You know this sentence is English. But if I asked you to give me a set of rules for determining if a certain text is English or not, I suspect you’d have a hard time. You might say, well, it’s English if words have particular meanings, if certain rules of syntax are obeyed, and so on. But if you’re American and some bloke in a brilliant jumper asked you for a fag, you might at least want to concede that a characterization of English might involve a family of variations, in each of which words have particular meanings, certain rules of syntax are obeyed, and so on. Even that, however, would not quite be the most fruitful approach. Consider this:
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, Ther was a duc that highte Theseus; Of Atthenes he was lord and governour, And in his tyme swich a conquerour, That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.1
That used to be called English. And if the English speakers who spoke that way had tried to characterize English then in terms of static semantics and syntax, it’s not very likely that this would have made the cut:
Ayo, my pen and paper cause a chain reaction to get your brain relaxing, a zany acting maniac in action, a brainiac in fact, son, you mainly lack attraction.2
And in fact, if we were to try to characterize English now in some static way, it’s unlikely that our characterization would cover English a generation from now. The point of all this is that the only plausible way to include both Chaucer and Eminem in our characterization of English is to define English as a process rather than as something static. There is a community of people who speak a common language, and the two co-evolve. Language slowly changes as the community of speakers collectively makes small changes. The linguistic community changes as people migrate in or out of it. Chaucer and Eminem are both “in” because a continuous evolutionary process includes them both.
Each of us individually hears English spoken or sees it written and infers certain rules about its syntax and semantics. Sometimes we are even taught explicit rules, though this is relatively rare. Most of the time, we don’t even make the rules explicit in our own minds; we just manage to absorb them well enough to use them. Now, the fact that children can learn to speak grammatical English based only on hearing other people speak it is quite astonishing. They are able to do this only because the human brain is hard-wired to prefer certain kinds of grammars, and, not coincidentally, these are the ones that exist. This is not to say that there is only one possible grammar—an obviously false proposition, given the variety of spoken languages in the world. Rather, the range of possible grammars is highly constrained. We might sum this up by saying that people have a language instinct.3
So where’s the process? Well, people are creative with language. We invent neologisms, borrow words from other languages, use old words in new ways, push the boundaries of syntax, and generally take whatever linguistic liberties are necessary to express new ideas or capture particular nuances. Most of our inventions die out as easily as they are born. But some spread and become part of the language. Thirty-five years ago nobody had heard of the word “meme”; then it became a meme; now it’s just a word.
The crucial point is that the loop is closed. Once some incremental change has been sufficiently absorbed into the language, it becomes part of the base to which speakers relate when they expand that language. So there is an ongoing process that looks something like this:
1. Each individual English speaker absorbs current English and instinctively pushes the envelope (call this “expansion”).
2. When enough people push the envelope in the same direction, “current” English is redefined (call this “aggregation”).
3. Back to 1.
Of course, the steps don’t actually take place in neat, sequential order. Both expansion and aggregation are happening all the time.
Now, with an eye toward our discussion of Judaism, let’s make a few observations about this process.
First, changes in language are slow enough that, if you don’t take the long view, you can think of it as being static without the fallacy of that view confronting you too brutally. But, if Chaucer didn’t convince you, try reading Beowulf.
Second, aggregation works in two ways: One way is for many people to push the linguistic envelope in the same way without this change ever being formally noted; it just happens. The other is for the change to be somehow made “official” by incorporation in some instrument of record. For example, twenty years ago I might have referred to memes only if I were talking to someone whom I had reason to believe hung out in the relevant neck of the woods. Now, anybody can look up its Wikipedia entry. To the extent that Wikipedia is an instrument of record, “meme” has graduated to the lexical big leagues.
One consequence of all this is that English evolves in different ways among different communities of English speakers. In the days before the Internet, geographically isolated communities were also linguistically isolated. They were somewhat immune to changes happening in the mainland and instead evolved on their own. They might even have developed their own instruments of record (dictionaries, grammar books, recognized experts, etc.), so that they began to think of mainland English as wrong, or at least odd. This sort of process can lead to two versions of English that are so different that we wouldn’t even think of them as being the same language, just as we don’t think of, say, German and English as being the same language, despite their common ancestor.
Judaism, in a way, is not that different from English—or any other language, for that matter. In fact, Judaism is a language of sorts; its internal dynamics, the manner in which it evolves, and the powers through which it is fashioned are all startlingly similar to those of the linguistic process. Now, one can treat this comparison as a mere intellectual exercise, an interesting metaphor at most, but I believe its potential implications are great and far-reaching. It can shed light on some of the problems that keep many contemporary Jews—myself included—up at night: If Judaism, as it is currently practiced in certain circles, has gone off the rails, how would we know? Is there some Archimedean point from which we could decide the matter? And, if this is indeed the case, is the founding of a Jewish state likely to get us back on track? The answers to these questions, I will attempt to show here, are all inextricably connected, and the key to finding them may perhaps lie in understanding Judaism as language.
Moshe Koppel teaches computer science at Bar-Ilan University.