O for 7,000+ Tongues to Meep

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word birthed many more. /

According to the 2015 edition of Ethnologue, the catalogue of the world’s languages produced by SIL International, there are 7,102 living languages in the world today. This number alone is staggering—but now think about how many dialects there are in the language shared by readers of this article. How could we break it down? By nation: American, British, South African, Canadian, Indian, Nigerian, and Ugandan English, to name just a few. By location: multicultural London English, Appalachian English, Newfoundland English. By community: African American, Chicano, and Jewish English. By social group: the upper-class British variety known as BBC English, the fresh-faced language used by young people sometimes called teenspeak, the informal everyday English used in Singapore, called Singlish.

This is barely the tip of the iceberg, which can be seen as a problem for those who want to preserve some pristine form of English, saving it from the barbarians who are constantly subverting it with slang. But diversity in language, far from being something we ought to loathe, is a remarkable aspect of our bearing the image of God.

When we think of the works of beauty humans have made over the millennia, from cathedrals to frescoes to pottery to pop songs, it’s no surprise that our creativity extends to language, the one creative tool that makes us unique among all other living things.

This seems counterintuitive to those familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel, which seems to suggest that the existence of many languages is a sign of God’s judgment. But that is not the only way to read this story.

Note that the story doesn’t glorify the era when “the whole world had one language and a ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 20 / April 16, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 20: Language, Ants, and Julian of Norwich

  2. A Bizarre and Mighty Civilization

    And it’s made by leafcutter ants. /

  3. Morning Songs in the Night

    God sings the same chorus over and over—even during the blackest of plagues. /

  4. Naming the Animals

    ‘Until he named the cow cow, no one slept standing up’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff /

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