Without the gift of speech, the human species would probably have to resort to basic animal instinct in order to communicate and survive. According to scientific studies, human’s capacity to produce spoken words is mostly attributed to our very large brains. However, an assessment of the many myths surrounding the origin of language as well as how different languages were created offers a much different perspective.
The Hebrew Bible attributes the origin of language per se to humans, with Adam being asked to name the creatures that God had created. One of the most well known examples in the West is the Tower of Babel passage from Genesis in the Bible or Torah. The passage, common to the Abrahamic faiths with the exception of Islam, tells of God punishing humanity for arrogance and disobedience by means of the confusion of tongues. 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. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
India, a Hindu myth tells of how not only differences in language, but also diversity in culture, or customs came into being, by the punishment of a proud tree, by the creator-god Brahma. “There grew in the centre of the earth the wonderful `world tree,’ or `knowledge tree.’ It was so tall that it reached almost to heaven. It said in its heart, `I shall hold my head in heaven and spread my branches over all the earth, and gather all men together under my shadow, and protect them, and prevent them from separating.’ But Brahma, to punish the pride of the tree, cut off its branches and cast them down on the earth, when they sprang up as wata trees, and made differences of belief and speech and customs to prevail on the earth, to disperse men upon its surface.”
In common with the mythology of many other civilizations and cultures which tell of a Great Flood, certain Native American tribes tell of a deluge which came over the Earth. After the water subsides, various explanations are given for the new diversity in speech. The Aztecs’ story maintains that only a man, Coxcox, and a woman, Xochiquetzal, survive, having floated on a piece of bark. They found themselves on land and begot many children who were at first born unable to speak, but subsequently, upon the arrival of a dove were endowed with language, although each one was given a different speech such that they could not understand one another. An Iroquois story tells of the god Taryenyawagon (Holder of the Heavens) guiding his people on a journey and directing them to settle in different places whence their languages changed.
In Ancient Greece there was a myth which told that for ages men had lived without law under the rule of Zeus and speaking one language. The god Hermes brought diversity in speech and along with it separation into nations and discord ensued. Zeus then resigned his position, yielding it to the first king of men, Phoroneus. In Norse mythology, the faculty of speech is a gift from the third son of Borr, who gave also hearing and sight.When the sons of Borr were walking along the sea-strand, they found two trees, and took up the trees and shaped men of them: the first gave them spirit and life; the second, wit and feeling; the third, form, speech, hearing, and sight.
The Wa-Sania, a Bantu people of East African origin have a tale that in the beginning, the peoples of the earth knew only one language, but during a severe famine, a madness struck the people, causing them to wander in all directions, jabbering strange words, and this is how different languages came about. A god who speaks all languages is a theme among African mythology, two examples being Eshu of the Yoruba, a trickster who is messenger of the gods. Eshu has a parallel in Legba from the Fob people of Benin. Another Yoruba god who speaks all the languages of the world is Orunmila, the god of divination.
In Australia, an awful story of cannibalism from the people of Encounter Bay offers their explanation of the origin of language. “In remote time an old woman, named Wurruri lived towards the east and generally walked with a large stick in her hand, to scatter the fires around which others were sleeping, Wurruri at length died. Greatly delighted at this circumstance, they sent messengers in all directions to give notice of her death; men, women and children came, not to lament, but to show their joy. The Raminjerar were the first who fell upon the corpse and began eating the flesh, and immediately began to speak intelligibly. The other tribes to the eastward arriving later ate the contents of the intestines, which caused them to speak a language slightly different. The northern tribes came last and devoured the intestines and all that remained, and immediately spoke a language differing still more from that of the Raminjerar.” Another group of Australian aboriginals, the Gunwinggu, tell of a goddess in dreamtime giving each of her children a language of their own to play with.