Small Languages: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series of blogs on why we bother translating the Bible into smaller languages. This is an important question because the overwhelming majority of languages still without a translation of the Bible are spoken by 10,000 people or less and some are spoken by less than 1,000. In Ghana, there are 18 languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers each. The languages without translations in Ghana are mostly smaller languages. So this is a very relevant question.

If 10,000 is too few to translate, then is 50,000, or 100,000 enough? Perhaps one million should be the limit. To answer this question we need to back up and ask why we translate at all. That leads us to ask what God thinks of the fact that there are many languages in the world. Is that part of his plan? Are they a curse? Should we be trying to get rid of them? What place, if any, do these languages have in the plan of God?

Tower of BabelThese questions lead us inevitably to Genesis chapter 11 where we have the story of the Tower of Babel.

At first everyone spoke the same language, but after some of them moved from the east and settled in Babylonia, they said:

Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches to the sky! We’ll use hard bricks and tar instead of stone and mortar. We’ll become famous, and we won’t be scattered all over the world.

But when the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower, he said:

These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.

So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name.
(Genesis 11:1-9 CEV)

Some read this story and come away with the idea that the multiplicity of languages is a curse. And if the diversity of languages is a curse, then maybe we should be trying to get rid of languages and return to all speaking the same language. I believe that thinking springs from a misunderstanding of God’s judgment. Jonathan Martin, author and pastor, wrote:

I do not believe God’s judgment is about retribution, but a manifestation of hard-edged mercy. Judgment is an illumination of the ugliness that lurks within us, bringing to the surface all that we would otherwise bury so that it might be acknowledged, named, repented of, and ultimately healed.

Even if we understand the Tower of Babel as judgment, that does not mean that it is punishment or a curse. Our God is all about redemption, about bringing good out of bad. If people are drifting away from God, he does not punish them to make them suffer for it. No, he does things designed to draw them back. Martin further writes:

sometimes mercy must take on a violent, apocalyptic form

This understanding of God’s judgment shows us a better way to understand the Tower of Babel – not as a curse but as redemption. Dividing mankind into pieces by causing us to speak many different languages is not punishment, but rather a way to help us, to bless us. But how on earth might the multiplicity of languages be a blessing? The Apostle Paul answers that question Acts 17:34 where he is addressing a gathering in the city of Athens. He told them (emphasis is mine):

“From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 34-26-27 NLT)

Remember that when Paul uses the word “nations” he does not mean countries but rather peoples. So God’s purpose in having us live as different peoples with different languages is not to thwart our efforts, but rather so that all peoples would “seek after God.”

The experience of missionaries and of churches shows over and over again that local languages and cultures are wonderful vehicles for faith and redemption. Where they have been seen as a problem – as in some mission efforts to native North Americans – missions has often had little result. Where the church has tried to promote a common language, as was the case for Latin in Europe, the result has been weak and distorted belief. Paul’s teaching that we are divided into different peoples and languages so that we would seek God works itself out in evangelism and missions every day and year after year. God s purpose, that the division of people into many peoples and languages would help them find him, is more than a theoretical bit of theology. It works in practice, on the ground, in the real world.

Why do we translate into smaller languages? Because it works. It works because God made those languages so that the people who speak them could find him through them. Can a language be too small for that to be a good thing? 

Small languages: Part 1

The August 9th is the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. So I’m going to post some blogs about small languages.

Sometimes, people ask me how big a language has to be for us to translate the Bible into it. You may be surprised at my response – how many people speak a language is not an important criteria for whether we translate into it. Don’t get me wrong, it is a valid criteria, just not a very important one.

Language Vitality in Africa

That is because other criteria are more useful, especially the criteria of language vitality. Language vitality asks the question whether the language is being passed to the next generation, in other words whether there are signs that it is dying. To understand this, let’s imagine a situation that is and has been quite common in the USA. Say Swedish immigrants, a married couple, arrived in Minnesota in the early 1900s. In their home, they speak Swedish, but they learn English through contact with their neighbors and others in the community. When they have children, they continue to speak Swedish in their home, but the children quickly learn English through their friends and at school. In fact, the children speak English better than their parents. As the children graduate from high school and move out of the home they speak Swedish less and less, perhaps only when they visit home. Then the children get married. One or two may marry the children of other Swedish immigrants in the community, but others have spouses who do not speak Swedish. In any case, the couples speak English together, not Swedish. So when they have children, they speak to them in English. So the grandchildren of the immigrants no longer speak their language.

