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Appendix 5.

The Hebrew Language.


            Logic and language are intimately bound up in Jewish thought. Interpretation of holy texts for the derivation of laws presupposes a profound acquaintance with the Hebrew language, in its every little detail; its spelling, its grammar, its etymologies, its every living nuance[1]. Judaism has for a very long time, if not from the outset, openly claimed a deep relation between (most) words and things, deeper than the common wisdom that words are all merely arbitrary labels, mentally attached to our ideas about things.


               To be sure, logicians nowadays have a sense that there is close bond between the phenomena of language and those of logic, but it is not quite clear to anyone why that should be. For thought seems to be possible without words; modern psychologists acknowledge the existence of subconscious, even unconscious, "thoughts". Certainly, the peculiarities of a language can occasionally force those who use it to think in patterns which are not logically necessary; and even though, in most cases, such distortions can fortunately be bypassed by careful rephrasing (or parenthetical explanations and disclaimers), people do not always correct the effect, and cultural habits of thought may indeed emerge. But there may be still deeper structural forces at work, in the mind and its physiological supports, which shape both the thoughts and the language in which they are expressed, and in their variations produce different cultures.


            Let us consider the genesis of the Jewish ideas about language, in its main lines.

            First, within Jewish tradition. In the very first chapter of the Torah, which describes the Creation, we find the sentence (in verse 3): "And Gd said: let there be light, and there was light". Gd created by saying. In a sense, then, words were among the first creations, at least preceding the creation of light (and, similarly, other phenomena mentioned thereafter); and they were used as effective instruments for the creation of what they referred to[2]. And since the original report of these events, in the Torah, is in Hebrew: "Vayomer: yehi ohr", it may well be assumed that the language in which Gd spoke these words was the same.


               The Qabalah (the mystical tradition) drew on this evidence in the Torah, according to which words preceded other things, to justify its view of the Torah as antedating the material and spiritual Universe, and as having effectively served as its blueprint in the Maker's mind. We are taught: just as a human architect needs a plan before he can build, so divine acts are preceded by divine ideas[3].


            In the second chapter of the Torah, we are told (v. 19-20) that after the Lrd Gd formed the beasts of the field and fowl of the air, He "brought them unto the man to see (lirot) what he would call them; and whatsoever the man would call every living creature, that was to be the name thereof. And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field".[4] This report, taken alone, could be taken as a support for the theory of words as man-made conventions; but I have seen commentaries which interpret it more radically, in view of the preceding report concerning creation through words. Note that Adam is reported as, specifically, understanding Hebrew (e.g. Genesis 1:28) and speaking it (e.g. 2:23).

            According to some Jewish commentators, the first chapter teaches us that Hebrew words somehow reflect the essences of things; in that case, the second chapter teaches us that Adam was able to directly apprehend the names in things (what he would call them). The phrase "to see"[5] could be understood as simply referring to the Lrd Gd, observing the man's reactions, in the way of an act of quality control; in which event, the sentence "And the man gave names" would be explained as an affirmation of the efficacy of his perceptual/conceptual intuition of the essences: he uttered the correct names, and thereby confirmed his mental faculties. But the alternative commentary interprets "to see" with reference to the man, as seeing, in the sense of intuiting, the word-essences imbedded in objects (what philosophers would call the universals, plus a verbal component).

            These explanations suggest that words have, not only an audible and utterable sound, but also a visible shape; they have two aspects or components, which are metaphysically allied, rather than accidentally paired together. The sound and shape of words are, in that case, two expressions of an identical phenomenon.[6] We may find further Biblical confirmation of this concept in Exodus 20:15, "they saw the thunderings...," which Rashi interprets as meaning that the Children of Israel reached a cognitive level where they could see the visible aspect of sounds. The shapes in question, according to Jewish tradition, consist of Hebrew letters, in the very form found today in our Torah scrolls.


