The Beauty of Language

By: Shneur Agronin  |  October 23, 2023

By Shneur Agronin

The story of the Tower of Babel, is a cautionary tale to those who come together in an attempt to thwart the will and dominion of God. When the entire monolingual world joined forces to challenge God’s authority and literally ascended heavenward to do so, God “confused their tongues,” and dispersed the peoples of the Earth into separate nations each speaking a different language. Accordingly, one may view the biblically-described creation of language, as we recognize it today, as a curse imposed on man by God to quash the plans of Adam’s rebellious descendents. Nevertheless, within this apparent punishment lies a truly Divine gift: the enamoring collective beauty of the nearly 7,000 languages spoken by humanity worldwide. 

The entire universe, put simply, was created through language. God uttered what can perhaps be described as the first words ever, and from the Divine energy contained therein was born the universe and all of creation. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, writes at the beginning of Sha’ar HaYichud Ve’Ha’Emunah, how the words of God do not merely spur on creation, but actively and eternally supply a constant Divine lifeforce which sustains the entire universe and everything within it. In this sense, God is truly the ultimate linguist. Seeing that language is a quality indivisible from the image of God and the template for man’s creation, a truly remarkable conclusion can be drawn. Just as Adam himself was created in a state of perfection, so too did God endow this ideal human with the capacity for language and the capability to utilize it for holy, creative purposes. Bereishit 2:7 reads, “and God formed Adam [from] the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils a living soul, and Adam became a living creature.” Curiously, Onkelos renders this in Aramaic as, “and there came to be in Adam a speaking spirit.” That which characterized the life and humanity of Adam (and, indeed, of all human beings descended from him), typifies his lofty status is this unique ability to speak, specifically using the holy language of Hebrew. It is through the later sins of Adam and his descendents, specifically the generation of the dispersal, that the negative and destructive potential for language was uncovered and taken advantage of. 

 There are many examples of the intricacies and wonders of language and how the human brain processes, learns, and uses it . The Romance languages (namely Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, and many others) which descend from Latin, are often thought of as the languages of love and vocal beauty. Pure and smooth vowels, a general absence of consonant sounds crammed close together, trilled R’s, and melodious intonations lend an almost mystical quality to these languages. Contrast the open, loose, and graceful sounds of the words lobo (“wolf,” in Spanish, from Latin lupus), visage (“face,” in French, from Latin visus, meaning “vision”), or sonho (“dream,” in Portuguese, pronounced like soh-yoo, from Latin somnium) with the abrupt, compact, and closed sounds of volk (“wolf” in Russian), Gesicht (“face,” in German), and mriye (“dream,” in Ukrainian). 

Some (such as those of the Sinitic and Kra-Dai language families, most notably Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Thai, as well as several Niger-Congo and Native American languages) include tones, or varying pitches within a syllable, to distinguish words. For example, the Mandarin syllable ma can mean “mother” (when pronounced with a high pitch), “cannabis/hemp” (rising pitch), “horse” (falling then rising pitch), or “scold” (falling pitch)! 

While some languages may be known for their intriguing phonetics, others are recognized for exceptionally complex grammar. Consider the English word “dog,” which has only one alternative form (the possessive, as in, “the dog’s…”). Contrast this with the Russian sobaka (dog), which can become sobaku, sobaki, sobak, sobakoy, sobakye, sobakami, sobakam, or sobakakh, depending on its function in a sentence. The English adjective “good” will appear the same regardless of what, who, or the amount of that which it describes. In Russian, however, the speaker must keep in mind the gender (Russian has three), grammatical case (Russian has six), and number (singular or plural) of a noun being described and phrase the adjective accordingly. So, while “good” will always be “good,” the Russian harasho (good) can become haroshiiy, haroshi, haroshiye, harasha, haroshuyu, haroshim, haroshimi, haroshikh, and many others. 

The capacity for language is truly amazing. As with any ability at our disposal, we can freely choose what role it plays in our lives. We can easily use language to harm, frighten, manipulate, and oppress. Few are strangers to the destruction that words of ill-will spoken with malice can wreak. But, of course, language can just as easily be used to heal, encourage, comfort, and love. Words of empathy spoken from the heart can illuminate a soul darkened by the woes of life. Words of love and care spoken to spouses, children, and friends, can profoundly deepen and mend our relationships. Words of solidarity spoken to those suffering in silence remind them that they are not alone. Whether the languages we speak feature closed or open vowels, complex morphologies or simplistic grammar, alphabets or abugidas, they are all united in that they can so powerfully unite all of us.