Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Recently I've been pondering the issue of how the Proto-Semitic language fits into Jewish theology. There's a popular conception among religious Jews that all languages descend from Hebrew, making it the ancestor of the other Semitic languages. In addition, does the sanctity of the Hebrew language preclude it having descended from a precursor? I'm thinking I may post a few articles over time about small aspects of this topic.

Disclaimer: I will base my discussion on a literal reading of Genesis and the associated Jewish sources. Creative approaches have been suggested for dealing with similar issues, e.g. evolution, and they would most likely be relevant to the Proto-Semitic issue as well. However, I would like to strengthen the standing of Proto-Semitic by showing that it does not contradict the literal approach.

In the description of the creation of woman in Genesis, the Torah states that Adam named the woman formed from his rib:

לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה, כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת
"This one shall be called woman ("ishah"), for she was taken from man ("ish")."

On this, the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (18:4, also brought down by Rashi on the above verse) states:

רבי פנחס ורבי חלקיה בשם רבי סימון אמרי: כשם שניתנה תורה בלשון הקודש, כך נברא העולם בלשון הקודש, שמעת מימיך אומר גיני גיניא?! אנתרופי אנתרופא?! גברא גברתא?! אלא, איש ואשה. למה? שהלשון הזה נופל על הלשון הזה:  

Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Chilkiah said in the name of Rabbi Simun: Just as the Torah was given in Lashon HaKodesh [Hebrew], so too was the world created with Lashon HaKodesh. Have you ever heard someone say "gini ginia"? "Anthropi anthropa"? "Gavra gavreta"? Rather, "ish" and "ishah" [in Hebrew]. Why? Because these two words share the same form.

 According to this midrash, we see that the world was created with Hebrew, since the play on words "ish"-"ishah" does not work in languages such as Aramaic or Greek where the words for "man" and "woman" are unrelated (Greek: "anthropos", "gyni", Aramaic: "gavra", "itteta").

First of all, it's worth mentioning in passing that the words "ish" and "ishah" are probably not etymologically related. Although "-ah" is indeed the feminine gender marker in Hebrew, these words actually have dissimilar vocalization -- "ishah"  אִשָּׁה has a dagesh in the shin, while "ish" אִישׁ is spelled with a yud, reflecting earlier pronunciations /iʃːaː/ and /iːʃ/. Now, based on the rules of Hebrew morphophonology, a word like אִשָּׁה /iʃːa/ word have an expected masculine form אֵש /eʃ/ or אַש /aʃ/, since the underlyingly geminate /ʃ/ does not allow a preceding long vowel. Similarly אִישׁ /iːʃ/ has expected feminine אִישָה /iːʃaː/.

 In fact, the congnates of these words in other Semitic languages show that the two ש's were originally different consonants. איש ish is cognate to Aramaic אנשא enasha "man" and Arabic ناس naas "mankind", where the alternation "sh"-"sh"-"s" is thought to reflect proto-Semitic */ʃ/. On the other hand, אשה ishah is cognate to Aramaic איתתא itteta "woman" and Arabic أنثى antha "female", where the alternation "sh"-"t"-"th" is thought to reflect proto-Semitic */θ/.

Now, this doesn't really present a problem with the midrash. On the contrary, it actually emphasizes the fact that Hebrew stands out in having the words "ish" and "ishah" sound similar. For more info, see Balashon on "ish" and "ishah".

There are certain issues this midrash raises that aren't directly relevant. For instance, English "man" and "woman" also sound similar -- does this midrash not disprove that the world was created with English? For now, I'll leave this question open.

The real question for me here is whether this is consistent with the existence of a proto-Semitic language. When the midrash says that the world was created with Hebrew, does this mean that all current languages descend from Hebrew? Moreover, if Hebrew descended from a previous language, then how could Adam have spoken Hebrew?

Without discussing literalism versus allegory, I think that saying that Adam spoke Hebrew is not inconsistent with proto-Semitic. My argument revolves around the story of the Tower of Babel. The Torah (Bereishit 11:1) states that before this incident:

וַֽיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת...
The whole word [had] one language...

The Targum Yerushalmi and Midrash Tanchuma assume that this language was Hebrew:

TY (ibid): בלישן קודשא הוה ממללין דאיתבריא ביה עלמא מן שרויא
They would speak in Lashon HaKodesh (Hebrew), for with it the world was created in the beginning. 

MT (Noach 19): שהלשון הראשון היו מדברים בלשון הקדש ובו בלשון נברא העולם
For the first language they [the generation of Babel] spoke was Lashon HaKodesh, with which the world was created.

