July 14, 2023

Dots, Lines,and Squiggles

The power of words

Clifford Goldstein

When the adults in the house didn’t want us kids to know what they were talking about, they would yammer in Yiddish. However, outside a few choice insults (farshtunken, meshuggeneh, goyishe kop), I never learned the language. In my mid-20s I worked for four months (illegally) in Zurich, where I greedily absorbed every syllable of Swiss Deutsch I could. About a year later, in the States, having entered a room in which an old Jewish man, talking on the phone, was speaking in Yiddish, I started to block him out, but then realized—I knew what he was saying. I instantly thought: Wow! God gave me the true gift of tongues!

But Yiddish?

Then it hit me: Swiss Deutsch and Yiddish both have Germanic origins, which is why I suddenly understood what was being said.

Language astounds me. How, after only four months, could my neural pathways have been so rewired that what for 20 years was to me meaningless utterances (sounded like German spoken through mouthfuls of pudding) now conveyed concrete and abstract ideas?

I also marvel that I can look at dots, lines, and squiggles that make up biblical Hebrew and Aramaic—languages thousands of years old and from a time and culture radically different from ours—and not only understand them but can see that certain dots, lines, and squiggles that make up modern English almost perfectly translate the dots, lines, and squiggles of Hebrew and Aramaic. How do the dots, lines, and squiggles of any language, or the sounds they represent, create worlds of thought and emotion and concepts in our brains?

Language is a gift from heaven, not earth; it came from above, not from within. In a brilliant book, The Kingdom of Speech, atheist Thomas Wolfe rips into the Darwinian charade as “a messy guess—baggy, boggy, soggy, and leaking all over the place,”1 and unable to conjure up any explanation for human language. “Language in all its forms advanced man far beyond the boundaries of natural selection,” Wolfe continued, and this fact, he said, “was driving him [Darwin] crazy,”2 unless one believes, as has been suggested, that language arose from millions of years of humans mimicking animal sounds. According to this theory, given enough time, random mutation and natural selection will transform wuff wuff into Finnegan’s Wake or The Brothers Karamazov.

Words can be frighteningly powerful, surely one way that we reflect the image of God, who spoke—spoke—our world into existence. The right words, at the right time, in the right way, can cause us to thrive, or to descend into an abyss of hurt and despair. Who can’t relate to these lines? “Norman nodded, dodging the hail of words. And yet many of them struck him.”3 Anyone, which is all of us, who has been the victim of consonants and vowels whose sharp edges ripped into our guts and soul know the power of this astonishing gift, which, like all of God’s gifts, has been—oy vey!—so abused.

1 Thomas Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown and Company), Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid.

3 Edward Lewis Wallant, The Tenants of Moonbloom (New York Review Books), p. 105, Kindle Edition.