Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Hebrew Roots of the English Language

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Hebrew Roots of the English Language

Article excerpt

was there ever a single original language that was spoken by all of the earth's inhabitants? According to the well-known story of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11: 1-9, the answer, of course, is yes. For, once upon a time, "All the earth had the same language and the same words" (v. 1); but as punishment for mankind's presumption in trying to build "a city and a tower with its top in the sky" (v.4) - a tower from which to wage war on God, one midrash says, or a tower built to shore up the firmament and thereby prevent another flood, says another midrash - "the Lord confounded the speech of - the whole earth" and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth" (v.9). Though the Bible does not say so explicitly, the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of this episode in Genesis has it that the Ursprache of mankind at Babel was Hebrew. Thus, Rashi comments on Genesis 11:1 that "safa ehat" (one, i.e., the same language) refers to lashon hakodesh (the holy language, i.e., Hebrew). And Augustine writes in The City of God: ". . . for there was only one language before the Flood ... so, also, when the nations received the merited punishment for their impious presumption and were divided by diversity of languages ... even then there existed one family, the family of Heber, in which the language which was formerly that of all mankind could continue ... This explains why this language was thenceforward called Hebrew" (Book XVI, Chapter 11 [Penguin ed.], pp. 667-68.)

A story told by the Greek historian, Herodotus, introduces another contestant with a claim to priority as the first natural language. Less wellknown than the Tower of Babel story, it purports to give the results of an experiment into the origin of language by the Egyptian ruler, Psammetichus. Briefly, the story is as follows:

Psammetichus, finding that mere inquiry failed to reveal that which was the

original race of mankind, devised an ingenious method of determining the

matter. He took at random, from an ordinary family, two newly born infants,

and gave them to a shepherd to be brought up amongst his flocks,

under strict orders that no one should utter a word in their presence. They

were to be kept by themselves in a lonely cottage, and the shepherd was to

bring in goats from time to time, to see that the babies had enough milk to

drink, and to look after them in any other way that was necessary. All these

arrangements were made by Psammetichus because he wished to find out

what word the children would first utter, once they had grown out of their

meaningless baby-talk. The plan succeeded; two years later the shepherd,

who during that time had done everything he had been told to do, happened

one day to open the door of the cottage and to go in, when both children,

running up to him with hands outstretched, pronounced the word


The shepherd informed Psammetichus, who immediately had the children brought to him, and, when he himself heard them say becos, he at once set about trying to find out to what language the word belonged. His inquiries soon revealed that becos was Phrygian for bread, whereupon the Egyptian ruler was led to admit "the superior antiquity of the Phrygians," (The Histories 2.2 [Penguin Books, 1972, rpt. 1988], pp. 129-30.)

Isaac E. Mozeson's The Word starts from the assumption that the myth of a single language spoken by all mankind at some distant time in the prehistorical past is literally true. "Let us remove the sands of millennia. We are deep in the valley of Shinar," Mozeson writes, "reconstructing the Tower of Babel - one brick, one word at a time" (p. 1). Ignoring Mozeson's ominous metaphorical invitation to reconstruct the Tower of Babel, we note that the thesis underlying Mozeson's most unusual dictionary of English etymology is that Hebrew is that Ursprache, the one original language from which all others derive. …

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