Genesis 11:1 (KJV):

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

The English translation seems to be redundant here, ie language and speech.

In doing some prelim research into the meanings of these words it was intriguing to me that the word for language has the idea of "boundary" while the word for "speech" looks more like "word".

Is something being communicated here beyond the idea of language by the use of the Hebrew word "SAPHAH"?

  • Saphah is more usually translated 'lip' but also 'language'. Dabar is a saying, an utterance. So they were all of one spoken dialect and also of one kind of utterance, or concept. Later, not only what they spoke sounded different, the very expressed utterance, the very thing they were saying, was diverse. – Nigel J May 13 '18 at 20:14

Good question. The Hebrew for this verse is:

וַֽיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃

The word translated "language" is שָׂפָה sapha. This word appears to have a semantic range along the lines of "termination → shore → lip → language". This last step is analogous to how European languages use "tongue" to stand for a language.

The word translated "speech" is דְבָרִים dvarim, actually the plural of דָּבָר davar. Usually this means "word" or "thing". The "one" is also plural, suggesting an adjectival sense, something like "unified".

So what's the distinction between "one lip" and "one [set of] words"?

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and College says that this is merely "an expressive phrase", which I take to be a reference to the common Hebrew poetic technique of duplication. We can't rule out that possibility, but even so, the duplicated terms aren't always identical in meaning.

In fact, several older commentators see the difference as significant. They tend to see "lip" as a reference to pronunciation and "words" as a reference to the vocabulary:

...both the pronunciation and the vocabulary were identical. (Ellicott)

...perhaps it was pronounced by the lip and other instruments of speech in the same way; so that there was no difficulty in understanding one another ... all spoke the same language and used the same words. (Gill)

Of one language. Literally, of one lip, i.e. one articulation, or one way of pronouncing their vocables. And of one speech. Literally, one (kind of) words, i.e. the matter as well as the form of human speech was the same. (Pulpit)

As far as pronunciation goes, it might be worth noting that the Hebrew writers certainly did think about that quality of language, e.g. in the well-known "Shibboleth" episode in Judges 12:5-6.

One more commentator seems to read "lip" as a reference to both pronunciation and grammar:

The two terms are not synonymous or parallel ... "One stock of words," then, we conceive, naturally indicates the matter, the substance, or material of language. ... The term "lip," which is properly one of the organs of articulation, is, on the other hand, used to denote the form, that is, the manner, of speaking; the mode of using and connecting the matter of speech; the system of laws by which the inflections and derivations of a language are conducted. (Barnes)

More recent commentaries seem not to be interested in the difference between these two words, perhaps a reflection of a trend away from literalism or making much of stylistic minutiæ.

Appendix on linguistic diversity

In your comment you ask about a possible connection between "lip" as boundary and the idea of having one language as a limitation or boundary. I wouldn't endorse that as a primary reading, but it could have been present in their minds as wordplay on having one boundary — being one nation. In support of this, I note that the verse literally reads that all the earth "was", not "had", one sapha.
(Also as wordplay, perhaps all the world also "was" one set of undiversified dvarim "things"?)

However, your idea about it being a limitation is explored by David Smith and Barbara Carvill in a wonderful book on teaching foreign languages through a Christian lens: The Gift of the Stranger. They point out that the God of Genesis is a big fan of diversity in plant and animal life, and tells humanity to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen 1:28). This is all part of His plan for creation before the Fall. But at Babel, they argue, humanity disobeyed this command: "Let us build ourselves a city ... otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth" (Gen 11:1).

Because of that, Smith and Carvill disagree with the tradition of commentators who see linguistic diversity as a punishment, a situation somehow worse than having a single universal language. (This is often tied to old ideas about Hebrew being the perfect original divine language — but then why does God ask Adam to creatively come up with names for the animals?)

On the contrary, linguistic diversity happens naturally when people spread out. At Babel, God had to jumpstart the process and give humanity a kick by making it hard to stay in one place.

(If linguistic diversity interests you, it's a good book to read. They make the case that teaching, learning, and sharing other people's languages is a way to show Christian hospitality.)

