Calvin

Title page to Latin edition of Calvin's Institutes

Title page to Latin edition of Calvin’s Institutes

Those of you following this blog will have notice that I have a fascination with the reformers. A lot of that is because of my ministry – helping African churches engage in Bible translation. So I wanted to know what provoked the spate of translation of the Bible surrounding the reformation, thinking that might help me with my goals. I believe that it does.

Today (May 26) in 1654, John Calvin died. He did not translate the Bible but he was a solid supporter of those who did. One of Calvin’s most lasting legacies is his systematic theology, which he entitled Institutes. In fact, it is still for sale today in several languages. As did many theologians of his day, Calvin wrote his theology in Latin. That was, after all, the language of the clergy and other theologians. It was, however, not accessible to the people. So, when Calvin revised his Institutes, he wrote them in his mother tongue – French. At the time, that was very unusual. But it is easy to see Calvin’s logic. He wanted to get theology out of academia and into the street. The best theology is not written by the pens of academics, it is the simple but profound beliefs written on the hearts of ordinary people when the Spirit makes the Scriptures real to them.

Calvin's Institutes in French

Calvin’s Institutes in French

Other reformers did the same – writing at least some of their academic and popular works in their mother tongues. They turned away from the recognition they might have received from the world of clergy and theologians; turning their focus toward ordinary people. This turn toward ordinary people as “worthy bearers of the message” (Lamin Sanneh’s words) and as a force in change, informed not just their translation efforts, but many other things they did.

Today I have the same confidence – that ordinary Africans, even those with little education, can be a force for change in their families, villages, cities and countries through knowledge of the Word of God in their languages. This confidence is not theoretical. In the places in Ghana where the Bible has been translated, ordinary people are changing things. Sometimes educated Ghanaians are surprised to see the degree of change initiated by those with much less education but who have become conversant with the Bible in their languages.

Titles or names

Dayle at the Shalom University of Bunia

Dayle at the Shalom University of Bunia

In early 2009, Dayle and I were traveling into Congo. Our first stop was at the Shalom University of Bunia. When we arrived at the Bunia airport, we found that the university had sent a driver for us. Dayle introduced herself to the driver and asked him, “Who are you?”  He responded, “I’m the driver”.  But Dayle, of course wanted his name so she asked, “But what is your name”.  “Bahati”, he responded.  A few minutes later we were on the campus of the university conversing with some of the professors. We saw the Rector’s wife coming, who we know well and who is a close friend of the families of the professors we are taking with.  One of them says, the Rector’s wife is coming.  Dayle looks up and says, “Oh, its Feli!”.

Note that in this story Dayle prefers calling people by their names, but the Congolese prefer using titles like “driver” and “rector’s wife”. Congolese and many other Africans prefer titles over names. The wife of the most prominent MAF pilot in Bunia is known as “Mrs. Pilot”.  The staff of the University almost always call each other by a shortened form of their title.  So they are “Rector”, “The Academic” (for the academic dean), or “The Administrative” for the Administrative Secretary. When we lived in Burkina Faso, I was known up and down the street we lived on as “Matthieu baba” – “Matthew’s Father”. Everyone knew who Matthew’s father was, but few knew my name. Men there are often there are known as the father of their oldest son. Just the other day, a police officer in Ghana addressed me as Obroni – white man in Twi. He was not being smart or demeaning, just friendly.

To my American ears, titles sound formal, aloof or demeaning. Calling someone “White Man” even sounds bizarre. But to many Africans, titles are completely natural. Plus, the preference for titles gives them an edge in understanding some parts of the Bible.  “Jesus the Christ” makes a LOT of sense to them because Christ is a title, not a name. But many Americans understand Christ as a name.

