Sunday, October 03, 2010

English - May its sun never set

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
(John Lennon)


Many years ago, when we were young, we grooved to this song by John Lennon. Whatever we think of its message now, most of us did not appreciate then or now how lucky John Lennon was to be able to write those words and how lucky we are to understand them. As I first learned from the preface to a little-known English dictionary, English is unique among widely spoken languages in having separate words for "heaven" and "sky." Speakers of Romance languages like French and Spanish cannot distinguish between these two concepts; in French, for example, the word "ciel" must suffice for both. Therefore, to the extent that thoughts depend on words, a French or Spanish John Lennon would not have been able to conceive that song or write it.

This is only one example of how beautifully nuanced, expressive and rich in shades of meaning the English language is. A person with a rich English vocabulary, acquired by extensive reading, can express just about any conceivable thought. Is it any wonder that the English text of international agreements is usually the "authentic" one, and that any scientist with anything worth publishing publishes in English?

I was reminded of this yesterday, Shabbat Bereshit, because modern Hebrew should have the ability to distinguish heaven from sky but for some reason does not. Shamayim can be used for heaven and rakia for sky. Too bad that Biblical Hebrew conflates these words from the very beginning: God called the rakia "Shamayim [Gen. 1:8]." And He put them [the sun, moon and stars] birkia hashamayim [Gen. 1:17]. When I went to Israel in 1965, I and my family flew from Lod to Eilat on Israel's inland airline, known as Arkia, or "to the sky (rakia)." The condition of the dinky propeller plane made us suspect that it would indeed take us up to heaven, but thank God it only reached the sky and Eilat. When children are taught basic Hebrew vocabulary (in those yeshivot that actually teach basic Hebrew vocabulary), the teacher often points to the sky and says, "yesh ananim ba-shamayim [there are clouds in the sky] ," when rakia would be more apt.

A similar paucity of vocabulary creates difficulty understanding the writings of Rav Kook. He would write savlanut, a word that today means "patience." But more often than not, he meant "tolerance." The reader must figure that out from the context, since at the time he wrote Hebrew did not have a word for tolerance (!) and savlanut connoted both. Today we use savlanut for patience and sovlanut (with a holam) for tolerance. The Academy for the Hebrew Language in Tel-Aviv oversees modern Hebrew and coins such words as appropriate, continuing the tradition of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Perhaps the Academy should enforce a distinction between shamayim and rakia as well. Even so, it is extremely unlikely that Hebrew will ever match the expressiveness and versatility of English, except in spiritual matters, where Hebrew is probably superior. I am glad that it is my privilege to speak, read and understand English. Whatever one's first language is, English should be his or her second. As we once said of the British Empire that brought Western civilization to half the world, may the sun never set on it.

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