Different countries and cultures have extremely diverse and varied stories and traditions regarding how human language came to be. Language myths often serve to offer an explanation for concepts such as the origin of language, the development of language and the reasons behind the diversity in languages today. Many cultures have language mythology that is quite similar in its themes and ideas, e.g. many feature language as a gift from god/s, with many myths containing one unified language that is split up by some great tragedy or crime. Other myths are totally different, with themes ranging from arguments over ducks to cannibalism!  This week we wanted to take a look at three different mythologies from different cultures:

Perhaps the most well-known myth about language diversity, at least in the western world, is the Tower of Babel of Judeo-Christian mythology. The story begins with humanity, united by a single language after the great flood, migrating eastwards to the land of Shina where they decided to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God then decides to punish humanity for its arrogance and disobedience by confusing the unified language, so all people were no longer able to communicate. “And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language […] let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5-6)

A myth that is perhaps less well known is Salishan in origin, and attributes the divergence of language to an argument over ducks! This myth states that two people were arguing about whether the noise that ducks in flight make comes from air passing through the duck’s beak, or from the flapping of its wings. As the story goes, the village chief cannot settle this argument and calls a council of people from all nearby villages to weigh in. A conclusion still could not be reached, and a heated argument broke out. The subsequent bad feeling caused many people to break off and move far away. Over time, they begin to speak differently, and eventually, other languages were formed.

A more gruesome tale comes from South Australia, where the aboriginal tribe of Encounter Bay tell a story of how language itself, as well as language diversity, came about from cannibalism! It is said that there was an old woman who would destroy the fires of those who were sleeping. She was such a nuisance to the people of the area that when she died, tribes came from wide and far to celebrate her passing. The first tribe that arrived began to eat her flesh and suddenly were able to speak intelligibly. Other tribes from the East began arriving and ate the contents of her intestines, which allowed them to speak language, but in a different way. The Northern tribes arrived last, and after devouring all that was left, they spoke a language even more removed from the first.

Which of these myths about language creation do you like the best? Do you know an interesting story that we haven’t mentioned? Let us know on our social media pages!

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