Linguisticism

Linguisticism

Linguisticism is my philosophy that the more languages you speak and the better you speak them, the better you understand the world around you and life itself.

Although not a religion in the sense of worshipping a particular deity, linguisticism is similar in the sense that it is a holistic worldview. Languages are not merely things you learn, they change the way you see the world around you and your relationship to it.

When you learn another language, you open yourself up to new ways of thinking, new cultures, and new relationships. Every language I’ve learned, regardless of how many people speak it, has enriched my life. I have made friends who speak the languages I speak and due in no small part to our linguistic connection. Because when you speak to someone in their language, a spark, a spiritual energy is created. When you speak to someone in their language, their heart opens in a way that it may not have otherwise. It is pure joy, it is connection. While you may have become friends with that person in your native language, it is doubtful that your relationship would be as strong or as meaningful.

So it is with translation. While reading translated news, literature, and poetry is better than not reading anything at all about the rest of the world, it is an incomplete view at best. So much nuance is lost in translation. There are even untranslatable words that other languages can only approximate. And in doing so, some of the meaning, the cadence, the subtleties can be lost. It could even be said that a translated text is in fact a new cultural creation because the translator’s talent should be respected as a form of art and because you can never fully capture the original text.

And so while linguisticism is not a religion, this worldview has an impact on how we understand religion itself. Because if we understand that language is a gateway to knowledge, so is it a tool by which people can better understand religion. For instance, I am a Jew. While as recently as last century, the majority of the world’s Jews spoke Jewish languages (primarily Yiddish but also Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, and others), the majority no longer do. And if they do speak a Jewish language, it is Modern Hebrew, a relative of Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew but somewhat of a linguistic anomaly having been revived from near death.

Today’s rabbis, particularly in the United States, may speak Modern Hebrew with varying degrees of fluency (often no better than an Israeli third grader) and have some comprehension of older forms of Hebrew and Aramaic, but almost none speak Yiddish, Ladino, or other Jewish languages. Naturally this limits their Jewish knowledge. Can one really be a rabbi, a Jewish leader, but not be able to read the original Me’am Loez, a Ladino Biblical commentary from 1730 or the Yiddish blessing in the Worms machzor from 1272? And these are just the explicitly religious texts. What about hundreds of years of Jewish literature, poetry, music, political writing, and more? Is a rabbi really a good rabbi if he or she is only versed in Jewish civilization through translation (or ignorant of much of its existence)?

Because Jews have abandoned their ancestral languages, Judaism has in some cases turned towards an obsession with ritual practice rather than a holistic understanding of peoplehood and spirituality. This is not just the case with ultra-Orthodox communities. Even Reform and Conservative Jews have become so focused on the ritual aspects of Judaism that they have forgotten about culture and language. It’s nothing short of a shanda that when I emailed two rabbis about connecting me with congregants who spoke Yiddish, that neither of them could come up with a single name- out of several thousand members!

Meanwhile, there are political consequences for Jews’ forgetfulness of their languages. Just as American Jews, for instance, were losing touch with their most widely spoken language, Yiddish, they suddenly adopted Israeli Hebrew pronunciation in synagogue in the 1960s. Suddenly shabbos became Shabbat and adonoy became Adonai. Out of affinity for Zionism or a deep-seated self-hatred and insecurity, most American Ashkenazim “shed” their traditional Hebrew accent in favor of an Americanized version of Israeli Hebrew pronunciation because it was perceived as more “modern”. American Jewish institutions obsession with propping up the oppressive Israeli government (sometimes even to the consternation of left-wing Israelis) is directly correlated with the fact that American Jews abandoned Yiddish and their Ashkenazi accents in shul. They quite literally lost their tongues and so they decided to parrot someone else’s speech and politics instead of their own.

All of this is to say that when one loses his or her language, it is as if a whole world is destroyed. American Jews, in this example, lost touch with the Yiddish socialist teachings and activism that dominated American Jewish life in the early 20th century. They forgot that Judaism is also about culture, not just ritual and Zionism and waving flags. When today’s rabbis can’t even read the progressive social teachings of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, why does it surprise us that their linguistic failure results in political obtuseness?

And so this example may be about the Jews, but it could be applied to other religious communities too. How easily do right-wing evangelicals twist and contort the Bible and yet so few of them could utter but one Hebrew word aloud? When we divorce our worldviews from linguistic knowledge, we lose a part of ourselves. We become unanchored, ignorant, and susceptible to deceit. That I can read the Bible in its original language empowers me to interpret it better than any backwards fire-and-brimstone preacher.

Language provides insight into the world around us. Religion, culture, music, poetry, politics, history. We can become more well-rounded, tolerant people if we open ourselves up to learning more languages and learning them better. Linguisticism, although it has implications for religious knowledge, is not a religion. You do not need to worship linguisticism nor believe in G-d, but you should embrace this philosophy and promote it. The world is devolving into misunderstandings and learning languages is our best hope for building bridges of communication and peace.

Take a class, find a tutor, speak your languages with pride. Don’t shy away from practicing- make mistakes, learn, grow, build relationships with people from different cultures. This is the way we’ll repair the world. Or sit at home and watch the same old English-language TV shows and listening to the music on the top 40 radio station, never venturing out and exploring, shocked and surprised when the world around you erupts in violence and chaos, wondering why people just can’t get along.

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