This opinion, also brought down by Rashi and the Baal HaTurim, holds that the inhabitants of the world continued to speak Hebrew, the language of Adam. Quite a lot of time had passed since the creation of the world (1996 years, according to Artscroll), but even if the language had evolved quite a bit, but perhaps it could still be called "Lashon HaKodesh". Indeed, the Torah and the Mishnah were more than a thousand years apart, and despite major differences in language, both could be termed "Lashon HaKodesh". (Cf. Sotah 49b: והאמר רבי בא"י לשון סורסי למה אלא אי לה"ק אי לשון יוונית)

In the continuation of the story of Babel, Hashem causes the people to disperse, their languages becoming distinct from each other. Rashi (Bereishit 11:7), based on Bereishit Rabbah 38:10, understands this to have been an immediate change:

Rashi: זה שואל לבינה וזה מביא טיט, וזה עומד עליו ופוצע את מוחו

One would ask for a brick, another [misunderstanding] would give him mortar, and another would stand over him and bash his head.

According to this opinion, the existence of Proto-Semitic may be explained. Perhaps it was one of the languages which was created during the dispersion. Since the glottogenesis event was immediate, it did not need to descent immediately from Hebrew. Thus the divine hand caused it to come into being at this point.

An alternative approach is that of the Ibn Ezra (ibid), who states that the language change was a result of the dispersion. A similar opinion is recorded in Yerushalmi (Megillah 1:9), that even before the dispersion הוי מדברים בשבעים לשון they spoke in seventy languages, meaning that significant language change had already occurred, but as Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky explains, they could still understand each other. (I suppose either their languages were still mutually intelligible, or more likely they were all versed in one international language, which enabled them to conspire.) Presumably the dispersion then caused them to be unable to understand each other. Both the Ibn Ezra and the Yerushalmi are similar in that the language change happened as a natural consequence rather than as a result of divine glottogenesis.

Either way, one could still explain the existence of Proto-Semitic. Perhaps it did descent from Hebrew, but in such a long and complicated process that it is not traceable through historical linguistics. (Historical linguists to believe that comparative methods cannot reconstruct beyond a certain time depth.) This is somewhat difficult to say due to the short time frame involved (~2000 years), but the time-depth problem is one which also faces other sciences (geology, astronomy, biology) and thus the answers which they give may also apply here. It's also possible that some drastic language change processes occurred, such as pidginisation, or as the Ibn Ezra suggests, perhaps the groups deliberately changed their language in order to become seperate. All of these possibilities could create a dramatically new linguistic ecosystem, allowing for the later development of Proto-Semitic.

There is a seperate question of whether Hebrew continued to be spoken. For example, Avraham, alive during the dispersion, has his son Yitzchak afterwards, whose name has Hebrew etymology. I may deal with this in a later post, but it is beyond the scope of the immediate discussion. In any case, one can still say that the Hebrew spoken at the time of the giving of the Torah descended from Proto-Semitic rather than the Hebrew of Adam.

It also seems like there is a deeper question here. It's hard to deny that Hebrew has a special status Jewishly, both from a halachic standpoint (certain things, e.g. sifrei Torah and tefillin, must be written in Hebrew) as well as from other statements of chazal (e.g. darshening the shapes of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet). There are also other midrashim that state that the Torah was given in Hebrew (cf. Bereishit Rabbah 31:8, Megillah 2b). Does the sanctity of Hebrew preclude it having developed naturally from a previous language?

I would like to argue that this is not an issue. One could say that Hashem chose for proto-Semitic to develop into Hebrew specifically because of its intrinsic holiness. Indeed, it seems that one is forced to say this -- for if Hashem created Hebrew as the first language, then the chance that Proto-Semitic would randomly develop into the language that Adam spoke is infinitesimally small, and thus it must have been Divine providence which caused this to occur.

A literal reading of Jewish sources supports that Hebrew was the first language, and that Hebrew has intrinsic sanctity. This does not preclude the conclusions of historical linguistics about a Proto-Semitic language. The dispersion at Babel may have caused this language to come into being, which Hashem then caused to evolve over time into Hebrew.

I'm not sure if Hebrew as the original language of Adam is the only authentic opinion. Sanhedrin 38a states that Adam spoke Aramaic. Perhaps I'll investigate this further.


  1. A common explanation among apologists for evolution is that the world was created fully made (Omphalos hypothesis), on the lines of עולם במילואו נברא. So maybe a similar explanation can be given here, that לה"ק was created to look as if it had developed naturally?

  2. That seems like a promising idea, but one would have to explain how the whole world spoke שפה אחת before Babel, even though Hebrew is thought to have developed after, say, Proto-Indo-European.

  3. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.