Rashi to B'reshis 2:23 says that the language Adam spoke was one that Rashi calls לשון הקדש, lashon hakodesh (or l'shon hakodesh), and that contains the words אִשָּׁה and אִישׁ. Keeping to Rashi's nomenclature but abbreviating, I'll here call it lhk. The Tora is written in lhk, as evidenced by the words אִשָּׁה and אִישׁ appearing in it. (That doesn't prove all the Tora is in lhk. But presumably large swaths of it are.) Moreover, Rashi (same place) says the world was created with, or in, or by means of, lhk.

This implies that lhk is the oldest language in the world.

Yet linguists will tell you that the language the Tora is in has ancestors, including Proto-Semitic and Proto-Afro-Asiatic. Of course these are dead, so that doesn't quite contradict anything above. But linguists will say further that these languages predated the language the Tora is in. That seems definitely to contradict the above.

According to Rashi, do we simply disbelieve the linguists? Or is there some way to reconcile Rashi with them?

And do other rishonim disagree with Rashi in such a way as to be more linguist-friendly? What do they hold?

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    I will just make the comment, that I do not know how to reconcile the idea that lhk is the first language and linguists. I will however say, that I also don't know how to reconcile the suggestion that the world was created with lhk literally. As in, I don't believe that Gd has vocal cords witch which to literally use a language. I have always read statements about lhk as metaphors or lessons of the importance of the language, but nothing to learn history from. – avi Jul 22 '11 at 14:50
  • However I will add, that I've often wanted to see a study done of children and see what vocabulary kids will come up with on their own if not exposed to any language. Would the language sound at all like hebrew? I doubt they will, but what I was told in elementary school implied that it would :) – avi Jul 22 '11 at 14:52
  • For a second I thought someone actually did the experiment, I was happy to discover that nobody did :) (by modern experiment standards) – avi Jul 22 '11 at 15:21

Actually, Rashi doesn't say that Adam spoke lashon hakodesh. He says, מכאן שנברא העולם בלשון הקודש - from here we see that the world was created with LHK.

Adam himself may have known other languages; in fact, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 38b) says that he spoke Aramaic. But names are significant in that they express the true reality of the object (see Tanya, Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah chs. 1, 7, and 12, that the Hebrew name of any being is a "map" of the Divine energy that went into its creation), so it's only natural that Adam would have chosen LHK, the language of creation, to name Chava.

As for the "single language" of the Tower of Bavel builders: yes, Rashi says that it was LHK. But again, that doesn't have to mean that they knew no other language; different people may have already developed different languages (or dialects, at least), but they all had Hebrew as a common language. (Or, perhaps, everyone knew all of the languages, like Mordechai.) They might well have used different languages for different purposes, like Frederick the Great's "I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accountant, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my God, and German to my horse."

The "confusion of languages," then, would have involved: (a) people forgetting their common language of LHK, and (b) the scrambling of who spoke what other languages. So, for example, originally you and your relatives might have spoken both Hebrew and proto-Indo-European, whereas now one of you speaks PIE and the other speaks proto-Uralic, and neither one of you knows Hebrew anymore.

In short, then, it may be not so much that LHK is the parent language of all others, but rather that it, as well as some other languages, are coeval with the creation of the world.

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    Regarding your first point, that Adam didn't necessarily speak lhk: but he named Chava "isha". The rest of your answer seems to be addressing a separate question, whether lhk is the ancestor of other languages, and also perhaps yet another question, whether lhk has borrowed from other languages. Neither of those is my question above (although the confusion is my fault, as I originally wrote the question with a paragraph that logically affects such matters and not my actual question; sorry). I was asking only about whether lhk had an ancestor, which your answer doesn't seem to address. – msh210 Jul 22 '11 at 14:37
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    @msh210: right, my point was that we know that Adam spoke LHK - just not necessarily that it was his exclusive language. About the question of linguistic development leading to Hebrew: why is that any different than the question of biological development leading to modern human beings? Adam was "born" as a mature adult, thus with a seeming prehistory; and LHK was also created as a seemingly natural language that, to a scientist's way of thinking, must have had antecedents (since יש מאין is outside their purview). – Alex Jul 22 '11 at 17:09
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    That's eminently plausible, and you can post it as an answer. Do you know any source that proposes it? – msh210 Jul 22 '11 at 17:11
  • @msh210: possibly (although I'm having a hard time understanding him) Kol Yehudah's understanding of an exchange in Kuzari (1:53-56). He seems to be saying that peoples don't just change their language willy-nilly; all natural languages are the result of development. But you can't extend that back indefinitely, because where did the first people get their language? (Evolution wasn't part of the medieval worldview, of course.) That necessitates a parent language that came into existence together with humanity. – Alex Jul 22 '11 at 17:47
  • how does this fit with the sefer yetzira whereby certain people use combinations of hebrew letters to create animals – ray Nov 21 '16 at 7:11

The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim (3:8) says that Lashon Hakodesh is only given that term because it contains no indecent words. He seems to reject the gemorah and other statements which seem to imply that lashon hakodesh was the first language.

