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David O. Mckay Lectures

In The Beginning Was The Word: (The Genesis of Language)

Like Dr. Miles, Wayne L. Allison joined the faculty of Church College of Hawaii in 1960. With broad interests in language, he received his B.A. from Brigham young University and his M.A. in 1955 and Ph.D. in 1964 from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. Putting his specialties to good use, he taught both Spanish and English at the College, before his appointment as Associate Academic Dean and then Academic Dean. His topic for the ninth McKay lecture demonstrated not only his commitment to language as a discipline but also his deep faith in the spiritual power of the word. At the time of his lecture in 1971, he was serving as Stake President of the Laie Stake, having previously been a campus bishop. Allison and Arlene, his first wife, had two sons, Mark and Greg. While in Laie, he married the former Verna Fanene; they are the parents of a third son, Thomas. Allison died in 1989.


Through the centuries linguists and non-linguists alike have speculated on the origin of language. This elusive and frustrating question will undoubtedly continue to intrigue men for some time to come. Many theories have been advanced, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, but the cognoscenti in the field will all agree that the problem remains unsolved. Unfortunately, the late advent of written forms of communication leaves the origins of speech in a somewhat legendary or mythical realm. Most of the books and articles written on the subject contain more fantasy than fact. Even as late as the 17th century, a prominent Swedish philologist maintained that in the Garden of Eden, God spoke Swedish, Adam Danish, and the serpent French.

Before examining the scientific or quasi-scientific theories of the genesis of speech let's consider for a few minutes some of the mythical and traditional origins that have been hypostatized. The legends, myths, and sacred writings of many civilizations contain accounts of the creation of the world as well as descriptions of the mental attributes of the first mortal being.

According to the Book of Genesis man was created in the image of God and blessed with the gift of speech (1: 27; 2: 19). We read in Genesis 2:19: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." Adam's ability to conceive names and identify all the handiwork of God suggests that he himself was created with mature mental attributes. Other conversations between Adam and his children, as recorded in Genesis, further corroborate the belief that Adam was taught to speak by the Supreme Creator and that his children may have learned from him just as children learn from their parents today.

In the Popol Vuh, which contains the sacred legends and traditions of the Quiché-Mayan Indians of Guatemala, we read that the first man was able to reason and speak and knew all things from the beginning. We read also that man was created by a committee of gods who, through considerable experimentation, imbued him with the ability to think and feel as they did. As a matter of fact, the gods became a little insecure in the presence of their superb handiwork and breathed a cloud over the mortals' eyes just to keep them humble. Later, when men had become extremely powerful and numerous, the gods deprived them of their original language and gave each group a language of its own. This effectively curtailed their ability to work together.

According to Mayan myth, the primordial creative alliance also created animals and commanded them to speak. But the beasts could only hiss, cry, cackle or groan. Unable to adore their creators in a proper manner, they were condemned to be killed and eaten by man kind. The Mayan interpretation of man as the product not of a single fiat by an omnipotent God, but of trial-and-error experiments by a group of cosmic powers might be of special interest to those scholars who find in other sacred scriptures words and usage which suggest a plurality of Gods. (The term "Elohim," for example, in the Hebrew scriptures is a plural form). Other imagistic analogies for the idea of cosmic creation include the Maori love union legend in which Father Sky and Mother Earth either were distinct beings from the beginning, or the original being was androgynous and split up into male and female. A variant of this legend has Heaven and Earth originally united, and separated later by a serpent.