Not a few missionaries in West Africa have been irritated by being called “White guy”. When we first arrived in Burkina Faso, we used to be irritated by the incessant cries of Toubabou (white man / white woman in Jula) or Nasara (same in Moore). I have even found blogs by Westerners living in Ghana telling their experiences with being called “White”. I just followed the case of two missionaries figuring out how to deal with always being addressed as “Whites”. At first they were irritated. But after getting advice from other missionaries and local people they trust, they got some degree of acceptance. Better, they started using titles more themselves. When in Rome, do as the Romans – or when in Ghana don’t do as an Obroni.

Parts of this blog post were taken from a post originally published in April 2009.

Incorrigible Grammar

Irregular verbs English_eI work with languages, but I hated most of my English classes in high school and beyond. The literature classes were Ok. The grammar classes on the other hand … It always seemed to me that the grammar of English was a lot more slippery and complicated than my English teachers let on. My linguistics studies confirmed me in that opinion.

One definition of grammar is: “A propriety of speech.” Someone suggested that grammar is not a property of speech but rather an impropriety of speech. It is so hard to get your hands on it. There are rules, but also so many exceptions.

A game with rules like English grammar might be considered fixed by the Gaming Commission! This is not just true of English, but of all living languages. Many African languages are not written, but they have complicated grammar all the same. Just ask the missionaries who learn them, or the translators who attempt to describe them. I asked one translator about the number of genders in the language he was working on. He said that he stopped counting at around 120.

One translator was reading a draft translation to people to see if it communicated clearly. They came to a part that said: “Don’t steal from widows”, and everybody laughed. It turned out that the way it was said implied that one should steal from other people than widows! It sounded like “Don’t steal from widows; steal from someone else instead!” To get the right meaning meant using a grammatical structure in that language called topic-comment. In topic-comment, the topic of the sentence is stated first (widows), then the thing one wants to say about the topic (don’t steal from them). In that structure, the verse read “Widows, don’t steal from them.” This communicated clearly and avoided the idea that it is okay to steal from other people.

All translators, even those translating into their own language, need an explicit knowledge of the grammar of their language, or they might not use features like topic-comment even where they are necessary to be faithful to the meaning. So even translators translating into their own language need training.

Laughter

We laugh when things are funny. Right? Doesn’t everybody? Well, actually …

I was at a press conference in Ghana where one the speakers went far too long. The audience expressed its disapproval of the long speech with soft laughter when he opened a new chapter to his talk.

In another instance, a person was bringing greetings from one church to another, but it turned into a speech. A titter of laughter started running through the congregation showing disapproval with the amount of time the person was taking. The person bringing greetings even apologized when she heard the laughter.

I was in a vehicle belonging to an African and the air-conditioning was blowing on me in an uncomfortable way. I tried to change the direction of the vent, but we hit a bump and I ended up messing with the settings. The driver and owner of the vehicle thought that I had changed them on purpose and laughed lightly while looking at me disapprovingly and putting the settings back.

In Ghana and some other places in Africa, laughter sometimes means disapproval.

Language Cloud

This is a language cloud of the names of the languages spoken in Ghana. The size of each name is relative to the number of people who speak the language as their heart language, or mother tongue. Click on the image to bring up an interactive version of the cloud. Click here to download or enlarge.

Languages of Ghana - HL Colors

Scare avoided

While teaching literacy in Dallas one summer in the 1980s, we attended Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, the church of Dr. Tony Evans. We were among the few whites in the congregation. Our first Sunday there, we put our two boys, then 2 and 4, into Sunday school during the worship service. After the service we went to pick them up. A very helpful man was making sure that kids got with their parents. It was pretty obvious that the only two white kids were ours! As we took them, the man looked at me and said in a surprised voice, “Your boys fit right in!” I just said, “They’re used to it.” But I thought, “Boy, did we ever unwittingly give those Sunday School teachers a scare dropping off two white boys and then disappearing.”

One of the advantages of raising our children overseas is that they are very comfortable with many different kinds of people.

