How, from Babel onward, can we explain the plurality of language? In The Tongue of Adam, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell and forthcoming from New Directions, Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito explores this and other enigmatic questions related to translation, comparative religion, and lexicography.
The question of an original language arises when multiple languages are found in a state of competition or rivalry. Every inquiry into the tongue of Adam hopes to uncover a beginning—to identify the one and only language of origin—but such inquiries also point toward the one who asks the question: Why does my language differ from that of others? How can we explain the plurality of languages? In other words, as Pierre Gibert writes, “An origin story cannot be read or adequately understood without taking into account the contemporary experience of those who pass down the story.”
In an ideal, perfectly homogeneous community, cut off from any other that uses a different tongue, the question of an original language will never come up: the language of the first man is the same as the language of that ideal community. The question is just as superfluous for a community that considers itself superior to all others, which seems to have been true of the Greeks. “The ancient Greeks,” writes Jean-Pierre Vernant, “for all their curiosity, don’t seem to have troubled themselves to wonder what language men of the Golden Age spoke . . . But perhaps the answer to this question was so obvious it didn’t need to be asked: What else would they have spoken but this language, Greek, the only real one, unlike the babble of those called barbarians precisely because the sounds they make have no more sense than confused gibberish?”
But to distinguish between Greek and barbarian already signals a rupture, a lack of harmony between communities. It’s an admission of discord, a general state of miscomprehension. If there was a time when such disharmony was unknown, then it was when the earth spoke one language, just prior to Babel. In that sense, there’s no reason to ask what language Adam spoke: he spoke the same language as everyone else. The question of Adam’s tongue is necessarily a post-babelian question. It’s only after the drama of Babel—when mankind scattered to the winds, when multiple languages took the place of a single language, when linguistic barriers arose—that the question can be posed. The diverse communities that began to coalesce at that time lost direct contact not only with the others, but also with God, with the language that God and Adam spoke to each other. It’s at this point the question arises. And as we will see, Adam himself, though he died well before Babel, will have to ask (by way of the commentators) what his own language was in paradise.
After Babel, men cannot seek to rival God as they seemed to do when they began building the tower. They cannot, because they’ve lost the original language. God’s confusion of tongues ensures His supremacy. This reading may seem odd, but consider the story of Babel as we find it in Genesis: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” [11:4]. A tower whose top would touch the heavens: taken literally, the expression suggests a desire to reach the sky, to become like gods. A rather worrisome project: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded” [11:5]. Man’s attempt to rise up is answered by the Lord’s descent: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” [11:7]. God does not destroy the work. He punishes men by confounding their language, the only language, the one that unites them. For Yahweh, the root of the menace is this tongue, which gives men tremendous power in their striving toward a single goal, an assault on the heavens. The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams. Deprived of its original language, mankind breaks into groups and scatters across the surface of the earth. With a route to the heavens cut off, mankind turns its eyes to the horizon.
The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams.
The Babel tale is not unlike that of the original sin. In both cases, transgression is followed by punishment. It’s true that in the Babel story the forbidden act is never explicitly described, but note Yahweh’s remark on mankind’s overweening ambition: “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” [11:6]. The building of the tower is only the start. It implies a further desire—to be immortal, to be godlike—and in this way the Babel story most resembles the story of the Fall. By eating the forbidden fruit and coming to know the difference between good and evil, Adam and Eve acquire a knowledge that brings them close to God; it only remains for them to eat of the tree of life for them to become immortal: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” [3:22]. It’s to prevent this eventuality that God expels Adam from paradise.
The Babel story ends with the dispersion of mankind, and the story of the Fall also ends with a scene of separation: from now on, Eden is only a memory. Similarly, Adam and Eve pose a threat as soon as they join the serpent, but in establishing enmity between the race of Eve and that of the bifid animal, God disposes of this threat. Men and serpents, antagonists from now on, can no longer conspire against the Creator. Moreover, according to commentators, Adam and Eve also separate after the expulsion. Adam resides in one country, Eve in another, and their divorce seems to have lasted one hundred years.