In his excellent work on Teutonic mythology, Jacob Grimm discusses the Finnish version of a story about a primeval minstrel who instructs all nature through song (907). Vainomoinen or Wannemunne, as he is called in the Estonian variant (Farrar 276), descended into the world one day and invited all creation to listen to his divine songs. Each part of creation learned some fragment of the celestial sound, but man alone grasped it all. Therefore, only man can sing songs which will reach the celestial ear. Our mortal mission is to sing the full song in faithful imitation of the primeval minstrel. Nietzsche once remarked that the majority of human utterances are thin pipings, as though the Eroica Symphony were to be scored for two flutes. 1

Let's turn now from the mystical belief that language was a gift from the gods to some quasi-scientific theories. Perhaps the best known of these is the onomatopoeic which sees speech originating in imitation of natural sounds. The ancient Greek philosophers spent considerable time theorizing about language but suffered from a cultural conceit which divided the world into Greeks and barbarians. Instead of trying to trace language historically through ancient scripts such as hieroglyphics and cuneiform, they permitted themselves to become lost in speculative wanderings. We read in the Cratylus of Plato that even Socrates had concluded that onomatopoeia, or the imitation of the sounds of action, was the basis for the origin of language (213-216).

Max Müller and other German writers of the 19th century soon forsook their attempts to trace the history of language and concentrated on the study of phonetic laws and the metaphysics of speech (372-376). As Mueller said more than one hundred years ago, "It is quite clear that we have no means of solving the problem of the origin of language historically" (392). He merely confirmed what Jean Jacques Rousseau and Johann Herder had discovered a century earlier.

Most of the theories advanced during the past two hundred years are hardly deserving of mention. Any imaginative person could develop in an hour or so a theory that would sound just as plausible. A simple listing of these theories by name will suffice: Ding-dong, Bow-wow, Pooh-pooh, Ta-ta and Yo-he-ho. Darwin speculated that speech was in the beginning nothing more than "mouth pantomime" in which the vocal organs unconsciously imitated hand gestures (84-92)--a hypothesis which led Sayce to conclude that language originated in gesture (92-95). Many studies have been done on the sign languages of North America and Australia but few conclusions have been reached.

The renowned Danish linguist Otto Jespersen surprised the world by proclaiming that primitive language was full of long difficult words and sounds and that the evolution of language shows a progressive tendency from inseparable conglomerations to freely and regularly combinable short elements (412-442). This line of thought was diametrically opposed to the more commonly held idea that primitive man's first utterances were grunts and groans which gradually evolved into more sophisticated expressions like "I'm hungry" or "fetch my club." Espousal of Jespersen's theory might lead one to conclude that a profound expression like "ugh" is an example of language in a highly evolved state!

Comparative linguists have made great progress in discovering the genealogy of various languages. They have tried to determine by inference what history has failed to preserve. In some cases, the evolutionary approach to language study can be based on historically verifiable facts. The study of Latin, for example, as the known mother of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Rumanian has enabled comparative linguists to better understand the evolutionary processes. With the clues and insights provided by comparison of the Romance languages, linguists have been able to classify most of the languages of the world.

Comparative studies have failed, however, to produce much supportive evidence for the theory of monogenesis or one original source. To the contrary, they suggest that there are at least a dozen major linguistic families. The truth of the matter is further obscured by the fact that a single language will undergo so many changes during a few thousand years that any connection between it and other languages stemming from the same source would become untraceable without corroborating evidence. One can only conclude that the present evidence for monogenesis or polygenesis is at best rather inconclusive.

Have you ever wondered what language Adam and Eve spoke? We should recall that, according to Genesis, only one language was spoken until the Lord destroyed the Tower of Babel and created a multiplicity of tongues (Gen. 11; 1, 9). Throughout most of human history the story of the Tower of Babel has been sacrosanct, and with it, as a corollary, the belief that Hebrew was the original language of man kind. While it is true that the Bible was first written in Hebrew and that Christ spoke Aramaic--a derivative of Hebrew--linguistic scientists have been unable to find in this language any characteristics which would identify it as the prototype of the three thousand languages spoken in the world today.

