Sunday September 4th, 2016

European Days of Jewish Culture

Jewish Languages


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Save the date: Date and subject matter for European Days of Jewish Culture 2016 have been fixed!

Subject matter: Jewish languages.

Date: Sunday September 4, 2016. However, in several countries events and activities are being planned before and after this date.

From Hebrew to Greek, from Ladino to Aramaic, from Yiddish to Judeo-Arabic, from Jewish-Italian dialects to Russian, Jews, this people created by a Word heard at Mount Sinai, have always had a strong - and, in a typically Jewish way, happily contradictory! - relationship with languages.

Did you know that Yiddish is based on German? That Hebrew can be pronounced in many different ways, the most complete being the variety from Yemen? That Jews on the Greek island of Corfu used to speak an ancient Apulian dialect, or that Moroccan Jews brought their dialect, called Haketia, to the Amazon river? That Ethiopian Jews have Ge'ez, and not Hebrew, as a sacred language? And what about the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic?

EDJC 2016 will investigate these - and many, many more - questions: let's explore together this joyful Babel crossing millennia and continents!


By Hanna Lorer

The origin of languages is a fundamental question in linguistics. One of the religious explanations of the formation of languages and literacy is that they were created by a holy man, loved by G-d, a righteous and trustworthy one. The question has been the subject of many discussions over the centuries. Due to a lack of authentic sources of information, the finding of solid evidence has been incredibly difficult. Ancient researchers refer to signs, engraved on plant or animal fossils or to archaeological ceramics. The data derived from these sources is not credible enough to provide answers. Researchers studying behaviour among primates conclude that they do communicate, but only through inarticulate sounds. As a result of evolution, apes progressively turned into humans. Language evolved along with the evolution of primates into what we see as modern day human beings. In 1861 Max Müller published a speculative theory on the origin of spoken language, supposing it formed on the imitation of sounds, produced by animals or birds, or as a result of exclamations, provoked by emotional reactions to feelings of satisfaction, surprise, physical pain or other. According to him sounds possess a natural vibration, resonance, which carry into effect an echo.

Presently there are about 6900 identified spoken languages in the world, grouped into about 20 families. It is supposed that the various languages stem from one parent protolanguage. The identification of this common basic language has been studied for thousands of years. There are currently 225 local languages spoken in Europe.

The studies of language genesis have established a common trend. It was proven that various languages result from the transformation of ancient basic languages, such as Semitic, Iranian, Latin, Greek, Slavic, Phoenician, Etruscan, etc. There is also a need to explain how ancient pictographs, describing the letter symbols - cuneiform, pattern, geometrical or other gradually formed into new, modern letters systematized into an alphabet.

The most widespread language group today is the Indo-European family, ranging from Hindi and Persian and to Norwegian and English. Around 2000 BCE the Indo-European speakers moved across Europe and reached the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coasts, the Iranian plateau and parts of India.

The Semitic language family was as relevant for early humankind history as it is today. Around 3000 BCE Semitic languages were widespread among nomads populating parts of the Arabian Desert reaching all the way to northern Syria, Babylonia, Assyria and Phoenicia. Aramaic was also a Semitic language and it was regarded as the language of the Middle East. The Semitic group contains at least two communities – Jews and Arabs, who played a significant role in human civilisation. The Arabic alphabet is widespread among Muslim nations, not only the Arabic-speaking ones.

Alphabets were modified over the time when new letters were needed to describe new words related to military operations, trade deals, or religious denominations.

Another group of languages was formed as a result of modifications of Latin, language of the ancient Romans. It belongs to the Indo-European family, but it is not as flexible as ancient Greek. At first it was spoken in Rome, but later Latin became the official language of all conquered territories. Until the 19th century scientific and philosophical works were written mainly in Latin. Although it is a dead language today, it is still the official language of the Catholic Church. The origin of the Latin alphabet remains to be determined. It is believed that it was based on the Greek alphabet, adopted and modified by the Etruscans and adapted by the Romans. The Romance languages were created on the basis of the Latin alphabet – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese. The Germanic languages, using the Latin alphabet, led to present English, Dutch, Flemish, German, Swedish and Icelandic. The Latin alphabet has been modified over the years in order to satisfy the phonetic needs of languages which adopted it. Over the past 500 years this alphabet spread over to other continents during the colonisation period. In mid-19th century Romanians adopted it as main alphabet for their own language. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, some of the new countries using revived Turkic languages have adopted the Latin alphabet. Many Latin manuscripts written by ancient authors and over 270,000 inscriptions in Latin remain preserved until today.

