Hebrew proven to be the “original language” by a deaf person?

Jun 13, 2012 by

A curious article at the Jewish Deaf Multimedia website claims that Hebrew (Ancient or Biblical Hebrew, that is, which is not the same as Modern Hebrew) has been proven to be the “original language”, that is “the first language to ever exist”. This idea goes back to the mystical Kabbala teachings explicated in The Zohar, attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, also known by the acronym Rashbi, an important legal scholar, also reputed as a worker of miracles. According to the Kabbala, Hebrew is the building blocks from which life is created and people were divinely created to be native Hebrew-speakers.

This idea has been later picked up by many authors, theologians and scientists alike. One of the latter was a seventeenth century Belgian scholar Francis Mercury van Helmont. In his book Alphabeti veri naturalis hebraici brevissima delineatio (or in other words, The Alphabet of NatureIn this book, van Helmont described “how the sounds of Hebrew were the most suited for a human speaker”. He also went on to claim that “the Hebrew alphabet was essentially a ‘pronouncation guide’ for the full range of human speech; each position that the tongue could take in the mouth to make a sound was represented by a Hebrew letter”. As a reader of this blog would know, the latter claim is simply untrue. There are plenty of speech sounds found in various human languages but not in Hebrew (Biblical or otherwise): clicks, implosives, ejectives, doubly-articulated consonants, front rounded vowels, to name just a few classes.

But it is also interesting to see how van Helmont went about proving his thesis. He instructed a deaf person on how to form the sounds encoded by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with his tongue. From the rapid success of this experiment, just three weeks, van Helmont concluded that Hebrew was the most natural language for speaking. To me, all this experiment is proving is that Hebrew, as mentioned above, is rather poor on “exotic” sounds which may be difficult for some to pronounce. I am also curious to see how long it would have taken van Helmont to teach the same deaf person to pronounce sounds of some other language, say Zulu or Kabardian, both of which are on the richer side when it comes to consonant inventories.

All in all, however, it must be pointed out that using knowledge from articulatory phonetics may be quite useful in teaching the deaf to articulate speech sounds, which they cannot hear. Whether teaching the deaf an oral or a sign language is the more preferrable strategy is another question entirely. The readers are invited to express their thoughts on the matter.


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  • Alfia Wallace

    I thought about claims like this when reading through the Armenian/IE/Caucasus thread.  There are plenty of ideologues who have a stake in promoting this sort of linguistic propaganda.  Over the years different people have tried to convince me that the following languages were all the “original” language from which all others flowed:  Hebrew, Sanskrit, Avestan, Lithuanian, oh.. and of course Armenian.  :^}

  • Tohuva

    Herodotus had this all figured out ages ago – humanity’s original language was Phrygian. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_language#Historical_experiments

    • Indeed, many people have tried to prove this or that language to be the “original” one, but all of them are of course wrong. That’s the point.


      • Chip Watts

        You keep on saying everyone is wrong. How do you know, first of all, that Indian people weren’t the first people on earth and therefor their language is the “original”. Or that Adam and Eve were not Deaf and therefor couldn’t hear what was the original language and used Sign Language as the “original” human language. This article makes no mention of the beginning of time. I think you have read too much into it when there is no evidence to support your views.

  • I hope someone told speakers of Proto-Semitic that Hebrew was the Original (Adamic?) language. I know the Jewish Deaf Multimedia folks, and they of course believe that the sounds of the Torah existed at the creation of the cosmos (4004, BCE!), and this this confirms it — the presence of a Deaf person supposedly makes it better. 

    I asked JDMM which version of the sounds of Hebrew we were talking about, since the phonology of Hebrew has clearly changed over its long history (we don’t even need to reconstruct that — artifacts in the orthography are sufficient evidence); they have yet to respond.

    And of course know the sounds of a language is not the same as knowing the language. If that were so, just about every Jew in the US would be fluent in Hebrew.Besides, Based on that argument, wouldn’t the “original language” be some kind of Polynesian, with their small segmental inventories?

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dan!

      And I like your point about Polynesian. There’s also a couple of languages in Papua New Guinea and Afica that have few sounds, like Polynesian.

  • Alpacino_pl

    Nice thanks for sharing. Tercüme || Tercüme Büroları

  • tadilatsirketi

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  • thanks for sharing…

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  • SoylentGreen


  • Ivan Derzhanski

    I’ve come across the opposite argument: that Proto-World (if such a thing existed at all) must have had clicks, because those are much harder for languages to acquire than to dispense with. Ditto perhaps for some other classes of sounds. Bad news for Hebrew, if that be true.

    My grandfather once surprised me (and my father, who was also present) with the assertion that `with Bulgarian one can pronounce any [speech] sound’. This turned out to be trivially true: all sounds that weren’t part of the Bulgarian sound system came through his ears as their nearest Bulgarian approximations, so what he couldn’t pronounce he couldn’t hear either. (And he spoke German fluently, but he’d never bothered with its proper pronunciation, as was typical in the early 20th century.)

  • Chip Watts

    For starters, the Deaf person didn’t prove anything. They were simply part of an experiment. Secondly, the word original means it was the first ever. There are written languages that pre-date Hebrew. My last comment: the writer needs to learn that just because you can teach someone a language doesn’t mean you are an original.

    • I’m afraid you rather missed the point of the post. Maybe read beyond the title before you comment?

      • Chip Watts

        You are a moron. I am agreeing with the writer. I did read the whole “paper”. If I were to expand upon my comment, I would say that babies have no use/control of their vocal chords until well after 6 months of age; however, you can teach a baby how to sign from day one. The “original language” is sign language. Don’t go saying sign language isn’t a language either. You would be continuing to be a moron if you said that. If it were not a language, why does it have the word “language” in the concept of Sign Languge.

  • Zeke

    I know this is an old post, but I had to point out that the idea that Hebrew is the original language of the world is much older than Kabbalistic literature such as the Zohar. It is found in much earlier midrashic literature, and could even be argued to come from the Bible itself, where Adam (human) is said to come from Adama (earth) and Isha (woman) comes from Ish (man).

    It seems even the ancient Israelites believed there was something special about their language, and I wonder if any other nations at the time thought the same thing about their own languages.

    • Most peoples think that their language is special (and that other peoples don’t even “speak” sometimes). Ancient Greeks thought that the others were “barbarians” (saying “br-br-br”, not really speaking a proper language), Russians called their western non-Slavic-speaking neighbors “nemtsy” from the word for “mute”, etc.

      That’s for the midrashic reference!