Saturday, December 11, 2004

Words, words, words

My book club's latest choice was Outwitting History, by Aaron Lansky (published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). It's the personal story of the mission that Lansky claimed as a college student and has been pursuing ever since: "rescuing a million Yiddish books" (and more) from literal dustbins of history.

Yiddish was the main language of Ashkenazi Jews for hundreds of years, but it was not widely captured in print until the advent of affordable print technology in the 19th century. But when six million Jews (most of the world's Yiddish speakers) lost their lives in the Holocaust, the language itself almost died.

"Between 1864 . . . and 1939," writes Lansky, "nearly thirty thousand separate Yiddish titles appeared, constituting one of the most concentrated periods of literary creativity in all of Jewish history." After the war, Yiddish served a very different purpose: it became a language of exile, of refuge in unfamiliar new places (notably New York). But it was not universally loved even among Jews. When measured against Hebrew, the language of God, for many it was just as well forgotten.

Acknowledging the tragedy of the Holocaust, one reader in the book group asked: "But why books?" Why not some other objects as object of Lansky's desire? "It's the shoes," said one whose great-uncle was among the victims. It's a tangible thing, the only thing that survives. This is true, said I, for language, while not strictly tangible, is a container (no less than a shoe)--a medium that holds and conveys the very culture of those who speak it.

My sixth-grade son is taking Latin. He a young scientist, I an old English major, have common ground here. "Latin unlocks a lot of secrets," says Tucker. Indeed. Just as the history of every word from whatever source bears traces of the history of the people who have used, misused, and abused it over time.

We know that language is power. Lately, thanks to George Lakoff, we know all about "framing" arguments (even if that particular knowledge does not always translate to the power to persuade). But Lakoff wrote an early book, Metaphors We Live By, which makes a more basic point. What we think is structured by the language we use in ways that we are not even conscious of.

To have your language stolen from you is something I can't really imagine.

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