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Grandpa, what did the Semits do?

Various scattered letters
© das goethe

Love and hate inhabit language, for we use words to order our world. So as grandparents and parents, friends and peers, we’re always consciously or unconsciously passing on what has marked us ourselves. This transmission usually occurs spontaneously, when, say, we answer young people’s questions. 

By Michael Blume

Enemies of freedom are often quicker than its defenders when it comes to grasping how language sways public opinion. Germany’s National Socialists were a case in point. They deliberately co-opted and poisoned words in the German language. They twisted the word Semiten (“Semites”), for instance, to mean a particular Rasse (“race”), and associated the word Jude (“Jew”) with an “evil conspiracy” to take over the world. As soon as the Nazis came to power, they struck all German-Jewish names from the spelling alphabet: “D as in ‘David’” became “D as in ‘Dora’”, “S as in ‘Samuel’” became “S as in ‘Siegfried’”, and “N as in ‘Nathan’” became “N as in ‘Nordpol’” – i.e. North Pole!

Hardly any other name combines German and Jewish connotations as strongly as Nathan. Nathan is the biblical prophet who upbraids King David for committing adultery with Bathsheba and the wise hero in Nathan der Weise, a play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) and undeniably one of the greatest works of German literature. Whereas Nordpol isn’t even a name, but supposedly, as Adolf Hitler barked into the Munich Hofbräuhaus in his 1920 tirade “Why We Are Anti-Semites”, the cold cradle of the “Aryan race”.

And yet, although the Nazis were militarily defeated, at long last, after all their mass murders and atrocities, their language lives on and is – in most cases unintentionally – transmitted to subsequent generations. The most devious poison is the kind you don’t notice, the kind you can’t taste or smell, but unwittingly pass on. No one is born a racist or anti-Semite: the old poison is often dredged up and instilled in the minds of the next generation.

Brighten up language with better stories

But there’s hope. Thanks to brain research, we now know for sure that it’s not enough to refute prejudices: the statement “Not all Jews are rich!” is perfectly true, but it doesn’t dispel the unconscious association between “Jewish” and “rich”. So we need to replace these false, toxic undertones with better, more helpful connotations.

No, “the Semites” have never been “a race”: there are Jews of all skin colours, just as there are Christians, Muslims and humanists of all ethnic origins.

According to the Jewish tradition in the Talmud, one of Noah’s sons was Shem, which means “name” in Hebrew – what a name! He helped his father build the ark, looked after the animals with his family during the Great Flood and then accomplished a very special mission: along with his grandson Eber (the first “Hebrew”), Shem opened the first house of learning, the first “school of the alphabet”, in what is now Jerusalem. And everyone – men and women, princes and slaves alike – could learn the world’s first alphabetic writing from them. That’s why, to this day, we still use the first two letters of Hebrew to mean the whole alphabet – aleph (which signifies an ox – you can still make out the upside-down horns in the letter A!) and beth (meaning house): aleph-beth.

In contrast to the many older writing systems such as Babylonian cuneiform, Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs, this was the first writing system everyone could learn easily. And so the very idea of “education” emerged: if man was created in God's “image”, according to the Bible, then every child of man should be allowed to develop their abilities, at least to learn to read and write! For over two millennia now, it’s been the responsibility of grandparents, parents and the whole community to teach not only the spoken language, but also the written language.

The Semites and education

Naturally, many other ancient cultures looked with utter incomprehension, and soon with envy, hatred and fear, upon the nascent Judaism, whose followers stuck together, even after the destruction of their temples and exile from their homeland, as long as they could go on teaching their scriptures. The fact that Jews have often achieved great things despite all the discrimination and persecution, that, with a mere 0.2 per cent of the world’s population, they have been awarded over 20 per cent of all the Nobel Prizes to date – all this is thanks to the tremendous importance Jews attach to education.

And one of them, Jesus, a carpenter’s son, could read and write so well as a child that at the age of twelve he’d debate with the scribes in Jerusalem for days on end. Christianity, as well as the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the traditionally reckoned year of Christ’s birth and is used in most of the world today, followed in his wake. The Christian Bible, the Islamic Qur’an, the Baháʼí scripture and the texts of most secular systems of philosophical belief, including the United Declaration of Human Rights, are all written in alphabetic scripts.

The small difference that makes a big difference

On closer scrutiny, however, we can make out a small but significant difference between Semitic and other alphabetic scripts: only consonants are written out in classical Hebrew and Arabic, which are always written from right to left. Greek, Latin, Cyrillic and all the subsequent alphabets, on the other hand, include vowels – and are always written left to right.
In a consonantal alphabet, we have to insert the vowels word by word, which involves taxing the right side of our brains to the max: does “w-r-d” mean “word”, “ward”, “weird” or “wired”? This makes such heavy demands on the brain that all images are banned from religious services in both Judaism and Islam: believers are to concentrate solely on the written Word. And this is why only the original alphabets are to be used in reciting the Jewish Torah and Islamic Qur’an.

And this is why a teacher is needed to clear up any resulting ambiguities: hence the vital importance of Shem and Eber. According to tradition, not only did they teach the letters of the alphabet, they also explained the meanings of each word!

And this is the reason why, according to ancient lore, both Shem and his grandson taught at the Academy in Jerusalem, whose mission was not merely to teach the alphabet, but also to pass knowledge and wisdom down through the generations. To this day, a Seder, the ritual feast celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover, begins with questions posed by children and answered by the adults in the room. Language, writing, indeed life itself, never develops in a one-sided monologue, but in a dialogue between generations.

Vocalic, i.e. vowel-based, alphabets – like the one used to write this article – can be understood far more clearly and quickly than consonantal alphabets: “word” means “word”, and “weird” means “weird”!

Hence the danger that Socrates warned of all the way back in the days of Greek antiquity: that those who can read such alphabetic scripts will be able to cut loose from their teachers much earlier on and are liable to acquire plenty of knowledge, but without any wisdom. Once they’ve mastered the alphabet, young people may be tempted to believe they don’t need teachers or a school community anymore. Just as the “new medium” of the Internet is a bone of contention in our day, the “new medium” of alphabetic writing caused controversy thousands of years ago!

Media down through the generations

Which brings us full circle: every medium – every language or type of script, radio, film and Internet – has its own particular strengths, as well as certain hazards. German teachers always have to laugh when I remind them that back in the 1960s, schools used to check schoolbags for so-called “pulp literature” like science fiction and western novels. Today, on the other hand, teachers assure me that they’d be delighted to find any book that isn’t required for school in their pupils’ knapsacks!

So it’s worth asking the question: Which language, which scripts, which media are we passing on to our children and grandchildren, whether in our capacity as grandparents or parents, teachers or just friends, and under what circumstances. How do we go about speaking, writing and telling stories in public? Are we spreading knowledge – or, more or less consciously, old poisons?

This year we’ll finally be getting a new German spelling alphabet – without the Nazis’ hateful interventions. Naturally, plenty of detractors will smirk or even sneer at the new version: What difference does language really make? Don't we all have more important fish to fry?

But those of us who understand what’s at stake are well aware how precious – and persuasive – words and even letters are, as are the stories each generation shares with the next. We forge the future by talking with one another.