April 28, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Asian Languages Approach Biblical Timeline

Origin of the Sino-Tibetan language family about 5,900 years ago? Yeah, that’s about right, within error.

If you are an evolutionist, with no regard for Old Testament chronologies, how old would you estimate languages are? According to the evolutionary timeline, Homo erectus, Neanderthal Man, Denisovans and other “archaic humans” were migrating around Africa, Europe and Asia for many hundreds of thousands of years. Even modern humans looked pretty much like us as far back as 350,000 years ago, according to a recent find in Morocco (11 July 2018). Whether any of these people groups had language is impossible to know without written records, but can be inferred. They certainly had art earlier than 40,000 years ago, indicating cognitive sophistication at least by then. And when it comes to brain size, there was no shortage of capacity there for complex communication. Hunting, tool making and controlled use of fire go even further back in the evolutionary scenario.

It would be unreasonable to expect humans with teamwork and social cohesion at these levels not having language. And if they did communicate, the utterances were most likely more sophisticated than grunts. The accoutrements of language—grammar, syntax, and semantics—would become necessary quickly, along with language conventions known and taught to all the members of the group. Let’s speculate that, in this evolutionary view of human history language probably originated 300,000 years ago, if not earlier.

How about less than 10,000 years ago? How about less than that? If that were true, the dates would look nearly Biblical.

A new study by 4 Asian linguists, published in Nature, concludes a shockingly young date. Old estimates put the particular language family called “Sino-Tibetan” (mother tongue of Tibetan, Chinese and other Asian languages) at 9,000 years or older. In the same issue of Nature, Randy J. LaPolla writes a “News & Views” piece about “The origin and spread of the Sino-Tibetan language family.”

A robust computational approach with added finesse provides evidence to support the view that the Sino-Tibetan languages arose in northern China and began to split into branches about 5,900 years ago.

Apparently the new study undermines the previous 9,000 year estimate, providing strong support for the younger date.

The location and timing of the emergence of the Sino-Tibetan language family has long been debated. This family has around 1.5 billion speakers worldwide, the second largest number of speakers globally after those who speak languages in the Indo-European family. One school of thought is that the ancestral language (Proto-Sino-Tibetan) from which all the Sino-Tibetan languages evolved originated in northern China around 4,000–6,000 years ago. An alternative view is that it arose 9,000 years ago in southwest China or northeast India.

Writing in Nature, Zhang et al. report a study that might settle this debate. The authors gathered evidence about the Sino-Tibetan language family and its speakers from disciplines including genetics, computational biology, linguistics, archaeology and anthropology, and also compiled information about the development of agriculture and its possible effects on human migrations in the region. They then used a method of probability testing to assess the different language family trees that could be made on the basis of this evidence.

On the basis of their “robust” interdisciplinary approach, “Their analysis indicates that, consistent with one current model, the ancestral form of the language originated approximately 5,900 years ago in northern China, in the basin of the Yellow River.”

Biblical creationists might have squirmed at the 9,000 year date, finding it hard to stretch the chronologies of Genesis that far back. According to Answers in Genesis, one of the best-known and staunch Biblical creation organizations, the division of languages at the Tower of Babel occurred in 2242 BC. Adding the current year would make that 4,261 years ago. That’s off by over 1,600 years from the date of the new study, but one must recognize the sources of error in Zhang et al‘s approach. Their date embeds numerous unproveable assumptions:

According to prior settings of calibrations in previous work, we selected two kinds of distributions: the normal distribution for situations that involve a probable date with an evenly distributed estimated-error factor, and the uniform distribution for assessing the potential ranges of divergence times. Our goal was to obtain an inferred phylogeny of the Sino-Tibetan languages. Therefore, we did not set any monophyletic constraints as priors, even if they were well-attested language branches.

