[Avodah] Language Acquisition

Jay F. Shachter jay at m5.chicago.il.us
Sun Apr 25 19:50:30 PDT 2021

> Except that the midrashic Yitzchaq keeps all 613 mitzvos.  Yaaqov's
> "out", whatever it was, wouldn't apply.  Especially if the
> limitation is that they keep halakhah as it will be given in Sinai
> only when in EY, as Yitzchaq never leaves EY.
> ......................................................................
> But what I was wondering was, why did you assume that Kenaani
> language was more comprehensible to Yitzchaq than the Aramaic of his
> own clan?  There was less cross-pollenation with the language of the
> Ivri that early on, but more, Yitzchaq likely was intentionally
> taught the language of Avraham's past.


Because that's not how language acquisition works.

(You realize, that whether Yitzxaq's native language was Hebrew, was a
peripheral point, of a peripheral point, in the article to which you
are responding?  I'm not complaining -- I like pedantic digressions --
I'm just wondering whether this particular pedantic digression, with
its changed subject, still belongs on Avodah.  But I'll leave that
decision to the Avodah editors.)

In English, and in French, and in Yiddish, and probably in many other
languages that I do not speak, there is an expression, "mother tongue"
(actually, in French you say "maternal tongue", but that's close
enough).  The fact is, however, that your native language is not the
language that your mother spoke to you.  Your native language is the
language that you picked up from the children you played with.

Every reader of this mailing list probably knows one or more
English-speaking couples who have made `aliya, and who spoke to their
Israeli children only in English.  They may have done this because it
was easier for them, or they may have done this to make sure that
their children would grow up fluent in English.  And these children
do, indeed, end up fluent in both English and Hebrew.  But, unless
they grew up in an entirely English-speaking neighborhood -- and there
are not many of those in Israel -- they speak English with a Hebrew
accent.  Moreover, if you listen to them carefully, you will discover
that their English, fluent though it be, is a little off.  Like,
sometimes they use English idioms that are translations of Hebrew
idioms (e.g., "to make fun", la`asot kef) instead of native English
idioms ("to have fun").  The fact is, that despite having grown up in
a home where they heard only English, they are more at home in Hebrew
than in English.  Your mother tongue is not the language that your
mother spoke to you.

"But surely", you may be thinking, "there are counterexamples".
Surely there are immigrant enclaves that have preserved their
languages of origin, and not just for a generation, but sometimes for
hundreds of years, like the (misnamed) Pennsylvania Dutch.  Well, yes.
But only when an entire community came from one place, and settled in
another place, so that the chain of linguistic acquisition -- which
passes from village to child, not from mother to child -- was not

We see this in our own history.  When Jews settled in German-speaking
countries, they quickly abandoned their former languages, and started
speaking German.  But 600 years after Jews settled in Poland, they
were still speaking a Germanic language (true, they incorporated many
Slavic words into their language, and even, albeit rarely, Slavic
grammatical forms -- "es khulemt zikh mir a vayser khanikke" is not a
sentence that our estemmed colleague Arie Folger would be comfortable
with -- but Yiddish is unquestionably a Germanic language, in both
grammar and vocabulary).  This is not because, as some of you may
wrongly think, the Jews were more ghettoized in Poland than in
Germany.  In fact, the reverse was probably true.  It is because the
immigration of Jews into Germany was not an immigration en masse,
entire communities traveling intact from one place to another place.
In contrast, the immigration of Jews into Poland was an immigration en
masse, triggered by a specific event.  In 1264, King Boleslaw invited
the Jews into Poland, enacting a statute that guaranteed them minimal
humane treatment; and in 1334, during a time of unprecedented
persecutions in German-speaking countries, King Casimir reaffirmed
King Boleslaw's statute.  Jews immigrated en masse from German
territories into Poland, entire communities leaving one place and
settling into another place.  That is why the Jews who immigrated into
Germany very quickly started speaking German, whereas the Jews who
immigrated into Poland did not start speaking Polish.

Now, we know that the descendants of Avraham eventually switched from
speaking Aramaic to speaking the Hebrew of the Cannanites.  So the
only question that you are raising, is when it happened.  It couldn't
have happened in Egypt.  So it must have happened before they went to
Egypt, sometime within the first three generations.  I think it's most
likely -- in fact, almost certain -- that it happened in the first
generation, like it usually does.  Avram was a wealthy sheikh, but
he was still just one man, with a childless wife, and a nephew, plus
some servants.  Even if he had not been given a Divine command to
leave his land, his birthplace, and his father's house, he just didn't
have enough of a community with him, to raise a child fluent in the
Aramaic of his land, his birthplace, and his father's house, in a
Hebrew-speaking country.  I don't much care whether I am wrong, but I
truly don't see how you can disagree.  Especially since you love
Midrashim so much.  How much of an Aramaic-speaking community could he
have brought with him into Canaan?  It is true that Genesis 12:5
speaks of the people whom he acquired in Xaran.  Oh wait -- the
Midrash says that that was just one person.  And it is true that,
later on, Genesis 14:14 tells us that Avram's household was so large
that he had a private army of 318 people.  Oh wait -- the Midrash says
that that was just one person.

But even if the midrashim are not literally true, and even if Avraham
had enough of an Aramaic-speaking household with him that he could
have raised his son to be fluent in the Aramaic of his land, his
birthplace, and his father's house -- if Yitzxaq wasn't the generation
that switched over from Aramaic to Hebrew, then who was?  Was it
Ya`aqov, even though he, too, had an Aramaic-speaking mother?  We know
that it couldn't have been later than that, because Genesis 31:47
tells us that Ya`aqov was already speaking Hebrew.  We haven't much of
a range to choose from.  If it wasn't Yitzxaq, it was Ya`aqov.  I
don't much care if I am wrong, but I think it's more likely that it
happened earlier, when the household was smaller, than that it
happened later, when the household was larger.

                        Jay F. ("Yaakov") Shachter
                        6424 North Whipple Street
                        Chicago IL  60645-4111
                                (1-773)7613784   landline
                                (1-410)9964737   GoogleVoice
                                jay at m5.chicago.il.us

                        "Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur"

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