You say there are 7,105 languages spoken today. Are those real languages or dialects?
Accents of America
I could start with a long explanation of the fact that there is no commonly accepted way of telling the difference between a language and a dialect. I will spare you that. Let’s be practical. I am not using the word “dialect” as it is sometimes used – to mean a way of speaking that is considered inferior. I am using it to mean a different way of speaking the same language. It assumes that with little or no effort, two people each speaking his or her own dialect will understand almost all of what they other says. It could be that the differences between the two dialects are enough that people from one need to spend a few hours speaking with people from the other dialect before they understand everything.
Dialects of English in Great Britain
This kind of practical definition is close to the definition used by the Ethnologue, from which I get the number of 7,105 languages. So English is listed as one language in the Ethnologue, not as several. If we were to count the dialects of all the languages, the number would be many tens of thousands. For example, the Ethnologue lists over 30 dialects of English within the United Kingdom alone; noting that there are “Many local English varieties around the world.”
So the number of 7,105 represents that many individual languages. It is not inflated by including dialects of each language.
When asked to talk about what we do, I often give the number of languages spoken in the world today. That number stands at 7,105. In response, people often ask me why there are so many languages.
Underlying that question might be doubt that 7,105 is an accurate number. After all, it seems quite high. You can find the full list of all 7,105 languages at ethnologue.com. That list, by the way, is recognized by the International Standards Organization. It contains information about each language, including where it is spoken, which would make it easy for anyone to verify by going to that place. So there is good reason to believe that 7,105 is a valid and accurate number.
There are lots of theories about why there are so many languages and they are still being debated. I hear people say that it might be because of geography. Mountains or rivers might cut people off from each other, leading to the development of many languages. That might explain why there are so many languages in mountainous areas like Papua New Guinea or the State of Oaxaca in Mexico. But it does not explain why there are so many languages on the plains and plateaus of Nigeria.
Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder
For those of us who take the Bible seriously, it holds the answer. The book of Genesis contains the story of the tower of Babel. In that story we learn that God thought that it was better for us to speak many languages, even though it might seem to us that speaking one is much more practical.
In the book of Acts, we are told of the Apostle Paul speaking to the people at Athens. In that address, he said:
“From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be. God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him.” (Acts 17: 26-27 CEV)
The word translated “nations” could also be translated “peoples” because it is the word εθνος (or ethnos), from which we get our word ethnic. So Paul is saying that God made all the different peoples (ethnic groups) so that they would look for him, reach out to him and find him. Apparently, all the different linguistic and ethnic identities people have, help us to search for, and hopefully find, the one true God.
Now that is a really good reason to have lots of languages.
My dad has a gap between his upper two front teeth. As I child, I never noticed it until I was told that when I was little, I had the same thing and the dentist cut something (the labial frenum) so that mine would not have a gap. Both my sons have the same gap, as we chose not to have the same procedure done for them.
As they became young men in Burkina Faso (we lived there for the first 12-14 years of their lives), the people there would remark on how handsome they were. Sometimes they would specifically comment on that lovely gap between their two front teeth. That is how we learned that a gap between one’s upper front teeth is considered a mark of beauty in Burkina Faso and some other places, like Kenya.
The word for the day is ethnodoxology - the art of making praise songs in local languages. Praise should come from the heart, so it is best given in one’s heart language.
Right now, my friend Joseph Gyebi, worship leader, pastor, aficionado of Ghana Gospel music, and student of engaging culture for Christ, is helping the Nkonya people of Ghana develop new praise songs in their language.
When Dayle and I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we worked with a group of churches named CECCA/16. They were founded by the intrepid C. T. Studd. Those churches just celebrated their 100th anniversary. It was a big celebration. In keeping with my last post, I want to ask if you think of Africa as having churches 100 years old, or more? But that is not my subject today.
CECCA/16 is a regional church in the northeast of Congo in an area with the town of Isiro at its center. There are perhaps a dozen languages in the heart of the area covered by CECCA/16. The thing is, none of them have a useable translation of the Bible. The small minority who know French, the official language, use the Bible in French. Some others know regional languages spoken in the area – Swahili and Lingala – and there are Bibles in those. But none of the 250,000 members of CECCA/16 churches have a Bible in their heart language.
Child in CECCA/16 (photo B. Modibale)
Imagine if that were you. Imagine that you grew up in a church where the Bible was something you only heard in a language you did not know, or only mastered partially. Imagine that this was the case for all your family, all your friends, and all your neighbors. Imagine that access to the Bible was limited to a small elite in your church; that Bible studies were impossible. If you are a woman, you would be especially cut off from God’s Word because a lower percentage of women are sent to school. Then imagine that you live in this situation from your first memories, through raising your children, into your old age. Imagine that you see your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews growing into adulthood and even old age in that same situation.
CECCA/16 church members
Being a community of believers for 100 years without the Bible in anyone’s heart language – what is that like? Wouldn’t a person come to expect that the Bible is only for the elite? That it is normal that the only way one can know it is through what another person says about it? What would substitute for the comfort of cherished Bible verses? Wouldn’t pastors become more and more powerful? The church leadership be unquestioned? After all, on what basis would the people in the pews, without the Bible, question what the pastor says?
Or imagine that you grow up in a family where no one is a believer. Your neighbors go to church where a pastor reads from a book in a language they don’t know, but your father can tell you his, and your, beliefs about spirits, gods, in detail and in a language you fully grasp. When he sacrifices a chicken to the ancestors, he tells you what he is doing in your language and you understand it all. If your Christian neighbors ask you questions about your beliefs, you can answer them. But can they answer yours? Or do they have to run to their pastor?