               Note well the claim by tradition that the beautiful so-called Ashuri script was the original form of Hebrew. Historians would rather consider as more ancient the somewhat different and more primitive-looking Hebrew alphabet, which archeology shows was popularly used in early times and which seems to have been the source of derivative Greek, Latin and Arabic alphabets. The characteristic answer of tradition is that the Ashuri style was esoteric, lost to the crowd but kept alive by a select few.[7]


            Furthermore, the Torah teaches us that, at the time of the Tower of Babel story, "the whole earth was of one language (lit. sfat, tongue) and of one speech (lit. devarim, words)" (11:1). The Torah narrative continues, concerning the children of men, "the Lrd said:... they have all one language"; and then, in view of people's misbehavior, he decided to "confound their language (sfat), that they may not understand (lit. yishme'u, hear) one another's speech (more precisely, sfat, i.e. language)" (11:6-7). This episode, together with what we mentioned previously, gave rise to the Jewish doctrine that all languages stemmed from Hebrew.


               Incidentally, "tongue" may refer to the physical and mental apparatus, the faculties, which make possible the articulation of "words"; this would explain why it is reported that people's tongues, rather than words, were confounded. Differences arose in the pronunciation of words by different human families, with the letters in words changing to others (like the Japanese saying "r" instead of "l" when they speak English), or being reshuffled, added or dropped; and eventually in the connotations and then denotations of words. However, empirically, differences such as those in accent seem to be largely acquired rather than hereditary, and evidently we were left with the power to learn each other's languages (and, in some cases, imitate each other's accents).[8]


            The Torah as a whole is of course a written document. But the first explicit mention of writing within the Torah seems to be in Exodus 17:14 (I have verified it in a concordance). The Lrd says to Moses: "Write (ktav) this for a memorial in the book (sefer)... I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." The text does not imply that this is the first time (it was in the 13th century BCE) that writing was ever used by men. Note that Moses already knew how to write (though he could conceivably have just been taught the art). Writing is again mentioned (24:4,7) in the context of Moses' writing of the "Book of Covenant" (which according to Ibn Ezra contained ch. 20-23 of Exodus); with regard to the first tables of the Law, written by the Lrd (24:12) Gd (31:18, 32:15-16); and so forth.

            However, Sforno interprets the word vayakam (arose, was made sure) in Genesis 23:17 as referring to a signed deed of purchase, suggesting that the first implicit use of writing in the Torah was at the time of Abraham[9]. In any case, the Zohar considers that calligraphy of the aleph-bet was known even earlier, to the first man, since Adam is reported in it to have even known that five of the Hebrew letters (kaf, mem, nun, peh, tsadee) have a different shape at the beginning and at the end of words; according to the same source this knowledge was lost, until the time of Abraham, who revived it "by inspiration".


               All the above ideas had a strong, long influence beyond Judaism, notably on Christian and European thought (and also, presumably, on Islamic and Arab thought). Philosophically, these ideas had an innate credibility which was hard to ignore: they explained the power of language to recapture 'reality' and its various but related expressions, in different human groups as well as across time following changes in perception. The ideas that languages had one origin, and that it was namely Hebrew, were accepted from the inception of the daughter religion until the Renaissance.

               Thereafter, gradually, with the birth and development of the branch of philosophy/science known as philology, the idea was viewed more and more critically[10]. More recently, the latter discipline has become known as linguistics, having come to include broader aims and methods, such as physiological, psychological, ethnological, sociological and historical studies[11].

               Allegedly, science adopted a less prejudiced and more empirical approach, which resulted in the fragmenting of human language into geographic/genetic clusters, known as families, each of which evolved from a presumed proto-language, such as Hamito-Semitic or Indo-European[12]. With regard to the origins of the alphabet, for their part, secular historians, like F.M. Cross Jr., on the basis of archaeological discoveries, acknowledge that the art of writing by means of an alphabet originated in the Near East, at the latest in the 17th century BCE (it did not reach Greece until over a millennium later, incidentally). They do not, however, all admit Hebrew script to have been the first[13].


               In fairness, whatever the true history of the alphabet, we must still keep in mind what historians teach us, that literacy arose well before its appearance. In other words, even if the alphabetic mode of writing was invented about during the time of the Patriarch Abraham, it still remains a fact that people were writing - using less sophisticated writing systems - before that time, for well over a millennium, and the genius this implies must be acknowledged. However if, as Jewish tradition suggests, the alphabet was merely revived at that time, having existed previously in a relatively widespread manner and then gone underground as the domain of a more restricted elite, then the idea of writing need not be attributed to the inventors of non-alphabetic systems, they merely invented specific shapes.

