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Published by: outdash2 on May 08, 2013
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d haTva
Saia Mi
WATch your WordS: The PoWer oflAnguAge on ThoughT 
peech in Judaism has the power to create new realities. Through words, an individual can make an oath so
permanent that it requires a Jewish court to be annulled,
dedicate an object to the Temple thereby prohibiting itsuse for any other purpose, sanctify the Shabbat each week through
and establish the Jewish calendar through the monthly announcement of the new moon
 The severity of words and
their ramications are described in the laws of 
shemirat halashon,
guarding one’s tongue from speaking improperly about other
people, and is a sin that receives a unique Biblical punishment of 
. Clearly, Judaism does not see words as simply a convenient
means of communication. The words’ signicance extends farbeyond the eeting moments we need to pronounce them.
Psychological studies have a lot to say about how speech af-fects the way we think. In many ways, our language creates ourreality and affects how we experience and relate to the world. De-pending on the structure and rules of a language, speech leadsus to think about aspects of the world differently. In many ways,language creates a framework through which we see the world.For example, in Spanish and German certain words aredeemed feminine or masculine, much like as in Hebrew. Whethera word is feminine or masculine actually affects the perceptionof the words in those languages. In a study conducted in 2002,twenty-four English words that take different feminine or mas-culine forms in Spanish and German were asked to be described
by German and Spanish native speakers who were procient in
English [1]. Across the board, the word for “key,” which is malein German, was described by native German speakers with adjec-tives like hard, heavy, jagged and metal, whereas native Spanishspeakers—for whom the word “key” is feminine—described it asgolden, intricate, little, and lovely [1]. This study concluded thatthe masculine or feminine categorization of the word led to as-sociations that the speaker then applied to the object as a result of the constructs of the language.In other research, anthropologist John Haviland and linguistStephen Levinson described how the terms used conversation-ally for spatial direction have a real impact on experiencing the world [2].
 While English language uses egocentric coordinates to
describe position relative to one’s self with words like left, right,front, and back, languages like Guugu Yimithirr (an aboriginal Australian language from north Queensland) speak about spacein terms of geographic location of north, south, east, and west.Because of their language, children who speak Guugu Yimithirrmust be constantly aware of geographic direction from a young age, having mastered the skill by age seven or eight [2]. The con-
struct of the language requiring geographic specication pro
-motes attention to spatial detail that is not necessary for speakersof other languages. This results in direction becoming secondnature to them. They could casually point out that there is an antto the north of one’s foot [2]. This is in contrast to Americans,for whom geographic direction is not of primary importance asit is not essential to their language or communication. A practicalexample of how this language framework would affect experi-ence is that while two rooms of a hotel across a hallway may seemidentical to an American, perhaps each containing a window onthe wall furthest from the door, a lamp in the back right corner,and the bathroom situated to the left of the entrance, a nativeGuugu Yimithirr speaker would see the two rooms as entirely dif-ferent, because geographically, each item in the room would be inthe opposite location vis a vis north/south
[2]. Language has the
power to inuence experience in a real way.
In a similar fashion, a study by Caitlin Fausey at Stanfordshows how language can shape memory [3]. English, Japanese,and Spanish speakers all watched video clips of people popping balloons, breaking eggs, and spilling drinks either accidentally orintentionally. Afterwards, the participants were asked to remem-ber who performed the acts in the various scenarios.
ingly enough, Spanish and Japanese do not articulate the agentin their speech for cases of unintentional action (they would say“the vase broke” as opposed to “he broke the vase”). As a
cay, Juaism s t s wsas simpy a vit mas  mmuiati.