The Aramaic, Canaanite and Hebrew languages are Semitic. Some of the later biblical books and the Talmud were mainly written in Old Aramaic. In the 7th century BCE the Aramaic language spread to other nations in the region and was even used by the Persian administration.

In addition to Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek are considered as biblical languages, but the Old Testament is written in the holy Hebrew language. The language of the rabbis – Talmudic Aramaic – stems from it and it is used for the Talmud literature, containing all the traditions of Judaism and is considered as the first ancient encyclopaedia.

The population of Israel is linguistically and culturally very heterogeneous. Ethnological studies of Israel suggest that the community living on the territory counts 33 languages and dialects. Hebrew became dominant again at the end of the 19th century based on the Zionist movement ideology aiming at using it as a modern common tongue. Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda and his followers created the first schools where Hebrew was spoken and taught, books were printed in Hebrew as well. According to Ben-Yehuda, in the period 1905-1914, as a result of mass immigration, Hebrew became the dominant language and when in 1948 Israel became an independent state, it was proclaimed the official language, together with Arabic. Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda’s effort had an enormous impact on the development of Hebrew, he wrote several dictionary volumes containing ancient and modern Hebrew words to adapt this very ancient language to modern needs and exigences. Ben-Yehuda’s aim was to develop Hebrew literature in Israel, but also to respect the specifics of written religious Hebrew. This idea was met with opposition by other scholars who maintained that the language should not divert from the holy texts in the Torah and should not be adapted to a use for everyday conversations in the streets. There are many informal languages in Israel: Yiddish – the language of the Ashkenazy Jews in the diaspora; Ladino – used by the Sephardic Jews, who have Spanish roots; Polish; Ukrainian; French; Judeo-Italian – with its various dialects; Hungarian, Turkish and even Persian, Greek and other.

The original Hebrew alphabet stems from the Phoenician one, which itself is based on the Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was the most widespread writing system used by the Phoenician traders around the Mediterranean countries. The Aramaic (Syriac) alphabet originates from the Phoenician one as well, and was itself the basis of the modern Arabic alphabet.

Hebrew is the means of communication between Jews, it is the religion professing language, it is used for education and literary creation. Despite all the forced migrations in ancient times and the prosecutions during the Holocaust, the language has remained alive until today. According to the Torah, Semitic languages exist as G-d’s creations. The Hebrew alphabet is not just a collection of abstract linguistic elements, every letter has its name and identity, and they also bear numerical values. The letters became markers of Jewish identity and Jewish religion, differentiating G-d’s different names. Can anyone say why the first letter is Aleph and the second one Beyt – all these questions provoke justified interest. Every Hebrew letter bears a specific meaning, for instance Aleph is not only the first letter, but also means “ox” as in sacrificial ox, Beyt stands for home, but it is also the letter beginning the Torah (Bereishit – beginning). It is moreover the first letter of all Jewish blessings, like Baruch – blessed, Baruch Hashem – blessed by G-d. The letter Ayin means eye, source or centre, the spiritual meaning suggests the spiritual eye.

The Hebrew language lacks the auxiliary verb “to be” and questions are formed with a question word or just by modifying the speaker’s intonation. It has been modified by scribes, Talmudists and Masoretes. The ancient language experts, like Ezra, Nehemiah or the scribes from the Great Assembly – called the Soferim, are known for their remarkable efforts. The Masoretes would correct with precision involuntary mistakes, they would count the letters and the words of each book and their pedantic care would prevent any further copying of mistakes. The Soferim and the Talmudists would take great care of delicate scrolls decayed by years of use , they would store them in genizah (store room) in the synagogues or they would bury them in the ground like humans. The Hebrew of the Dead Sea scrolls is the language of the Torah and it represents a remarkable phenomenon in the culture and history of the Jewish state. Only the traditional prayer in Hebrew unites over 14 million Jews around the world. Ancient Hebrew names like Jacob, Joseph, Sarah and Miryam and old Hebrew words like Amen, Hallelujah, Shabbat or Messiah have been adopted by other languages without being translated– in Christian church corals or Muslim prayers for example.

