The Dutch language has declined terribly, as have many other languages, including modern Hebrew.
When I studied modern and classic languages at high school in the Netherlands, we learned to formulate a sentence in a most beautiful way and to express ourselves clearly. This had to be done with eloquence and dignity. It lifted us to a higher plane.
Throughout early Dutch history, words were considered holy. Only the human being was endowed with the gift of words. Based on the biblical and the Jewish tradition, the Dutch claimed that language was given to enable man to connect with the Creator, to praise Him, to beseech, and even, as in the case of Avraham and the citizens of Sedom and Amora, to criticize Him. One can only pray to Him with the grandeur invested in language.
Whether it is Biblical Hebrew or the supreme use of it by Maimonides or Yehuda Halevi, one can taste the heavens in the words. Even when reading Homer, Shakespeare or Milton, one feels the beauty dripping from their texts.
The language of these authors made us proud and reflected the decency of mankind, its ethics and its greatness. Man was seen as the peak of creation and consequently of great nobility. Few doubted this.
“Language is a constituent element of civilization. It raised man from a savage state to the plane which he was capable of reaching. Man could not become man except by language. An essential point in which man differs from animals is that man alone is the sole possessor of language. No doubt animals also exhibit certain degree of power of communication but that is not only inferior in degree to human language, but also radically diverse in kind from it.
(Language and its Importance to Society, Shelly Shah)
It is remarkable that with the decline of religious faith over the last decades, language started to deteriorate as well. The more people started to deny that man was created in God’s image, the more their language became lost in verbal and written disgrace. The more man did not see himself as created in the image of God, the more he devaluated himself and the more his use of language deteriorated as well. Thus, over many years, language has declined, one stage after another, suffering the loss of its grandeur. Today, more and more vulgar words are being heard. Unrefined expressions have replaced beautiful phrases and we have become all the poorer because of it.
Presently, even older people believe that the use of unrefined—or even vulgar—language is “cool.” They believe that this emancipates them. The truth, however, is the reverse. It demeans them. It is an indication of the narrowing of the human brain and the closing of the heart and mind. It accomplishes nothing more than bringing one closer to a mediocre world.
It was the famous psychologist Erich Fromm who warned us about this trend. In his celebrated book “To Have or To Be?” (Abacus Books, 1979), he demonstrated how our use of language has moved away from a philosophy of life in which we expressed the highest and the most eloquent values.
When, for example, we use the English language to express our relationships to others, we use the verb “have.” Today we say: I have a wife, I have a child, I have a doctor, etc. This, Fromm correctly observes, is entirely impossible. Since when does one own another person? One does not own one’s wife, child, or doctor. They are not objects but human beings. One is in a relationship with them.
Fromm, coming from a rich Jewish tradition, makes the remarkable observation that there is no verb “to have” in Hebrew. When looking for the word to have in the Hebrew dictionary one finds an empty space. The closest is “li-yot li”—which actually means “there is to me.”
Fromm explains that this is symptomatic. Hebrew, as well as early Dutch and English, have a different outlook to life, a worldview where one does not own anything. Even objects are not owned, but are borrowed from the Creator of this world. However, once man moved away from this philosophy, everybody and everything became an object to own.
Even love became a form of ownership. Fromm makes us aware of the fact that today young couples claim that they have “fallen in love.” This, he says, is a serious violation of the concept of love. One cannot fall in love. One can only fall into a pit; “falling” is an expression of negativity and destruction. On the other hand, one can “walk” in love, “be” in love, “grow” in love.
The fact that today we use the expression “falling in love” is indicative of our way of thinking and speaking. It casts light on the tragedy of a society which has slashed parts of the biblical vocabulary, thereby cutting the entire ideology of Tanakh (the Bible) short.
This change ultimately turned everything around—the world became a narrow place and man became mediocre. This reframed our orientation and object of devotion, for it is what we are devoted to that ultimately makes or breaks us. What we think is what we do and we become. The ever-increasing determination to express ourselves in a manner stemming from our base instincts creates our language, and with that, our lives and society.
It is therefore not at all surprising that language has fallen into an even greater abyss where curses are increasingly uttered and indecent expressions about sexuality have become the new language of many people.
While in Tanach the term “to know” is used to describe the beauty of sexual intercourse (“And Adam knew Eve”) in which deep feelings and a spiritual relationship is reflected, intercourse is now often described as a solely carnal act with words I could never utter and most certainly not write.
Ultimately, the essence of language embodies the essence of life itself, its meaning and purpose.
Language is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.