Linguistic love affairs


Like many kids who grew up in Ontario, I was required to study French until my first year of high school. I spent most of those classes bored, and dropped them as soon as they became optional. And as of today I have retained virtually nothing from them.

When it came time to choose classes for my freshman year, I enrolled myself in German for reasons that I do not recall. I found myself with a somewhat eccentric instructor who would include quiz questions like, “write a dialogue between you and your ideal date”. Within a couple of months I started to lag behind in class and dropped it.

So while my love of English had been firmly established by this point, my aptitude for taking on a foreign tongue did not seem very precocious.

But when my senior year came around, I decided I would use up my last free elective on either Latin or Greek. I had become more disciplined over my undergraduate years, and besides was only a part-time student at this point, and hence would not have to worry about the work being too much. Since this was also the time that I was enrolling in RCIA, I decided that Latin would be the more useful of the two.

This time, things fell into place. I was able to find a passion for studying grammar that had hitherto been absent. My guess for why I started to succeed here is that, unlike French or German, there was a vocational element to Latin: I was learning the lingua franca of the religion I had chosen. Some of my convert’s fervor was perhaps tapped into.

Due to an unexpected program conflict, my second semester of Latin got replaced at the last minute by a metalogic class (which was even more intimidating than it sounded, but the only other alternative option was literary theory, and at the time I was feeling far less conciliatory towards that realm of thought than I do now). But I still kept up the Latin on my own, developing a vocabulary that was decent-ish for liturgy and the Vulgate Bible.

My few months of studying Latin were in retrospect a turning point for me. Getting used to one kind of alien grammar seemed to make my mind more plastic in that regard. The possibilities of language were intuitively open to me in a way that they previously had not. It is a cliche to speak of education as “broadening horizons” and “opening minds” but in this case the expressions really are apt. I believe Wittgenstein has a sentence in his Tractatus to the effect that a person’s world is as big as a person’s language. It didn’t take too long for me to start Greek.

Which leads me to the dilemma I wrote about in May. By that point it was clear that I was either going to take my academic career in the direction of Old Testament studies or systematic theology. The choice needed to be made as soon as possible, as it would effect what direction I would develop my language skills: the former would place heavy emphasis on Hebrew and Greek, the latter on Latin and the modern scholarly languages.

The Bible won out, and I believe I made the right choice. I have been studying Hebrew these past two months, and have fallen in love with it – moreso than Greek or Latin. Decoding the script has led to a fascination with it. And, as has been observed, my Hebrew handwriting is actually turning out far more legible than my writing with the Latin or Greek alphabet typically is (my abc’s have always been atrocious, and it didn’t take long for αβγ to morph into similarly loose scribbles); the movements required for drawing the characters seem to allow for less of my bad habits to creep in.

Of course, Hebrew characters have been more present in my life, in Passover Haggadahs and the like. Their Semitic calligraphy had the effect for my childhood mind of cloaking my family’s lineage in a sort of romantic foreignness that stretched beyond Europe into the Ancient Near-East.

The sound of the language is very gutteral and sometimes harsh-sounding to western ears. But, I have to admit, the melodiousness of the romance languages which people find to be a big draw is something of a turnoff for me. It sounds good in the context of opera and bel canto, but for some reason otherwise falls flat for me. Perhaps it has to do with how France, Spain and Italy have generally not exerted much cultural fascination from me. I like the sound of languages which are a little more rough, like German or the Slavic languages and hence also Hebrew.

There are also the usual pleasures of discovering the etymology behind well-known names (like finding out that Behemoth is just the plural form of behema – animal) and other linguistic resonances (the Hebrew word for sea, yam, also being the name of a Cannanite sea goddess).

I do regret that I only discovered these loves in my twenties; it is easy to look back and see missed opportunities in both high school and my undergraduate years. But better late than never.



About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, higher education, Judaism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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