The majority of Bible translations choose to render the MT verbal form נבל as 'to confound'. Now - according the context - the 'confounded' language was, clearly, the unique language mentioned in 11:1. In what manner, then, was it 'confounded'? If it was an original form of what we called Hebrew, in what manner was it 'confounded'? And more importantly, are we sure that 'to confound' is the correct translation in this case?
There appears to be some confusion over the verbal root. The form וְנָבְלָה can be:
- Qal wəqaṭaltí, 3 masc. sg. with 3. fem. sg. suffix of נבל
- Qal wəqaṭaltí, 3 fem. sg. of נבל
- Qal wəyiqṭol, 1 pl. of בלל
A wəqaṭaltí form would make sense semantically as continuing the imperative הבה, however, there are good reasons to take option (3): first, this is still direct speech considering הבה נרדה "come, let us go down". Second, נבל is intransitive ("wither", "be despicable"), so it cannot have God as subject as in option (1). The only option left would then be (2), taking שׂפתם as the subject, i.e., "come, let us go down and let their language wither", but a subject switch with wəqaṭaltí would be very odd. Thus, we are left with option (3), reading a wəyiqṭol of בלל.
So, to rephrase the title of the question:
According to Genesis 11:7, 'God בלל man's language'.
The root בלל is indeed traditionally translated as "to confound" (the English word is clearly related to "confusion"). The core meaning seem to lie in mixing, because the same root is used for feeding animals in Judges 19:21: this would be a kind of mixed food substance (from this also בְּלִיל for the food itself). That mixing and confusing are somehow related is not odd, compare the English noun "mixup": when elements of a situation are "mixed", it is unclear what the situation is exactly and this confuses people.
The exact way the speech is mixed up or confounded is explained by the rest of the verse:
אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵֽהוּ "so that they will not hear [→understand] each other's speech"
אשׁר with a final nuance is "rather rare" according to Joüon-Muraoka §168f, but still attested. They give a good example with Deuteronomy 4:40.
Just want to add that the root בלל returns couple more times with other varientions till the conclusion why Babylon בבל called like that and maybe to point similareties between the two languages (after all god confused their language). This sentences have their prosodiac structure based on this root and those who look alike נבל (like evil) and בלל
Users yet accustomed to the Hebrew language know that the text of Genesis 11 doesn’t speak about of ‘confusion of tongues’, but of the mixing (נבלה) of the lip (= tongue [in the singular]) (שׂפת). In a keen manner, Keelan asserts (bold is mine): “The core meaning seem to lie in mixing, because the same root is used for feeding animals in Judges 19:21: this would be a kind of mixed food substance (from this also בְּלִיל for the food itself).”
The comprehension of the importance of the linguistic core meaning, or ground concept is often underestimated. On the understanding that a given term may possess a different nuance of meaning according the peculiar context in which it is used, we may agree that all the occurrences of the same term in the TaNaKh has to possess a ground concept that linked all of them.
Only one example can be enough to illustrate the point.
In the following Bible passages (Gen 42:9; Deu 23:14; 24:1) is mentioned the same Hebrew term ערות [ORUT]. Well, the local context of each of this passages is very different. In fact, Genesis speaks about the Joseph’s accusation to his brothers that they were spies; instead Deuteronomy 23 speaks about a behaviour to possess within a military encampment. Finally, Deuteronomy 24, speaks about a specific lawful ground (by God’s viewpoint) an Israelite husband did may contest to repudiate his wife.
It is only natural – for Bible translator/s – to choose different terms apt to the local context. The following chart will illustrate the manner to translate – in abovementioned passages – by three Bible translations, Lexham English Bible (LEB), Brenton Bible, and American Standard Version (ASV).
After each Bible passages I will list the terms choosed by the three abovementioned translations in this order LEB, then Brenton, than ASV:
Genesis 42:9 - nakedness - the marks - nakedness;
Deuteronomy 23:14 - indecent - disgraceful - unclean;
Deuteronomy 24:1 - objectionable - unbecoming - unseemly.
Although, all of these are correct manners to translate the same Hebrew term ערות [ORUT], in a incontrovertible manner, this term is the same in all these occurrences. What is, then, the ground concept that linked all of them?
(Please, try to find it before to continue to read ahead the solution)
The ground concept (or ‘core meaning’, like Keelan said) that links all these occurrences is: “something that must be covered but is found to be uncovered”.