d haTva
the Spanish and Japanese participants were not as successful at re-membering who was the agent in the accidental cases in contrastto Americans who will always speak in terms of who “popped,broke, or spilled” regardless of their intention [3]. Americans thusremembered the agents in the video clips without any explicit re-
quest to take note of it. The structure of language seems to plaa signicant role in an individual’s memory when details of the
experience are necessarily referred to and recognized by the lan-guage. The impact of language can likely be tied to the concept of neuroplasticity. Studies have shown that thought can alter thephysical structure of the brain’s neurons [4]. Increased practiceand thought leads neural pathways to become more ingrained. If repetition strengthens a neural pathway, then it is logical that repe-tition of a thought through the construct of language would leavea lasting impact on how the brain is wired and relates to outsideinformation. Language might not cause a difference in the num-ber of thoughts we think, but will emphasize more prominently certain words that then serve as handy mnemonics, leading us tounconsciously remember something more saliently. For example,the Japanese were likely aware of the causative agents in the videoclips while watching, but without the word construct that iden-
tied that detail, it was not maintained in their memory, or re
-inforced via the additional neural connections from language. Aclear example of this concept, as demonstrated by MIT cognitiveneuroscientist Michael Frank, involves those who lack words forindividual numbers in Pirahã, the language of a small Amazoniancommunity. When Pirahã speakers were asked to produce thesame number of balloons as a number of spools of thread they had previously watched dropped one by one into a bucket, they often failed to get the exact number correct because they did nothave a word to commit that number to memory [5]. It is not thatthe Pirahã speakers lack an understanding of what constitutes thesame number; rather, they lacked the words that would serve asa mnemonic device to represent that thought [5]. If language ac-customs individuals to think in terms of feminine vs. masculine,geographic direction, or whom to blame for an event, they willlikely become set in their ways, because their words act as a mem-ory tool solidifying the associations in their minds,. Judaism strongly perceives the effect that words have on con-sciousness. Rabbi Akiva Tatz in
The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life 
points out that some English words are non-existent in
Hebrew, because they reect inventions of other societies. Bibli
-cal Hebrew does not have words for “romance,” “entertainment,”
“etiquette,” “adventure,” or even “nature,” as these are not Jew 
-ish concepts in and of themselves [6]. He also explains a morecomplex example, noting that Hebrew does not have words for“I have,” because Judaism does not base a person’s value off of one’s possessions. The Hebrew substitute is the phrase “
 yesh li” 
meaning literally “it is to me” -- everything is described in termsof its own independent existence, and then is expressed in termsof how it relates to me. The item and its owner have independent
 worth, and so the fact that one is not dened by what he owns isreected in the Hebrew language [6].
Perhaps the greatest recognition of the power of words in
 Judaism is reected in their creative ability. God chose to invent
speech as the mechanism of creating the world, and we see thatthe Hebrew term for “speech” and “object” stem from the sameroot: “
 The similarity between the two is not a coincidence.
Rather, Hebrew names are described as reecting the essence of 
the object, and so the words for speech and tangible objects re-
ect a similar essence. In fact, the rst verse of the Torah states
Bereishit bara Elokim 
according to which Rabbi Dov Ber, the
Maggid of Mezritch explains that God’s rst creation was “
representing the letters of the Hebrew alphabet from
God specically instituted the extra step of creating letters
and speech before physical objects, and thereby established anintrinsic relationship between the two whereby speech becamethe causative agent of creation.Man, the only creation made in the image of God -- “
betzelem  Elokim” 
(Genesis 1:27), can ttingly create through speech in a
 way that mirrors divine creation. Man is categorized in Kabbalis-tic thought as a “
a speaker (the most advanced over theother three categories of creations:
animal). Targum Onkelos famously identies man’sspeech as what makes him uniquely human. Genesis 2:7 describes
how man became a “living soul” ( 
nefesh chayah)
after God breathedinto man’s nostrils the breath of life. Targum Onkelos translatesthe words of a “living soul” into a “spirit of speech” ( 
ruach me- malela 
in Aramaic) implying that the essence of our soul is ourability to speak. Rashi also interprets a “living soul” as power of speech, but adds that a living soul has an additional element of 
-- intelligence. Based on the intrinsic connection betweenlanguage and thought, perhaps Rashi’s association between man’s
speech and intellect as dening man’s living soul is more pro
foundly connected than two separate qualities unique to man.
 A fascinating example demonstrating the value that Judaismputs on language appears in the wording of the Torah itself. The
3a notes that there is a verse in the Torah thatadded eight extra letters so as not to speak negatively. (Tangen-tially, the fact that every extra letter in a verse seeks an explana-tion is itself very telling of the Torah perspective on the value of 

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