               Concerning the history, I refer to McEvedy[14]: Early writing was done by inscription on stone (this is known as epigraphy). The Sumerian so-called transitional script, involving pictograms (pictorial representations of concrete objects), ideograms (conveying a more abstract idea relating to the objects), phonograms (transferring the reader over to other objects with similar sounds in their names, as does the rebus), and determinatives (unpronounced signs serving to switch the reader to a subsidiary class or sound of object), 'was in existence at the end of the fourth millennium' (BCE). The Elamites and Egyptians came out with imitations (using other, distinct symbol collections) 'soon after 3000'; the not-yet deciphered Indus Valley script would appear likewise to be a development from the Sumerian transitional.

               The Sumerians eventually moved to a less pictorial script, consisting of wedge-shaped marks (impressed into clay tablets) and known as cuneiform. This method was adopted by Akkadians for their own language, 'in the second half of the third millennium', soon after by the Elamites (who abandoned their own transitional script), and much later, through the Assyrians, by the Hittites, Amorites and other peoples. The Egyptians starting with pictorial hieroglyphs (so-called because used predominantly by priests), developed a more cursive script known as hieratic, which they wrote with brush and ink on papyrus (without however giving up on hieroglyphic writing). McEvedy adds: 'the remarkable feature of the Egyptian script was that only the consonants were represented'.

               The cuneiform and hieroglyphic initially consisted of monosyllabic (e.g. 'mom') or even disyllabic (e.g. 'mother') symbols. By 'about the beginning of the sixteenth century', these were gradually replaced by open syllabaries, which being restricted to consonant-vowel syllables (e.g. 'ma'), reduced the number of symbols 'from hundreds to a mere eighty or so'. The Hittites and eteoCypriotes developed such scripts (perhaps based on the 'pseudo-hieroglyphs' of Byblos); and it is then thought that Minoan Linear-A script derived from that of the eteoCypriotes (though both are unreadable still, and thought to be open syllabaries only 'based on the number of signs they employ'), and the Achaeans' Linear-B from the Minoans. These kinds of scripts remained in use for centuries.

               The consonantal alphabet, 'a Syro-Palestinian invention', seems to have appeared thereafter; this further reduced to about twenty the number of signs symbolizing consonants without vowels (e.g. 'm'). However, it may be, because 'there are consonantal alphabets both in cuneiform (Ugaritic script) and in a cursive based on Egyptian hieroglyphs (early Canaanite and Sinai script)' and 'some examples of early Canaanite' are estimated as dating from 'as far back as the eighteenth century', that the evolutionary sequence was the reverse and 'the open syllabary was in fact an expanded version of the consonantal alphabet for languages in which vowels were unpredictable' (unlike Semitic languages 'in which vowels occur in regular relation to the consonants'). By the ninth century, 'the early Canaanite has evolved into the north Semitic and split into the Phoenician (with a distinct variant for Hebrew) and the Aramaic' scripts, and separately into the South Arabian script.


            Now, in my view, there is nothing inherently unreasonable in the Biblical thesis that one language and one alphabet (these are separate issues, of course) are at the root of all others. The idea is not obvious or inevitable. One could equally have supposed, and many ancients no doubt did so and many scholars today would tend to, that languages arose spontaneously and differently in diverse geographical locations; such a supposition is all the more easy with regard to alphabets. The issue is conceptually very similar, and somewhat allied, to the issue of human origins: are we all descended from common ancestors, as the Torah story of Adam and Eve affirms[15], or are different peoples different species?[16]

            With regard to human origins, I imagine that it would be statistically well-nigh inconceivable that the various peoples arose/evolved in the world independently of each other, and yet accidentally ended-up with such overwhelmingly similar physiologies. With regard to the origins of language and alphabet, admittedly, the etymological relationships are not all immediately manifest and considerable study is required, but in any case the issue can and must be decided by the scientific method with reference to the evidence.


               Note that if the idea of a root language was, as some imply, merely a Jewish hypothesis (rather than Divinely revealed), it was by no means ingenuous, but truly ingenious. The claim reflected Jewish universalism, rather than a racist/nationalist particularism, because even though the original language was supposed to have been Hebrew, Judaism considers the Jewish people to have arisen quite late in world history, more than a century after the Confusion of Tongues incident[17]. Thus, the Jewish people have only considered themselves to be the trustees of the most ancient language and alphabet, not the inventors thereof.


