This paper was originally presented by a Red Village Church member to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Systematic Theology II course.
The Historicity of the Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel is a well-known story about human pride and the confusion of languages. Before the Enlightenment (1560-1780), the dominant worldview in the West was Christianity and therefore the mainstream view of the Bible was that its accounts of events like the Tower of Babel are historically accurate. Starting in the Enlightenment, the authority of the Bible was challenged, and the historicity of the Tower of Babel and other biblical accounts came into question. In our current day, mainstream scholarship entirely rejects the Genesis account of the confusion of languages as impossible because it conflicts with what are considered well-established facts about the history and evolution of languages.
This paper will review the evidence from the Bible and archeology in order to argue that it is not only possible but reasonable to believe that Genesis 11 is an accurate account of a real event in history – an account that bears witness to one of the great acts of the God of the universe.
The Tower of Babel Passage and its Context
The account of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is a relatively short passage consisting of the first nine verses of Genesis chapter 11. The text is as follows in the NIV translation:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
According to the plain meaning of this passage, at one point all humans spoke the same language, and then people settled in the land of Shinar and decided to make a name for themselves by building a tall tower. God frustrated their construction plans by confusing their languages, and from that place they scattered over the world with diverse languages. This passage is surrounded by two genealogies. The Tower of Babel account and the two genealogies that surround it serve as a transitional section between the account of Noah’s Flood in chapters 6 through 9 and the account of Abram’s life from 11:27 onward.
The genealogy in Chapter 10 lists 70 of Noah’s descendants in chapter 10, each of whom became the progenitor of a major people group. The genealogy includes some parenthetical information as well. When Peleg is mentioned in Genesis 10:25, it states that the meaning of Peleg’s name is division, because it was during his lifetime that the world was divided into different language groups. Historically, efforts were made to trace the lineages of all peoples on earth to one of these 70 people groups. However, it is likely that the genealogy in Chapter 10 is a partial list, possibly showing only the names of people groups known to the original Israelite audience of the Torah and leaving out people groups that had migrated to far away places by the time the Torah was written.
The genealogy that comes after the Tower of Babel passage is the specific line of descendants from Noah’s son Shem down to Abram. It has been suggested that the genealogy in chapter 11 is not an exhaustive list of Abram’s ancestors, but rather a selective list of names with gaps in between of indeterminate length. There is precedent for this kind of genealogy in the Bible in the genealogy in Matthew chapter 1, which has Jesus’s ancestors organized in three sets of 14 ancestors each. Comparing this to other genealogies in the Bible, the gaps in Matthew 1’s genealogy are evident. However, the genealogy in Genesis 11 is different from all other Biblical genealogies (other than the one from Adam to Noah in Genesis 5) in that it mentions how long each father lived as well as how old he was when his son was born–literally, when he “begat” his son. So even if the term translated “begat” in these verses implies an ancestor relation rather than direct fatherhood, it still can only mean that this ancestor was the specified age when the next recorded descendant was born. Therefore, the genealogy in the second half of Genesis 11 is a useful record for determining the date of the Tower of Babel event.
Identifying the Date and Location of the Tower of Babel
Various attempts have been made to determine the approximate date of the Tower of Babel event and to identify the archaeological remains of the Tower of Babel. Identifying the correct location depends on an assessment of the Biblical data concerning both the time period and the location of Babel.
Creating a timeline of events starting with the raid of King Shishak of Egypt
As stated above, Genesis 10:25 suggests that the Tower of Babel event occurred during Peleg’s lifetime. This means the Tower of Babel event in Genesis 11:1-9 most likely occurred toward the beginning of his life, since Peleg most likely was given this name as a young child. However, finding the precise date of Peleg’s birth is not an easy task. Among Christians who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, there is a range of possible dates for the Tower of Babel. This is due to a few issues of interpretation and some variation in manuscripts of some important dates given in the Bible.
The earliest event recorded in the Bible that can be identified with a precise date in history is the raid of Shishak king of Egypt, which is mentioned in 2 Chronicles 12:2. This Shishak has been identified as Shoshenq I, the pharaoh who led a successful campaign in the land of Canaan around 925 BC. Since this event is dated to the 5th year of King Rehoboam’s reign in 2 Chronicles 12:2, this provides a basis point from which other dates can be calculated, and a chain of relative dates can be constructed from this point all the way back to Adam.
