The Mother of Languages
The Influence of Hebrew on other Languages

(Norman Berdichevsky)*

What use is Hebrew? - an obscure minor language spoken by less than six million people? This is the question often posed by students in most countries who, having gone through a secondary school education, are well aware of the immense respect accorded the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. For those to whom "classical languages" are synonymous with "dead" ones, modern languages at least offer a practical tool to aid study in prestigious professional fields - French, so closely associated with high fashion, cuisine and art; Italian with music and the opera, German with philosophy, medicine and psychology.

The negative attitude of the present generation towards foreign languages in general is ironically also present among many Jewish children in the Diaspora, for whom the Hebrew language appears to be of little use outside the synagogue or a visit to Israel. The impression is of an exotic eastern language with no relation to European languages. Moreover, it is a Semitic language with what appears to be an unfamiliar vocabulary, grammar and alphabet. This impression is reinforced by memories of traditionally-taught Hebrew classes in the synagogue. In the minds of many parents, this conjures up images of a shabby, ill-lit heder (room) somewhere in an east European shtetl, presided over by a bearded rabbi with a ruler in his hand ready to smack anyone not paying attention, and monotonously teaching by rote.

The stereotypical image of Hebrew as a language of ritual, prayer and Sunday School is totally wrong. It deprives us of an appreciation of the immense debt western civilization owes to the Hebrew language, which is on a par with Greek and Latin. During the Renaissance, Christian scholars took a profound interest in the Old Testament and produced new translations directly from the original Hebrew, rather than using the Vulgate Latin texts. This interest can be seen, for example, in the poetry of William Blake and John Milton (who read and wrote Hebrew fluently) and in Rembrandt's famous painting "Writing on the Wall." The Round Tower in Copenhagen is engraved with the Latin word Doctrinament, and a sword, heart, and God's name (the four Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton), indicating that the doctrine of the Protestant monarch was to let his heart be ruled by God's word.

The Hebrew letters were there to demonstrate that the King's fidelity was to the "original" word of God in Hebrew rather than through inaccurate translations. This fidelity to the original Hebrew of the holy works had previously been demonstrated by the Christian scholar, Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), whose study of the Hebrew scriptures resulted in strong support among enlightened clergymen to prevent the burning of the Talmud as a work of heresy.

Both because of a desire to read the Bible in its original tongue and a belief in Hebrew as "The Mother of Languages," it figured prominently in the Puritan movement in England, culminating in the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. A motion introduced into the House of Commons in 1649 sought to substitute Saturday as the "True Sabbath" in place of Sunday as the Lord's Day. The poet, John Milton (1608-1674), was a devoted Hebraist and was appointed by Cromwell as "Secretary for Foreign Languages." John Selden (1584-1654) was a noted legal scholar whose study of the biblical and talmudic sources of ancient Jewish law (in Hebrew and Aramaic) helped reshape the British system of jurisprudence and establish the privilege of the individual against self-incrimination.

English Puritan emigrants were also instrumental in promoting Hebrew as part of the curriculum in such prominent American universities as Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth and Pennsylvania (Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth still bear Hebrew inscriptions on their seals). In HarvardŐs early years, more time was devoted to the study of Hebrew than Latin or Greek. This role of Hebrew in the curriculum endured until the 1820s. Graduates of the School of Divinity had to be able to read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew - a practice still required in Denmark.

Our view of ancient history has been shaped by the enormous role Greece, Rome, and Christianity and their bias towards its Jewish origins played in the formation and development of what came to be known as Western Civilization. This term is actually a misnomer since many of its most important foundations - monotheism, the Judeo-Christian ethic, and the alphabet, originated in the heartland of the Ancient World which stretched from the Aegean Sea and the Nile Delta across the Levant, Phoenicia, Israel and Mesopotamia (including the kingdoms and empires of Akkadia, Assyria, the Hittites and Babylonia).

This view of history is wrongly compartmentalized into separate categories - Ancient Greece, Troy, Egypt, Rome, Israel and Carthage - without a proper understanding and appreciation of the common sources of the heritage which was eventually consolidated under the Roman Empire and identified as "western." It was not until the schism in the fifth century between the Orthodox Church based in Constantinople and the Catholic Church in Rome that it became common practice to separate "east" and "west."

