Comments on Language and Moses Mendelssohn

From Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem:



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“I have sketched the basic
outlines of ancient, original Judaism, such as I conceive it to be Doctrines
and laws, convictions and actions. 
The former were not connected to
words or written characters which always remain the same, for all men and all
times amid the revolutions of language, morals, manners and conditions, words
and characters which invariably present the same rigid forms, into which we
cannot force our concepts without disfiguring them.  They were entrusted to living, spiritual instruction, which
can keep pace with all changes of time and circumstances, and can be varied and
fashioned according to a pupil’s needs, ability, and power of comprehension

The ceremonial law itself is a kind of
living script, rousing the mind and heart, full of meaning, never ceasing to
inspire contemplation and to provide the occasion and opportunity for oral
… The diffusion of writings and books which, through the
invention of the printing press, has been infinitely multiplied in our days,
has entirely transformed man.  The
great upheaval in the whole system of human knowledge and convictions which it
has produced has, indeed, had on the one hand advantageous consequences for the
improvement of mankind, for which we cannot thank beneficent Providence
enough.  However, like every good
which can come to man here below, it has also had, incidentally, many evil
consequences, which are to be attributed partly to its abuse, and partly also
to the necessary condition of human nature.  We teach and instruct one another only through writings; we
learn to know nature and man only through writings.  We work and relax, edify and amuse ourselves through
overmuch writing… Everything is dead letter; the spirit of living conversation
has vanished.  We express our love
and anger in letters… Hence, it has come to pass that man has almost lost his
value for his fellow man. 
Intercourse with the wise man is not sought, for we find his wisdom in
writings. Hoary age has lost its venerableness, for the beardless youth knows
more from books than the old man knows from experience.  Whether he understood it correctly or
incorrectly does not matter; it is enough that he knows it, bears it upon his
lips… This was not the case in the bygone days of ancient times… Man was more
necessary to man; teaching was more closely connected with life, contemplation
more intimately bound up with action… It
seems to me that the change that has occurred in different periods of culture
with regard to written characters has had, at all times, a very important part
in the revolutions of human knowledge in general, and in the various
modifications of men’s opinions and ideas about religious matters, in
particular; and if it did not produce them completely by itself, it at least
cooperated in a remarkable way with other secondary causes.
  Scarcely does a man cease to be
satisfied with the first impressions of the external senses (and what man can long remain content with them?),
scarcely does he feel the urge implanted in his soul to form concepts out of
these external impressions, when he becomes aware of the necessity to attach
them to perceptible signs, not only in order to communicate them to others, but
also to hold fast to them himself, and to be able to consider them again as
often as necessary… Wise Providence has placed within its [the soul’s]
immediate reach a means which it can use at all times. It attaches, either by a natural or an arbitrary association of ideas,
the abstracted characteristic to a perceptible sign which, as often as its
impression is renewed, at once recalls and illuminates this characteristic,
pure and unalloyed.  In this
manner, as is well known, originated the languages of men, which are composed
of natural and arbitrary signs, and without which man would be but little
distinguished from the irrational animals; for without the aid of signs, man
can scarcely remove himself one step from the sensual.

trans. Allan Arkush, Brandeis University Press, Hanover NH, 1983; pp. 102-105, my emphasis)



short excerpt from Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem,
first published in 1783, may be contextualized within two linguistically
related arguments.  The first is
Mendelssohn’s main thesis within the second half of Jerusalem, titled “Judaism”, and basically attempts to reconcile
the author’s profound belief in, and staunch support of the separation of
church and state with his equally profound religious belief and the Jewish
faith in general. The second relates this excerpt to the linguistic context of Mendelssohn’s
own era and relevant code-switching practices.

reconciliation of his Judaism with his call for separation of church and state
focuses on a distinction between ideology and law, which he symbolizes at the
beginning of this excerpt through the distinction between spoken and written
language.  He argues that because
Judaism is based on ceremonial law or “divine legislation” rather than
“revealed religion” it is not incongruous that a Jewish man deny the right of the
state to make rulings in matters concerning religious ideology (89-90).  He argues throughout the work that
religious law (written language) are not ideologies in themselves, but are
actions that God has revealed to Jews as a path to discover truth and religious
doctrine through “eternal truth” or Reason.  Thus the Jewish religion itself would oppose state
imposition of religious doctrine, which is only to be discovered through Reason
(spoken language).  In the first
bolded passage, he reveals the connection between doctrinal convictions, spoken
language, and the cultural center of Torah study in the Jewish religion.             