The researchers had no desire or interest in confirming a Biblical date, so they assumed evolutionary dates and processes. Even so, the results did not look evolutionary:

Although we adopt a family-tree model to demonstrate the lineages among the Sino-Tibetan languages, we do not claim that the cultural history of Sino-Tibetan speakers is indeed tree-like. Population migrations and interactions among speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages were complex and occurred over a long period of time. As a consequence, substantial language contact among the Sino-Tibetan languages could have occurred at an early stage of the diversification of these languages, and could continue into the present. These contacts have previously been known to have occurred among the Sino-Tibetan languages, as well as with the surrounding Austronesian, Tai–Kadai and Hmong–Mien languages (Supplementary Information, sections 2.5, 2.6). Unfortunately, we cannot yet provide concrete data for identifying these influences, and we cannot, therefore, reconstruct the explicit genetic relationships between the Sino-Tibetan languages and other language families. Many Sino-Tibetan languages remain poorly described, which makes it challenging to perform definite comparisons in historical linguistics. Thus, the study of the evolution of the Sino-Tibetan languages is at an early stage and requires additional interdisciplinary data. To explicitly demonstrate the evolution of the Sino-Tibetan languages, we need comprehensive archaeological surveys and sufficient evidence from studies of ancient DNA.

Suffice it to say that the error bars are large, and one cannot stuff human beings’ mental activities into simplistic evolutionary trees. Through force of will, humans can decide on quick changes to their languages, while other groups can remain complacent with traditional words and meanings for long periods. Human interactions are complex.

That being said, the authors of the study came up with a surprisingly recent date. Considering errors, their date for the “origin and spread” of this large language family could fit the Biblical time frame of the days of migration following the Tower of Babel. Conversely, their date seems far, far too recent to fit into an evolutionary timeline of hundreds of thousands of years.

Update 5/06/19: A separate paper by Sagart et al in PNAS uses additional methods to calculate the appearance of the Sino-Tibetan language at 7,200 years B.P. (before present). That is still significantly earlier than previous estimates.

The Biblical picture is that after the Flood, all the descendants of Noah’s sons stayed close together, disobeying God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. They tried to make a name for themselves, not to glorify their Creator, by building a city and a tower (probably a religious center for idolatry).

And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:6-9)

Notice that God opposed to one-world government. Global governance would be very bad for fallen mankind, because it would give Satan a central point of control over everyone. God, therefore, forced man apart into nation-states by confusing their languages. This means that language families are not evolutionary, but created. Names like “Proto-Indo-European” and “Proto-Sino-Tibetan” do not imply these languages were primitive. Creationists would expect they were complex from the start, and have devolved since. Paul elaborates on the plan of God for nation-states when speaking on Mars Hill to the Athenians:

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. (Acts 17:26-27)

We find unity and diversity in this passage: all people are members of “one man” (KJV, “one blood”), a single human race from Adam and Eve, responsible to God equally at the judgment, and yet nations with boundaries that could act as checks and balances against each other’s evil intentions. With this arrangement, individuals could “seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” easier than if everyone was indoctrinated by a central authority. Even if no one does seek after God (Romans 3:9-18), God can reach out to them through creation, conscience and revelation before they become mind-numbed robots of a central state. Individuals who have options to move out of a nation-state have better hope of responding to God.

Another support for the Biblical timeline is found in Genesis 10, the Table of Nations. This remarkable chapter fits what we know about the history of people groups. The Bible says they migrated from the Tower of Babel after God confused their languages. Many of the names listed match those from independent records of nations’ historical accounts. Unlike the absurd stories from some national myths, this account has the ring of truth, with its details and matter-of-fact writing.

Importantly, this is all recent! Unlike evolutionary moyboy accounts that stre-t-t-t-ch human history into hundreds of thousands of years (because Charlie needs the time), the facts of history show all this occurring recently, in just a few thousands of years. Humans are restless. They can cover lots of ground in just years or decades or centuries. Think of all the changes in American history in just 250 years. Intelligent minds (not evolutionary happenstances) can bring rapid change. Long ages actually hinder the explanation of history. Who needs long ages besides Charlie? The new study on the origin of Sino-Tibetan languages fits what the Bible says.



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