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Just dropping by ... The blessing and cursing of language

Yevet Tenney for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 August 2019

Recently, I was reminded the story of Helen Keller, who was 9 months old when she was stricken with the disease that left her both blind and deaf. She was an amazing lady who accomplished more than most of us would in a lifetime.

According to Wikipedia, “Helen Adams Keller was an American author, political activist and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.



The story of Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was made famous by Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, and its adaptations for film and stage, The Miracle Worker.

Her birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum and sponsors an annual ‘Helen Keller Day.’ Her June 27 birthday is commemorated as Helen Keller Day in Pennsylvania and, in the centenary year of her birth, was recognized by a presidential proclamation from Jimmy Carter.”

Helen attributes her success to a teacher who broke the barrier of language for her. Anne Sullivan came to teach a wild, savage little girl who was caged in a dark and silent world with no means of communication. She had no language to express her innermost feelings.

Anne Sullivan patiently endured pinching, hitting, biting and kicking as she tried different methods to reach the little girl’s trapped mind. She meticulously spelled letters into her hand. One day, she pumped water into Helen’s hand while she was spelling the word W-A-T-E-R onto her hand.

Suddenly Helen’s little mind was filled with light, and she knew what the spelling meant. She had the gift of language. A new life began for her. She wanted to know the names of everything.


She dragged Anne Sullivan from object to object asking for the name. Thus, she leaned language. I am not sure how Helen was able to grasp metaphysical ideas, and verb tenses, but she was incredible.

Language is not just words. It embodies ideas, values, culture and thought. It is a powerful weapon to influence nations and individuals. It can bless or break. It carries traditions, values and culture from one generation to another.

If not carefully guarded, language can diminish to grunts and gestures. John Branyan, in his comedy skit of the “Three Little Pigs,” backhandedly shows the decline of the English vocabulary.

He said, “Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, and we today, in the United States, have a working vocabulary of 3,000 words.”

It is no wonder the Bible and constitutional documents are so hard for students to understand. They need a dictionary and a thesaurus to interpret nearly every line. Then there is the problem with connotation, the meaning and implication of the word.

The word “welfare,” in colonial times, meant something quite different than it does to a student of politics today, and it is getting worse.


With the use of texting and social media, one might wonder how the English language will survive with all the acronyms of OMG and LOL. It is an entirely new language few in the older generation understand.

That leads me to wonder about the story of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament. Did God really send a curse to smite the people, or was it a consequence of their own behaviour?

There are only nine verses of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and many scholars dismiss it as a mythical account to explain why there are so many languages on the earth.

In contrast, “Native global flood stories are documented as history or legend in almost every region on earth. Old-world missionaries reported their amazement at finding remote tribes already possessing legends with tremendous similarities to the Bible’s accounts of the worldwide flood.

H.S. Bellamy in Moons, Myths and Men estimates that altogether there are over 500 flood legends worldwide. Ancient civilizations such as (China, Babylonia, Wales, Russia, India, America, Hawaii, Scandinavia, Sumatra, Peru and Polynesia) all have their own versions of a giant flood”(see NW Creation Network).

With the stories of the flood scattered through many different countries, we can infer that the people were scattered from a single point of origin, with Noah being the progenitor, but we don’t know why unless the Tower of Babel story is true.

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. —Genesis 11:1-9

My interpretation is hypothetical, and I don’t claim to know the real answer, but I know God often uses natural consequences to straighten His people. Imagine the people starting their own languages to show their superiority or their skill in a particular trade.

Consequently, they drew gradually apart. Their ideas changed; their culture changed as they spent more and more time in their own sphere of influence.

Their children grew up knowing only the language of their immediate progenitors and naturally adopted the traditions and culture of their mentors. That might explain the language transition, but what about the tower, and why was it upsetting to the Lord?

When Noah and his family stepped from the ark, they had one goal in mind. They wanted to serve the God of heaven and earth. They knew the path back to God was through keeping the commandments and passing them on to their children.

After all, they had just experienced the destruction of a violent, self-serving and pleasure-seeking people. They had probably witnessed the desperate cries and the pounding on the sides of the ark of the people who had chosen to follow their own inclinations.

Perhaps, as time passed, a leader arose from the descendants of Noah who didn’t believe in God’s wisdom and began to teach the people there was another way to heaven. Plans were laid for an enormous tower that would reach into the clouds, to the stars and beyond.

The tower would need many different skilled labourers. There would have been the mortar mixers, the brickmakers, the bricklayers and so on. They would probably have performed their labours miles apart, thus making communities of different types.

The focus was not on the commandments of God but on the tower. Gradually, in their own way, they confused the languages.

It really doesn’t matter if God came down and smote the people with confusion of language in one day, or it happed naturally over a long period of time.

The real message of the Tower of Babel is found in the focus and desires of the people. They wanted another way to heaven or happiness. They wanted to have it their own way, not God’s.

I wonder if our nation isn’t in the same boat. We have become a materialistic society seeking for things money can buy. There is evidence in the media that our focus is on the next new gadget designed to make us happy. We are not connected by our religious worship but with our devices.

We often know the brand names of clothing and the latest movie better than we know the commandments. We spend our time on social media while our language and values change.

I wonder if we are entering the confusion zone where we will lose the language of God.  end mark

Yevet Crandell Tenney is a Christian columnist who writes about faith, family and freedom.