Those who reject the Tower of Babel story offer no plausible explanation for the existence of so many different languages, and perhaps an even greater number of dialects. In Africa alone some 800 distinct languages have been identified. The major difficulty in the classification of languages lies in the differentiation between a language and a dialect. Spanish and Portuguese are considered separate languages because they each have a distinct written form. A native of Southern Italy may speak a language almost as different from the standard Italian of Florence as Spanish is from Portuguese, but because he writes the same way as his northern neighbors we say that all Italians speak the same language. In Norway we see an example of a dialect being changed to a language. When Norway was part of Denmark, the Norwegians all spoke a dialect of Danish and wrote standard Danish. After the separation from Denmark, a new Norwegian written language was developed. Although Danish and Norwegian are now considered separate languages, native speakers, each speaking his own dialect, understand each other relatively well.

In Yugoslavia we find a similar situation among the Catholic Croatians and the Eastern Orthodox Serbs. Serbian and Croatian are dialects of a single language but are usually listed separately because the former is written in the Cyrillic alphabet and the latter in Roman letters. It is interesting to note that Slavic languages like Polish and Czech--the speakers of which are largely Roman Catholic--use the Latin alphabet introduced by the early missionaries from Rome, while the Russian and Bulgarian branches of the family, whose speakers are most influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Church, use the Cyrillic alphabet introduced by St. Cyril of Macedonia.

Linguists classify languages into families in much the same way that taxonomists unite the plant and animal kingdoms into phyla, classes, orders, families, etc. For example, the animal kingdom is divided into 10-12 major phyla such as chordates (which include fish, birds, mammals) and arthropods (which include insects and spiders), plus several minor phyla which do not seem to belong to any of the larger divisions. Like this languages are generally classified in to 10-12 major language families, with many divisions and subdivisions and a few tongues like Japanese, Korean, and Basque which have no clear affinities with any other language in the world. Three of the main clues used in dividing the various languages into family groups are word similarities, grammatical behavior, and consistent differences. Unfortunately, time does not permit an explanation of these clues nor a detailed description of the different family groups.

The largest language family, and the one about which we have the most information, is the Indo-European group which has over one billion speakers. Do you know that a fundamental unity, indicating a common ancestry, underlies such diverse languages as English, Greek, Russian, French, Swedish, Persian, Polish, Hindustani and Sanskrit? Do you know that the Indo-European family is divided into ten sub-families like Slavic, which includes Polish, Russian, Bulgarian, Czech and Serbo-Croatian, and Romance which includes French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish; and Teutonic, which is comprised of English, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and even Yiddish?

Equal in historical importance, though not in numbers, is the Semitic-Hamitic family which includes Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic and others. The Ural-Altaic family includes Finnish and Hungarian in the Uralic branch, with such languages as Turkish, Mongol and Manchu in the Altaic part of the family. The Sino-Tibetan family, which includes Chinese, Thai and Burmese, is a close rival to Indo-European in the number of speakers. Northern Chinese or Mandarin is spoken by more people than any other language in the world. The Dravidian language family includes many of the tongues spoken in Southern India, while the Bantu family is comprised of scores of African languages.

It is of particular interest to note that the Malayo-Polynesian or Austronesian family includes not only close cousins like Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, Maori and Fijian, but more distant relatives like Javanese, with over 40 million speakers, and Malayan. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the existence on the islands of Taiwan of approximately one hundred thousand aboriginal Formosans whose languages belong to this group (Ornstein and Gage 36). Our many Filipino students on campus may be interested to know that most of the languages and dialects spoken in the Philippines belong to this family also.

Literally hundreds of languages spoken by African Negroes, North and South American Indians, Australian Aborigines and the Papuans of New Guinea still defy linguistic classification. Methods of determining relationships will, undoubtedly, be modified and improved. Some linguists, like the contemporary Italian Trombetti, will continue to study the matter, inspired by the dream of proving that all languages have a common source. Cowper described such people very aptly in his work entitled Retirement:

. . . philologists, who chaseA panting syllable through time and space;Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark,To Gaul, to Greece, and into Noah's Ark. (II. 691-695)

The questions are often asked--which language is the prettiest and which one is the easiest to learn? I can only answer that to a native speaker his own language is usually the sweetest and easiest. This was not true in the well-known case of Charles V who ascended the throne of Spain and became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire early in the sixteenth century without any knowledge of the Spanish language. Reared and educated in Holland and Germany by his German father, he felt little inclination to learn Spanish. After mastering the language he, reputedly, made the interesting observation that French is good for telling lies, Italian is good for conversing with ladies, German is good for calling dogs and horses, English is good for transacting business, and Spanish is most appropriate for talking to God (Pei 186).