            It should also be clear that the thesis that there is one root language is not contrary to the current belief in proto-languages for language families (Indo-European, etc.), since it is conceivable that the proto-languages themselves have a common parent. If human groups had a common parentage, then their languages probably had a common parentage, reflecting the means of thought and communication of the very first human group[18]. The question, of course, remains: which parent? It may or not be Hebrew, or a Hebrew-like ancestor. Just as, say, Indo-European was projected by extrapolation from certain known languages (English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc.), with reference to their common properties and certain regularities in their differences (see for instance, Grimm's Law), so correspondences between proto-languages may be sought, and might well be found in Hebrew.


               It should be noted in passing that there is so far no archeological evidence of the actual existence of proto-languages in some distant past (at least, not in the case of Indo-European); which is not surprising, since they are not assumed to have been written languages. Their existence is a scientific hypothesis, which so far seems justified. Furthermore, note, the similarities and differences, on the basis of which languages are grouped into families and distinguished from others, concern not simply vocabulary, but grammar too (e.g. inflection).


            In conclusion, efforts being made to find a common root are in no way illegitimate or absurd, but certainly worthy of consideration. Especially worthy of mention, in this context, is the work of Mozeson of Yeshiva University. Not content to merely affirm in general terms, with a few examples, the Hebrew sources of (for example) the English language, as others had done before him[19], this author indefatigably set about constructing a detailed etymological dictionary, with umpteen examples, and identified many regularities in the transition from one language to the other.

            Abehsera adopted a less doctrinaire, more phenomenological approach, and perhaps ranged a bit more widely into various languages (though never in as much detail). Instead of taking at the outset the radical position that Hebrew was the root of all other languages (and while not denying that doctrine), he proposed a method: that two dictionaries be constructed, one of all the homonyms (words which are similar, but may have different meanings), and one of all the synonyms (words which are different, but have the same meaning); and this, not only for each language, but for all languages lumped together. He went on to describe, with examples, the kinds of associations which may generate homonyms and synonyms, and gave interesting suggestions concerning their psychological undercurrents.


               A combination of the approaches of Mozeson and Abehsera would seem best, because the former seems to have a more thorough technical experience, while the latter comes with more systematic strategies. It is clear that the proposed collections of homonyms and synonyms (and eventually antonyms, one might add) should not be naive, but take account of Grimm's Law type of changes, referring principally to consonants, considering their substitutions, reorderings, additions and subtractions. Furthermore, vocabulary is not all of language, but grammatical construction must be taken into account. The programme may seem grandiose, but perhaps today with the use of computers such an effort becomes conceivable.


            Another work worth mentioning in the same context is Biberfeld's Universal Jewish History. This is an older work, written and published in four volumes over a period of nearly forty years. It is unfortunately rather badly written, in my opinion, being crammed with repetitive notes; but one would wish someone would rewrite it briefly and to the point, and make its message available to the general public and to eventual researchers. Its purpose was to demonstrate that the Jewish traditions about language as such, and specifically written language (as well as similar traditions concerning the Noachide roots of the legal systems of the Nations), are compatible with available concrete archaeological evidence, as much as if not more so than some of the theses proposed by modern scholars. This is an issue which, of course, must always be addressed.


Back to Chapter 9.

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[1]              To a large extent, our knowledge of Hebrew is only acquired through analysis of its use in the Torah itself, for instance by medieval Spanish-Jewish grammarians; but Hebrew has also remained a living language in restricted circles through the centuries of our dispersion, until its Zionist revival in modern times.

[2]              The idea that the world was created through words is found also, seemingly independently, in Indian philosophy. "Sound" vibrations are there considered the building blocks and ultimate essences of matter. Knowing since Newtonian physics that sound is in fact transmitted by the vibrations of atoms, and is absent in a vacuum, this Indian notion would seem discredited or at least in need of modification. However, the Indian idea is probably based on meditative experiences, which means that it refers to mental sound, i.e. the sound proper inside the head after the ear-drums have done their work. Such sound can also be produced by the imagination, and therefore may conceivably antedate matter. The Christian Bible begins with the sentence "In the beginning was the Word..." (John 1,1), which is regarded as derived from Judaism and Greek Stoicism, via the 'Logos' concept Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE-c. 50 CE).