Issues of interpretation and choosing between textual variants
Starting with Shishak’s raid and working backwards, an approximate date of 966 BC can be calculated for the building of Solomon’s temple, which 1 Kings 6:1 says happened in the 4th year of King Solomon’s reign. That verse also says the temple was built 480 years after the Israelites left Egypt, so that would make the time of the Exodus around 1446 BC. However, Biblical scholars differ on the interpretation of 1 Kings 6:1, with some interpreting it to mean a literal 480 years and others interpreting it as a figurative number (12 sets of 40), meaning a very long but unspecified amount of time. Proponents of this interpretation typically propose Rameses II as the pharaoh of the Exodus, since his firstborn son did not succeed him as pharaoh, therefore matching the account of pharaoh’s firstborn son’s death in Exodus 12:29. This interpretation would put the time of the Exodus somewhere around the middle of the 13th century BC.
Besides this issue of interpretation, there are a few important textual variants that affect the dating of events prior to the Exodus. The differences mainly appear between the three main textual traditions of the Torah: the Masoretic Text (abbreviated MT), the Greek translation, called the Septuagint (also known as the LXX), and the Samaritan Pentateuch (abbreviated SP).
The first textual variation is in Exodus 12:40, where the MT says that the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt, while the LXX and SP traditions both say that the 430 years were spent in both Egypt and Canaan. The most common interpretation of the “Egypt and Canaan” variant is that they spent 215 years in Egypt and the remaining 215 years reflect the time of the Patriarchs in Canaan starting when Abram was 75 years old.
Additionally, there are differences between the three textual traditions in the numbers of years between generations in the genealogy of Genesis 11. In the LXX and SP traditions, the ages of six patriarchs (Arphaxad, Salah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, and Serug) mentioned in Genesis 11 were recorded as being 100 years older when the next generation was born as compared to the MT, and one patriarch (Nahor) was listed as 50 years older. This gives a total time difference of 750 years in the time between the Flood to Abram between textual traditions.
Besides these textual variants, some LXX manuscripts also record an additional generation in 11:12 (Cainan, son of Arphaxad), which would add an additional 130 years to the timeline. This additional generation is explicitly attested in Luke 3:36 and the book of Jubilees, a 2nd Century BC pseudepigraphic work. The additional 130-year generation of Cainan was also apparently considered authentic by the Jewish writer Demetrius the Chronographer in the 3rd Century BC. He calculated the time “from the deluge until Jacob’s coming into Egypt” as being 1360 years, a calculation that only makes sense if he was using the LXX record with the extra 130-year Cainan generation.
Finally, there is some uncertainty surrounding Terah’s age when Abram was born, since Genesis 11:26 says that Terah’s three sons (including Abram) were born after he was 70 years old. Some have interpreted this to mean Abram was born when Terah was 70, but the present author’s position is that his age was 130 at Abram’s birth. The 130 figure is based on Stephen’s statement in Acts 7:4 that Abram stayed in Haran until his father died. Since Genesis 11:32 states that his father Terah died at age 205, and Genesis 12:4 states that Abram left Haran at age 75, Terah’s age at Abram’s birth would be 205 minus 75, which equals 130.
Depending on one’s choice between these textual variants and interpretations of relevant verses, the possible date of Noah’s Flood could be calculated as early as 3298 BC and as late as 2047 BC, and the birth of Peleg (and therefore the approximate date of the Tower of Babel event) can be calculated between 2767 BC and 1946 BC. See Table 1 for a side-by-side comparison of the timeline according to the MT, LXX, and SP, as well as a calculation using the shortest possible timeline and the longest possible timeline considering all the textual variants and alternate interpretations.
