Waiting for my Brooklyn-bound L train, I perused the MTA announcement about future service interruptions. New York subway is a delight for any language lover.
A lot of printed announcements come in a variety of languages, and this one was also multilingual. As somebody who speaks seven languages with a different degree of fluency and teaches three of them, I can easily pick up the stems and understand the syntax and the grammar.
Was I to live in the valley in the land of Shinar, described in this week’s Torah portion, Noach, I would not have spoken those. Torah tells us that once upon a time, everyone on Earth used the same language and words.
The Sages agree that “same language” must have been Hebrew, the language of Torah, but what are the “same words”? Ibn Ezra offers an elegant explanation, rooted in the existence of vernacular and literary languages, which for him would be, respectively, Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew. “Unlike today, when there are words which not everybody speaking a given language will understand, the learned and the ignorant in those days spoke alike.”