An even more chauvinistic pronouncement was made in the 18th century by the Russian poet Lomonosov with reference to the remarks of Charles V. Lomonosov stated that Russian is far superior to all the languages of Europe in its comprehensiveness and richness, and had Charles V been acquainted with it he would have discovered in it the majesty of Spanish, the vivacity of French, the strength of German, the sweetness of Italian, and, in addition, energetic conciseness in its imagery, together with the richness of Greek and Latin (Pei 186-187).

There are many myths and misconceptions about languages. The French have long promulgated a legend about the clarity of their language. They even have a saying, "Ce qui n'est pas clair, n'est pas Francais" (What is not clear, is not French). We often hear about the sonority and musicality of Italian and Spanish or the vigorous expression possible in English and German. Students of English soon learn that the strong words, including most of the four-letter utterances, are Germanic in origin while the polite forms of expression are usually derived from the Latin.

Another misconception is that languages are static and inflexible, and that some tongues are not suitable for expressing modern concepts. Each language is, of course, best suited to serve the inhabitants of the cultural community in which it is spoken. Eskimos may not have the requisite vocabulary to discuss celestial navigation or the stock market, but they undoubtedly have far better ways of discussing the fine points of under-ice fishing than we do in English. Many primitive languages have a much more elaborate vocabulary than English for discussing camels, livestock, phenomena of nature, etc. While it may be impossible to translate expressions like stereophonic playback recorder or atomic warhead into many languages, it is possible for speakers of those languages to express the concept in a different manner. For example, we say in English "I feel sorry for you," but a Japanese would express this same sentiment by "O kinodoku desu," or literally "It's poison for your soul." The Vatican recently combined several words from Latin, a so-called dead language, to translate the modern concept of "motorcycle" -- birota iqnifero latice incita ("two-wheeled vehicle driven by fire-bearing juice").

Suffice it [to] say that every language is a gift from God. Just as children would remain mutes, uttering only inarticulate sounds, if they had no model to imitate and no one to teach them, likewise men would never have learned by themselves if God had not taught them to speak.

May I invite you to indulge with me for a few minutes in a little speculation concerning the title of this paper? Obviously, it has its origin in the opening passage of St. John--"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1: 1). In the Pearl of Great Price, the Lord repeats again and again that certain things were accomplished by the power of His Word (e.g., Moses 1: 32, 2: 5). Is the usage of this term--the Word--symbolical, metaphorical or literal? Does it make reference to Jesus Christ to the Priesthood, or to the verbal structure?

In the creation accounts of most great religions, the Word usually appears in league with the Maker or Creator. The Word has certain mystical powers which influence everything and exalt it ab initio to the supreme position. Veneration of the spoken word as the force which created a world out of chaos is found in many religions which base their cosmogony on the dualism of good and evil. In India, the power of the Spoken Word (vac) is exalted above the might of the gods themselves. The name of God, rather than the deity himself, frequently appears to contain the supreme power. In his Religions of Primitive Peoples (1897), Brinton states that on their first trip to New Zealand, the Maori did not take their gods, but their prayers through which they could obtain the necessary help (103-104). Knowledge of the name of a deity gives those who know it mastery over the god. A well-known Egyptian legend tells how Isis, the great sorceress, persuaded the sun-god Ra to reveal his name to her, and how through this stratagem she gained control over him and all the other gods (Erman 199ff). According to Egyptian doctrines of the soul and its immortality, the soul of a dead man needs to know key words or passwords which will enable it to unlock the doors of death's kingdom. Is it coincidence that in one of the earliest records of Egyptian theology as well as in a creation hymn of Polynesia God is conceived as a spiritual being who first thought the world and then used the Word as a means of expression and an instrument of creation (Cassirer 46)?

