Grassroots

Man from northern Ghana

Man from northern Ghana

In the vast majority of cases, languages without the Bible also do not have an alphabet. They have never been written. There are no dictionaries and no grammars. This situation is typically seen as an obstacle which requires some specialized linguistics work before getting to the real work of Bible translation. But often, for the people who speak the language, it is much more than a preliminary step.

They are very often very interested in having their language written. They are proud when their “second class” language is raised to the status of other languages by having an alphabet, a dictionary and written documents. For this reason, Bible translators often have very good relationships with traditional community leaders even when the community is apathetic toward or even opposed to the Gospel message. This leads to some odd juxtapositions. Some Bible translators have found that they were treated like royal guests at the court of the Paramount chief. Clerics of other religions many show up to support for Bible translation. One Bible translator noticed that young men would memorize their holy book and recite it publicly. So he proposed to the religious leaders that the same be done for the newly translated Gospel of Mark. They agreed! Young men memorized the book and recited it publicly with their religious leaders watching and approving.  In Mozambique, a cleric of another religion offered to promote Bible study because of a booklet describing the grammar in his language. You can read the full story here.

GILLBT Director (right) with a traditional chief in Ghana

GILLBT Director (right) with a traditional chief in Ghana

People may be opposed to the Gospel message when, in fact, they are opposed to a caricature of it based on lack of knowledge or communication in a language they did not fully understand. In some places in northern Ghana, people first believed that Christianity was for people from the southern parts of Ghana, but not for them. Then they sometimes believed that Christianity was for the educated only, not for them. But they were enthusiastic to see their language developed. Along the way, they got a new, more complete, understanding of Christianity.

In the end, developing an alphabet for an unwritten language is very often much more than a technical task. It is a way into the heart of the community. It gives the translator credibility with a community, even a resistant community, in ways that very few actions can. When missionaries and their supporters see linguistics research as nothing more than a hurdle to get over before starting the “real” task” of translation, they may be missing a prime opportunity for the Gospel, and a way to show God’s love and care.

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