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  • Very nice answer. I was wondering though about the root of sapha, ie the termination - shore - lip. To me this is referencing some kind of boundary line, that is, lip as an edge of something. Could this mean that their singleness of language was a boundary or limitation in some way? – alb May 12 '18 at 15:03
  • If you add that information about the Gift of the Stranger to your answer, i'll select it as the final answer. – alb May 12 '18 at 16:14
  • @alb Moved from comments to answer and expanded. – Luke Sawczak May 12 '18 at 16:34
  • Good answer. But the idea God intended linguistic diversity by spreading out does not necessarily follow. For example, the different tribes of Israel are spread out but there are two compensating factors: 1. 3 times a year everyone comes to a central location to worship the LORD. 2. Levites are scattered throughout the land and have the responsibility to teach people about the LORD. Arguably, God's system has elements designed to prevent the diversity which potentially results from separation. In that light Babel reflects the misuse of language, building to reach God vs teaching and worship. – Revelation Lad May 12 '18 at 17:13
  • @RevelationLad A fair point, and the authors do offer the caveat that "diversity is not good in itself". But I think the more reserved version of their argument - that it's not an inherent punishment to speak diverse languages, just a means of forcing them to spread out - is pretty strong. – Luke Sawczak May 12 '18 at 17:23

The great medieval biblical commentator/grammarian, Abraham ibn Ezra explains that the word "saphah" refers to the language while the word "devarim" refers to the sophistication of speech. That is to say that though normally there is a broad range of sophistication of language usage/vocabulary between the wise men and the fools, even when speaking the same language, the Bible is pointing out that the people constructing the tower all spoke the same language and additionally they spoke it on the same level.

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  • A good commentator to add to the others' thoughts. It doesn't seem any more rooted in the Hebrew meanings than the others, though. – Luke Sawczak May 14 '18 at 3:48
  • @LukeSawczak Why is it not rooted in the Hebrew meanings? He is saying that "saphah" means language whereas "devarim" means words. – Alex May 14 '18 at 4:20
  • I said it's no more rooted in it than the others. I think extrapolating from "words" to "level of sophistication" is just as speculative as extrapolating from "lip" to " pronunciation". Using a different set of words doesn't always imply being more or less sophisticated in your speech! It's possible but I would just add it to the list of possibilities. – Luke Sawczak May 14 '18 at 4:33
  • @LukeSawczak That part is not really essential to the answer. The main point is that the verse is discussing two different things: the language they spoke, and the words they used. – Alex May 14 '18 at 18:10

Genesis (11:1) “Everyone on earth had the same language (sa-pa) and the same words (de-bar-im)”. (11:6) And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language (sa-pa)). This is an iteration of the same thought in verse 1 except the phrase “they had... the same words” is now expressed as “they are one”. De-bar-im is missing from verse 6. (11:7) Come, let us go down, and there confound their language(sa-pa), that they may not understand one another’s speech(sa-pa). Again de-bar-im is missing and sa-pa is used twice.

It seems to be saying that people not only used the same language but they had a universal understanding. The writer seems to be expressing that while God changed their (sa-pa) language, he did not change (their understanding) what they were trying to say (de-bar-im).

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  • 1
    This is an interesting theory. It could also be evidence that they're just synonyms — Hebrew poetic duplication — depending on your hermeneutic. – Luke Sawczak May 14 '18 at 3:47
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    You could be correct or there could be something embedded in the story that is intended to convey a deeper concept than how different languages came to be. I'm not challenging your view, just sharing another possibility. :-) – Thoughts May 14 '18 at 18:44
  • @Thoughts I'm confused. Doesn't your reference to 11:6 support my premise, ie that sapha in verse 1 could mean lip as in boundary, boarder, shore, coast (analogous for nation, people) and not language. The reference to "people" in verse 6 corresponds to sapha in verse 1 and "language" in verse 6 relates to "speech" in verse 1? – alb May 14 '18 at 22:22
  • @alb de-bar-im is speech as in speaking. de-bar means speak. The "-im" makes it plural. Utterance(s) as Nigel J said is the same concept. If one can't understand a dialect, it is in essence another language. I think the point is, that while God disrupted their ability to communicate, he didn't mess with what they were wanting to say. Whatever was driving them to build the tower was not changed. He only changed their ability to coordinate the effort. – Thoughts May 15 '18 at 19:48

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