Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Linguistic creationism

I have recently been discussing with other bloggers Torah-science conflicts. These issues include, but are not limited to, the age of the universe; Darwinian evolution; and the history of mankind. I have examined this subject on my own for over ten years. One area that has been sorely neglected, but which interests me, is the evolution of languages. The traditional Jewish view holds that Biblical Hebrew is historically the first language of mankind. Yet that notion does not seem tenable in light of modern linguistics.

Hebrew, along with Aramaic and Arabic, is classed as a Semitic language. Medieval rabbis recognized the similarities between those three languages. In so doing, they became among the first people to notice, and thoroughly document, systematic sound shifts between languages. For example, they noted that Hebrew words with the letter zayin often resembled Aramaic words with the letter dalet: in Hebrew zachar means "to remember," whereas the Aramaic equivalent is dechar. These observations came hundreds of years before linguists began noticing systematic sound shifts between Indo-European languages, comparing, for example, English fire with Greek pyra.

It should be noted, however, that the medieval rabbis tended to assume that Aramaic and Arabic had sprung from Hebrew. Modern linguists would say that all three languages are descended from an extinct tongue they call Proto-Semitic. The existence of this tongue is purely hypothetical, of course, but it's not unreasonable to think that languages existed which left no written evidence. Most languages in the world today were not written down until recent times, because the populations who spoke them were illiterate. These include the languages of dwindling indigenous tribes in America, Australia, New Guinea, and elsewhere. English itself did not have a regular writing system, apart from occasional inscriptions in an old runic alphabet, until missionaries traveled to the British Isles sometime around the seventh century and gave us the Roman alphabet that we use today.

For those who accept the possibility that Adam had ancestors, the language issue shouldn't be much of a problem. Adam spoke Hebrew, but earlier human beings spoke other languages. When Genesis describes the rise of mankind, it is primarily talking about the rise of human civilization, not the rise of the human species. Hebrew may not have been historically the first language, but the Old Hebrew alphabet, which through the Phoenicians gave rise to the Greek and then the Roman alphabet, is widely recognized as historically the first alphabet, or at least the earliest one known.

Curiously, I have not seen many Orthodox Jews address this issue, even when talking broadly about biological evolution and human history. I have encountered one book which could be described as a work of linguistic creationism: Isaac Mozeson's The Word: The Dictionary that Reveals the Hebrew Roots of the English Language. It is, I'm afraid, a pretty shoddy job that invites ridicule. Mozeson's approach is to look for superficial similarities in sound and meaning between Hebrew and English words, to claim them as proof of a direct ancestral relationship between the two languages, and to ignore all the historical evidence contradicting his thesis. He establishes no systematic rules of sound change, and he seems unfamiliar with what the mainstream theories say, even though he is quick to dismiss them.

We can do better than that. I am not learned enough at this time to provide a more detailed response to the language question, but I have always held that we have nothing to fear from scientific knowledge, even if we cannot always explain a particular Biblical passage in light of a particular scientific theory. We should all be willing to admit at some point that we don't have all the answers.

Skeptics would say that I am being selective in what theories I accept. They would be correct. For example, there is no way that I will accept the idea that Exodus didn't happen. My rejection of this "theory," however, in no way implies that I must reject the scientific method of inquiry, or the many true discoveries that have resulted from application of this method. Not everything that falls under the banner of accepted scientific or historical knowledge is as firmly established as its adherents claim. The goal of synthesizing Torah and science should not be conformity to accepted opinion, or avoidance of ridicule. It should be a willingness to examine what the scientists have to say, and then make a judgment on our own.


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>The traditional Jewish view holds that Biblical Hebrew is historically the first language of mankind.

In general this is true, but there is also a traditional opinion which holds that Aramaic was the so-called first language.

This is based on Sanhedrin 38b which says

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב אדם הראשון בלשון ארמי שנאמר ולי מה יקרו רעיך אל

Rab Judah also said in Rab's name: The first man spoke Aramaic, for it is written, How weighty are thy thoughts unto me, God Ps. 139).

It's true that the idea that Hebrew was the original language was ultimately more attractive and became one of the common beliefs of Jews and Christians until well into the early modern period. But the other view does exist and some rishonim even adopted that view. IIRC Ramban, for example. Of course the view that Aramaic is the original language of man is hardly the same as modern linguistics, but it doesn't give primacy to Hebrew based on the assumption that since the Torah is in Hebrew and the Torah is God's word etc.

In addition, Arab grammarians also recognized the cognate nature of Semitic languages. This post on Languagehat translates an excerpt by Ibn Hazm of Cordoba (11th century) on this matter:

>whoever ponders on Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac will become certain that their difference is of the type we have described, through changes in people's pronunciation through the passage of time and the difference of countries and the bordering of other nations, and that they are in origin a single language. Having established that, Syriac is the ancestor of both Arabic and Hebrew, and to be more precise, the first to speak this Arabic was Ishmael, upon him be peace, for it is the language of his sons, and Hebrew is the language of Isaac and his sons, and Syriac is without doubt the language of Abraham, blessings upon him peace and upon our prophet and peace.

It's really worth clicking the link and reading the entire quote. I only excerpted it for brevity.

The book Tower of Babel: Evidence Against the New Creationism by Robert T. Pennock takes the tack of your post and discusses how linguistic development has parallels with evolution and contradicts fundamentalist attacks on science.

I once posted about Mozeson's 'The Word'.

Anyway, great post.

Kylopod said...

I never bought a copy of Mozeson's book. I borrowed a falling-apart copy from my local library. I'm almost tempted to write a post refuting it point-by-point, but why bother.

Ernest Klein's Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language is worth noting. Klein was a rabbi as well as a noted linguist. I have no idea whether or not he accepted the whole Afro-Asiatic theory, but there was nothing in his book that suggested a rejection of mainstream theories. It just goes to show how much it is possible to accept in this field without even having to deal with the issue that Mozeson makes such a fuss over.

I've wanted to read Pennock's book for a long time, but I never got around to it. While I agree that historical linguistics presents a dilemma for the Biblical literalist, I am not convinced that the evolution of languages is really comparable to the evolution of living things. Dawkins makes the same analogy, and he downplays the vast differences.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

A review of Mozeson's book appeared in Judaism Fall 92 issue.

Here it is: