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July 20, 2012 2:43 am

Intelligent Design in Language

avatar by Adam Jacobs

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"A Venerable Orang-outang", a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine, 1871.

“I cannot doubt that language owes its origin to the imitation and modification, aided by signs and gestures, of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries.”

— Charles Darwin, 1871

Like their colleagues in the biological sciences, when challenged to explain their field’s origin, linguists hit a brick wall.  That is to say that linguistics currently has no conclusive theory to explain what one of them called “the hardest problem in science,” where does language come from?  The putative explanations they work with can be divided into two main categories “continuity theories” which assume that our language evolved step by step from our primate ancestors, and “discontinuity theories” which note that our linguistic faculties find no parallel in non-humans and so must have evolved suddenly.  However you slice it, the common denominator is the belief that blind chance endowed human beings with the sense and physiology to devise a highly complex system of expression where sounds represent objects and ideas.

How were these sounds presumed to have been selected?  Writing 12 years after his magnum opus “The Origin of Species”, Charles Darwin assumed that mimicry of the natural world, mixed with selection and variation, would give rise to the tens of thousands of words of the modern language.  That would make a lot of sense if more words were like “Mao”, the Chinese word for cat.  But what of the English word cat?  Where did we get that from?  MyEtymology.com tells me that it’s from the Proto-Germanic root “kattuz,” but that doesn’t much seem like a sound we would expect – a cat-like sound.  According to no theory of linguistics should we expect the random word sounds (onomatopoeic or agreed upon convention) to explain the character of the referenced object – grunting apes did not embed descriptives into their screeches.  What then would we conclude if it could be shown that there is a linguistic system that seems to do just that?

Isaac Mozeson, a Ph.D. in linguistics from NYU, has explored this possibility in a fascinating work called “the Origin of Speeches.”  In it, he hypothesizes a primal, universal language that he calls Edenic (and others might call proto-Semitic or ancient Hebrew).  He sees this Ur-tongue as the progenitor of all of our 6000 or so languages and believes that it thwarts the current linguistic ape-sound notions to reveal a communication system where accurate descriptive sounds and concepts came simultaneously – factory installed.  So for instance, the word cat would be a derivative of the word “khatool,” which means to be  swaddled, wrapped up, as the cat uniquely is in repose.  Ever wonder where the name gopher came from?  No one seems to know, but we do know the quality of the creature – he’s a digger, and as it happens, the Edenic word for digging is “khofer.”  How about the word horse?  Which sounds more compelling, the Proto-Germanic root “khursa” which has no meaning, or the Edenic word “horesh” which means a plougher?

Dr. Mozeson and a team of researchers have compiled tens of thousands of similar examples in a surprising number of languages.   Take for example the word lad.  Linguists hypothesize a language called Proto-Indo-European which they invoke to explain the origins of quite a lot of words, yet they have no idea if the language ever existed.  In PIE, lad is thought to have come from “leit” whose meaning is unknown.  In Edenic (and Modern Hebrew) the word for a young man is “yeled” which in turn comes from the word “layda” which means to give birth.

The D,R root in Edenic means path or way as reflected in the word “derekh.”  It is interesting to note the preponderance of that root in so many forms of communication (keep in mind that D and T are interchangeable according to the rules of linguistics).  For example: “DRoga” Russian, “DaRa” Malay, “TRek” Dutch, “DoRo” Japanese, “Dt RoHng” Thai, “TaRiq” Arabic and of course “RoaD.”  Lucky coincidence?  Perhaps, but what if it’s not?  What if, as the book of Genesis describes, it really was the case that “the whole (‘kol’) Earth (‘eretz’) was of one speech (‘saphah’), and that that speech did not evolve from primate banter?  We would be forced to conclude that far from being a collection of random and meaningless sound conventions, language was designed.  Perhaps that is the reason why its origin is such a black box to linguists.

Seen from this light, it would make more sense why Adam (whose name is derived from “Adama” which means earth – rendering him an “earthling”) was tasked with naming all of the animals.  On the surface of the matter it would appear odd that it was the first activity that God had him perform – to what end?  Far from being a stroll through the primeval petting-zoo, it was a lesson to show him the obviousness of the name given the nature of the creature.  In Edenic/Hebrew, names represent the essence of a thing, so that when he named the dog, he called it a “Kelev” a designation which indicates a creature that is “all heart,” in accordance with its well-known emotional demeanor.

For obvious reasons, there had been a great deal of resistance to the general notion of Intelligent Design – it has its implications.  Classical Judaism has always concurred that the universe had a designing intelligence and is therefore unfazed by the attempts of a small but active group of scientists to demonstrate its veracity.  They are making progress, as is evidenced by the recent publication of their 50th peer-reviewed article on the topic.  Perhaps in time, the idea that the world as we know it – whether biologically or linguistically – was not an extremely  fortuitous set of accidents but rather a well-orchestrated, meaning-imbued, conscious act of creation.  For those that are interested in learning more, the threads are there – waiting to be explored.

“For then I will change the nations to speak a pure language…” (Zepahnia 3:9)

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