Unspeakable words


Every language has its genius, their words have their power, their potency. One speaks them without really knowing them. One grazes their abysses, fly over their peaks, ignoring their heaps of secrets.

Our languages tell us that we are enigmas to ourselves.

Perhaps two examples will shed some light on the far-reaching implications of this unconscious of languages.

The Hebrew verb נָהַר (nāhar) means ‘to shine, to radiate with joy’, as in Is 60:5 (“Then you will look and be radiant”i). A derived word נָהָר (nāhār) means « stream, river ». In feminine form, this word becomes נָהָרָה (nāhārā) and means « light ». And in a different vocalization, attested in Chaldean, נָהִירוּ (nāhiru) means « wisdom ».

This word, therefore, may incarnate unto itself light, joy, a river – and wisdom!

Curiously, the Greek language also has words that bring together the meaning of light, the idea of joy and the brilliance of water. A verse from Aeschylus in the Prometheus in chains sings « the countless smile of the sea waves » (ποντίων τε κυμάτων άνήριθμον γέλασμα).

Another example highlights the intrinsic capacity of a word to bear witness to the dream of the whole language, and of those who speak it. Thus the verb עָלַם (alam) means « to hide, to be ignored ». As a noun, the same word עָלַם means ‘eternity’. One would like to ask: does this word incite to think that eternity is ‘hidden’? Or that ignorance is ‘eternal’?

In another vocalization, the same word means ‘world’. But perhaps even most beautifully, the word , in yet another vocalization (‘elem), means ‘child’.

Again the mind wanders… Is the world a veiled child? Does a child hide his eternity? Does eternity veil and hidden childhood? Is the veil the eternal childhood of the world?

A thousand possible thoughts arise from just one word. Languages, all of them, abound with simple surprises, disconcerting shifts, and forgotten nuggets. Yet they bear witness to a dream, they testify that the smallest word is linked to untold mysteries.

i In Hebrew : ‘אָז תִּרְאִי וְנָהַרְתְּ ‘

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