The power of the Word has been so revered throughout history that certain taboos have developed. The many substitutes found in the Old Testament for the name of deity constitute an excellent example. Although the commandment reads that we should not use the Lord s name in vain (Ex. 20: 7), the Hebrew historians were so scrupulous in avoiding its use that today we do not know the actual Hebrew word for God. Throughout the Old Testament we find that God refers to himself by using the self-predicatory forms of "I am" or "I am He who is" (e.g. Ex. 20: 2; Deut. 5: 6; Ps. 81: 10). The word "Jehovah," or "Jahweh," is probably derived from an expression meaning "He who is." In medieval Hebrew cabalistic lore those individuals who knew the secret vowels of the word "Jehovah" and were thereby able to call upon God by his true name presumably possessed enormous magical powers.

In the writings of the philosophers of India, in the Vedic books, for example, it is the Brahma, or Holy Word, which is all powerful. The Word controls all nature; those who know the Word can dominate everything in the world. The priest has to pronounce every syllable correctly and maintain prescribed intonational patterns in order for his prayers to be efficacious.

Does the real power lie in the word itself? Does a knowledge of the right words really enable a man to perform supernatural tasks? Should we accept the biblical account at face value and believe then that when God said "Let there be light" his mere utterance of a special combination of words actually produced light (Gen. 1: 3)? Are there, indeed, magic words which when verbalized by one having a knowledge of them, will activate certain unseen cosmic forces? Where does the belief in the prayers, incantations, rituals, and magic verbal formulas used by sorcerers, magicians, witch doctors, medicine men, kahunas and the like through the ages have its origin?

Rather than try to answer these questions right now, let's speculate for a few minutes on the language of the future. Have you ever wondered how angels communicate? How did the Angel Moroni, who died centuries before the English language came into existence, communicate with Joseph Smith, who knew no other language at the time of his vision? God may have spoken to Joseph in English or He may have quickened his spirit and intellect in some inexplicable way, teaching the great truths of the restored gospel through a medium far more perfect than any known to man. There are, undoubtedly, more sophisticated media of communication which when learned will enable us to converse with one another heart-to-heart and mind-to-mind. Do not the promptings of the Holy Ghost reach us through a medium of communication far superior to mere words?

It is obvious that we shall never become Gods so long as our instruction is received through the kind of imperfect language we use today. Few people can express or receive more than one chain of thought at any one time. Even then there are frequent misunderstandings between the speaker and the listener. Under present conditions we could spend our entire life studying and, with the current rate of discovery of new knowledge, know less percentage-wise than we do now.

The scriptures tell us that the time will come when people will cease to speak in tongues (Zeph. 3: 9). Does this mean that the curse placed upon the earth at the time of the Tower of Babel will be lifted and that all men will again speak the same language? In an excellent discourse given over a century ago, Orson Pratt suggested that the curse will indeed be removed and everyone will speak the Adamic language--the same language that was spoken for nearly two thousand years after the creation (JD 3: 100). Will this take place during the Millennium and thereby enable everybody to hear the gospel in his own tongue or will it occur prior to that time? Elder Pratt states that this "pure language" will "be spoken here upon the earth among mankind in their mortal state" (100).

This is not to say, however, that the Adamic language will be the medium of communication used in our immortal state. In the Book of Mormon we read that angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost (2 Ne. 32: 3). Is it inconceivable that the Holy Ghost might teach an individual a great multitude of truths through some process other than sounds and written words? Is there a more refined system which will enable us to communicate and perceive knowledge on many different subjects in the twinkling of an eye? How does God discover and discern the thoughts of our heart? How does He hear our prayers? How does He make known His wishes?