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

The Moral Tongue

I have read several times that experiments show that people are more likely to use vulgar, profane, or insulting speech when they speak in a language other than the mother tongue. This finding does not surprise me in the least. I have always been shocked and dismayed by the ease with this educated Africans, including Christians, sprinkle their speech with vulgarities and oaths in English or French. It is obvious to me that such language does not have the emotional import for them that it has for me. I have long suspected that a good part of the reason for the absence of that emotional reaction is due to the fact that English (or French) is not their mother tongue. So the research confirmed years of personal observation.

Last year, the New York Times took this issue to a whole new level when it published a fascinating article entitled “Our Moral Tongue“. The article is about moral dilemma known as the trolley problem. The trolley problem works this way.

Trolley problemYou present a person with the following scenario and ask him or her what they would do. The person is standing on a footbridge over a trolley track. The trolley is rolling out of control and will pass underneath it in a few seconds. A short distance further on it will kill five innocent people. The only way to stop it is to push a large man onto the track. The person cannot jump onto the tracks himself as he is not big enough to stop the trolley. What would the person do?

There is an ongoing debate over which action is the most moral – kill the man to save the five, or let the trolley kill the five. The purpose of this blog post is not to solve that moral dilemma. Whatever choice you would make, everyone agrees on some things. For example, the choice people make should not be related to something ethically insignificant, such as the color of the large man’s shirt, the day of the week, the weather, what you ate for breakfast, or that language you speak. What if your choice was affected by one of those?

Researchers tweak the scenario in various ways to test peoples’ sense of right and wrong. One tweak got surprising results. Researchers presented the trolley problem to 1,000 people whose language was Spanish but who were studying English or whose mother tongue was English and they were studying Spanish. A random sample of half of each group was presented the trolley problem in their mother tongue and the other half go the problem in the language they were learning. The surprising result? In their mother tongue, only 18 percent said that they would push the large man, but when presented with the problem in the other language, 44 percent said that they would push him.

Researchers concluded that the emotional repugnance associated with pushing a man to his death was stronger when dealing with the issue in the mother tongue, while the learned language had less emotional connection to our sense of morality.

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

For me, the results are not surprising, but they are illuminating. Africans wonder why African countries with a high percentage of Christians also have high levels of corruption. But their people are educated in languages other than their mother tongues (English and French mostly), and they carry out their official functions in those languages which, according to the experiment, have less connection to a sense of morality than would their mother tongue. Leading Ghanaian linguist and churchman Rev Professor Gilbert Ansre, speaking about the advantages of education in a student’s mother tongue, said:

The sense of the true, the just, the the beautiful and the holy are best inculcated in the best language of the pupil

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Wycliffe often states that Bible translations are needed in many more of the world’s languages because the people do not fully understand other languages in which there are translations. That is probably true for many people. But might there be a more important reason – we translate the Bible into the mother tongue because that is the moral tongue what connects God and his righteousness most fully to our conscience? Perhaps we translate not just for understanding, but also, and more importantly, for the connection to Jesus through the mother/moral tongue that really allows us to become more like Him.

For me, we translate the Bible into people’s mother/moral tongues because we want Christians whose faith connects to their emotional and ethical hearts, so that they can love the Lord with all their hearts, souls and minds. We translate not just because we want the Bible understood, but because we want people to connect to it in a way that produces moral, ethical and other transformation in their lives.

It seems that science may be “proving” that our first language, which some call our mother tongue and which we call the heart language, is an issue missionaries and churches cannot ignore if they want faith to go deep.

Day-borns

In Ghana and many other parts of West Africa, every child is given a name according to the day of the week on which they are born. Here are the seven boys’ and seven girls’ names corresponding to each day of the week.

Monday boy: Kwadwo, girl: Adwoa
Tuesday boy: Kwabena, girl: Abenaa
Wednesday boy: Kwaku, girl: Akua,Akuba
Thursday boy: Yaw, girl: Yaa
Friday boy: Kofi, girl: Afua
Saturday boy: Kwame, girl: Amma
Sunday boy: Kwasi, girl: Akosua

Until I went to Africa, I did not know that I am a Kwabena. I had to look that up on the calendar on my phone, in a hurry, during a church service.

