Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Bereshith 5761/ 14-21 October 2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Bereshit 5761/ 28 October 2000

"And man became a living being" (Gen. 2:7) - "A speaking soul" (Onkelos, loc. sit.)
On Language - Ancient and Modern Views


Dr. Lubah Charlap
Unit of Hebrew Expression and Ulpan


Parashat Bereshit tells how all things began, how the world and all it contains, including human speech, came into being. Questions such as what language primordial man spoke, what is the origin of speech, how speech is acquired, have concerned thinkers throughout the ages, Jews and gentiles alike. This essay addresses two points: the importance of speech (in any language) as a universal concept and the origins of speech, both of which we shall discuss in relationship to this week's Torah reading.

The process of creating human beings, according to Scripture, combined both matter and spirit -- "the Lord G-d formed man from the dust of the earth" and "He blew into his nostrils the breath of life" (Gen. 2:7; also see Rashi's comment on this verse) – with the result, stated at the end of the verse, that "man became a living being." The Sages addressed themselves to the significance of this expression. Onkelos explained that "the breath became in man a speaking spirit," and Rashi wrote, "also the animals and beasts were called living creatures, but man was highest of them all, for he had the additional faculties of intellect and speech."[1] The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) recounts:

Rabba created a man, and sent him to appear before Rabbi Zeira. R. Zeira spoke to him, but the golem did not answer. So he said to him, "You are an assembled creation and not a human being; go back to the dust from which you came."

In the eyes of the Sages, the ability to speak signified human life.

Maimonides was of the opinion that the human soul is one: "Realize that the human soul is one, and it has many diverse functions, some of these functions being called souls" (Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, ch. 1). This was in contrast to the opinion of the "doctors,"[2] who held that human beings have many souls. Maimonides too emphasized the superiority of the human soul as a "speaking soul, i.e., a soul whose mode of expression is speech."[3] In his commentary on Maimonides, Leibowitz shows that "speech" also expresses "the word itself" as well as its content, and hence the connection that Maimonides makes between thinking and speaking.

The ancient Greeks, as well as philosophers from the Middle Ages until our times, recognized that speech is the "soul" and is the unique vital force of human beings, making man superior to the beast. To be a human being meant to have the "faculty of speech," as Wittgenstein said: "The boundaries of my speech are the boundaries of my universe." [4]

Speech as a means of communication is the understanding of Ibn Ezra. For example, see his Short Commentary on Exodus 23:20: "Facility in speech is not intrinsic wisdom, except insofar as there is someone else who understands what has been spoken."[5] Ibn Ezra compared the relationship between speech and thought to the relationship between the physical body (expressing the word, the language) and the soul (expressing the content, the meaning). For example, "Words are like the body and reasons are like the soul; and the body to the soul is like an instrument" (loc. sit., 20:1). Also, "I shall speak in ideas, which are like the soul, where the words are like the body" (Safah Berurah 4.2).

The communicative role of language has been stressed in modern linguistics, especially under the influence of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, with the attention of post-modern linguistics being directed towards the relationship between text and context, especially stressing the circumstantial-social context in which the communication takes place.[6]

The Greeks addressed the question of the origin of language. Plato[7] believed that words have meaning by nature, physae. In line with his theory of Ideals, names are the ideals of objects. He tried to prove the natural connection between objects and their names by means of etymological explanations based on sounds and instinct, what we would call folk etymology.[8] Indeed, one group of words - onomatopoeias - appears to support this theory.

Aristotle's theory, in contrast, was that language is the result of social convention, thaesae. Following the Greeks, Latin grammarians continued to investigate these questions. Also the Arabs were concerned with these issues, although in their discussions the notion of language coming from nature was replaced by the idea of language being from G-d. The Aristotelian theory was the one to gain acceptance by modern science,[9] and in line with this theory linguistics pushed aside all the weighty questions about the origins of language and turned its attention primarily to synchronic aspects, i.e., to describing the state of a specific language (or languages) at a given time. Even the diachronic linguistics of the nineteenth century concerned itself with "facts" and did not take time to speculate on the general question of what language is. It did not consider language as a general universal concept, rather it examined various languages (cf. Bronowski, note 6 above, p. 31). Asking questions about the essence of language became the concern of other disciplines, primarily philosophy and psychology.

Contemporary linguistics attempted to redress this situation. It returned to the questions asked by the Greeks and the Indians, to the arguments of Plato and pondered universal questions: what is language "in and of itself," how does it function, and what impact does it exert? Bronowski (loc. sit.) notes that structuralism, an overall approach that can be applied in many areas, finds expression in linguistics in attempts to set forth the underlying structure of language, the algebra of human speech, in which the various tongues spoken by different peoples are its arithmetic. Establishing a universal grammar became one of linguistics' objectives, and a distinction was drawn between "speech" (as a superstructure) and languages (its applications). With the emergence of Chomsky's generative school, these discussions received considerable impetus. Chomsky maintained that human beings are naturally endowed with capabilities that enable them to form sentences, and stressed the trait of creativity as a fundamental characteristic of language. The ability to speak is an innate competence, a uniquely human trait independent of external factors (such as environment, condition, etc.).[10]