As for Rashi, I don't think you can reconcile rashi's statements with lingsuists without going the metaphor path, which is not what Rashi's words imply. However, I also don't know how to reconcile what you wrote with the statements of the Talmud and other midrashim which state that the Bikkurim must be said in Lashon Hakodesh, and yet neither "ish" nor "isha" is found amongst those passages. Or the other statements which speak of all of Israel speaking Lashon Hakodesh in Israel during the time of the temple.

The gemorah actually makes an interesting statement regarding the Torah. It suggests that Torah was originally written in Hebrew script and lashon hakodesh, and was changed by Ezra to Ashuri script and Aramaic, and was eventually settled at Ashuri script and lashon hakodesh. This website here has some really interesting flash cards on the subject.

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    +1, thank you for the More info. That אִישׁ and אִשָּׁה don't appear in parashas bikurim does not contradict its being in lhk: the g'mara (I seem to recall it's actually a mishna) does not say "every word of lhk is used when saying parashas bikurim". I also don't see the contradiction between Rashi and the statement that everyone spoke lhk in later years. – msh210 Jul 22 '11 at 14:22
  • Maybe I'm just not understanding your argument... If the mishna says it has to be said in lhk, but you want to say it doesn't 'all' have to be lhk, then how many words need to be lhk? How many words can I switch out? In other words, I don't see how you can read rashi as saying that only ish and isha are lhk, but other words in the Torah are not. – avi Jul 22 '11 at 14:27
  • Maybe I'm not understanding yours. :-) Could you explain what you mean by "I... don't know how to reconcile what you wrote with the statements... that the Bikkurim must be said in Lashon Hakodesh, and yet neither "ish' nor 'isha' is found amongst those passages", please? In particular, how is it relevant that ish and isha are not in parashas bikurim? – msh210 Jul 22 '11 at 14:32
  • I think I was mostly responding to your parenthetical statement " (That doesn't prove all the Tora is in lhk. But presumably large swaths of it are.)" .. I thought you were attributing that idea to Rashi. Meaning, one would assume that all the words in the bikkurim are LHK, and rashi could have used those words as proof as well. – avi Jul 22 '11 at 14:47
  • Oh, no, my argument was weaker than that. It was simply that just as ish and isha are in lhk, likewise presumably other parts of the Tora are. Nothing to do with specific parashiyos that the mishna (or whatever) explicitly says is lhk. – msh210 Jul 22 '11 at 14:53

To directly answer the OP's question: There is a theory from Rabbi Y. Y. Zilberberg that claims that Adam did not really speak Lashon HaKodesh proper, rather he spoke a sort of proto-Lashon HaKodesh which later developed into Hebrew as we know it. This is from the book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press) by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein on page 38-39:

Rabbi Yaakov Yehuda Zilberberg/Di Kasif (1914–2003)... explains that Adam heard the sounds of nature and, in attempting to learn from them and imitate them, he developed the first phonemes (the smallest units of speech) from whence speech eventually developed. As mentioned above, God did not teach him Lashon HaKodesh, rather He gave Adam the necessary tools to intuit Lashon HaKodesh on his own. According to this approach as well, Adam did not develop speech on his own; he required special assistance from God in order to have the intelligence required to learn from his surroundings.

In Rabbi Zilberberg/Di Kasif’s view, the original language that Adam spoke was simplistic and undeveloped, but was built on strong foundations. The Adamic language only consisted of short words for the most common things and ideas, but was based on a formula that allowed it to vastly expand its vocabulary. This formula, without any impurities, leads directly to Lashon HaKodesh. All other languages that developed from the Adamic language are adulterated with unnatural sounds and their distorted meanings. Thus,while Adam did not speak Lashon HaKodesh as a fully developed language in the sense that we understand it, the language that he spoke was the prototype of Lashon HaKodesh. This proto–Lashon HaKodesh was a common ancestor of all languages, but was the direct ancestor of Lashon HaKodesh. In view of this, it is fair to state that on one hand Adam spoke Lashon HaKodesh, and on the other hand also spoke Aramaic (and indeed all seventy languages), because he did not literally speak those languages; rather, he spoke in a way that followed a formula from which those languages could develop.

If you look at Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press) in Chapter 2, he explains that Rashi's view that Lashon HaKodesh was the only language spoken before the Deluge is but one of two (or 3 opinions) in the Jerusalemic Talmud. The other opinion says that before the Deluge, everyone spoke all seventy languages and that at the Deluge people forget 69 languages and remembered only one, but different people remembered different languages. This approach is adopted by R. Yosef Bechor Shor, Chizzkuni, and Rabbeinu Chaim Paltiel.

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