Mendelssohn is not using socio-cultural data (like Basso, for example) to drive
his theory of language usage, he is in some sense creating a primitive study of
speech behavior and the cultural position of speech within his religious
community.  In the latter part of
this excerpt especially, the author uses a theory of signs (which precedes the
beginnings of semiotics, indeed the birth of Peirce, by more than 50 years) to
explain the importance of Jewish verbal culture and the distinction that the
group makes between spoken ad written communication, especially as it relates
to religious discourse and the relative cultural fluidity of variants within
that discourse.  This can certainly
fall within the area of study that Hymes defines in his introduction to The Ethnography of Speaking as a
question of “what a child internalizes about speaking, beyond rules of grammar
and dictionary, while becoming a full-fledged member of its speech community…
of what a foreigner must learn about a group’s verbal behavior in order to
participate appropriately and effectively in its activities… of speaking as an
activity in its own right” (250). 
Although it is not focused on the language community per se, Jews during
this period were indeed linguistically isolated (most spoke an early form of
Western Yiddish), especially within the religious community for which Hebrew
was central.   And though he
is essentially furthering a politico-religious argument, he most certainly is
basing an analysis of these non-linguistic variances in belief and practice on
an analysis of linguistic behavior. 

Mendelssohn grew up speaking “Juden-Deutsch” (early Western Yiddish,
essentially), all or most of his writings were done in German or Hebrew.  This is mainly of interest in relation
to his theory of spoken versus written language, because he, like many in his
era, considered ‘Yiddish’ to be a lesser language than either German, first
language of Christians and the governing strata of society, of Hebrew, the
perceived primordial language “from which… all other known ways of writing
originated”(Mendelssohn, 110) and, of course, the language of religion for the
Jewish population.  When
Mendelssohn chose to translate the text of the Pentateuch to make it more widely accessible, it was German that he
chose, and he also contributed a commentary on Exodus, which he wrote in Hebrew.  It is of note that many Jews (especially poorer Jews) and
most Jewish women knew only some Hebrew, and often no German at all.  They spoke Juden-Deutsch, like
Mendelssohn himself as a child, in daily life.  His choice of languages, and the social determinants for
code switching at the time, make his thoughts on spoken and written language even
more relevant to a study sociolinguistic and ethnographic study of language
theory and practice. 

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Linguistics TALK on campus: Rebecca Cover

Linguistics will shortly be interviewing a candidate for a two-year half-time teaching appointment in the department, starting next year. The candidate’s name is Rebecca Cover (PhD, UC Berkeley), and she works on African languages, language documentation, tense/aspect/mood, and the syntax-semantics interface. If the interview process is successful, Rebecca will join the department for the next two years (2011-12 and 2012-13), during which time she’ll teach 3 courses per year, and potentially advise senior theses. This will increase the number of linguistics faculty at Reed from 3 to 3.5. (Note that this is unrelated to the possible job search for next year. More about that later…)

Rebecca will be at Reed on Monday, February 28th. During her visit, she will have lunch with students and give a talk in the afternoon (4:30-6:00, room TBA). I encourage all of you to come to the talk and/or the lunch so that you can meet her and give the interview committee her feedback.

Here is the title and (tentative) abstract for Rebecca’s talk:

From data to theory and back again: Documentation, description, and Badiaranke aspect

In this talk I argue for the interdependence of good language documentation and description on the one hand, and good linguistic theory on the other, using aspect in Badiaranke (Atlantic, Niger-Congo) as a case study. Throughout, I discuss the methodology used to obtain the data and arrive at an analysis.  I present fieldwork data on the two major aspects in Badiaranke, perfective and imperfective, and argue that mainstream treatments of aspectual semantics fail to account for the Badiaranke data. I propose an alternative account of perfective and imperfective aspect in the language, on which the semantics of Badiaranke aspect is inextricably intertwined with modality. I show that from both an intuitive standpoint and a formal standpoint, this approach explains the surprising patterns in the Badiaranke data. Finally, I consider the ramifications of the data and analysis for both language documentation and linguistic analysis.

Please mark the date in your calendar and come to the talk if you can. Rebecca assures me that it will be accessible for people who have not studied formal semantics.

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New MA program in Linguistics at Queen Mary University, London

The Department of Linguistics at Queen Mary, University of London is
pleased to invite applications for its new MA in Linguistics degree programme.

