Rich Michelson on the So-Called Rules of Language and Literature
The following is an excerpt from the blog post that originally appeared on The Prosen People on February 20, 2017.
A riddle: Which came first, the thought or the word? “In the Beginning was the Word,” but was that word thought into being? Or did the word create the thought?
. . .
When artist/illustrator/educator/mensch Neil Waldman and I were having lunch fifteen years ago while collaborating on Too Young for Yiddish—through which I learned that the Yiddish language had evolved out of a mixture of Hebrew, Polish, and German, and that Isaac Bashevis Singer proudly claimed that Yiddish was the only language without a word for “armaments”—I asked Neil his thoughts about whether a language without specific words for weapons would inhibit thoughts of violence. I don’t recall his answer but I do remember him casually mentioning the life story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his quest to invent words and make Hebrew the daily language of the Jews. I was fascinated. Neil, who lived in Israel at one time, said: “I was going to write that story, but couldn’t find my way in. I now give you the idea as a gift.” It took me fifteen years to find my way in. (Thanks, Neil.)
Imagine trying to get Italians to all start speaking Latin again—and succeeding within your lifetime? Hebrew began to die out as a “living language” around the time of the Maccabees. Because it was used primarily for prayer, it hadn’t incorporated new words for anything invented since the language solidified 2000 years earlier. Ben Yehuda changed all that.
Of course, I didn’t think of the amount of work such labor entails. What fun, I thought instead, to be Adam naming the animals all over again! I wondered how Ben Yehuda made up a name for “ice cream” or “bicycle”—neither of which existed in biblical times. (You can find out if you read the book!)
The Language of Angels is a book about history, and it is a book about friendship and it is a book about family, and it is a book about the current political Mideast situation, and it is a book about the “reinvention” of Hebrew. And now I am at the end of this post and I’ve figured out what I wanted to say: my book is mostly about my love of words in and of themselves, and how much fun it is to play with language. That is something I hope to share with all children and those of you who once were children yourselves.
Richard Michelson is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has written many acclaimed books for adults and children, including The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew and Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy (Knopf Books for Young Readers).
- Alaina Leary