CECCA/16 leadership, in the person of Rev. Nonziodane, asked Wycliffe to come and start translating the Bible into the languages of the people. Like many African church leaders, he grew up in the situation I am asking you to imagine. It is very real to him and he knows, all too well, the problems it creates. Going a century without God’s living Word is not an unusual experience for African Christians. We value your partnership with us, and with churches in Africa, to see that our African sisters and brothers in Christ have the same access to God’s living Word that has so shaped and reshaped our lives.
What do you think of when you think of Africa? Are your perceptions accurate? Up to date?
Some time ago I posted this photo on Facebook, asking people to guess where I took it. The building in the sunrise is an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. I took it while passing through on my way to Chad in November 2009.
Ethiopia has a population of 85 million, of which about 34 million belong to the Orthodox church of Ethiopia. Christianity became the official faith of Ethiopia in the 4th century, after being introduced three hundred years earlier. In the Bible book of Acts there is a story of a man from Ethiopia meeting the Apostle Philip and asking him questions, with the result that he asked to be baptized. According to tradition, that man returned to Ethiopia and began spreading his new faith. So Christianity was practiced in Ethiopia about 1500 years before it came to North America, and even longer than it has been in the United Kingdom. Ethiopia is an old center of Christianity. Is that how you think of Africa?
More recently, Christianity has grown rapidly in many parts of Africa, so much so that some are calling it a shift in the center of gravity of Christianity. Just three countries in Africa; Nigeria, DR Congo, and Ethiopia combined, now have almost 200 million Christians; 9% of the worldwide total, according to a study by the Pew Foundation. To be effective in Africa, we have to understand it as it is, not as we imagine it to be.
Partnering with the “new” churches in Africa is key to advancing Bible translation, for example.
Some people celebrate an alternative to Halloween based on something that happened on this day (October 31) in 1517.
en 95 Theses in Latin
Monk and scholar Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the church door at the Wittenberg Castle, Germany. This event sparked a giant controversy which resulted in profound religious and political changes that are with us to this day. On the paper, Luther had written 95 statements reflecting his opinions about practices in the church during his day. They are often called the “95 theses”.
Many societal reforms we take for granted would probably have been impossible without Luther’s opinions. Some people celebrate the event as Reformation Day, complete with very cute costumes (see below). In the spirit of a day celebrating documents that changed the world, one family made a Declaration of Independence costume.
It is a natural outcome of Luther’s theses that he went on to translate the Bible into German. He held the opinion that everyone should read and interpret the Bible for himself or herself. That could not happen until people had a Bible in a language they knew. Translating the Bible into the minority languages of the world continues that thinking. So, Bible translation and the day on which Halloween falls are linked in a round-about way.
Some time ago, I listened to someone in missions aviation tell the story of the introduction of the first helicopter. At the time, the party line was that helicopters were too expensive to operate, and so were unsuitable for missions aviation. He then told an amazing story of the need for an aircraft to go into a place where it was not possible to build an airstrip and God’s amazing provision of a helicopter well under market price. And so that particular party line about helicopters faded into history.
Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting
The party line is an interesting concept. People in organizations, especially political organizations, are expected to “toe the party line”– to say in public only things that follow the party line – the organizations policy or mission.
I have been there.
I was living in Burkina Faso doing Bible translation under the model where each person raises support for their ministry. The Wycliffe website says:
Wycliffe missionaries do not receive a guaranteed salary from our organization. Instead, they rely on God to provide through the gifts of interested individuals and churches
Because of this model, we had very little money for anything but the ministry of each missionary. At the same time, young people from Burkina Faso were coming to me saying that they felt God calling them to ministry. They wondered if their might be a place for them in Bible translation. They were mostly university students engaged in their churches and campus ministry. I told them the party line which went like this:
It is great that you want to serve our Lord. But we don’t have any way to involve you in what we are doing because of our financial structure.
It was more elaborate and polite than that, but you get the idea. I would also pray with them and send them on their way. I had come to Africa with a call to do Bible translation. My call, or rather my understanding of my call, did not include finding ways for Africans to be involved. No, I was going to do the translation myself.
Meanwhile, more and more young, educated Burkina Faso Christians kept coming to talk to me. Their stories became more and more compelling. Worse (or better!), the call of God on their lives was evident. One day, one came with an incredible story. You can listen to it here.
Samy Tioye and Ed
After hearing his story, I knew that I could not give him the party line. I could not say to someone with such a clear call of God for Bible translation on his life that I could not be involved with helping him move that forward. I came to the conclusion that party line had become out of step with what God was doing. Today that has changed, but changing it required some doing.
Having a party line for a ministry is actually a good idea. It gives direction and helps keep us focused. The thing is, we have to always pay attention to our circumstances because God might be using them to shift our party line, even one that is longstanding and justifiable. The Bible is full of stories of God changing the party line, including when he did that with the Apostle Peter. The trick is to be less thickheaded than I was. God had to put me in front of the same situation many times before I recognized it as His doing.
A favorite Ghanaian food is called “Light Soup” It is a salty broth with some vegetables and fish, chicken or cubes of beef. It can be eaten with a variety of staple foods including fufu or boiled yam.
Fufu and light soup
I was eating a meal at a conference in Ghana. Light soup was being served as one of the dishes in a buffet. One of the guests from outside the country had served himself some light soup. In it, he had managed to get a piece of tripe which he was inspecting. One of the Ghanaians told him that he had acquired the most sought-after morsel. At the table was a sharply-dressed, educated young Ghanaian lady who chimed into the conversation. She said that while serving herself the light soup in the buffet line, she had spent a moment searching for a piece of tripe, but without success. She sounded quite disappointed. What people like to eat is a function of their culture, especially what they ate as a child. It is not, as some might presume, a function of their education or sophistication.
By the way, I have yet to eat tripe in light soup.