Table 1. Possible dates of Biblical events depending on variations in textual traditions and interpretations
|Elapsed time||Approx. date (BC)|
|The Flood||Gen. 11:10||2||2||2||2518||3083||2953||2047||3298|
|Arphaxad born||Gen. 11:12||35||135||135||2516||3081||2951||2045||3296|
|Cainan born||Gen. 11:13||0||130||0||2946||2010||3161|
|Shelah born||Gen. 11:14||30||130||130||2481||2816||2816||2010||3031|
|Eber born||Gen. 11:16||34||134||134||2451||2686||2686||1980||2901|
|Peleg born||Gen. 11:18||30||130||130||2417||2552||2552||1946||2767|
|Reu born||Gen. 11:20||32||132||132||2387||2422||2422||1916||2637|
|Serug born||Gen. 11:22||30||130||130||2355||2290||2290||1884||2505|
|Nahor born||Gen. 11:24||29||79||79||2325||2160||2160||1854||2375|
|Terah born||Gen. 11:26,32,|
12:4, Acts 7:4
|Abram born||Gen. 21:5||100||100||100||2166||1951||1951||1755||2166|
|Isaac born||Gen. 25:26||60||60||60||2066||1851||1851||1655||2066|
|Jacob born||Gen. 47:9||130||130||130||2006||1791||1791||1595||2006|
|Move to Egypt||Ex. 12:40||430||215||215||1876||1661||1661||1465||1876|
|The Exodus||1 Kings 6:1||284||480||480||480||1446||1446||1446||1250||1446|
|1 Kings 6:1,|
1 Kings 11:42
|Shishak’s raid||2 Chr 12:2||925||925||925||925||925|
Identifying the site of the Tower of Babel
Genesis 11:2 locates the Tower of Babel in the “land of Shinar.” The Hebrew word translated “Shinar” in the Bible is Šīnʿār, which is equivalent to the ancient Egyptian word Sngr, which refers to southern Mesopotamia, and may be a variant of the Akkadian term Šumer – that is, the ancient Sumerian civilization. The Hebrew word ḇâḇel, translated “Babel” in Genesis 11:9 is also used elsewhere in the Bible as referring to the city and/or kingdom of Babylon. This has led many to identify the Tower of Babel as located in Babylon, the ancient city south of present-day Baghdad.
However, as archeologist Dr. Douglas Petrovich points out, if the Tower of Babel event was a real event that took place, it must have taken place in the pre-historic period since there is no evidence of a universal human language by the time of the historical period (i.e., by the time when writing was invented). And while the precise dating of certain time periods in the archeological record can be debated, the order and existence of those distinct time periods is not disputable. Since there is no archeological evidence of significant structures in ancient city of Babylon dating to the time before the advent of writing, this cannot be the site of the Tower of Babel event. However, the name “Babel” or “Babylon” (Bābilim in Akkadian) was used as the name of several cities in southern Mesopotamia, not just the most famous one was the capital of the Babylonian Empire. It was also used to refer to the ancient cities of Arbela, Assur, Borsippa, Eridu, Kish, Kullab, Kuara, Kalhu and Nineveh.
Many Creationists have developed models of how to interpret the evidence using the MT as the authoritative textual tradition for constructing the timeline of events. In this model, the Tower of Babel occurs around 100 years after the Flood. Habermehl argues against the validity of the longer timeline in the LXX variant of Genesis 11 on the basis that Neanderthals have been found in widespread places, indicating that the Neanderthals must have been one of the family groups that spread out from the Tower of Babel. Habermehl apparently makes this argument on the assumption that all humans were present in Babel at the time of the confusion of languages and that there were no mass dispersions of humans before this event.
Petrovich, however, argues that while it is very common to interpret Genesis 11:1-2 as saying that all humans converged in one place, the text does not explicitly say this, so it is not necessary to constrain the reconstruction of history based on this interpretation. Besides this unnecessary assumption, there is another problem with using the MT chronology for dating Babel. If the dispersion of Neanderthals occurred after the tower of Babel event, as Habermehl suggests, this would mean that the earliest post-Flood peoples constructed cities and large structures (or at least the one city, Babel, and its tower). This is not too a difficult case to make from Scripture since Noah and his sons had the ability to construct a very large boat. However, it does not appear to fit with the archeological record of the earliest monolithic structures and cities, which significantly post-date the time of the Neanderthals.