This imaginary story shows a typical case of the interruption of transmission of a language from one generation to the next. This process typically takes three generations. While my imaginary story concerns one migrant family, the same thing can happen to a whole community without migration being a factor. The same process can be found in communities of Native Americans where one generation speaks the language at home, the next learns the language at home but has as much or more contact with English and starts using English as its preferred language, then the next generation does not learn the language from those parents. Or they may learn only very limited parts of the language.

Language Vitality in North and South America

So, a crucial criteria for translating the Bible into a language is the language’s vitality – whether the language is being transmitted to the next generation. A simple survey can determine if the language is being passed to children in the home. When we know that, we can project the number of people who will speak it in 30, 50 or 70 years. If that projected number is increasing because of population growth and children learning the language in the home, then a translation might be warranted even if a smaller number of people speak it today. On the other hand, a language with more speakers but low vitality and hence a projection of decreasing numbers of speakers, might not get a translation. Vitality is more important than number.

While I was in Côte d’Ivoire, language surveys were being done to assess language vitality and other relevant factors, so that resources for translation can be allocated wisely. While some languages in Côte d’Ivoire have low vitality, most of them them are alive, well and growing.

Vowel symmetry

This is a cross-section of the human articulatory apparatus. It consists of your mouth, nasal cavity and parts of your throat. All sounds in human languages are made by manipulating this apparatus in specific ways. They have all be studied in detail by linguistics and phoneticians. I learned studying linguistics that there is amazing symmetry in the sounds in human language. The symmetry is striking when we look at the place in the mouth where vowels are produced. Different vowels are produced by varying the position of the tongue in two principle ways – the height of the tongue and how far forward or back it goes. If we make a chart using those two axes and then we plot the principal vowels we find in human language on that chart, we get a V.

Not only do we get a V, it is almost always symmetrically filled. That is, if the language has i (the ee sound) it will have a u – the sound of oo in boot. If it has only five vowels, they can’t be just any five; they have to fill the V in a regular way. So Spanish has i, e, a, o and u, making a perfectly balanced V. If I am studying a previously unwritten and unstudied language and I find the sound ɛ (like the e in get), then I know that I have too look for ɔ (like the ough in sought) because if there is a vowel on the front of the V in the language, it will have its corresponding vowel in the back of the V at the same height and vice versa. There are similar symmetries with consonants. This makes the job of a Bible translator working on an unstudied language a lot easier because we know in advance that the language will not contain just any random selection of sounds.

There are explanations for this symmetry that don’t involve God and there is much more to vowels than I have presented here. Nevertheless, I find it a big leap of faith to conclude that human language with such symmetry was created solely by a long accumulation of random events.

The culture gear

A while back, I read an article in a Western newspaper saying that those combating FGM have now discovered that laws alone are not enough; cultural beliefs must also be addressed. I had to laugh because it has been obvious from the beginning that the practice would not go away without addressing cultural beliefs. I remember a highly educated man in Burkina Faso telling me that FGM would never be eradicated among his people because all the women believe that it is necessary for sex and procreation. It may seem incredible to many of you, but FGM continues in part because some women want it. In fact, four married women in Kenya were arrested for voluntarily undergoing the procedure which had been “denied” them in their youth. Women who do not have the procedure may be considered unmarriageable whereas marriage may be a woman’s best chance for economic security and social stability.

Yet despite the obvious and entrenched role of cultural beliefs, those combating FGM have mostly chosen to promote a legal approach. That has not worked very well. A number of countries including Nigeria have banned FGM. Even with enforcement of the laws the practice continues because it is driven by powerful cultural and social forces. The Guardian newspaper ran an article entitled “Criminalization will not stop FGM in east Africa“. It cites a study by Oxford University that found that criminalization has not come close to eradicating FGM, that it leads to dangerous underground procedures, and concludes that social norms need to change. A World Vision study found that as FGM decreases, girls in Somalia are more at risk of being married young and leaving school. Cultural beliefs are driving FGM and the law cannot change that.

