The concept of there being “70 languages” is found in various passages of the Talmud and Midrash. For example, the Talmud tells us that when G‑d gave the Torah on Sinai, His word was spoken in 70 languages,1 and Moses translated the Torah into 70 languages before he died.2

The 70 languages can even be inferred from the Bible itself.

After detailing the descendants of Noah, the Bible turns to the incident known as the Tower of Babel:

Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words … And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens …” And the L‑rd said, "Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language ... Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.” And the L‑rd scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city.3

These verses come immediately after the Torah gave a detailed list of exactly 70 descendants of Noah.

We can therefore infer that the Torah’s intention is to tell us that each of those 70 descendants of Noah then spawned a clan, each of which spoke its own language.4

G‑d and 70 Angels

The Midrash describes what happened as follows. When man built the Tower of Babel, G‑d called out to 70 ministering angels and said, “Let us confuse their tongues into 70 nations and 70 tongues, and let us cast lots.” They cast lots, with each angel representing one nation, and the lot of Abraham fell to G‑d.5

Already Speaking 70 Languages

In the Jerusalem Talmud, we find a puzzling disagreement between Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan regarding the builders of the tower. One says they were [already] speaking in 70 languages, and the other says they were speaking in the language of the [only] One of the World [G‑d].

Now, what is the meaning of the opinion that they were already speaking 70 languages? Doesn’t Scripture say that they spoke one language?

Commentaries explain6 that there was one common language that they all spoke to understand each other, but each nation already had its own language. After all, the verse states, “to their families, and their tongues,”7 indicating that they already had separate languages before the dispersion.

When they came together to build the great tower, they put aside their unique languages and spoke the one common language, the Holy Tongue (Hebrew). However, G‑d caused them to forget it, and as a result, they could no longer understand each other.

Most commentaries, however, explain that the words “the entire earth was of one language” are meant literally, and the words “to their families, and their tongues” refer to what eventually happened after these 70 nations dispersed.

What Happened to the 70 Languages?

The Talmud makes it clear that not all languages are actually part of the 70 “original languages.” Rather, over the course of time, new languages emerged by aggregating words borrowed from other languages as well as newly minted words.8

Over the years, people have attempted to identify specific languages and cultures with the names listed in Genesis.

Perhaps the most famous example is Ashkenaz, a descendant of Japheth,9 who became associated with the non-Jews residing in the area along the Rhine river in Western Germany and in Northern France.

In time, this name became associated with the Jews who settled in this land as well, and they and their descendants became known as Ashkenazim.

For the most part, the nations have become intermingled with each other. This is especially due to the great Assyrian Empire, which conquered many lands and had a policy of transferring the native population to a different country as a way to minimize the chances of the conquered people rebelling against them.10

Let us conclude with a prayer for the day when G‑d “will convert the peoples to a pure language that all of them call in the name of the L‑rd, to worship Him of one accord.”11 May it be today.