Petrovich proposes following the longer chronology for the Tower of Babel represented by the LXX and SP variants of Genesis 11 (although he has not publicly specified his position on the extra Cainan generation in the LXX). Based on archeological evidence in the ancient Near East, Petrovich identifies two major dispersions of people from southern Mesopotamia prior to the advent of writing, making them the candidates for the post-Babel dispersion. He argues that the most likely of these two candidates is the second dispersion, the Uruk Expansion during the Late Uruk Period (dated to around 3400 BC in the conventional paradigm), because this dispersion was rapid and was characterized by violence and segregated living. In Petrovich’s model, the most likely site for the Tower of Babel is in the city of Eridu (one of the cities that was called “Babel” in southern Mesopotamia). He bases this identification on evidence that the foundation of Temple I, a very large ziggurat in that city, was initially built and abandoned during the Uruk Expansion. Further research is needed to confirm Petrovich’s identification of the post-Babel dispersion and the time period and site of the Tower of Babel, and his book on the subject is yet to be officially published as of the writing of this paper.
Since the earliest possible dating of the Tower of Babel according to the Biblical chronology is approximately 2767 BC, more research is needed to investigate how to harmonize the Biblical chronology with the conventional archeological chronology that dates the Late Uruk Period to around 3400 BC. However, as mentioned above, the precise dating of distinct time periods in the archeological record, especially in the distant past, is notoriously difficult and is open to debate. It is reasonable to expect that with additional archeological research, the conventional archeological chronology may become condensed such that the time of the Uruk Expansion lines up with the Tower of Babel event.
Challenges to the Historicity of the Tower of Babel
Very few present-day scholars directly challenge the historicity of the Tower of Babel narrative of Genesis 11 with specific arguments and supporting evidence. Rather, the Tower of Babel narrative is simply assumed to be non-historic Jewish mythology. This is evidently because the present-day scholarly community evaluates evidence using a naturalistic worldview that automatically rejects any claim of action by a supernatural being. Since the Tower of Babel narrative clearly attributes the creation of diverse human language groups to God, the narrative is assumed to be a fabricated legend.
On the surface, this naturalistic perspective appears to provide a useful neutral point of view from which to discuss ideas in a pluralistic society. However, it is important to remember that naturalism, like other ideologies, makes metaphysical assumptions that are not falsifiable. Furthermore, while it may be the dominant perspective reflected in scholarly literature, naturalism’s rejection of everything supernatural does not reflect the majority opinion of people in the world today, and certainly not people throughout history. For these reasons, it is not justifiable to reject the historicity of the Tower of Babel simply on the basis of its mention of divine action.
Speculations on the inspiration for the Tower of Babel narrative
Various speculations have been made as to the original inspiration for the story. One such speculated source of inspiration is Etemenanki, the impressively large ziggurat (tower) in the city of Babylon in the Neo-Babylonian Empire, or one of the other large ziggurats in the region. Harris suggests that the ruling classes of Judah may have invented the Tower of Babel legend and inserted it into the book of Genesis during captivity in Babylon. However, it is not necessary to accept this speculation as true since the Babylon of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was not the only city called by the name “Babel” in ancient times, as established above.
Another speculated source of inspiration for the Tower of Babel “legend” is the ancient text known as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. This Sumerian epic has a line that attributes the confusion of languages to the Sumerian god Enki:
At such a time, may the lands of Cubur and Hamazi, the many-tongued, and Sumer, the great mountain of the me of magnificence, and Akkad, the land possessing all that is befitting, and the Martu land, resting in security — the whole universe, the well-guarded people — may they all address Enlil together in a single language! For at that time, for the ambitious lords, for the ambitious princes, for the ambitious kings, Enki, for the ambitious lords, for the ambitious princes, for the ambitious kings, for the ambitious lords, for the ambitious princes, for the ambitious kings – Enki, the lord of abundance and of steadfast decisions, the wise and knowing lord of the Land, the expert of the gods, chosen for wisdom, the lord of Eridug, shall change the speech in their mouths, as many as he had placed there, and so the speech of mankind is truly one.
