Prior to the advent of modern linguistics, the Hebrew Bible was the primary source of Jewish influence on linguistic thought.  This influence was substantial and contained within it many surprisingly modern themes.  The Adamic naming of the animals described in Genesis 2:19 is recorded as the first exercise of human free will, thereby linking the human linguistic and moral faculties.  Genesis 10:5 describes the geographical dispersion of the postdiluvian human population and the differentiation of its language.  The famous account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 is conventionally interpreted as the Biblical explanation for the previously described diversification of language (viz., that in order to frustrate Man's amoral ambitions, God confused his language and thereby scattered the resulting linguistic subgroups).  But this passage can also - and perhaps better - be interpreted as an account of the partial decoupling of language from its semantic deep structure.1  This theme of the ultimate power and transcendent nature of language relative to its more limited human manifestations is, of course, also reflected in the ancient Judaic doctrine of the ineffability of the Tetragrammaton and carries over into Christianity, e.g., through the Gospel of John, which adopts Philo Judaeus' logocentric synthesis of Hebrew and Greek thought when it summarizes the Creation according to Genesis as: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."  Finally, Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism originated the art and science of textual hermeneutics.

Modern linguistics begins with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss scholar of French Huguenot extraction.  There are two widely used references 2,3 on the history of modern linguistics.  Each describes a group of about fifteen major contributors, although the two groups only partially overlap since the first of the two references adopts a broad, philosophical view, while the second takes a more narrowly focused, technical view of what constitutes linguistics.  Nevertheless, approximately one-half of the individuals profiled in each work were, or are, Jews.  The six individuals whose work is highlighted in both studies are de Saussure, John Firth, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Edward Sapir, Roman Jakobson, and Noam Chomsky, the last three of whom were, or are, Jews.  The following lists contain the names of prominent Jewish scholars who have influenced the field of linguistics (including the philosophy of language).  See also Jews in Anthropology, Jews in Psychology, Jews in Philosophy, and Jews in Literature.


1. In his translation and commentary on Genesis, the great nineteenth century German Neo-Orthodox rabbi and scholar, Samson Raphael Hirsch, provides what is perhaps a more accurate translation of this very difficult passage.  Working from an elaborate system of Hebrew philology that attempts to establish the true meaning of the Biblical text from within itself based on the etymological and phonetic relationships among the words of the Biblical lexicon, Hirsch makes a compelling case that the Hebrew text in Genesis 10:5 is saying that the proliferation of dialects (literally "tongues") was a consequence of the dispersion of peoples, not its cause.   He further points out that the Hebrew word for "language" used in Genesis 11 is not the same as the word for "tongue" used in Genesis 10:5, but describes something much more general.  He argues that what is being described in Genesis 11:7  is not a confusing of language in the sense of dialectification so much as a "withering away...the thought that is conveyed by this passage is that when God comes down, language is detached from its formative source." (The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, Feldheim, New York and Jerusalem, 2002; English translation of the 1867 German edition by Daniel Haberman, pp. 252-280).
2. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought II: The Western Tradition in the Twentieth Century, by John E. Joseph, Nigel Love, and Talbot J. Taylor (Routledge, London and New York, 2001).  The major figures cited after de Saussure are Edward Sapir, Roman Jakobson, George Orwell, Benjamin Lee Whorf, John Firth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Austin, B. F. Skinner, Noam Chomsky, William Labov, Erving Goffman, Jerome Bruner, Jacques Derrida, and Roy Harris.
3. Schools of Linguistics, by Geoffrey Sampson (Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1980).  The major figures featured after de Saussure are Franz Boas, Leonard Bloomfield, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Roman Jakobson, Zellig Harris, Noam Chomsky, Louis Hjelmslev, Sydney Lamb, Peter Reich, Morris Halle, Henry Sweet, John Firth, and Michael Halliday.
4. Jewish mother, non-Jewish father.
5. Jewish father, half-Jewish mother; see, e.g., Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk (Penguin, New York and London, 1990, pp. 4-7).

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