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.
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
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
Let us consider the genesis of the Jewish ideas about language, in its
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.
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.
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”.
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”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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,
or are different peoples different species?
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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).
See, for instance, Scholem.
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.
In 2:19, above quoted.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
The story of this shift in the Western
viewpoint is ably told in Foucault’s Les
mots et les choses.
See Akmajian, et al.
Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Also,
Akmajian, et al.
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.
Pp. 26, 36, 44. See also Mitchell, pp. 31-35.
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.
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.
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.
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.