Part 2 of 2
“Lingua Franca” and Science
The term ‘lingua franca’ literally means the language of the Franks. This expression was one that all people in the Middle Ages used to describe Europeans. The larger, less literal meaning of the term denotes a common language that disparate nations and peoples can use to speak across large geographical distances and linguistic divides. In the Middle Ages, a version of Italian with a very simplified grammar was spoken throughout the Eastern Mediterranean trading basin. The language contained a very large number of so-called loan words from Greek, Arabic, Slavonic, Armenian, Turkic and many other languages. The Mediterranean lingua franca was used essentially as a universal language to aid with trade and transnational communication. The modern term ‘lingua franca’ has taken on a more general meaning in common parlance, describing any one of a number of these trade or universal languages. There are many that could be cited here, such as Aramaic at the time of Jesus, Sanskrit, Biblical Greek in Hellenistic times, Latin, and many pigeon English variants in our own times. Hebrew itself was used in the Middle Ages and well into colonial times as a type of commercial and medical lingua franca, allowing disparate traders and commercial networks to exchange contracts and letters of credit without otherwise understanding each other’s native languages.
Science and scholarship has adopted a separate lingua franca to ease publication and communication across diverse languages and linguistic groups. Different languages have served this purpose over time, including Greek in the classical era, Arabic in the Golden Islamic Age, Latin, and English in our own times. Latin, in particular, remained the principal language of science and scholarship up until the 18th century. The first person to publish in his own tongue was Galileo in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In the 19th century, German began to displace Latin, French, and English, as the dominant academic language, particularly in the emerging areas of physics, medicine, mathematics and in Classical Studies.
German language “colonization” of these new academic fields was achieved ‘programmatically,’ by seizing the high peaks of research, and by outperforming and outcompeting all other scholars, institutions and nationalities. This linguistic dominance was further achieved by promulgating and adhering to the highest possible standards of scholarships. In this regard, what Germany achieved in such a short period of time during the 19th century is extraordinary. Germany essentially took over higher science. It was a takeover in which outstanding Jewish academics and scientists played an outsized role.
German researchers and scholarship were dominant across many fields, and particularly in medicine by the early 20th century. Not unlike the approach proposed here respecting medicine and the Hebrew language, Germany made certain to cultivate, nay conquer, and render German language the language of science. This was an impressive feat, doubly so in that Germany itself was not a unified country but rather a complex patchwork of different states with little ability to establish uniform academic standards until well into the 19th century. Nevertheless, shaping the German language to the requirements of philosophy and science became a priority, and many of the great German intellectuals contributed to this deliberate plan and ambition. Gottfried Leibniz’s influence was likely decisive in this regard. The great German philosopher and mathematician, co-inventor of the Calculus with Isaac Newton, wrote two important essays on the subject, both in the year 1682: “An Exhortation to the Germans,” and “Unpremeditated thoughts on the practice and the improvement of the German Language.” The German program and the concomitant teaching and research regime that Leibniz and others spearheaded was remarkably successful.
Medical researchers and physicians everywhere sought to learn German, to travel to Germany for medical school, and to learn cutting-edge techniques. German language journals were amongst the most prestigious journals in the world. The German language as a literary vehicle was to enjoy at the same time a great flowering, giving rise to an unmatched expressive and nuanced vocabulary capable of the finest philosophical distinctions. The rapidly evolving scientific language gave us dazzling composite words that enriched English and other languages, such as: Weltanschauung (world view), or Gedankenexperiment (thought experiment), or Nullsummenspiel (game with a good outcome).
German language ascendancy was to be checked, however, in the 20th century by the hegemonic and imperial emergence of English, and the retreat of German due to two world wars, particularly as a consequence of the mass emigration of Germany’s scientific elite — specifically, the Jewish scientific elite with its many academics, scientists, writers, poets, and researchers in the face of Hitlers’s rise to power in 1933. Hitler’s rise to power led almost immediately to legislated and imposed restrictive and discriminatory anti-Jewish policies. In the post-war period, Germany was to be further damaged as a carrier of scientific scholarship. This trend was driven significantly by the immense research funding and competitive institution-building in the United States. The Holocaust just as seriously damaged the German language as a carrier of “truth value.” As the critic and brilliant essayist George Steiner suggested in his book, Language and Silence (1967), words that “are saturated with lies and atrocity do not easily resume life.” Or, as Steiner suggested elsewhere, “everything forgets but language.” A language that has given rise to “Belsen Bergen, and Auschwitz and the Gas chambers has lost something vital that cannot be replaced.”