Let us finally note that the tongue plays a part in both stories: in the story of the Fall, the tongue is the organ of taste, which savors the forbidden fruit; in the story of Babel, the tongue is the original idiom.
How is it possible to pass from monoliguism to multilinguism without transition? In the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun writes: “At the time of our lord Abraham, Nimrod and his people were struck down from their tower—the famous balbala that is mentioned in the Torah. I do not know its meaning. To say that one day all men spoke the same language and the next all spoke different languages seems to me improbable, based on ordinary experience (al-‘ada). But perhaps this was a case of prophetic action, which would mean that it was a miracle. This is not how the story has been related, however. It would seem that what happened was an extraordinary act of divine will, that it was one of God’s signs, like the Holy Quran. One can say no more that is reasonable on the subject of this balbala.”
How is it possible to pass from monoliguism to multilinguism without transition?
Quranic commentators attribute the building of Babel to Nimrod. Nimrod is not explicitly named in the Quran but many passages, according to the exegetes, suggest his presence. Here is one: “Do you not remember him who disputed with Abraham regarding his lord, since God had granted him kingship? Remember when Abraham said: ‘My Lord is the one Who grants life and deals death’? He said: ‘I grant life and deal death’” [2:258]. Nimrod is the original tyrant, the first to claim divinity. He builds the tower to raise himself high enough to see Abraham’s Lord; his natural bellicosity pushes him to wage war on the people of heaven (ahl al-sama’). The wish to be godlike, to be God, suggests the wish to surpass Him. In wanting to be God’s equal, Nimrod actually seeks His banishment.
The following verse would then be an allusion to the transgressor’s punishment: “God seized their edifice from its foundations. The roof above them collapsed upon them, and the torment seized them from where they had not expected” [16:26]. According to the commentators, a great wind blew the summit of the tower into the sea, the houses crumbled, Nimrod was struck with trembling, and the people were so frightened they began speaking in seventy-three different languages. A twofold catastrophe: the destruction of the city, the confusion of tongues. The city becomes unrecognizable. The well-built space where men lived next to one another is dismantled and reduced to countless scattered blocks. In the same way, the one tongue that brought men into proximity is now dislocated—what comes next is confusion, panic, the absence of communication. Chaos rules the city just as it does the tongue.
There’s another version of the Babel story, which we find in Yaqut’s thirteenth century The Lexicon of Lands, as well as in the fifteenth century Bright Blossom of Suyuti. In this version there is no tower, no catastrophe. It’s during an episode of serenity—almost a festival—that languages come to be confused. Here is what one reads in The Lexicon of Lands:
When God wished to gather his creatures at Babel, he sent winds from the east, from the west, from the south and the north, which brought all to Babel. And when they wondered why they had been gathered together, a voice spoke to them: “He who has the setting sun on his right, the rising sun on his left, and has set his face in the direction of the Holy House (al-bayt al-haram), to him falls the tongue of the people of heaven (kalam ahl al-sama’).” So Ya‘rub ibn Qahtan arose and the voice said to him: “O Ya‘rub ibn Qahtan ibn Hud, it is you.” And he was the first to speak Arabic. The voice then continued, “He who has done this and that, to him falls this or that,” until they were divided into seventy-two languages. Then the voice fell silent and the tongues were confused (tabalbalat). This is why the city is called Babel.
In Yaqut’s telling, as well as Suyuti’s, the source for this story is Anas ibn Malik. In Suyuti’s version, two differences should be noted: first, the Arabic language passed down to Ya‘rub is qualified as “clear” (mubina); second, there is no mention of winds sent from the cardinal points. It’s worth remarking that these winds reunite or bring mankind together, whereas the wind in the story of Nimrod is a destructive element, a messenger of punishment. Curiously, the beginning of ibn Malik’s tale takes place under the sign of dispersion: mankind is initially scattered in space; and no sooner are they reunited by the wind than they are once again scattered. Gathering is a discrete event between two dispersions, the second more emphatic than the first. Afterward a locality and a language are assigned to each people, with the language assigned as a function of the place. Ya‘rub is given Arabic because his face is turned to Mecca. It is the great honor of Arabic to be “the tongue of the people of heaven.”