The MA is designed to offer comprehensive training in the core subject
areas of linguistics while also offering students the flexibility to focus on
formal linguistics, sociolinguistics or the exciting and emerging links
between them. Classes are taught by leading researchers, providing
students with an advanced understanding of methods and concepts across
linguistics, from cutting-edge theory to practical research work.

The MA provides excellent preparation for anyone interested in pursuing
further research as a gateway to an academic career in linguistics. it
also provides some of the key knowledge and transferable skills required for
careers in other areas where language and linguistics play an important

Applications are now being accepted for September 2011 entry. Successful
applicants should have at least upper-second class honours (or overseas
equivalent) in an undergraduate degree with a significant linguistics
component. Proof of proficiency in academic English is required for
applicants where English is not a native language.

Application details and a link to the online application form can be
found at:

We strongly encourage applicants to apply early, though applications
will be accepted through the end of August.

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More on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Another article, this time from Lera Boroditsky in Scientific American, about the current trend in experimental research that many think demonstrates the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. You can’t access the full article on line, but the magazine is in our library. 

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Harvard Undergrad Linguistics Colloquium : Call for papers

Harvard University is hosting their 8th annual Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium, April 9-10, 2011. Undergraduate linguistics students from around the country are invited to attend the colloquium and submit abstracts for papers and discussion panels. The colloquium will also feature a talk by a keynote speaker (TBD).

A number of Reed students have attended past Harvard colloquia, and I encourage you to consider submitting a paper to this one. Kara, Svitlana, or I would be happy to help you prepare an abstract. The submission deadline is March 11, and the deadline to register for the conference is April 1.

The official invitation, call for papers, and registration form are posted on the bulletin board outside of Kara’s office. More information on LinG, the undegrad-run Harvard Linguistics Group, can be found here.

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Linguistics and the Superbowl

Wow – it turns out the language can index social groups and their personas! According to the Washington Post, that is, who provide us with a “dictionary” of fanspeak for the Steelers and the Packers. You’ll note they turn our attention to some dialect features (like the monophthongization of /au/ and the merger of front vowels beofre /l/ in Pittsburgh) and lot of lexical items, including pronouns.

I think this means that when you’re watching the Superbowl this weekend, you’ll be conducting linguistic fieldwork!

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LSA Summer Institute (fellowship deadline THIS WEEK)

A reminder that the Linguistics Society of America (LSA) is hosting a Summer Institute this year from July 7-August 2, at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This is an amazing opportunity to meet linguistics undergrads and grad students from around the country, attend talks and workshops, and take 4-8 week summer courses with prominent linguists (these courses can be taken for credit which, if transferred to Reed, can be applied towards the Linguistics major).

A limited number of fellowships (to cover tuition and other expenses) are available on a competitive basis from the LSA. The application deadline is THIS WEEK: FEBRUARY 4. For information on how to apply, visit this link.

For more on the Summer Institute itself, look here.

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Paying homage to the NYT “On Language” Column

It’s certainly worth following the “On Language” Column in the New York Times, particularly if you have an interest in words: etymologies, neologisms, political coinage, etc. I like the column better now that Ben Zimmer writes it; this week is a good example of why. In his discussion of the pronunciation of “homage,” he does a good job of providing both a historical context and a view of the variable pronunciations of the word. As a variationist, I love reading about variation! Check it out. How do you pronounce homage?

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LSA 2012 Meeting in PDX!

Great news! The 86th Annual Meeting of the LSA will take place at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower from 5-8 January, 2012.  Stay tuned to the LSA website for information on abstract submission and other news.
This is a terrific opportunity for Linguistics majors and others to attend a Linguistics conference. You should also considering submitting an abstract and presenting a paper – a TERRIFIC experience generally and particularly for those interested in continuing on to higher education in Linguistics.

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Apply to attend the LSA Summer Institute – Fellowship Deadline Feb. 4

The LSA’s 2011 Linguistic Institute will take place at the University of Colorado at Boulder from July 7 through August 2, 2011.  More information about this premier gathering of linguistics scholars and students is available on the LSA website. Student fellowship applications for the Institute may be submitted online through February 4, 2011.  Individuals must be student members of the LSA in order to apply for a fellowship.  To apply for a fellowship, student members should log in to the LSA website and click on the “Submit or Resume a Fellowship Application” link. 

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