- The Bible writes that G-d created the world with ten statements of language. What is language? It is the expression of the intentionality of being through sound that is boundaried by the lips, teeth, tongue, palate, and throat. The Kabbala calls it air (ruach) circumscribed by din. The Sefer HaYetzirah speaks at length of the power of the combinations and permutations of the letters in explaining creation ex nihilo and the development of multiplicity from unity.
- Put in different terms, language is the means for translating infinity into finitude with its myriad gradations. Since the creation of the world involved the creation of otherness from G-d, and G-d must continually put energy into that otherness in order for that otherness to remain in existence, that means, a priori, that the most fundamental and teleological and, hence, most purposeful fact of creation is that of relationship. And since the creation of the world happened through language, language is a priori the vehicle of that relatedness. Which means language is not just the vessel for relationship, a mere tool, but part of the essence of relationship itself. Which is perhaps why Onkelos in his famous Targum of nefesh chaya (Bereshis 2:7) describes Adam as a speaking being. The question is, why not describe Adam as a choosing being since that seems more fundamental to being than language? An answer: while moral free-will is the basis of tselem Elokim, it is the vehicle of being-ness but not that of relationship. It is language which is the sine qua non of relatedness.
- There is no relationship without language of some sort. Language is the bridge out of the uniqueness of being into commonality with the uniqueness of another being. —Those life forms which lack language will remain imprisoned within the uniqueness of their being where being is defined primarily by its distinctness from anything else. In this sense, think of being as a Markov blanket. This commonality created by language is what is called relationship: the co-mingling of cognitions and emotionalities of two distinct beings.
- When G-d said, “Let there be light. And there was light,” this means that G-d’s statement contained both form and essence. G-d’s utterances were not just expressions of boundaried air but contained within themselves actual creative power. Therefore, language itself contains both the form and essence of the relatedness necessary to create and maintain relationship with both G-d and man. This in turn implies that the more possibility and realization of language the more possibility and realization of relationship. The less that possibility and realization, the more circumscribed any relationship will be.
Devolution of Language:
- “Let there be light. And there was light.” —This is Divine language where form and essence are one. This is where language is ontologically necessary.
- Adam naming animals (Genesis 2:19). Adam uses language to name animals as the exercise of describing their essence as it relates to him. This naming is the very most basic function of the creation of meaning: the naming of phenomena (see de Saussure and Peirce on the construction of meaning). And though the naming comes from Adam’s necessarily subjective point of view, i.e. language as metaphor and not as ontological necessity, G-d nevertheless agrees with Adam’s namings by saying, “That is its name.” This means man’s naming contains enough objective reality to use this reality correctly.
- Migdal Bavel. Due to misuse of the unity that language produces, language as Divinity devolves into social convention. This is then where the evolution of language begins.
- Theocratic language. The language of kings with their divine right to rule. Kingly language is an attempt to mirror the authority of G-d language though it is far from the authority of the Divine. Theocratic language occurs when there is no separation of church and state.
- Democracy. When kings no longer rule by divine right and there is a separation of church and state, the theocratic nature of language gives way to the mediating aspect of language, what one might call diplomatic language, the attempt to use language to mediate between various groups competing for power/economic pieces of the pie.
- Deconstruction. See Derrida’s Of Grammatology in which he irreparably breaks the relationship between sign and what is being signified. This means that there is no necessary relationship between an object and what it means. In this way, the possibility of objective meaning is fractured.
- Politically correct language. Euphemistic language where sign euphemistically misrepresents what is being signified.
- Post-truth language. Misinformation constructed to manipulate meaning. This misinformation is allowed because, largely, there is no consequence. Rabbi Sacks: Free society depends on trust; trust depends on honesty in public life; honesty in public life depends on truth as a norm. My addition: breaking the relationship between sign and what is being signified is to break language; to break language is to break truth; to break truth is to break relationship in both private and public spheres.
- Parallel to the devolution of language is the philosophical movement from the position that essence precedes form (Plato) to form and essence are born at once (Aristotle) to form precedes essence (Sartre). This is a progression from metaphysics to materialism.
- The devolution of language creates ultimately a moral problem: in post-truth society, the argument about language use becomes a moral issue. How is this? The determination of proper descriptors, the way one defines one’s facticities, is the basis of moral thinking. When one is asked to change those descriptors for the sake of another’s sense of hurt—think of the gender wars and their insistence on one’s right to name one’s gender—one is being asked to change one’s moral stance. Why is this? Because as one is being asked to change the nature of the way one constructs one’s facts, one is being put upon to necessarily alter the way one constructs one’s morality. And so, who wins a post-truth argument: the injured/insulted party or the party who insists on the use of language-without-euphemism?
- Language is the vehicle of the creation of relationship whereas mathematics is the language of description of relationship.
- Theory: as language degrades, the ability to connect/carry on relationships degrades in kind. This is obvious since the very basis of relatedness is language. In fact, one can probably trace the ascent and decline of civilizations based on the proper use of and subsequent debasement of language.
- As language is the joining of body, air, and mind, this means that all language is in some sense a unitary/unifying act of humanity within itself and toward the world which, in turn, depends on a conjoining of body to soul to interact with the created world. Its degradation, similarly, can be traced to the body/mind problem wherein language can become fractured like the fault line between body and soul. In turn, this is why good language can compel belief because belief is also based on a conjoining of meaning and significance. In this view, the way one works on one’s relationships is to work on one’s language, since it primarily is the relationship-maker.
Rabbi Yosef Kaufman teaches at Machon Yaakov, Jerusalem.