It is now evident that many links existed between the Old Testament and the Hebrew language and the early civilization of Greece and the classic works of the Iliad and the Odyssey. More than 30 years ago, Prof. Cyrus Gordon pointed out in his epic work of scholarship, "The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations," that both drew on a common east Mediterranean heritage with many cross-currents between them. He pointed out that "only two of the ethnic groups that emerged historically in the eastern Mediterranean of the second millennium have enjoyed a historically conscious continuity down to the present: the Greeks and the Hebrews."

This fact had been long ignored because so few scholars were skilled in both Greek and Hebrew. A re-examination of the great works of Hellenic and Hebraic civilizations sheds light on similar customs, common aspects of kingship, military strategy and technology, sacrifice, music and the central issues of man's fate as dramatically portrayed both in the Book of Job and the greatest Greek dramas - the problems of evil and suffering. These central elements of "western" civilization originated in the Near East - ancient Israel and Greece (which at that time included Crete, Cyprus and much of Asia Minor).

History is always written by the victors. Rome vanquished Greece, mostly peacefully, and absorbed much of the Greek legacy - mythology, philosophy, and laws. Two other rivals, however, were crushed in a series of violent wars - Israel and Carthage. These two shared much of a common semitic heritage in language and did not accept Rome's claims to a superior civilization. The Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon had been close allies of the ancient Israelite kingdom and helped King Solomon build the First Temple. Migrants from these two Phoenician cities founded Carthage and preserved their language (originally called Phoenician and later Punic), which was very similar to Hebrew.

The noted Israeli writer Amos Kenan gave expression to this link between ancient Israel and Carthage - Rome's bitterest opponents. In a article entitled "Envy Tyre," he wrote:

"I always had an attraction to this wonderful phenomenon called Tyre and Sidon, and as one who was born on the sands of Tel Aviv on the coastal lowland, I feel a closeness to all that was, is and will be, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean which I am a part of, and which is a part of me. The Hebrew language, which is my language today, was 4,000 and 3,000 and 2,500 years ago the language spoken in Jerusalem and Tyre, in Shechem and Sidon, in Jaffa and Ugarit... and in Carthage. Tyre and Sidon and Jerusalem were two axes of one culture... the spiritual one of Jerusalem and the material one of Carthage. In the days when the prophets of Israel tried to create a universal code of morality, the seamen of Tyre established their colonies... Why shouldn't we feel a sense of pride in our proximity to that ancient contemporary of ours who stamped his image on the area, gave to the world writing, and once sent his elephants across the Alps under Hannibal's leadership and momentarily brought mighty Rome itself in danger of destruction?"

In addition to their "strange" religion, the Jews' Hebrew language recalled the ancient Punic-speaking Carthaginian foe. It is no wonder that the Romans, who willingly acknowledged their cultural debt to Greece, were loath to grant any credit to the vanquished Jews, Phoenicians and Carthaginians. In contrast to so many other subject peoples under Roman rule, these Semites put up stubborn resistance and even claimed the superiority of monotheism (first Judaism and then Christianity), and were proud of their alphabet which was borrowed first by the Greeks and later by the Romans. Our alphabet is a direct descendant and still bears the names of the first two letters of the early Phoenician-Hebrew alphabet (alef and bet).

No literate person can expect to read a daily newspaper or listen to a discussion of the arts and sciences, law, psychology, physics, mathematics, military affairs or any other professional field without encountering a wealth of phrases and expressions of foreign origin which have become a part of the English language. Expressions such as status quo, casus belli, laissez-faire, dŽjˆ vu, savoir-faire, haute cuisine, allegro, pogrom, de facto, de jure, sine qua non, prima facie, modus vivendi, leitmotif, blitzkrieg, lebensraum, etc. (yes, even et cetera itself) and thousands more, are part of our everyday language.

The contribution of Hebrew is less obvious but often overlooked precisely because it has become so familiar in its anglicized forms. The foremost Jewish historian of our time, Cecil Roth, had this to say:

"Generation after generation of Englishmen heard the Bible read in church and studied it at home. In many cases, it was the only book; in all, the principal book. At last its cadences, its music, its phraseology, sank into his mind and became part of his being... Hence by slow degrees his daily speech was not merely enriched, but to some extent moulded by its influence."

Without a knowledge of Hebrew and its majestic cadence and imagery, we are apt to assume that certain modes of expression simply derived from old Anglo-Saxon speech, but the translation of the Bible into English directly from Hebrew exercised a major influence over the English language. When we use expressions such as a "heavy heart" or idioms like "the skin of his teeth," "a drop in the bucket," or employ certain superlatives; "Holy of Holies" (Kodesh hakedushim), King of Kings (Meleh hamelahim), Song of Songs (Shir hashirim), we are simply repeating a word-for-word translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Hebrew words from the Bible could not always be translated but were simply "adopted" with only a minor alteration in pronunciation - alphabet, sabbath, amen, abbot, messiah, hallelujah, hosanna, manna, cherubim, seraphim, satan, shibboleth, leviathan, mammon, horn, camel, jubilee (from the 50th year Yovel celebration when all slaves were to be set free), scallions (after Ashkelon), gauze (after Gaza), and sodomy (after Sdom), Armageddon (from Megiddo), behemoth (the term for wild animals which was probably the source of the name Bahama islands) and most surprising of all - probably Europe itself - after the Hebrew erev - setting sun, or evening. Europe was the land of the setting sun for the ancient Hebrews and Phoenicians.

Many Hebrew words were later absorbed by Yiddish and became part of the linguistic baggage of Jewish immigrants that became widely known by gentile neighbours and eventually adopted into English and other languages, such as maven (expert), ganef (thief), hutzpah (cheek), mishpocha (family), kosher and many others.

Many of the most common personal (Christian) names used throughout the world are directly derived from Hebrew, such as Jonathan (Yonatan), Joseph (Yosef), David, Isaac (Yitzhak), Jacob or Jack (Ya'akov), Sarah, Esther, Eve, Rachel, Deborah, Rebecca (Rivka) and Leah. The last reigning Emperor of Ethiopia inherited the title of "Lion of Judah" (claiming descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) and chose the name Haile Selassi (Hayl hashlosha - in Hebrew, "The Power of the Trinity"). The Puritans held the Hebrew language in such high regard that their military banners were inscribed with the emblem of the Lion of Judah and their battle hymns were taken directly from the Psalms.

Some Hebrew words of biblical origin were so distinctive that no attempt was made to find equivalents for them in English or in the other languages which likewise adopted them. One of them, shibboleth, described a biblical story which had very modern applications, directly repeating the biblical event.

Shibboleth (the Hebrew word for an "ear of corn") was pronounced with the "sh" sound by the Gideonites, whereas the hostile tribe of Ephraimites could not say the "sh" and pronounced it sibboleth. The self-same strategy of detection was used in a peasants' revolt in Flanders in the town of Brugge (Bruges) in the 13th century. The Flemish-speaking peasants distinguished their comrades from French-speaking nobility who were clad in peasant garb by asking them to repeat the Flemish slogan "Friend and Shield." The French speakers could not pronounce the "sch" in the Flemish word for shield. A similar shibboleth technique was used in World War II by the Dutch resistance and British intelligence to uncover German SS officers pretending to be Dutch civilians, who were unable to pronounce the name of the town of Scheveningen.

The influence of the Hebrew language, however, extends far beyond the field of linguistics and religion. Its contribution is much more profound than the borrowing of individual words and concepts. Hebrew mental patterns have been so long encased in English words and phrases that we scarcely give a thought to their origins. Classics of English literature - both prose and poetry, political oratory, the popular stage, song and screen, and inscriptions on historical monuments, are strewn with titles lifted directly from the pages of the Old Testament where they appeared for the first time in Hebrew. Their ability to serve as allegories, proverbs and parables for modern situations and events that recall the Bible has been a hallmark of great literature, debate and oratory. Just a few examples will suffice: the writing on the wall (Daniel, 5:25), the mark of Cain (Genesis, 4:15), scapegoat (Leviticus, 16:26), the meek shall inherit the earth (Psalms 37:11), the grapes of wrath (Deuteronomy, 32:32), out of the mouths of babes and sucklings (Psalms 8:3), the good earth (Deuteronomy, 6:18), the way of all flesh (Genesis, 6:12), dust to dust (Genesis, 3:19), feet of clay (Daniel, 2:34), East of Eden (Genesis, 4:16), how are the mighty fallen (2 Samuel 1:19), man shall not live by bread alone (Deuteronomy, 8:3). These expressions and hundreds more have become so ingrained in the English language and so frequently used that we scarcely give a thought to their Hebrew origin. To imagine the English language without them is as unthinkable as to imagine English without the influence of Shakespeare.