Saturday bornsAmong the Akan people of Ghana, a child is given several names, in rare cases up to 10, but 4 is not unusual. One of those names is the day of the week on which they were born. Some people might not know their birth date, and in times past they might not even be sure of the year, but everyone knows the day of the week on which they were born. We have a friend in Nigeria whose name is Friday, in his language. One of my favorite Ghanaian Christian authors shares my day name – Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu.

Churches use these groupings in various ways including raising funds for projects. I took this photo of a banner at a church in the city of Ho. It is announcing that all those born on Saturday (Saturday borns) in the church have undertaken a project to raise funds for a chapel for the church’s Sunday School. I have been in church services where the congregation was asked to sit in “day born” groups. So I went and sat with everyone else who had been born on a Tuesday.

Thurs and Fri offering basketsSpecial offerings can be the occasion for competition between “day borns”. It happened to me just a few weeks ago. The ushers set up offering baskets at the front of the church, each labeled with a day of the week. Everyone danced to the front in vibrant worship and put their offering in the basked corresponding to the day of the week on which they were born. The ushers then busied themselves counting the amount in each basket. Later in the service, the results were announced.

The Wednesday-borns, the Kwakus and Akuas, had given the most followed by the Friday-borns, then Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. The Monday-borns gave the least – about 1/5th of that the Wednesday-borns gave.

You can find the day of the week you were born on here: http://www.onlineconversion.com/dayborn.htm

Mesrop Mashtots

Painting of Mesrop Mashtots with his alphabet

Painting of Mesrop Mashtots with his alphabet

Every year, Armenian Christians celebrate Mesrop Mashtots who passed away on this day (February 17) in the year 440. He was an Armenian theologian, linguist and hymnologist, best known inventing the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD.

He was born to a noble family and had a classical education, but left his privileged position to preach the Gospel in Armenia. He had great difficulty establishing people in faith because Syriac was the only language used in church services and few Armenians understood it. Mesrop wanted to minister in Armenian, the language of the people. There was a problem; the Armenian language did not have an alphabet. It has never been written.

Mesrop enlisted the support of the King for this endeavor to create an alphabet for Armenian. As soon as he finished the alphabet others translated the Bible into Armenian using the new alphabet. He then started schools in Armenian to drive learning down to everyone.

Armenian alphabet carved in stone

Armenian alphabet carved in stone

The very first sentence written in the new Armenian alphabet was the first verse of the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.” Even today, Armenians consider Mesrop’s creation of the Armenian alphabet one of the most important events in their history. Not only did it enable the translation of the Bible, it also caused an explosion of writing in Armenian. Literature abounded.

Such was the religious, social and cultural impact that there is hardly a town in Armenia which does not have a street named after Mesrop.

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots

It is odd to think about Europeans as illiterate peasants speaking languages without writing – people needing to climb the tall hill of learning another language to get education or have access to the Bible. But it was really like that. In that context, which is the same as that or most bibleless peoples today, Mesrop did not see developing an alphabet as an academic exercise. Rather he saw it as fundamental to anchoring Armenians in the faith and to having an informed society. It is this same motivation that even today keeps people developing alphabets for unwritten languages, organizing literacy and translating the Bible.

Driving information, and the ability to store and process information, down to the grassroots is not a paternalistic endeavor where the missionary seeks to “civilize” local people. Rather, it is a way to give people the tools that enable them to make their own decisions and promote the changes they want. It is a missionary method that believes that the through the Bible the Holy Spirit will guide new converts to make the right choices. It is quite different from an approach where the Christians at the top expect people at the grassroots to learn the language of those at the top to get access to the Bible. Or one where the VIPs tell people at the grassroots what they should believe and do.

This table shows the codes for using the Armenian alphabet on computers. In a few short clicks I put the Armenian keyboard on my computer and typed this: աբգդէֆքհիճկլմնոպխրստըվւցեզ. Mesrop would be pleased.

Table showing how the Armenian alphabet is encoded on computers

Table showing how the Armenian alphabet is encoded on computers