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In 1764 BCE (or about 1930 BCE adjusting for the missing years (Wikipedia link), everyone (perhaps under Nimrod's command?) had built the Migdal Bavel, and that Hashem caused a dispersion and confusion of their unified language due to this (Tower of Babel) (Genesis 11:1-9):

Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words. And it came to pass when they traveled from the east, that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.... And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth." ... And the Lord said, "Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do.... Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion." And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore, He named it Babel, for there the Lord confused the language of the entire earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the entire earth.

On this, Rashi says that they all spoke Lashon Hakodesh (presumably Hebrew) and that it was a gathering of all the different peoples ("One nation to another nation, Mizraim to Cush; and Cush to Put; and Put to Canaan"). As it was less than 400 years after the Mabul (Noah's Flood), I doubt there was much time for language development anyway.

What exactly does this mean? Put more directly, what languages did people speak before and after the dispersion of Migdal Bavel?

Note that it seems from archaeology (Wikipedia link) that there were other written languages continually in use both before and after that time, perhaps most famous of which is Egyptian hieroglyphics (yet interestingly no record of Hebrew or Aramaic writing until several centuries later). For all I know the archaeology could be partially or entirely incorrect, but it is worth keeping in mind in context of this question. But beyond the simple reading of the verses, what do the actual Torah sources say about what languages were in use before and after Migdal Bavel and what effect the dispersion had on language?

Note also that this question has some relevancy to mine (though I couldn't find one specifically about the dispersion's effect on language).

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Asterix comics aside (…), I doubt the Egyptians spoke in hieroglyphics. – Menachem Jul 10 '13 at 3:03
@Menachem I'm assuming you are making a joke, as A) hieroglyphs included phonetic symbols by the end of the 4th millennium BCE that aren't associated with the Hebrew language, B) Middle Egyptian (the evolutionary stage of the language of the time) didn't show any significant changes around the time period in question, and C) if they spoke Hebrew they could have much more easily used Hebrew letters for communication than developing a new complex system. My mention of the written language form(s) is that you can actually unearth them today and they reflect the oral forms. – A L Jul 10 '13 at 5:10
Similar: And somewhat related: – msh210 Jul 10 '13 at 16:04
Yerushalmi Megillah 1:9 may be relevant. – Double AA Aug 14 '13 at 8:42

2 Answers 2

I learned that each person thought he was still speaking the same language but the meanings and connotations had changed. Thus, even though they thought they were speaking the same language, they could not understand each other. See Rav Hirsch on the meanings of various words in different languages (such as virtue, righteousness, or charity)

Note that this does not mean that they all spoke Hebrew, but that they spoke the original language (with meanings and connotations instituted by Hashem and Adam). I have seen references that the language we call "Hebrew" was probably the least changed but it is not necessarily the "original" language. Rav Hirsch goes into the backgroun of the changes, but he does not discuss the other languages of that time or exactly what happened. He discusses the meaning of what happened and some of the changes that would have the major results. The write up is too long to give the entire set of citations or details, but some of the statements are shown below.

Rav Hirsch stated that the more the community pressured everyone to think alike, the more the people resisted and tried to follow their own way of thinking. Hashem made the miracle of forcing the actual change in language to follow these ways of thought in order to have it happen so rapidly. Rav Hirsch does not deal with archeology or anything else other than the meaning in his commentary.

Note that I.L. means that the translator (the grandson of Rav Hirsch Rabbi Isaac Levi) added an explanation to the translation of Rav Hirsch's commentary.

Rav Hirsch says that the pasuk means

"Safa Achas" means the phonetic sameness of speech ( the sound of the language I.L) which is fundamentally based on organic causes. "Deverim Achadim" is the sameness of the formation of words and sentences which is brought about by spiritual mental agreement in the way that things and their relations are looked at.

Rav Hirsch points out in Noach 2:7, that the words used for matters like "justice", "virtue", or "charity" in different languages can have completely different connotations. It would appear that even though everyone thought that they were speaking the original language (from the time of Adam), Hashem changed what they were saying to have the connotation that they really wanted and made them into the differing languages.

For example, think for a minute that the word to "have" was missing from our vocabulary. In Hebrew it does not exist. "To have" has the conception of corporal holding fast, "habere", "avere" to desire something, and when one has seized it, then one "has it". Let us imagine that this conception was not there, a man could only consider that to be his which really appertains to him, is לו in Hebrew. ... Then the first person who introduced the idea of "have" (I have it, whether or not it pertains to me or not I.L.) would indeed have brought about the greatest revolution; he would have changed the idea of right to the idea of "grab".


The attempt by the community by this building to do away with the individuality of the individual was broken by the awakening consciousness of the independent value of the individual, apart from his value as a unit of the community.

So that the disunion did not arise out of a number of languages but the other way round. It was the discord which first begot the disruption of the language, so that at the beginning, the Safa Achas could still have remained ... without the climatic change, even before the scattering which ensued in the safa achas there was no longer devarim achadim. This variance in opinions drove people completely away from one another, where then the climactic differences of the regions had the influence of making them and their languages completely and organically different.

Rav Hirsch points out that normally these developments would take place over a long period of time. However, Hashem caused them to occur almost instantaneously so that the entire development of the "Migdal Bavel" would collapse and cause the immediate dispersion of the various peoples.

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Does not answer question. – A L Oct 18 at 4:53
@AL I added a summary to explain why I think that it answers the question. If it does not, I will delete it again. – sabbahillel Oct 18 at 20:01
Thanks for clarification, but I think the answer still requires expansion and, ideally, information from additional sources. If I understand you right, you are saying that everyone spoke Hebrew until the event, then they all thought they still spoke Hebrew but somehow they thought meanings were different, and then there was a rapid development into the normal 2nd millennium languages? Did he explain why he would think that happened? Do other sources agree? And as an aside that would say all the archeology is completely wrong. – A L Oct 18 at 21:15
@AL Rav Hirsch goes into details but the commentary is too long to show here. You should read the six volume Hirsch Chumash and the commentary translated by Rabbi Levi. Rav Hirsch stated that the more the community pressured everyone to think alike, the more the people resisted and tried to follow their own way of thinking. Hashem made the miracle of forcing the actual change in language to follow these ways of thought in order to have it happen so rapidly. Rav Hirsch does not deal with archeology or anything else other than the meaning in his commentary. – sabbahillel Oct 18 at 22:02
Thank you for improving your answer. I don't know if this fully satisfies my question, but it is better. – A L Oct 18 at 23:45

Chizkuni has an "interesting" reading. He says before the tower, everyone spoke all 70 languages. Afterwards, they all forgot 69 of them (but a different 69 each time).

I'm not saying this is the simplest understanding -- but it's food for thought!

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