At the same time, a number of curious mistranslations have entered English-speaking lore. The most famous is that of keren ("ray," "beam," or "horn"). As a result of the translation into Latin as "horn," generations of artists misrepresented Moses the great lawgiver as possessing horns, while his face should have been depicted as radiating rays of light! The "Red Sea," indeed a deep blue, should have been the "Reed Sea," from the Hebrew Yam Suf.

Although Hebrew ceased to be the spoken language of the majority of Jews in their Judean homeland between the second century bce and the second century ce, it remained the central language of Jewish religious commentary, and heavily influenced the hybrid languages which arose in the Diaspora, such as Yiddish (Judeo-German), Ladino or Judezmo (Judeo-Spanish), Yevanic (Judeo-Greek), Zarphatic (Judeo-French), Ebri (Judeo-Persian), Moghrabi (Judeo-Arabic) and others, all of which continued to use Hebrew letters. It is estimated that Hebrew words comprise close to 15 percent of the Yiddish vocabulary and a somewhat lesser proportion in the other hybrids. Many Hebrew words which were absorbed by Yiddish indicate specific religious beliefs and practices. But a parallel vocabulary developed, in which words of Hebrew origin were used specifically to designate a concept, occupation, ceremony or item with Jewish content as opposed to the parallel word of foreign origin.

For a time, a lively rivalry existed between Hebrew and Yiddish, and competed for the loyalty of several generations of literary figures, writers, playwrights and philosophers. Supporters boldly proclaimed Yiddish as a "Jewish National Language" at a famous conference in Czernowitz in 1908, pointing to the tremendous numerical superiority of Yiddish speakers. Hebraists, on the other hand, at their conference in Vienna in 1913, laid claim to Hebrew as the Jewish national language, emphasizing the superiority of its historical continuity, the immense prestige of the Bible, its influence upon much of European literature, and its venerable age. It is hard to imagine a more persuasive Zionist argument than that the Land of Israel "speaks" Hebrew through the countless inscriptions uncovered throughout its length and breadth on parchment, stone, clay, papyrus and wood.

Yiddish progressively lost strength because emigration and assimilation, while Hebrew grew in strength due to territorial concentration through migration to Palestine and then Israel. Yiddish reflected the folkways and religious life of the mass of European Jews and later was adapted to meet the requirements of sophisticated urban life and modern literature. The Holocaust dealt it a death-blow as a spoken language (other than among some ultra-orthodox Jews), although there has been an academic revival in its study, and as late at 1978, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

The originator of the international language Esperanto, Dr. Lazar Ludwig Zamenhof, was a Jew whose knowledge of Hebrew undoubtedly played a role in the successful development of the only devised language successfully to make the transition from a desk project to a living tongue. Although the Esperanto vocabulary is largely derived from the Romance, Germanic and Slavic families, it is likely that Zamenhof's profound knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic contributed to the logical structure of what all linguists recognize as the easiest language to learn.

Zamenhof created Esperanto in the hope that it would become not just an international language for everyone but a new national language for the Jewish people. He loved both Yiddish and Hebrew but felt that Yiddish lacked historical continuity and prestige and that Hebrew was too difficult to adapt to the needs of the modern world. It must be remembered that at the time Zamenhof began working on Esperanto in the 1880s, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's efforts to revive Hebrew were still in their infancy.

In the construction of Esperanto, Zamenhof used a logical economy of root consonants such as is found in Hebrew. In Hebrew, for example, the root SFR is used for sefer ("book"), sifriah ("library"), sifrut ("literature"), and sipur (in Hebrew the letter peh ("p") is sometimes pronounced feh ["f"] for euphonic reasons). To take an example from Esperanto, the word sano ("health") is related to the words sana ("healthy"), sanulo ("a healthy person"), sanilo ("a cure," "medicine"), sane ("healthily"), malsano ("illness"), sanigi ("to cure") and malsanulejo ("hospital"). There are other structural similarites, such as the addition to the root of prefixes which transform the verb from the simple active into a causitive or passive form.

