On Root / Calling the Fink Phone Using the Holy Tongue

Judaism has frowned on gossip for eons, prompting the modern Israeli to give the taxman's tax-cheating hotline an unflattering name.

One important word this language column has not dealt with yet is – language.

Make that two words, because in Hebrew there are two main words for the idea of language, derived from two different but relevant body parts. One is lashon, Hebrew for "tongue," and the other is safah, the word for "lip."

That the Hebrew word for the fleshy organ of taste and speech is also used to mean language is not surprising to speakers of English or Romance languages. Not only is the English word "tongue" also used in that way: the very word "language," and related terms like "linguist" come from "lingua," the Latin word for "tongue."

Evil tongue, holy tongue

If you speak two different languages, you are du-leshoni, literally, "bilingual." And in Hebrew there are also an evil tongue, the holy tongue, and of course, the mother tongue.

Lashon hara', literally "the tongue of evil," refers to gossip or slander. Gossip is forbidden under Jewish law and is castigated. But the admission that something that is about to be said is lashon hara' usually promises juicy tidbits that are not to be missed. As my grandmother used to joke: "If you don't have anything nice to say about somebody -come sit next to me!"

Lashon is also known from Yiddish, where it is pronounced loshen. Mamaloshen might seems to mean any "mother tongue," but in the Yiddish-speaking world, it refers to Yiddish itself, since in Eastern Europe, it was Yiddish that was spoken colloquially from birth, and would have been what "mama" spoke in informal family settings.

Jewish households in eastern Europe spoke Yiddish, not Hebrew - loshen kodesh, "the holy tongue". Being the language of Scripture, it was never used for scolding children, exchanging recipes, or heaven forefend –cursing out your neighbor.

One of the huge achievements of the revival of the Hebrew language in Israel was secularizing and updating the language so that it could be spoken as a vernacular, making it what it is today, the sefat-em, real "mother-tongue," of millions of Israelis.

Tongue wagging

While the noun from the root l-sh-n is innocuous enough, the verb hilshin means "denounce or betray."

There is actually an ancient prayer, still recited three times a day, against the malshinim, those sectarian "snitches" – Samaritan, Sadducee or Judeo-Christian (theories differ) – who threatened rabbinic Judaism of antiquity with reprisals from the Roman authorities. Today, anyone who reports illicit activities is said to be a malshin, though connotations run the gamut from being a despicable rat to being an admirable whistle-blower.

A charming latter-day take on the malshin is the governmental tax authority's hot line for people to anonymously inform on fellow citizens who are cheating on their taxes. Though the G-men call it the kav tzedek, "the justice line," it has been dubbed the malshinon, roughly, "fink phone" or "nark number."

Slips of lips

The word safah for language is no less common. It is used in contexts such as naming languages (hasafah ha-'Ivrit - the Hebrew language), safah zarah, "foreign language," and sefat guf, "body language."

Just as you would also refer to the rim of a glass as its lip, the word safah also means "edge" or "side." This leads to some nice double entendres. Sefat harechov, for instance, means "the edge of the street," i.e., the curb, but also refers to "street talk."

Likewise, sefat hayam is "the edge of the ocean," the beach (but it could also name a Hebrew dictionary of surfer slang, if there were such a thing).

But since there isn't, if you want to know how to say "hang ten," or have any other questions of Hebrew vocabulary or usage, you would go to the highest language authority in the land, the Akademiah Lelashon Ha'ivrit – The Academy of the Hebrew Language. Their job is to find homegrown Hebrew equivalents and coinings for new words and concepts.

One would think, though, that they could have found a good native Hebrew word for the Greek "akademy," which comes from the "grove of Akademos," the legendary Athenian hero of the Trojan War, whose estate was where Plato taught. And there was definitely more safah zarah spoken there then lashon hakodesh.

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Alex Levac