Genesis 11:1: (Sefaria English translation)

וַֽיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃

And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.

After they built the Tower of Bavel,

Genesis 11:7:

הָ֚בָה נֵֽרְדָ֔ה וְנָבְלָ֥ה שָׁ֖ם שְׂפָתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ שְׂפַ֥ת רֵעֵֽהוּ׃

Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’

Two questions:

1 - What was the common language that they spoke? Can we assume that it was Hebrew, in some form? (I'm basing that assumption based on a Midrash that I heard in yeshiva that the world was founded on the Torah and the Hebrew letters and language existed prior to the founding of the Torah. I may not be paraphrasing the Midrash fully correctly, but that was its gist.)

2 - I must be missing something in the translation of the 2nd verse that says that a person did not understand what his neighbor was saying. Isn't the purpose of language to be able to communicate with your neighbor? If your neighbor doesn't underdstand what you're saying, then why are you talking to him? And, besides, in this case, since ALL humans spoke the same language previously, if a person saw that his neighbor didn't understand his current language, why couldn't he just communicate to him in the old language, or was it that G-d made all humanity forget the original language?

  • 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) – sabbahillel Oct 16 '15 at 20:54
  • It is not the same question. – sabbahillel Oct 18 '15 at 11:36
  • @msh210 The answer that I have for this question does not answer the question that you identified as a duplicate. – sabbahillel Oct 18 '15 at 13:35
  • @sabbahillel The other asks what languages were spoken before and after the tower incident. This does, too, but also asks "If your neighbor doesn't underdstand what you're saying, then why are you talking to him?". I guess we can whittle this question down to that and reopen it. Is that last part the part you have an answer for? – msh210 Oct 18 '15 at 13:56
  • @msh210 The base answer from Rav Hirsch is in my first comment. The other question talked about writing and archeo;ogical evidence of multiple languages – sabbahillel Oct 18 '15 at 16:42