Since Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta may have been available in one form or other to the authors or editors of the Bible, it is reasonable to speculate that the Tower of Babel story may have been influenced by it. However, it is not reasonable to conclude that the event itself could not have happened simply on the basis that the narrative in Genesis 11 has similarities to earlier literature. On the contrary, if the Tower of Babel event is a real event that occurred in the past, it is reasonable to expect variations of the story to appear in the literature of other ancient peoples. So rather than being evidence against the historicity of Babel, it is actually evidence supporting its historicity. Furthermore, the mention of Enki as being the lord of Eridug (i.e. Eridu) is further evidence supporting Petrovich’s specific identification of Eridu as the site of the Tower of Babel.
The challenge on the basis of historical linguistics and language change
One of the few present-day scholars who directly challenge the historicity of the Tower of Babel and the account of the confusion of tongues in Genesis 11 is Robert Pennock. In his book, Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, he seeks to address the claims of Creationists, who, according to Pennock, “attack not just biology, but also linguistics and almost every other science as well.” Pennock’s main argument against the historicity of Genesis 11 is that it conflicts with the well-established facts that languages evolve from one another and that the ability for humans to use language is derived from evolutionary processes. In support of this argument, he gives an example using the changes over time in the English language as reflected in differing translations of the Bible (a “proof” that he says should be “especially persuasive to creationists”). He also highlights the work of paleolinguistics, the study that seeks to create a kind of “family tree” to identify the common ancestors of language families such as the Indo-European language family, arguing that it shows a general pattern of “evolutionary transformation from common linguistic ancestors.”
It should go without saying that no serious Creationist would argue that language change does not occur. Rather, the Creationist position is that languages were changed at the Tower of Babel, and languages have continued to change ever since. For this reason, Pennock’s main argumentation on the basis of languages evolving from each other constitutes a straw-man argument, that is, arguing against something that the opponent isn’t actually claiming. In fact, the existence of language change itself is evident within the text of the Bible, in narratives such as Judges 12:5–6, which records an example of the difference between the dialect of the Ephraimites, who pronounced the word “shibboleth” as “sibboleth.”
In order to prove the evolutionary origin of human language, Pennock would need to demonstrate more than just the fact that languages change (a fact that is easily demonstrated). He would need to show that the tendency of language is to go from simple to complex. However, research on language change shows that while some languages die out and others change into new languages, there is not a discernible trend of languages becoming more or less advanced. In other words, all known human languages in the past and present share an inherent equality in that they are equally capable of expressing meaning. For this reason, Pennock is unjustified in citing language change as evidence of the evolutionary origin of language.
Furthermore, the existence of language families that all derive from a common ancestor is not a problem at all for Creationists who believe in the historicity of the Tower of Babel. In fact, if there were at least 70 family groups around the time of the Tower of Babel (and likely more if the genealogy in Genesis 10 is only a partial list), then one should expect there to be at least 70 language families, with each family group deriving from a single ancestor language created by God on the day of confusion. According to evolutionary theory, however, the expectation is that there should be only one language family, or at most a few.
In reality, there is no concrete evidence of a single ancestor of all the language families, or even just a few. According to the most recent work in historical linguistics, there are approximately 406 language families that show no evidence of common ancestry, although this number is expected to go up or down depending on further research and discoveries. This figure does not match the expectations of the evolutionary model, but it does fit the Creationist model, where 70 or more people groups received unique languages at the time of the Tower of Babel.
In this paper, I have argued that it is reasonable to believe in the historicity of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages as it is recorded in Genesis 11. After reviewing the Biblical chronology, the range of possible dates of the Tower of Babel event was determined to be between 2767 BC and 1946 BC. And after reviewing the proposed time periods and sites of Babel, Petrovich’s identification of the city of Eridu during the Uruk Expansion seems like the option that best fits the archeological and biblical data. While present day scholarship outright dismisses the possibility of divine action, people who believe in the God of the Bible are justified in believing that He is the ultimate Creator of humans, of human language, and of the vast diversity in human languages today.
 Pennock, Robert T., Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 175, https://archive.org/details/towerofbabelevid00penn/.
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