There’s nothing to suggest the identity of the original language that preceded all others, that allowed men to gather in one place and to understand the “voice” that addresses them and assigns their future tongues. In any case, this event takes place before Babel was called Babel, for it is only after the confusion of tongues (balbala) that the name was bestowed. This is, of course, a folk etymology: the true sense of “Babel” is “the gate of God.”
In The Tongue of the Arabs, the great thirteenth-century dictionary of Ibn Manzur, under the entry b – l – l, the story of the confusion of tongues is rapidly summarized, but with two important details added. First, the wind that brings mankind together at Babel subsequently disperses them over the earth (fi-l-bilad). Second, God is said to have a specific goal, or design: “When God wanted to make distinct the tongues of man . . . ” (hina arada an yukhalifa bayna alsinati bani adam). Here is an affirmation of intent, of divine decision, which is only implicit in Yaqut’s text.
This decision isn’t a reaction to some outrage mankind has committed: it is obviously not to punish man that God confounds their tongues at the ceremony to which He has invited them. Instead, it’s as if His creation were incomplete, as if it lacked some important feature in order to be finished satisfactorily. After creating the heavens and the earth, after differentiating the various elements, a corresponding differentiation of mankind is needed. Creation is an act of separation: the heavens are parted, the earth is divided from the heavens, and men must also be distinguished from one another by their colors and tongues. This is a sign, an aya—the same word used to designate a Quranic verse—a divine sign that points something out, that serves as an instructive example: “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. In these are signs for mankind” [30:22]. This verse comes on the heels of another that links the creation of man to his dispersal. “Among his wonders is that He created you from clay and behold, you are human beings pervading the earth” [30:20].
Dissemination in space, diversity of tongues and colors: these are good things—they are the realizations of God’s designs. The confusion of tongues is no curse. Instead, it’s a divine sign, like man’s geographic dispersal. God purposefully introduces diversity into His creation. It’s because of His compassionate will that mankind is scattered abroad, precisely so that it may people the earth and make it fruitful.
The confusion of tongues is no curse. Instead, it’s a divine sign, like man’s geographic dispersal. God purposefully introduces diversity into His creation.
The expression, “the diversity of your languages,” in the verse cited above, means not only the diversity of spoken tongues, but also, according to some commentators, the diversity of articulated sounds and pronunciation of words. Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next. This is a divine gift. Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign. There was no end to chaos until diversity came into creation, when variety was introduced into the cosmos—as well as into physiology and language. Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge. Knowledge of names and mutual recognition flow from the distinctions that exist between men, whether at the level of their voice or the color of their skin. Here is the place to cite another Quranic verse: “O mankind, We created you male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may come to know one another” [49:13].
© 2016 New Directions Publishing.
 Pierre Gibert, Bible, mythes et récits de commencement (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1986), 118.
 Jean-Pierre Vernant, preface to Les Langues du paradis, 7.
 See “Babel, Tower of,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 4:26.
 Qisas al-anbiya’, 22.
 Ibn Khaldun, Peuples et nations du monde, extracts of the ‘Ibar, ed. and trans. Abdesselam Cheddadi (Paris: Sindbad, 1986), 156–57.
 Razi, Mafatih al-ghayb (Beirut: Dar al-fikr, 1981), 7:23.
 Ibid., 20:20.
 See Paul Beauchamp, L’un et l’autre testament (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1990), 2:144.
 Qisas al-anbiya’, 57.
 Yaqut, Mu‘jam al-buldan (Beirut: 1955–57), 1:310.
 Suyuti, al-Muzhir, ed. M. A. Jad al-Mawla, A. M. al-Bajawi, and M. A Ibrahim (Cairo: n.d.), 1:32.
 Compare this with the New Testament, Acts 2:1–4: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
 See Leo Strauss, “On the Interpretation of Genesis,” L’Homme 21:1 (1981), 5–20.
 See Bernhard Anderson, “Le récit de Babel, paradigm de l’unité et de la diversité humaines,” Concilium 121 (1977), 92.
 Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1977), 3:218; and Razi, Mafatih al-ghayb, 25:112–13.