Mendele Moycher Sforim (1836 -1917) was the first modern writer to combine in his style different elements of Hebrew and Yiddish. His work contributed to the modification of Hebrew transforming it into a modern literary language, which elevated the status of Jewish culture.

A language is a system of signs for coding and decoding information. There is a difference between language and speech. While speech is the use of language - language in action, language itself, as a system of rules, is the raw matter for speech. Programming languages are formal languages, which are used for the modern day computers to transmit information through IT. Language and thought are connected. Language being a means of communication, it is also a means for exchanging ideas. When two people communicate, it is done through the media of language, but it represents their ideas, the language is a means of representing one’s thoughts. Another characteristic feature of language is its aesthetic function – poetry. It is usually found in fiction and verbal folklore. The aesthetic effect is achieved by carefully selecting words, expressions and constructions, which emphasise the aesthetic dimension. Unfortunately, language can be used for its manipulative function, i.e. its use for propaganda, indoctrination and negative effect on religious movements and values. Language manipulation is used in a speculative manner when creating racial discrimination, xenophobia and above all anti-Semitism, which was well proven in the Nazi policy.

There are various types of language – literary, national, regional, mother tongue, foreign, children’s, jargon etc. As a result of historical events some human groups may disappear or be assimilated, which often leads to a loss of their language. So when we speak about a death of a language, we usually understand its disappearance either through a violent extermination or absorption of a human group, or through a non-violent assimilation by another human group.

Professor August Schleicher is the author of a theory that there was a common proto-language, which was transformed into different national languages and he also launched the idea of a language family tree.

It is commonly thought that books are knowledge and knowledge is power. Humanity could have been spiritually more elevated if only the lost books were preserved. The myths about the lost knowledge and the unread books illustrate our longing for spirituality. It is deeply saddening to imagine that while some people were collecting books in libraries, others were burning them. We have lost the Great Library of Alexandria, this respected symbol of knowledge acquired in Antiquity. Lost are the books burnt by the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Lost are the Sybilline books, burnt in Jupiter’s temple according to the legend. Gone are the pagan books, destroyed by the Christian fanaticism. Burnt are the five thousand Arabic manuscripts, as a consequence of Cardinal Cisneros’ conquest of Granada. Burnt are the books by known Jewish writers due to Nazi book burnings.

There is of course the myth of the Tower of Babel featured in the Torah and meant to explain the origin of different languages. According to the story, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood spoke a single language. In Babel they agreed to build a tower "tall enough to reach heaven"; seeing this, the Lord confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and scattered them around the world.

The fundamental importance of languages was confirmed in 2001 when 26 September was proclaimed by the Council of Europe as the European Day of Languages and has been since organised jointly with the European Union. The studies of foreign languages improve not only the communication between people, but also overcome intellectual barriers and intercultural differences.

The Hebrew term leshon hara (evil tongue) is a term for derogatory speech about another person and it is considered as one of the worst sins. According to Judaism it is one of the deadly sins, and if one does not repent and does not relinquish it, one will not be allowed to G-d’s Kingdom. Leshon hara differs from defamation in that its focus is on the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose, rather than falsehood and harm arising. Speech is considered to be leshon hara if it says something negative about a person or party, is not previously known to the public, is not seriously intended to correct or improve a negative situation, and is true. Speaking in this manner is against the commandment in the Torah to love our neighbour. Those who express or write evil things are often not evil people, but they don’t realise that it isn’t only foul what enters one’s mouth, but what comes out of it, as it comes straight from the heart. As the German philosopher Lessing said: “Know that trees cut by an axe will have new shoots emerge and as they live they will become new trees. The flesh and the bones wounded by a sword will heal again, but a wound caused by the tongue cannot be healed. The tip of an arrow dipped in evil words hits the heart and it cannot be retrieved and leaves a bleeding hole, as evil words cannot be forgotten. Mercy teaches us though not to forget the received evil, but to avoid the anger and the thirst for revenge.

In a colourful rainbow made of sounds of prayer, emerging from the holy “shofar”, miscellaneous languages fly towards the sky. In the colourful, glowing rainbow there is however no place for the darkness of the words of evil. This sound of the “shofar” has become the means of communication between different nations, using one or another alphabet or language, a way of connecting people in the name of mutual understanding and tolerance.

All made with anger breaks, evil words are like weeds, which hamper the existence of useful plants, such as languages are; so people should direct their effort towards the eradication of these weeds.

(Excerpt from the Talmud)

Hanna Lorer