories of the origin of language are speculative conclusions based on more speculative philosophic principles,”2 the biblical view is that God instituted language as an endowment and a vehicle for communication with His image-bearers and for His image-bearers to be able to communicate with one another (cf. Gen. 2:18-20).

After creating man and woman in His own image,3 God communicated with them, as we find in multiple texts: “God blessed them. And God said to them…” (Gen. 1:28). Regarding the prohibition that Adam was given not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we read that God commanded the man with an authoritative order (Gen. 2:16). Later, after the fall, God asked Adam, “Where are you?” (3:9), to which Adam responded, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (3:10). There was an evident, linguistic exchange in Eden, the garden of God; God created, called, and received Adam and Eve into fellowship with Himself, gave them royal status (Ps. 8:3-8), and engaged with them in meaningful communication. In a summary statement from his six-volume “exposition of evangelical theism,” Carl F.H. Henry provides the following insight regarding man’s linguistic endowment in his original condition of moral rectitude: “His mental capacity transcended the changing sensory realm; it included general ideas conducive to intelligible conversation and fellowship with God.”4

The Scriptures unmistakably and consistently reveal that God, who spoke the creation into existence,5 is a speaking God and that He created Adam and Eve with the capacity to commune and converse with Him. Using intelligible language, God and man6 were capable of speaking with, and understanding, one another. The late Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) elaborated on this idea by noting the distinctive nature of their verbal exchanges: “Man dwelt with God in Eden, and enjoyed with Him immediate and not merely mediate communion (emphasis added).”7 In other words, God communicated directly with man, and man with God, without using an “intermediate person or thing”8 (i.e., without a third party). Philosopher Gordon Clark (1902-1985) added that man’s language skills did not develop through an evolutionary process over time and asserted that “man could think and speak from his first moment.” There was, he asserted, “an inner connection between thought, language and the Logos of God.”9 To express Clark’s claim plainly, man has always been able to speak,10 because “God made man to be able to communicate with him.”11 By endowing man with this ability, God made it plain that “language is central to human life.12

This theistic view of the origin of language, however, is not universally held. Carl F.H. Henry (1913- 2003) noted in his lifetime that “the phenomenon of human language remains one of the highly debated issues of our day” and requires an answer to a foundational question: “Is human language to be explained on purely naturalistic assumptions, in terms of animal development and environmental adjustment, or is a non-naturalistic explanation more reasonable?”13 Indian intellectual Vishal Mangalwadi raised the same question: “Did we evolve our capacity to use language, or were we made with that capacity because we were created in the image of someone who uses words?”14 If based on evolutionary theory or conjectural reasoning, what is the warrant15, we may ask, for believing naturalistic conclusions when the evidence is to the contrary? Notwithstanding the speculative conclusions of a long line of secular philosophers, it should be noted that many scholars, in addition to Henry and Mangalwadi, find agreement with Prussian linguist and the founder of the University of Berlin, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), who held that in order to speak, man must already have been human.16

Analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that, because of the noetic effects of sin,17 “our grasp of ourselves as image bearers of God himself, the First Being of the universe, can also be damaged or compromised or dimmed. For example, we may think the way to understand human characteristics and ventures such as love, humor, adventure, art, music, science, religion, and morality is solely in terms of our evolutionary origin, rather than in terms of our being image-bearers of God. By failing to know God, we can come to a vastly skewed view of what we ourselves are, what we need, what is good for us, and how to attain it.”18 Philosopher Douglas Groothuis, in agreement with Plantinga, noted that “human language has been wounded by the fall and fractured by the judgment at Babel (Gen. 11), but it is not thrown down for the count.”19

Language is a distinctively human possession and has never been found in the animal kingdom. During his long career as an English academic philosopher at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Simon Blackburn asserted that animals “have no means of linguistic expression.”20 Scottish-born theologian John Murray (1909-1975) noted that the biblical texts in Genesis differentiate between man and beast: “The origin and nature of man are sharply distinguished from other animate beings as made after their kind (Gen. 1:24-25), and man as made after the likeness and image of God.”21 In his revolutionary book, Logic, Vern S. Poythress also argues that “language is one of the defining characteristics that separates man from animals. Language, like rationality, belongs to persons.”22 He concedes that “animal calls and signals do mimic certain limited aspects of human language. And chimpanzees can be taught to respond to symbols with meaning. But this is still a long way from the complex grammar and meaning of human language.”23

Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker also promotes the idea of “an inborn ‘language instinct’ that captures the rules of language”24 and concurs that language is “a biological unprecedented event irrevocably separating him from other animals.”25 Concisely stated, non-human animals cannot, and never have been able to, learn and employ human language. MIT Professor Emeritus and American linguist Noam Chomsky noted that French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596- 1650) held the view that animals were incapable of using language. “In fact,” said Chomsky, “as Descartes himself quite correctly observed, language is a species-specific human possession, and even at low levels of intelligence, at pathological levels, we find a command of language that is totally unattainable by an ape that may, in other respects surpass a human imbecile in problem- solving ability and other adaptive behavior.”26 To summarize, there is strong evidence to believe that language did not arise through an evolutionary process of animal development, but that man possessed the ability to communicate from the beginning of his existence when he was created in in the image of God.

Meanwhile, while brain researchers, structural linguists, evolutionary naturalists, empirical philosophers, behaviorists, and humanist anthropologists continue to disagree with one another and assert speculative theories about the origin and acquisition of language, proponents of Christian theism maintain that the triune God is the author of language, that He supernaturally created man in His own image (imago Dei), and that language is present in the human mind from birth.27 The word image “speaks of man’s capacity to relate to God; it makes communication and covenantal relationship possible.”28 Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) memorably remarked that “if we were not like God, we could not know Him.”29 The clear teaching of Scripture is that God made us metaphysically and inalienably in His image and has given us the capacity to commune with Him using language, which “is fundamental to human nature in the image of God.”30

God’s gracious self-disclosure to man has important implications regarding the purpose and nature of language. He “has endowed humankind,” writes Carl F.H. Henry, “as the crown of his creation, with a rationally structured basis of interpersonal communication that enables humans to convey and validate truth claims about God Himself and about created reality. God has utilized not only the language of Eden but also human symbol systems of Hebrew and Greek to address man concerning His character and will, and concerning man’s predicament and destiny.”31 Ultimately, says J.I. Packer, language enables us to know God, and “knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a man’s heart.”32 God opens His heart to us, makes friends with us, and enlists us as colleagues.33 The biblical record reveals “a story of God speaking to people personally, and people responding to Him appropriately or inappropriately.”34

Language, therefore, should not be undervalued nor taken for granted; it is an extraordinary and astonishing gift. One only has to imagine what it would be like to live among the world’s population without the ability to communicate with them in order to appreciate the marvelous endowment that it is. Even those without sight or hearing can be taught to speak using sign-language or symbol- language. Having been made in God’s image, men and women have been given an enormous capacity to know, to think, to perceive, to feel, to observe, to make judgments, to discern, to comprehend, to understand, to become aware of, to scrutinize, to see, to acknowledge, to note, to detect, to recognize, and to learn. Created with these exceptional attributes, man as man is able to formulate words (all words are symbols) which correspond to his inner thoughts, feelings, and intentions and, subsequently, to articulate them meaningfully to those being addressed. And, most importantly, image-bearers are able to hear and to communicate with the triune God.

How astounding is the gift of language? Noam Chomsky provides a compelling answer: “The fact surely is, however, that the number of sentences in one’s native language that one will immediately understand with no feeling of difficulty or strangeness is astronomical; and that the number of patterns underlying our normal use of language and corresponding to meaningful and easily comprehensible sentences in our language is orders of magnitude greater than the number of seconds in a lifetime.”35 In a similar way, Charles Taylor concluded that “language remains in many ways a mysterious thing.”36 With all that we now know about language from centuries of debate, should it not be acknowledged that speculative philosophical principles and evolutionary theories are inadequate to explain the origin of language? Is not the more probable explanation for the existence of language rooted in Creator God, who endowed humans with an enormous capacity to communicate and commune in ways that are complex, intricate, beautiful, descriptive, artistic, rational, lucid, and awe-inspiring? And what about other portrayals of communication such as literature, music, painting, dance, and poetry? Perhaps the better part of wisdom would be to consider the words of King David: “Certainly you made my mind and heart; you wove me together in my mother’s womb. I will give you thanks because your deeds are awesome and amazing.”37

