Research has shown that people in cultures around the world use an identical speech pattern when speaking to babies. Called infant-directed speech (IDS), or “motherese,” it is characterized by higher pitch and an exaggerated range of pitches; shorter phrases and longer pauses between phrases, and more pronounced enunciation. We might also use nonsense syllables to echo the baby’s vocalizations and express approval, disapproval, pain or pleasure.
Studies show that babies consistently respond better to IDS than to adult speech patterns, regardless of the language of origin. In fact, they will respond to IDS in a foreign language more than to adult speech in their own language, and to IDS from a stranger rather than adult speech from a caregiver. In a sense, IDS represents a universal human language.
According to the Torah, G-d created the world through His speech. The Hebrew language, in which the Torah was written, consists of an alphabet of 22 letters. These 22 letters are the “building blocks” of creation. Through the inﬁnite permutations of these letters, every physical object came into being. Each letter represents a different divine energy, and each object is sustained by the divine energy contained in the letters that make up its name. This gives a profound signiﬁcance to the Hebrew language, or more precisely, Lashon Hakodesh, the holy tongue in which the Torah was written.
It is interesting that the genetic code is likewise made up of “letters” (nucleotides) which together form “words” and “phrases” (genes), which determine the makeup of the entire organism. Physicists are increasingly drawn to String Theory, which postulates that all matter actually consists of the vibrations of tiny strings. Speech, of course, is nothing more than the vibrations of vocal chords.
In times of old, the Jewish community was very particular to guard the Holy Tongue and use it only for spiritual purposes. Other languages, such as Aramaic, Arabic, Ladino or Yiddish, were the vernacular used for common, everyday speech. The language known today as Hebrew has only passing familiarity to the actual Holy Tongue.
Our sages assure us that in the days of Moshiach, the Holy Tongue will be restored to its original prominence. As the verse in Zephaniah declares, “Then I will transform all nations to be pure of tongue, to call together in the name of G-d and serve Him as one.” All people will express themselves clearly, with one language and one purpose, and declare their allegiance to the One G-d.
Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover is chairman of the Center of Magnetohydrodynamic Studies and Training at Ben-Gurion University.