What approach do we find to language in traditional Jewish sources? Jewish texts that discussed the origin of language generally emphasized the place of Hebrew as an ancient tongue. Nevertheless, certain rabbis also approached the question from a universal perspective. Ibn Ezra (Safah Berurah, 1.1-2) wrote that language (any language) is a product of social convention and not inherent in human nature, nor is it divine. He based this idea on verses from this week's reading: "And the Lord G-d formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts" (Gen. 2:19-20). According to Ibn Ezra's interpretation of these verses, the first names were given by man, and therefore they were not a creation of G-d. It follows from his remarks, however, that on a certain level there was divine intervention in determining the names; for in leaving man to choose names for the animals and birds, G-d trusted that man would "have the wisdom to know the nature of all the species so that the name given to each would signify its nature" (Safah Berurah, 2.1). In other words, G-d created man with the necessary characteristics such that He could entrust him with the task of giving names, i.e., language. According to this explanation, Ibn Ezra distinguished between the faculty of speech, which is given to man by G-d, and its applications in the human languages that developed as a creation of human society. As he wrote further on, "He, blessed be His name, planted in man the power to express through letters, and all peoples everywhere are equal in their ability to pronounce [i.e., in their innate faculty of speech], and only differ slightly as to their letters [i.e., their language, the grammatical and linguistic system of each] in their style of speech." (loc. sit.) [11]

The distinction that Ibn Ezra drew between the faculty of speech and its expression in language is essentially the same as that which de Saussure drew between la parole (speech) and la langue. A similar distinction has been drawn by Chomsky between competence and performance.[12] Note that in the sources cited above Ibn Ezra did not express an opinion about the nature of the names or signs that man gave to things, as to whether they are arbitrary or significant. This question was addressed both by the Greeks and by modern linguistic researchers, especially de Saussure, who held that linguistic signs are altogether arbitrary.[13]

In conclusion, the account of the creation of man and his giving the animals names provided our Sages and commentators substantiation of their views and ideas on language as the "breath of life" and as a "living being," in the context of their discussions of the origins of language and its development in human society. As we have tried to show, there is an affinity between these views and similar approaches taken by the world's great philosophers and the originators of modern linguistics, among scholars of antiquity and of modern times alike.

[1] See the alternative explanation offered by Ibn Ezra (loc. sit.): "The explanation of ‘living being,' is that he [Adam] walked immediately, like the animals, and not like human babies." This explanation is based on the fact that the same expression nefesh hayya is also used with respect to the animals (Gen. 1:21, 30).
[2] See the continuation of his remarks there. Apparently he was referring to Galen (129 CE), Greek physician, and following him, his Arab teachers, at least according to Prof. Isaiah. Leibowitz, Sihot al ‘Shemonah Perakim' la-Rambam, Jerusalem (undated), p. 18.
[3] Cf. Leibowitz, loc. sit., pp. 17-26.
[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, with an introduction by Bertrand Russel (1922). Wittgenstein wrote on the relationship between language and thought. His theories are discussed in Y. Bronowski, Massah al ha-Lashon, Tel Aviv (1975), pp. 81-84.
[5] Also cf. his commentary on Psalms 4:5: "The speech of the heart are the main thing, and language is but the intermediary between the heart and the listener." Also cf. Ps. 52:4. Wittgenstein, ibid., p. 37 (4.012): "Language disguises thought."
[6] On this, cf., for example, R. Nir, Mavo le-Torat ha-Lashon, Unit 2: Ha-Lashon ke-Emtzai le-Tikshoret, Open University, Tel Aviv, 1981, pp. 2-7.
[7] In his dialogues, Cratylus and the Sophist.
[8] See examples given by Bronovsky, note 4 above, p. 14.
[9] Cf. F. de Saussure, Course de linguistique generale, Paris 1915, Part I, Ch. 2.
[ ]10 This stands in contrast to the behaviorist approach, represented by B.F. Skinner (cf. his book, Verbal Behaviour, 1957), who maintains that language acquisition is primarily a matter of imitation and conditioning. Similar views are presented by the American linguist L. Bloomfield (cf. Language, 1933). Chomsky presents a critique of Skinner in a review in Language, 35 (1950).
[11] Compare the opinion of Saadiah Gaon on this, according to Dothan (Or Rishon be-Hokhmat ha-Lashon – Sefer Tzahot Leshon ha-Ivrim le-Rav Saadiah Gaon, Jerusalem 1997, I, pp. 96-99). In Saadiah Gaon's opinion the names of things did not develop from nature, but rather were established by consensus; the linguistic sign is arbitrary, but the consensus exists from time immemorial. The choice of names was accomplished by the "founder of language," who chose the signs of the language in an arbitrary manner, and his determinations were accepted as the consensus and were passed down to future generations. Dothan (loc. sit., p. 98) holds that Saadiah Gaon "undoubtedly was referring to Adam" as the "founder of language" (on the basis of what is written in this week's reading).
[12] On these concepts cf. Nir (note 9, above), Unit 1: Musagei Yesod be-Heker ha-Lashon, pp. 16-18.
[13] Cf. Nir (note 9, above), Unit 2 (loc. sit.) p. 7.
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