Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.

We use language every day. Speaking and writing, reading and hearing — all are instances of our use of language. Without language, we could not communicate.

That we use language every day indicates that language is important. Not just how we use language is important, but language itself is important. Its importance is that by it we have fellowship with God and with fellow saints, and by it we manifest our separation from the ungodly and the powers of darkness. Or, to rephrase this last sentence with distinctly Reformed terminology, the importance of language is that it is one way in which we live both covenantally and antithetically.

Understanding that this is the importance of language, we must be concerned with how we use language. We must use it to defend the truth and oppose the lie. We must use it to show love for God and our neighbor. We must use it to worship God as He has commanded us in His Word, in obedience to the second and third commandments. We must use it to defend our neighbor’s reputation, in obedience to the ninth commandment. In fact, the keeping of every commandment of God’s law will in some way involve the proper use of language.

If language is a part of our everyday life, if it is important, and if we must be concerned with how we use it, then we should have a Reformed view of what language is. The purpose of this series of articles is to set forth the foundation for such a view. I say the “foundation” of such a view because much more can be said about a Reformed view of language than will be said in these articles.

The Reformed view of language is that it is the gift of God to the human race, and that this gift can be properly used (covenantally and antithetically) by those for whom Christ died.

In the first two articles I will answer the question, “From where did language come?” We will see that it came from God.

Two general remarks are in order at the outset.

First, by the word “language” I mean the manner in which we express our thoughts so that others know and understand those thoughts. Language is the means of communication. It does not matter whether this communication takes place by speech, by writing, or by sign language.

Second, if this is what language is, then only rational, moral beings can use it. The use of language to express thoughts in an understandable way requires that both the one communicating and the one to whom the communication is directed be rational, moral beings. God is, of course, a rational, moral being; He can communicate. So can angels and men. However, animals do not. The “moo” of a cow and the “neigh” of a horse are not language, because they do not express the intelligent thoughts of rational, moral creatures.

From where did men get the ability to express their thoughts to each other? The answer is that language is a created gift given to us from God.

We must believe that language is a created gift from God. There is no creed, or article of our faith, which says in so many words that God created language and gave it to us. But this fact is implied in our confession when we say, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”

Linguists have offered many theories which do not proceed from this starting point that God is the creator and giver of language. Each of these theories the Reformed person must reject.

One such theory is that language has always existed. One cannot determine an origin of language; it has no origin. Man simply discovered language. Holding to this theory, A.W. Schlegel said: “We do not view the origin of language as something that can be placed at a particular point in time; rather we consider it in the sense in which language always arises….”1 Perhaps this last statement is not clearly understood. The idea is that “language lives and acts by its own independent rules and dynamics, almost as though language would exist even if there were no speakers of it.”2 Language is above time and space, as it were. It did not evolve, and was not created; it is simply there.

A second theory is that language evolved. This view has been widely held since its development in the 1860s, after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.3 One writer says:

Unfortunately, the real origins of language are as completely unknown as its evolution preceding the last four or five millennia. Assuming we can reject the idea that language was a gift of the gods, we have to ask how it was possible for a hominid that presumably communicated not too much differently from our present primate relatives to evolve into a creature who can do what you and I are now doing.4

The writer goes on to speak of the biological differences between man and ape which allowed for human language to evolve from the communication system which apes use. Language as we have it is a product of evolution from lower forms of “communication,” according to this view; and these lower forms of “communication” are animal sounds.

A third theory is that language is an invention and creation of man. To say that it was an invention does not mean that language was invented all at once. Rather, it means that the invention of language took place over a period of time, and in various stages. This invention came about when men realized the need to live with each other in a community, and therefore the need to communicate with each other. This theory was held more widely before Darwin’s book was published than after, but some still hold to this theory today.5

The three theories mentioned above are very broad. Within the broad lines of these theories are many others.6 Those who promote such theories defend them against the view that language is of divine origin, created by God. One man gives three reasons for not believing that God created language: “the large number of different languages, the gradual change to which all languages seem subject, and the fact that children do not inherit their language.”7 Other arguments against the divine origin of language could be listed in addition to these three, but I will not spend any more time on this aspect of the subject. The point is that those who set forth the above mentioned theories of language feel compelled to explain why they think that language could not have been created by God. That God might have created language is simply not an option to them.

Our fundamental evaluation of these theories is that they do not proceed from a standpoint of faith in the revealed Word of God. They are instances of unbelief. They deny that language is a created gift of God. They deny the need for God at all. They imply that man is sufficiently able to care for himself without God’s help. If man does not need God, then he does not need to fellowship with God through language! He does not need to pray to God, sing to God, or worship God! Furthermore, if man does not need God but nevertheless desires to pray, sing, or worship anyway, then man does so on man’s own terms and in man’s manner. Man approaches God through language, which man has invented or discovered. Such worship would not be pleasing to God. It would not be according to God’s command (indeed it would ignore God’s command), and it would be the worship of a god whom man has invented, not Jehovah who reveals Himself in His Word.

Furthermore, because such theories are instances of unbelief, they do two things. First, they attempt to prove scientifically what is outside the scope of science. As Arthur C. Constance says, in answering the question “Who taught Adam to speak?”: “It may be stated simply, then, that scientifically the question is beyond our reach. About all that scientific investigations can do is to demonstrate what cannot be the origin.”8 Second, they deny God’s revelation, which is the only possible source for answering the question of the origin of language. If science is ruled out as a source for finding the answer to this question, then revelation is the only other source to which we can turn.

Revelation tells us that language is God’s gift, and God’s creation. In the next article we will see how revelation shows us that.

1A.W. Schlegel, quoted in James H. Stam, Inquiries into the Origin of Language: the Fate of a Question, New York (Harper and Row, 1976), pages 244, 245.

2Stam, op. cit., page 185. 

3Ibid., pages 244, 245.

4Joseph M. Williams, Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History, New York (The Free Press, 1975), page 12.

5G. A. Wells, The Origin of Language, LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1987.

6For a more complete discussion, cf. G. Revesz, The Origins and Prehistory of Language, translated from the German by J. Butler, New York (Philosophical Library, 1956), pages 17-87.

7Wells, op. cit., page 7.

8Arthur C. Constance, “Who Taught Adam to Speak?” The Doorway Papers, vol. 2: “Genesis and Early Man,” Grand Rapids (Zondervan, 1975), page 254.