In the opening paragraph of his monumental book, The Doctrine of the Word of God, theologian John Frame sets forth his primary purpose for writing about God’s speech. Having spent a lifetime in study and careful reflection on the triune God and how He communicates with mankind,38 Frame prepares his readers for what they can expect to encounter throughout his work:

“The main contention of this volume is that God’s speech to man is real speech. It is very much like one person speaking to another. God speaks so that we can understand him and respond appropriately. Appropriate responses are many kinds: belief, obedience, affection, repentance, laughter, pain, sadness, and so on. God’s speech is often propositional: God’s conveying information to us. But it is far more than that. It includes all the features, functions, beauty, and richness of language that we see in human communication, and more. So the concept I wish to defend is broader than the ‘propositional revelation” that we argued so ardently forty years ago, though propositional revelation is part of it. My thesis is that God’s word, in all its qualities and aspects, is a personal communication from him to us.”39

For those whose hearts and minds are open to gain from Frame’s vast understanding, knowledge, and wisdom about and from God’s Word, there will be great reward, especially for any who are serious about knowing and communing with the triune God of the universe. The journey will not be effortless; it will demand your very best. But, when you have traveled down this road for a time, your eyes will begin to see and you will begin to know with certainty that God has spoken and has invited you into an eternal relationship with Him through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, just as God promised His people through the prophet Jeremiah:

“You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, declares the Lord…” (Jer. 29:13-14).

By: John Musselman

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1 Charles Taylor, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), Kindle eBook, 10 of 389.

2 Gordon Clark, cited in Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1983), III:386-387.

3 Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:6; I Cor. 11:7; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; Jas. 3:9.

4 Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1976), II:125.

5 Gen. 1:3ff.; Ps. 33:6,9; Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3.

6 It should not be lost upon modern culture that God created man, “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).

7 B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), 76

8 “Mediate,” 2022. (Retrieved 9 February 2022).

9 Gordon Clark, cited in Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1983), III:390.

10 Henry, III:327.

11 Gerhard van Groningen, From Creation to Consummation, 3 vols. (Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 1996), I:63.

12 John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 789.

13 Henry, III:325.

14 Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 49.

15 “A belief has warrant, for a person, if it is produced by her cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true or verisimilitudinous belief.” See Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), Kindle Edition, p. 237 of 243. See also two additional books in this series: Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), and Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

16 Henry, III:327.

17 The noetic effects of sin are the effects of sin upon our minds. Alvin Plantinga: “Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive him in his handiwork.”

18 Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), Kindle eBook, 213-214 of 508.

19 Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 66.

20 Simon Blackburn, On Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), Kindle eBook, 20 of 117

21 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, in 4 vols. (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), II:37.

22 Vern Sheridan Poythress, Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 68-69.

23 Ibid., 68-69, n. 2.

24 “The Spontaneous Origins of Language,” Wall Street Journal, 26-27 February 2022, Weekend edition.

25 Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: HarperCollins EPub Edition, 2011), 4 of 526.

26 Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind, 3rd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), Kindle e-Book, 9 of 190.

27 For a detailed discussion about theistic and secular claims about the origin of language, see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, in 6 vols., Chapter 19: “The Origin of Language” (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1983), III:325-346.

28 Gerhard van Groningen, From Creation to Consummation, III:62.

29 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), II:97.

30 John M. Frame, Systematic Theology, 788.

31 Henry, III:401.

32 J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 32.

33 Ibid.

34 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 5.

35 Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind, 10-11.

36 Charles Taylor, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), Barnes & Noble eBook, 374 of 389.

37 Ps. 139:14 (NET).

38 See John Frame, Theology of My Life: A Theological and Apologetic Memoir (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).

39 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 3.