In the Pearl of Great Price we read that Moses was privileged to look upon the earth and perceive through the Spirit of God every particle thereon. As the Spirit of God, which is omnipresent, converged upon him, he beheld the entire world and understood all of nature. In an instant he obtained a knowledge of things as they were, are, and will be (Moses 1: 24-29).

There is, indeed, in the spirit world a medium of communication through which the mind can learn more in one minute than it can learn here in a hundred years. As we progress in our knowledge of the gospel and become more righteous in our living, this "pure language" will be revealed to us. In the meantime, it is my prayer that we will all try to communicate with one another in a heart-to-heart manner as true brothers and sisters, and I ask it in the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


1Ed. Note. Note. While not abundant, several references to Beethoven and various compositions by him appear scattered through Nietzsche's works. In The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), for example, he remarks that "Again and again we have occasion to observe that a Beethoven symphony compels its individual auditors to use figurative speech in describing it, no matter how fantastically variegated and even contradicting may be the composition and make-up of the different worlds of images produced by a piece of music. (54) Thus, while Allison's reference to Nietzsche's specific allusion to the Eroica remains untraced, the idea it contains conforms to Nietzsche's characteristic comments on Beethoven. As Marck observes, "What Nietzsche wrote about Beethoven's music in general is specifically true of the Eroica: Beethoven's music is music about music'" (345).

Works Cited

The Bible.

Brinton, Daniel G. Religions of Primitive Peoples. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1897.

Cassirer, Ernst. Language and Myth. Trans. Susanne Langer. New York: Dover, 1946.

Cowper, William. Retirement. Cowper: Verse and Letters. Sel. Brian Spiller. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1968. 323-344.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. 1871. New York: D. Appleton, 1896.

Erman, Adolf. Die Ägyptische Religion. Berlin: G. Reiner, 1905.

Farrar, Frederic W. Families of Speech: Four Lectures. Language and Languages. New York: Dutton, 1878. 261-404

Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. 1883-1888. Trans. James S. Stallybrass. 4 vols. New York: Dover, 1966.

Herder, Johann. Essay on the Origin of Language. Trans. Alexander Gode. On the Origin of Language. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966. 85-166.

Jesperson, Otto. Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin. New York: Norton, 1964.

Journal of Discourses. 26 vols. London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1855-1886. Vol. 3.

Marck, George R. Beethoven: Biography of a Genius. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969.

Müller, F. Max. Lectures on the Science of Language. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1871. Vol. 1.

Nietzsche, Frederick W. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. 1872. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1968. 29-144.

Ornstein, Jacob and William W. Gage. ABC's of Language and Linguistics. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1964.

The Pearl of Great Price.

Pei, Mario. The Story of Language. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1949.

Plato. Cratylus. The Dialogues of Plato. Trans. B. Jowett. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1937. I: 173-229.

Popul Vul: Natural History of the Quiche. Pre-Columbian Masterpieces. Trans. Abraham Aries-Larrete. Kansas City, Mo.: Editorial Indoamerican Library, 1967. 5-61.

Rousseau, Jean Jackques. Essay on the Origin of Languages. Trans. John H. Moran. On the Origin of Language. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966. 1-74.

Sayce, A. H. Introduction to the Science of Language. 2 vols. London: Kegan Paul, 1900. Vol. 1.

Other Works Consulted

Bloomfield, Leonard. Language. New York: Holt, 1933.

Bodmer, Frederick. The Loom of Language. New York: Norton, 1944.

Bram, Joseph. Language and Society. New York: Random House, 1955.

Diamond, A. S. The History and Origin of Language. London: Methuen, 1959.

Estrich, Robert M. and Hans Sperber. Three Keys to Language. New York: Rinehart, 1952.

Ferm, Vergilius T. A. Forgotten Religions, including Some Living Primitive Religions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 12 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Frothingham, Paul R. A Confusion of Tongues. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries P, 1968.

Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. New York: Prometheus P, 1959.

Wheelwright, Philip E. The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968.