Hebrew — Its Continuing Vocation
One of the monumental accomplishments of the Zionist movement has been the resurrection of the Hebrew language. The restoration of Hebrew from a pure liturgical language, and the literary language of the Bible, with its relatively small vocabulary of eight or nine thousand words, a quarter of which are hapax legomenon (words that appear in a text only once and whose meaning cannot be easily assayed), into a national tongue spoken by close to nine million individuals, is an unparalleled and unexampled achievement in human history. It is a singular achievement. The recreation of the Hebrew language alone speaks to the immensity and grandeur of the Zionist project. It is a project that exemplifies the love and depth of feeling that Jewish people hold for the Holy Land and the Zionist movement’s extraordinary will and ambition to return to the national homeland and resurrect its historical mission.
The project of establishing Hebrew as the de facto language of medicine becomes more realizable and attainable with consideration of what has already been achieved linguistically and philologically. The entire national Jewish Zionist project was reset on a Hebrew language foundation by the will and determination of a single individual. The individual, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, performed this feat almost single-handedly and in the face of much ridicule and skepticism. Ben-Yehuda accomplished his dreamed-of task by restricting all of the communication in his own household and with his children to Hebrew. He also began the herculean task of writing his own dictionary, now known as the Ben-Yehuda Dictionary, and slowly and methodically creating new words and vocabulary. Convincing other families to likewise restrict their communication to Hebrew was difficult. Ben-Yehuda did not find many families congenial to his initiative. With remarkable persistence, however, he began to make modest progress.
By 1890, ten years after beginning his project, Ben-Yehuda had convinced four families in Jerusalem to use Hebrew exclusively. By 1900, twenty years after he commenced his project, ten families were reportedly speaking only Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda’s undertaking was by no means assured. The so-called “war of languages” still raged in 1912 with respect to what language of instruction should be used at the new Technikum University, as it was then known. The divisive question revolved around whether to use German with its rich scientific and technical vocabulary, or Hebrew with its greatly limited and restricted vocabulary and cumbersome grammar. Hebrew won the day despite a fraught debate. With the widespread adoption of Hebrew as the teaching language in public schools and institutes of higher learning, Ben-Yehuda’s initiative gained traction. This is an extraordinary story in and of itself.
Reanimating Hebrew has deeply anchored the Jewish people in the Holy Land. At the same time, it deepened the Jewish people’s connection to the Biblical books and literature more than any other event. The reconstitution of Hebrew as the national language of Israel is a watershed moment not just in Jewish history but in the history of humankind.
The rebirth of the Hebrew tongue opens up the tremendous resources inherent in the language to Israel’s national Zionist project. The linguistic instrumentalities within the Hebrew language are more than just literary resources, but treasuries of symbolic and metaphorical elements that have given rise to many of the defining events of human history. Indeed G-d’s contact with humankind is mediated through Hebrew.
The Hebrew language’s potentialities and capacity for negotiating this contact is buried in its linguistic and semantic structure, and it still resides there. The greatest abstraction that has ever been contemplated, the monotheistic conception of the G-dhead, was contemplated through the structure of the Hebrew language. Retained within the Hebrew language is the autocatalytic invention of the alphabet itself. Although other nations, the Canaanites and Sumerians may have contributed elements of the underlying pictograms and script, and certain graffiti and ditties may have been scratched onto the walls of the Turquoise mines in Serabit, it was the Hebrews’ conceptual leap that instrumentalized a universal phonetic script to the associated phonemes (sound elements) in the descriptors of the named elements of our world. What extraordinary exigency and economy of purpose drove this breakthrough is one of the great long-mooted and unsolved questions of human history.
One wonders when and how this came about. What singular genius solved the puzzle, culled the range of sounds to 22 (consonantal) letters of the Hebrew alphabet, decided on this final parsimonious decision-set and realized its endless applicability? What sage of sages, what superintending genius saw the generality and power of the alphabet, grasped its capacity and means to convey Israel’s story, to assert the unity of the Almighty, to banish idolatry, and establish the primacy of Jewish law and morals?
