inclusive language, linguistic anthropology

The importance of language access

On Passover, we begin the seder by inviting everyone to the table: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate.”

These first few words of the haggadah (the Passover text) are written in a different language than the rest of the text. Why?

The Jewish liturgy is not, as many assume, exclusively in Hebrew. Instead, it’s a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic. While Hebrew was and remains the holy language, Aramaic was a lingua franca that was also widely used in religious contexts. Most of the Talmud is Aramaic, as are large parts of the old Testament, and it was almost certainly the language Jesus spoke.

The haggadah is mostly Hebrew, but the call to the table is in Aramaic. There are two traditional reasons given. The first is about safety, and the second is about access.

  1. Supernatural beings — both angels and evil spirits — were said to understood Hebrew but not Aramaic, which was a human tongue. Issuing the invitation in Aramaic was, then, a way to exclude those spirits from the invitation.
  2. At the same time, more people spoke Aramaic than Hebrew. If you don’t understand that you’re being called to come and eat, you won’t eat — so that part of the liturgy takes place in the language that most people used as their everyday language.

Access matters

Lots of people think the first story is more poetic, but not me — the second story is the most beautiful one I can imagine.

I live in a multilingual city that at least tries to handle access well. NYC subway signs, for instance, use between one and six or seven languages: Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Korean, and Haitian Creole seem to be the most common. (These are also almost certainly the most widely spoken languages in the city — out of an estimated 800 languages.)

But I live in a multilingual country that often handles access poorly. The White House still hasn’t restored the Spanish-language version of their website, and my colleagues have asked, “Why exclude millions and millions of people from an in-depth understanding of civic obligations and government information? How is that going to make America great?”

And there’s the point: language access has primary importance if we are to be inclusive, because you can’t participate if you don’t understand what’s going on. You can’t play a role in political discourse if you don’t understand your responsibilities or your rights. And you won’t come to the table if you don’t understand that dinner is ready and you’re invited.

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3 thoughts on “The importance of language access

  1. Dear Jena: good afernoon. Thanks for this wonderful explanation of why part of the Seder sermon is in Aramaic. I did ask that question when I spent the holiday with a Jewish family in a hotel in the Catskills and nobody knew it. Moreover you gave me an excellent idea of how to unmask a Sumerian demon that camouflages as the human being it had previously eaten ( an event that will appear in Book II of my novel ‘Madame D.C.’) You’re a fair source of wisdom. Keep up the effort. We need you.
    Un alro baccione e arrivederci!

    Liked by 1 person

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