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The Missing Link
Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

Where did human language come from?

Linguists and biologists seem to have been working overtime evolving theories for the origin of language. Some posit a "gestural theory," that our way with words evolved from animal hand signs; others believe that there was a developmental relationship between the movements of the mouth in chewing and its movements in speaking. Darwin himself proposed that human language evolved from the cries of animals, an idea that was derided in its time as the "bow-wow" theory.

The fact is, there isn't any fossil record to go on, and nobody really knows. "The whole field is not settled," concedes William Calvin, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Everybody's got a theory." His own theory is that language evolved from the rapid mental reflexes required to, say, throw a spear at a running mammoth.

The reason that everybody's got a theory is that, aside from the fun of making up your own history of the species, the origin of language is acknowledged to be one of the biggest questions facing linguists. It goes right to the question of what it means to be human. For, as the pre-eminent linguist Noam Chomsky observed, "One distinctive feature about humans is the language capacity. It's central for our present existence and...seems unique to the human species..." On that there seems to be little argument in scientific circles.

Indeed, on this point the scientists will get no argument from tradition. The Jewish Sages divide creation into four levels: mineral, plant, animal and man. In the original Hebrew, however, the word used for man is not adam, but medaber, which means speaker. (Likewise the word for mineral is domem, silent.) The Sages understood that the capacity for verbal communication is essential to man; that is what man is, a talker.

From a societal perspective, it is easily understood; so much of our life is made up of verbal interaction. Friendship, business, politics, entertainment, even war, is a vast fabric of words. Trillions of them pass through the internet daily. Indeed, without language, society faces breakdown. In biblical times, the people of the Tower of Babel, who had come together to build their skyscraping edifice, dispersed into seventy nations when they found themselves suddenly conversing in different tongues. In modern times, too, language has been a major catalyst for a babble of separatist movements, in French Canada, Kurdish Turkey, Albanian Macedonia, and East Timor, to name just a few.

The centrality of speech is also manifest in Jewish observance in the form of prayer and Torah study, and in refraining from lying, gossip and profanity. The Torah describes creation itself as a function of speech, "...And the Lord said, Let there be light." Moreover, tradition teaches that The Ten Commandments, by which the Jewish nation came into existence, paralleled The Ten Utterances by which G-d brought the physical world into existence. (Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 5.)

It is in the Torah's account of the creation of man (Genesis 2:7), however, that the mystery of human language origin is addressed: "...And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life..." which is rendered in the standard Aramaic translation (Onkelos), as G-d imparting to man a "speaking spirit."

And here we come to a deeper understanding. Beyond the practical, social need for communication, there is a moral dimension:

"When G-d took the dust of the earth, formed man, and breathed into him a G-dly soul, He created a unique creature, containing within himself both the physical and the spiritual. It is that duality that endows man with free will. Were he bound strictly by the physical world, he would have no more free choice than the animals. Were he connected solely to the spiritual world, he would have no more free choice than the angels. Because man lives in both worlds, he has the ability to make choices. It follows then that the mouth, where these two worlds intersect, is where free will is most clearly evident.---from Rabbi Shimon Finkelman and Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz, Chofetz Chaim, A Lesson A Day, Overview, P. XXVI-XXVII.

The mouth is not, as some would have it, the evolutionary link between chewing and speaking, but the moral interface between the soul and the body. Thought---the flowing, incorporeal issue of the soul---is given concrete form through the organs of speech. Speech, which can be employed for good or for evil; to promote peace or propagandize for war, to commune with G-d or to deny His existence.

When queried on the question of the origin of language in a 1992 interview, Dr. Chomsky said: "I don't think we have a prayer of answering it on the basis of anything that's now understood." True enough, but not necessarily in the way that Chomsky intended.

Language is, in a sense, the missing link in evolutionary theory, an impenetrable mystery about which scientists, using the tools of science, can only speculate. But in the Jewish view it is, on the contrary, the ever-present bridge between the physical world we live in and the world of spirituality to which we may aspire.

Reprinted with permission from



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