Was this singular genius possibly Moses as I have often asked myself; is it possible that it was Moses that ‘fitted’ the invented Hebrew alphabet to the decalogue on Mount Sinai? Was it the Golden Calf that so enraged Moses or was it the inability of his followers to understand the profundity of his linguistic invention? His temper tantrum conveys the feeling of the inventor spurned, I think. Perhaps Moses great act of translation (of G-d’s thoughts), his singularly transformative ‘performance’ was not grasped or understood by his wayward people.
Regardless of the inventor, whose identity we will never know, the invention of the alphabet made the Hebrew scriptures possible and the application of the alphabet to The Pentateuch altered the course of history. The numinous powers of Hebrew and the ‘magic’ of its letters continue to animate the modern language of Israel. The Hebrew language contains latent powers that have yet to be fully renewed and reactivated; its linguistic and expressive powers will be conjoined to our task of creating a lingua franca for medicine.
That the alphabet was a Hebraic invention, solely and completely, is revealed in the letter mysticism of the language; only the Hebrews and the Jewish people worship the letters of the alphabet in this fashion; nor does any other people devote so much energy to maintaining the scribal strictness and fidelity of their language. The 3rd century Sefer Yetzirah, perhaps the most poetical ode to the Hebrew language, testifies to its primacy; with its worshipful and adoring expression, we can almost see Moses or some other great Judean sage, “weighing,” “measuring,” and “playing with the sounds,” the careful “rolling” of each letter on the “tongue and lips”; “balancing” each word against “each word”, refining the “perfect series” of sounds. The Sefer Yetzirah conveys the singular genius who turned written language on its head and transformed ‘reading’ from a visual system of semantically-loaded pictograms to an aural system of heard and spoken sounds that can harmonize and soar to the heavens.
Our objective is to launch Hebrew on a new vocation, a new journey, and to boldly make Hebrew the language of medicine, medical learning, and medical education. The other side of this project is to scope out and organize the most far-reaching medical research initiative ever contemplated. We plan to conjoin these two projects, instrumentalizing Hebrew as the language of medicine while organizing the World Jewish Foundation for Medical Research. These two undertakings will be connected in majestic interlocking and inseparable ‘Borromean Rings’. The linguistic initiative and the research foundation will overlap, reinforce, and support each other. The Hebrew language and the Hebrew alphabet will spread organically and naturally throughout the world. Tens of millions of people will study, research, publish, communicate and think in the Hebrew language. Hundreds of millions of people will learn to speak the language, including school children all over the world. A great literature beyond the scientific literature will blossom in Israel as a returned gesture, a cultural and poetic dividend for the giving and saving of human life. This literature and poetry will draw the entire world into a better understanding of the verities and truths of Hebrew, Jewish civilization, and an acknowledgement of the importance of Israel’s rebirth and continuation. The world will be sanctified and uplifted.
This is the first of a planned series of blog entries on establishing the Hebrew language as the lingua franca of medicine and medical learning. The practical steps towards achieving this goal will be further explored in future postings. Additional blogs will be devoted to the research agenda and the global medical centre around which it will be based. Additional entries will revolve around the difficulties and issues of raising the necessary philanthropic commitments. The Hebrew language and its uniqueness will be an on-going theme which I will continue to explore. An effort will also be made to survey Jewish contributions in medicine, a subject that has been described in depth elsewhere, but in no way comprehensively or exhaustively. We need to ask, what is the true and available landscape of existing Jewish expertise, talent, and capability that can be drawn upon and brought to bear on organizing the research agenda?
I invite sympathetic and interested people everywhere to join me in outlining the way forward, to set up the planning priorities, to organize the fundraising, and to set out a timetable for action. The objective of Zionism 2.0 is nothing less than to lay out ambitious civilizational-scale projects and to launch them. Israel, rest assured, will be a beacon of light which will be seen around the world — a source of light that will be projected outwards, well beyond our own fragile world into the great unknown, the mysterium tremendum that surrounds us.
“If you will it,
it is no dream.”
This post is dedicated to the memory of Alon Shamriz, Yotam Haim and Samer Talalka who were taken hostage on October 7th, 2023 and who tragically lost their lives on December 15th, 2023 while attempting to escape their captors. May their memory be a blessing and may they be comforted and entwined with the Lord Almighty