By Dr Oliver Tearle
What are the origins of the word ‘Babel’, and what does it have to do with two similar-sounding words: ‘Bible’ and ‘babble’?
The word ‘Babel’ – capitalised to show that it has not managed to shake off its origins as a proper name – is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a confused or disordered medley of sounds, esp. of voices’. But where did the word ‘Babel’ come from?
The Tower of Babel is one of the best-known structures mentioned in the Bible. In many ways, the story of Babel is a kind of ‘just so’ story about how the world came to have many languages. In the Book of Genesis, chapter 11, verses 1-9, following the Great Flood (in which all life on earth was wiped out apart from what Noah took onto his Ark), we are told of how a structure known as the Tower of Babel was created.
Until this point, the whole world spoke one language. Noah’s descendants establish a city and build a tower ‘whose top may reach unto heaven’. But God, seeing the tower they have built, decides that mankind is getting too big for his boots. So God confuses the language that man speaks, until the people of Babel cannot understand what each other is saying. And this is how we got the word ‘Babel’: from the name of the place where this Tower was built, where one language became a medley or cacophony of different languages, tongues, and voices.
The Tower of Babel was a way of explaining why there were so many different languages spoken among different tribes and peoples, leading to much confusion and distrust (and tribalism). It’s certainly true that many languages are cognate with each other (cognate means literally ‘born together’), in that they share a common ancestor. So many languages belong to the Indo-European family, for instance.
Curiously, the name ‘Babel’ is often thought to be etymological related to the Hebrew bālal, meaning ‘to confuse’, and this explanation of the word’s origins obviously makes sense. But it’s actually not true. The word ‘Babel’ is actually from the Sumerian meaning ‘gate of God’. And there was a historical town called Babel, located on the Euphrates river in the Middle East, around forty miles south of the great city of Akkad. For more than a millennium it was a fairly small and unremarkable town.
Then, around 1900 BC, a group called the Amorites made Babel their capital, and it was transformed into a large metropolis. For the next two thousand years, Babel changed hands but remained an important city. If its name sounds unfamiliar to us now, except in connection with the biblical Tower of Babel story, that’s because we know it better under its Greek name, which was Babylon. Babylonia, the considerable region around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was named for Babylon, which was itself the Greek version of Babel.
The word ‘babble’ obviously has a similar meaning to ‘Babel’, but the two words are etymologically unrelated. Instead, ‘babble’ is derived from early infantile vocalisation, as the OED observes, and is similar to ‘prattle’ and ‘gabble’ in this sense. It’s onomatopoeic, if anything.
The myth of the Tower of Babel may well have grown out of an earlier Sumerian myth. Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta is a Sumerian text from around four thousand years ago, describing the conflicts between Enmerkar, King of Uruk, and the king of Aratta. This story features a ‘confusion of tongues’ as well as the construction of temples at Eridu and Uruk, so parallels have been drawn between it and the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis.
Sir Christopher Ricks, the eminent literary critic, has told of how, when the poet Geoffrey Hill heard that George Steiner had written a book with the title After Babel, Hill responded: ‘another of those hopeful titles’. We are destined to live in a world in which Babel, and babble – miscommunication, confusion, and cacophony – are a feature of our lives.