Although Esperanto achieved scant popularity in English-speaking countries, it attracted many supporters in those countries whose languages are not widely spoken outside their borders, such as Hungary, Poland, Japan, Brazil, Lithuania, China, Bulgaria and Korea. Part of the credit should indeed go to the the borrowing of Hebrew's logical structure.

The success in transforming Hebrew into a living language, and the development of a modern literature, have long inspired proponents of "minor" languages, overshadowed by powerful neighbours. Proponents of Welsh, Erse (Irish), Gaelic and Basque have visited Israel specifically to observe the operation of the teaching methods used in the Hebrew ulpan - intensive language courses taught to new immigrants in a Hebrew in Hebrew" environment. Proponents of Maltese as a national language sought to encourage and inspire their people to take pride in their language as a close relative of Hebrew and Aramaic - the tongues of Jesus and his disciples.

Many scholars during the Renaissance and later under the sponsorship of several monarchs, such as James IV of Scotland, tried to establish Hebrew as "the mother of all languages." They believed that Hebrew was the original source from which all other languages developed. It was for this reason that Columbus brought Luis de Torres, a converso (Jewish convert to Catholicism) with him on his voyage to the Americas. De Torres was a skilled interpreter who first addressed the Indians they met in Hebrew. The assumption was that such far-flung peoples were probably related to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and therefore must have been influenced by the Hebrew language. De Torres remained in the New World and is thought to have been responsible for the origin of "Turkey" as the name for the strange new bird he observed - a corruption of the Hebrew tukki ("parrot").

This view of Hebrew as the origin of all the language families was subsequently repudiated as simplistic. However, some recent scholarship has indicated the possibility that Hebrew is indeed much older than the other Semitic languages. Its geographic location at the crossroads of the three continents of the Old World may have resulted in its having been an important source for other language families. Hebrew's sister languages - first Akkadian and then Aramaic - functioned for a time as the lingua franca of the Near East.

This concept of a single origin of languages is known as "monogenesis." It rests on the idea that originally the root meanings of Hebrew words were conveyed by a single syllable of two consonants rather than the three consonants recognizable today.

These syllables underwent changes which can be explained by the similarities in the position of the tongue in pronouncing certain sound combinations. The monosyllable sounds formed by these consonants describe the same action in several major language families. This highly controversial theory, which sets out hundreds of such syllable combinations shared by Hebrew and other languages, claims that Hebrew is the likely single origin of several major language families.

To know Hebrew is to enjoy direct access to one of the world's oldest continuous cultures. For the Jewish people, it is perhaps the most crucial element of their unity.

The Bible and the works which followed - the Talmud, the Mishna - were written in Hebrew and Aramaic. In principle, every Jew could be learned, and the people were encouraged by their rabbis to be literate in Hebrew. More than 60 years ago, Mordechai Kaplan, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, and founder of the Reconstructionist Movement in the United States, in one of his works, argued that:

"Once Hebrew becomes a foreign or ancient tongue to the Jew, he ceases to experience any intimacy with Jewish life... the first practical step in any effort to live Judaism as a civilization should be to learn Hebrew. It should be included among the languages that Jewish children are taught in the high schools and colleges, and it should be given the same academic credit as Latin and Greek."

Knowledge of Hebrew provides direct access to the Bible, over 3,000 years of cultural creativity, a better understanding of the development of English and even a possible key to comparative linguistics, an appreciation of the biblical heritage in modern literature, cinema, song, art, oratory and politics, and an insight into the moral, ethical, religious and judicial foundations of what we know today as Western Civilization.

Last, but by no means least, Hebrew is the language of modern Israel and an indispensable key to understanding and appreciating Israeli society and culture. Although in the Israeli linguistic marketplace, English will undoubtedly continue to enjoy immense prestige, the day is not far off - sometime in the 21st century - when a majority of the Jewish people in the world will be Hebrew-speaking Israelis. For Jews in the Diaspora, Hebrew remains important as part of their religious heritage, but increasingly it will also function as a window to Israel, and a key to their own cultural heritage.

* Norman Berdichevsky is a translator from Hebrew and Danish into English. He is a regular contributor to several journals in Britain, the United States and Israel on culture, history, geography and linguistics.?




You are reader nr.

since September 2001

(Homepage) | (Back to Genesis) | (My Poems)