[3]              See, for instance, Scholem.

[4]              Note however that plants and minerals are not mentioned. As I recall, the reason for this given by commentators, no doubt on the basis of the rest of verse 20, i.e. "but for Adam there was not found a help meet for him," is that Adam was, as he named things, considering their potential as mates. While the animal world could be imagined as fit for that role, the vegetal and mineral could obviously not.

[5]              In 2:19, above quoted.

[6]              I seem to recall books on Jewish mysticism explaining the phenomenon in question as a fundamental vibration of some sort. Whether these are relatively recent, and products of Christian and ultimately Oriental influences, or original Jewish ideas, I do not know. The question requires much more study than I have put into it. It is interesting that the Heb. word devarim may mean "things" or "words".

[7]              I found this argument in Munk, but it is also taught orally in some yeshivot. Lewittes just says that the script used for Torah scrolls in Moses' time was the ancient Canaanite, and that it was Ezra who had it replaced by the Assyrian script current in his own days (p. 43). The Talmudic references given are Sanhedrin 21b and J.T. Megillah 1:11. The insistence of orthodox commentators that the script used today is the original is needed to justify certain mystical interpretations of the shape of letters, and perhaps also some of the strict laws relating to writing of Torah scrolls in force today; but from a secular point of view the hypothesis of changes of script seems more credible. It should be pointed out, in support of the latter, that scripts used for Torah scrolls have demonstrably varied in recent centuries and from place to place: even today, Sephardim and Ashkenazim use different styles; for this, see the Enc. Jud.

[8]              Similarly, the graphical differences, which developed later, between the scripts of different language groups, might reflect varying artistic abilities (sensory-motor faculties) in the various human families, as well as environmentally-induced esthetic responses.

[9]              See Cohen, p. 121. Though I did look into Sforno's actual commentary, and asked many people, I still do not understand today the justification of this inference.

[10]            The story of this shift in the Western viewpoint is ably told in Foucault's Les mots et les choses.

[11]            See Akmajian, et al.

[12]            See The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Also, Akmajian, et al.

[13]            See Horowitz. Or better still, the Encyclopaedia Judaica article 'Alphabet, Hebrew'. I perceive in the insistent attribution of the invention of the alphabet to the Phoenicians, on the basis of Greek reports that they learnt it from them, an unfair prejudice, concealing some anti-Jewish tendencies. I mean, the early literary heritage of Jews (the Torah) substantiates the latter's strong affinity to written language; while Phoenicians were but a trading and pirating people, hardly likely to develop such a refined tool.

[14]            Pp. 26, 36, 44. See also Mitchell, pp. 31-35.

[15]            Note in passing that any calculations by science of population growth, or of possibilities of genetic variation, to test Biblical claims, would have to proceed not from Adam time but from the Deluge, since at that point there were solitary pairs (or seven pairs in some cases, but the extras may have been sacrificed according to tradition) of land animals and birds (though not of fish) and a limited number of human beings, namely Noach and his family.

[16]            In this context, comes to mind The Urantia Book (anonymous; I lack the publishing information, but I would place it, on the basis of its ideas and the cultural context in which it made its appearance, North American New Age, as having been written and published probably by ex-Catholics in the 1960's or 1970's). I actually read this book many years ago, but about all that remains of it in my mind is its seeming radical division of mankind into unrelated racial groups.

[17]            The patriarch Jacob was born in 2108 After Creation; the Confusion of Tongues occurred 112 years earlier in 1996 AC, according to Rabbinic inferences from the Torah text itself.

[18]            It is very significant, in this context, that the reconstructed proto-languages are not considered as having been more primitive than today's languages, e.g. consisting of a number of grunts, whistles and groans, or at least of very simple words and constructions, but rather they emerge as fully expressive verbal vehicles (see Akmajian, et al, p. 354). One might argue that this is due to proto-languages being mere imaginary averages of known languages; but it militates for the Biblical notion that early man was able to think and communicate fully.

[19]            e.g. Glazerson.



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