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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