So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV)
Human language is a stunning mystery. There are over 6,000 surviving languages in the world. Yet not one of these natural languages emerged through a process of careful planning and human creation. They simply emerged in an act of collective unconscious (re)creation, complete with complex rules of grammar and diverse and nuanced vocabulary. How in the world did that happen without any planning?
In tribal Melanesia (where I grew up), there are hundreds of unique tribal languages, some so difficult it is said that no one over forty years of age can learn them. Many of these tribes were living in stone age conditions until the mid-20th century. Yet the complexity and beauty of these tribal languages developed nonetheless, making Melanesia the most linguistically diverse part of the planet. It’s almost as if the creative impulse in these tribes, foiled to some extant by the lack of basic technologies, couldn’t help but overflow somewhere else. The result was a linguistic environment just as rich and diverse as the thousands of plant and animal species in the surrounding rain forest.
Human beings seem to be hardwired to create and hardwired to speak. It’s so deep within our nature that we can’t help it. Entire languages and dialects are born on accident. They continue to change and develop over time with a will of their own, shifting and morphing in spite of most heartfelt protestations of the proverbial grammar nazis. Dictionaries and grammar books try in vain to communicate what “proper” language is, but all they do is provide a snapshot of the never-ending human recreation of language. Once a language is formalized and written, it may result in a slower pace of change, but it does not stop the process of language change. Nothing in this world seems able to stop it.
What is to account for this great mystery of human language? I believe our ability to collectively and unintentionally create thousands of languages must be rooted in our own creation in the image of God. What exactly this means has been a topic of great theological debate throughout the centuries. Does the image of God primarily refer to dominion over nature, relational ability between humans, the possession of a soul, the way ancient near eastern kings set up images of themselves in territories under their rule? While much of this is likely, it does seem that language, the ability to speak and understand speech, is one core part of being made in the image of God.
We believe in a trinitarian God, that he is one God in three eternal persons. This means that there has been relationship and indeed, communication between the members of the Trinity for all of eternity. This is so central to God’s identity that one member of the Trinity is named the Word. This same God spoke creation into existence, then spoke to his creatures and gave humans the ability to speak back. He later sent his revelation into the world in the form of inspired written words – in three human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) with loan words from a bunch of others (like paradise which come from Old Persian).
Language is central to the nature of God. As those made in the image of God, language is also central to our own human nature. And it will be for all of eternity. I believe this is a good theological foundation for the wonder of human language. How do we account for the fact that languages seem to emerge out of nowhere with incredible complexity only to be slowly simplified over the centuries? That runs opposite to the logic of Darwinian evolution, where life moves from more simple to more complex. But it does not pose a problem for the Bible, which communicates to us a created world wonderful enough such that the “music” of the world’s founding still has not run out (let the reader understand), but continues to give us a quiet encore each time a new pidgin or creole comes into its own fresh and colorful life.
And, wonder of wonders, this incredible linguistic dance and diversity flows from a God who effectively communicates objective universal truth by the means of our world’s frolicking and unpredictable – even fallen – languages. Again, how in the world did that happen? Yet it did. In spite of the ever-changing nature of language and the overwhelming multitude of global and historic tongues, God and we effectively communicate fixed and unchanging truths through the medium of human language. No language is perfect or comprehensive, but each is effective enough to serve as a vehicle of God’s eternal words. Yet more mystery!
I’m no philosopher, but when I heard it said by some that postmodern philosophy dead-ended in the relativity of human language and epistemology (the study of how we know things) it made sense. What would any worldview without the biblical God possibly do with the problems posed by human language? But for the Christian, it’s not a problem, it’s a mystery that leads to curiosity, more creation, and worship. Oh yes, and Bible translation and literacy for every language of the world.
One final thought. In the face of the mystery of human language and the image of God, we should also embrace a posture of humility. Perhaps by contrasting ourselves with the source of all language, in the style of God’s response to Job:
Were you there when I laid the foundation of grammar? When Old Sumerian gasped its first breaths And Old Sogdian its last? Where were you when I spoke eternal words through the Hebrew tongue? And forever fixed my truth in what before was like waves of the sea? Who wrote the conjugations of Ancient Sanskrit? And said to Chinese, "No conjugations for you - be verbal aspect!"? Surely you know! For you are wise and speak maybe two or three tongues, But I am the source of ten thousand.