To get back to the point (Gen 11), the rendering ‘confusion’ in many Bibles (in this passage), although correct in a technical way, isn’t the best translation, because it refers to a sub-meaning, or, a derived meaning, drawn from the core meaning of ‘to mix’, ‘to mingle’. Since the language God נבלה continued to be spoken – also after the Babel’s Tower incident – by the Semitic peoples, the ‘confusion’ sense (applied by many translators) isn’t the more apt in this peculiar context. The Semitic peoples did not find their language was a confused, or vague one.
So the best manner to translate this expression is “let their language be mixed around”, or suchlike. But, what means that the once unique language was ‘mixed around’? Why not to think about a mixing of the inner elements of the Primordial Language? Almost all of us know the Hebrew words derived (maybe, except the nomina primitiva we have not the time to discuss) from a triliteral (consonantal) roots. So, why we don’t consider the possibility that the ‘mixing around’ of the original language includes the permutation of the radicals (the component letters) of the conceptual root? This is not a odd idea. For example, Gregory Sharpe (1751, Two Dissertations... Hebrew Grammar and Lexicon, without Points, sect. II. p. 33 ; sect. III. pages 44, 45) presented dozens examples of terms in Greek, Latin, and English language which reveal their derivations from Hebrew, rather then from an hypothetical Indo-European mother tongue, drawn by some permutations of the radicals. Sharpe asserted that all we have to do is to anagrammatize (a mixing around mode, in practice) the radicals of the correspondent conceptual root (‘123’ stands for the standard order of the radicals in a given ‘original’ root). In this manner we may find the real derivation (not mere loanwords) from the mixing around of the original language. Moreover, if we take into account also the historical graphemical commutations intervening in all the languages of all the epochs (see the exhaustive works of the famous German philologist Jakob Grimm) we may arrive to hundreds of derivative words (on this specific aspect you may take a look – with some reservations - on the huge material produced by Giovanni Semerano – an Italian philologist, along with that produced by Isaac E. Mozeson – see, for example his book The Origin of Speeches, but also specialized websites of him).
• אבס [ABS, through a ‘213’ permutation] (‘to give food’, ‘to nourish’) > obesus, ‘obese, stout, fat’ [Latin] [see also sebum, and likewise in English]; • אוד [AUD, through a ‘312’ permutation] (‘burning coal’) > δαιω, ‘to burn’ [Greek]; • אלף [ALP, through a ‘321’ permutation] (‘a thousand’, or ‘in large amount’) > πολυς, ‘much’ [Greek]. See also the Greek adjective πλουσιος, ‘abundant, plentiful, ample, numerous’ along with the Latin verb duplico, ‘to double, to increase, to make big’ [and pluris/pluribum]; • אמן [AMN, through a ‘321’ permutation] (‘to nourish’) > νμω, ‘to nourish’ [Greek]; • אמר [AMR, through a ‘321’ permutation] (‘word’) > ρημα, ‘a word, a voice’ [Greek]; • אסן [ASN, through a ‘321’ permutation] (‘mortal accident’) > νοσος, ‘sickness’ [Greek]; • דהם [DEM, through a ‘321’ permutation, along with a D > T commutation] (‘fear’) > metuo [Latin], ‘to fear’; • דוך [DUK, through a ‘321’ permutation] (‘to trample down, to stamp, to hurt’) > cudo, ‘to trample down’ [Latin]; • דרג [DRG, through a ‘321’ permutation] (‘to go up a step’) > gradus, ‘step, stair’ [Latin]; • לעג [LOG, through a ‘321’ permutation] (‘to laugh’) > γελαω, ‘to laugh’ [Greek]; • נוד [NUD, through a ‘312’ permutation] (‘to wave’) > δονεω, ‘to wave’ [Greek]; • פלך [PLK, through a ‘132’ permutation, along with a P > B commutation] (‘a stick, club’) > baculus, (‘a stick, club’) ; or, through a ‘321’ permutation, clava, ‘a stick, club’ [Latin] > club [English].
I do not claim here that permutations of the radicals were the only way to mixing around the Primordial Language, so from it did may come from the different languages (‘grandmothers’ of the present idoms) cited in Genesis 10:20. It is probable the mixing around we dissert included also permutations of the characteristics vowels inside/outside the conceptual roots, along with permutations of the different manner to triggers verbal moods, et cetera.
For fear this speech of mine is to be considered too much technical, I stop myself here, hoping I have illustrate the point, clearly (feel free to edit some my mistakes on the English phraseology or/and on the word formatting… Thanks).