Divine linguistic diversity

Divine linguistic diversity

Divine linguistic diversity

I’ve spent the past two days convening the first-ever Language-on-the-Move workshop at the University of Tehran. The idea was to explore language contact and multilingualism in the 21st century, and I learnt as much as the students did. Apart from gaining new insights into multilingualism, language learning and intercultural communication in Iran, I learnt that the fundamentally negative view of linguistic diversity in the Judeo-Christian tradition is not shared by the Quran.

I had brought up the enduring influence of the Tower of Babel myth. Genesis 11 describes multilingualism as divine punishment for human hubris. I had assumed that all the People of the Book shared this negative view of multilingualism. How wrong I was! It turns out that Surah 30:22 actually lists linguistic diversity as one of the signs of God:

And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: verily in that are Signs for those who know.

I’m happy to share this wisdom of the Muslim faith as a Christmas message here on Language-on-the-Move: diversity is divine!

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • A great Xmas message, indeed!

  • vahid

    Great message!

    p.s. One can find another instance of this positive recognition of linguistic diversity in Surah 14:4:
    وما أرسلنا من رسول إلا بلسان قومــه

  • Khan

    What a creative + linguistic manner of wishing christmas. Thanks Ingrid.

  • Mahmood Bijankhan

    Great message with full of creativity in the night of Yalda and from the land of dialect diversity to everybody interested in multiligualism

  • khan

    Hello Vahid

    Thanks for reference which motivated my search in Quran. There are some eight or nine instances where the language/tongue is used in different parts: 3:78 19:97, 20:25-28, 75:16-19, 26:191-195.

    I was assisted by my cousin Munnawar shah who is a Quranic scholar in Karachi. We had debate as to why divinity did not consider other languages for revelation. He gave me answers from Quran as well as from the socio-political milieu of Arabia of that time.

    My second question was why Arabic is still considered the right and the language full of bliss as Muslims recite it in Arabic and consider it religious . He said it was miracle of Arabic language that with only approximately 80,000 words, it has summed up all. He also enlightened me with his lexicographic knowledge: if you learn approximately 2,000 words in Arabic, you would be able to understand it because these 20,000 get repeated and make the total word count of 80,000. I am greatly impressed with his devotion.


  • vahid

    Thank you, Khan! As you have mentioned the answer to such questions should be sought in the socio-political milieu of Arabia more than 1400 years ago. Arabic at the time was a very strong language not only in eloquennce but also in oratory. Additionally, Arabia at the time was so highly divided a country. On the one hand, there was a minority of versed poets and writers and on the other hand a majority of uncivilzed tribesmen. It was in such a context that the Quran emerged. So, its immediate goal was to educate and civilize the local people and the only language which could be understood by the majority was Arabic. This has alrady been mentioed in surah 41:44:

    “Had We sent this as a Qur’an (in the language) other than Arabic, they would have said: Why are not its verses explained in detail? What! (a Book) not in Arabic and a Messenger an Arab?…”

    Regarding the recitation in Arabic, muslims usually consider this as a sign of unity. There is much hermeneutics involved though!

  • JahanShah

    So there is something miraculous about Arabic and languages CAN be miraculous! I think that is exactly what gave Arabs the supposed right to call other Muslims “Ajams” which means “stammerers”….

  • Sepideh

    Great text, This is the first time I’m thinking whether diversity of languages has got a divine source or not.I hope you later discuss it in detail, Because it seems to have both divine and human sources…