The Vitality of the Hebrew Language

What are the secrets of its survival?

Print this page Print this page

This article is excerpted from William Chomsky's magnum opus Hebrew: The Eternal Language, first published in 1957. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

How was the Hebrew language able to exist and function as an effective instrument of creative self-expression and inter­communication for about 2,000 years, without such an essential ingredient for survival as a state or territory? How could Hebrew retain its vitality and elasticity over such a long period of time in the face of such adverse conditions?

Judaism's Uniqueness

The answer to these questions may be discovered by consider­ing the unique character of Judaism and its relation to the Hebrew language. Hebrew has not been a denationalized uni­versal tongue, the medium of a specific religion, in the sense that Latin has been the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Nor has it been merely a folk tongue like other living languages. As a matter of fact, it has persisted as a living language for many centuries after it had ceased to be a spoken vernacular in the accepted sense of the term.

hebrew languageHebrew has been the sacred language of the Jewish people--the language of its re­ligion, culture and civilization. It has been, in sum, the language of Judaism and intimately identified with the national and re­ligious experiences of the Jewish people throughout the genera­tions. The Jewish people can no more be dissociated from Hebrew than they can be dissociated from their own spiritual identity--Judaism.

Relationship Between Language and Culture

An analysis of the nature of language and of Judaism may help to clarify this point.

Our ideas and experiences are not independent of language; they are all integral parts of the same pattern, the warp and woof of the same texture. We do not first have thoughts, ideas, feelings, and then put them into a verbal framework. We think in words, by means of words. Language and experience are inextricably interwoven, and the awareness of one awakens the other. Words and idioms are as indispensable to our thoughts and experiences as are colors and tints to a painting. Our per­sonality matures and develops through language and by our use ­of it. Defective linguistic growth is known to go hand in hand with stunted intellectual and emotional development.

What is true of language in relation to individual growth is equally true in the case of the cultural growth and development of a people. Indeed, students of language have come to recog­nize that the experiences of a group, its mental and emotional habits, its modes of thoughts and attitudes are registered and reflected in the words and idioms of the group's language. Thus, for example, the word shalom, usually rendered as "peace," has in effect little in common with its English equivalent. Shalom does not have the passive, even negative, connotation of the word "peace." It does not mean merely the absence of strife. It is pregnant with positive, active, and energetic meaning and association. It connotes totality, health, wholesomeness, har­mony, success, the completeness and richness of living in an integrated social milieu. When people meet or part they wish each other shalom, or they inquire about each other's shalom.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. William Chomsky (1896-1977) held an eminent place in the world of Jewish scholarship. He wrote in both academic and popular publications about various aspects of Hebrew, Jewish literature, and general education.