Dr. Sule-Saa

Moves to eradicate FGM hold a lesson for Christians that is bigger than FGM – there is a force in human societies that is much more powerful than the law. That is the culture and its embedded beliefs. Compliance with laws is very difficult where the laws run contrary to culture. But these facts hold hope for Christians. Change the culture and either the laws will change to follow or the laws will become unnecessary. Which is better, continually enforcing laws that are being undermined by cultural beliefs, or changing the beliefs and the culture so that the laws are easily enforced and not needed very often? Real, genuine, pervasive and lasting changes come from changing the culture. The Apostle Paul said that announcing the Gospel is the “power of God“. The culture can be changed and the Bible’s message is a powerful force for changing it starting with beliefs and moving on to behaviors. Dr. Sule-Saa who has studied the impact of Bible translations in Ghana says that Bible has become the framework through which people understand the world. That is the foundation of a profound change in the culture. Already, it has reduced conflict among many other benefits.

I don’t want to change the world. I want to leave behind the start of change in various cultures what will keep on changing things long after I leave.

Hidden peoples

When I speak in churches in the US, some people are often surprised that there are 7000 languages in the world and that some of them do not have the Bible. One of the reasons for this is that the people who speak those languages are hidden. Here’s one small illustration. This is a map of the percentage of people in Mexico who speak an indigenous language. Note that the percentages are quite low (under 5%) along the US border. In fact the rate is less than 1% in the parts of Mexico adjoining Texas.

The road to Baglo, Ghana

So if an American crosses the border by land everyone will seem to speak Spanish. The 0-5% who speak other languages will be hidden. Because they don’t speak Spanish, they can’t get a job dealing with customers, so of course all service people, cashiers, waitresses, etc you meet will speak Spanish. If a business does have an employee who does not speak Spanish, they will be in a role that does not come into contact with customers such as a dishwasher, nor night janitor. So the 1-5% are hidden to most people. You might have to travel to a rural area and even then you might have to be invited into a private home to meet them. You would never know that Mexico has 326 languages of which 133 are in danger of dying out, leaving 193 vibrant languages communities.

I find that many Ghanaians are surprised when they learn how many languages there are in their country. When I mention the name of a language, it is not unusual for people to say they have never heard of it. And this is their country! They often ask if it is really a Ghana language, if the source of my information is reliable, and so on. It may surprise you to learn that many Ghanaian government officials, even highly placed, do now know of all the languages in their country.

Nawuri chief

This obscurity is felt by the hidden peoples themselves. In 2012, I was there when chief of the Nawuri people stood before a crowd and was presented the newly-translated Nawuri New Testament. His response:

“We have now been counted among the people of God.”
“Politicians don’t know us, but God knows us.”

That last comment reflects the disconnect his people feel. They are hidden even from the people who are officially their representatives.

This Sunday is the International Day for the Unreached. It’s a good day to remember that you can’t find the people on the margins of our society – hidden peoples, bibleless peoples, peoples without the Gospel – without explicitly looking for them.

For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost. (Luke 19:10)

Prayer for the start of translation in three smaller languages in Ghana’s Volta Region

Learning going the wrong way

Dedication of representative translation committees for three Ghana languages, 2014

Launching translations in three small languages in Ghana’s Volta Region that no on ever learns, although the people who speak these languages almost always learn the regional language.

In Africa, people who speak small languages learn larger languages, but the reverse does not usually happen.

When a missionary whose language is English learns a small language, that speaks volumes. Not only has the missionary learned the language, he or she has done something counter their own interests. Learning the smaller language is a step down the social ladder. When Africans learn smaller languages to minister to people, that also speaks volumes about humility and service. I have written about a specific example.

An African translator told me how a church leader mocked him for volunteering to help in literacy in his “little language”. The person told him that such activities have no value because his language is so small.

But the things that are growing the church in rural areas in northern Ghana and northern Côte d’Ivoire are translations and literacy in those “worthless” languages that no one will bother to learn. It’s another delicious example of God’s subversion from below:

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Corinthians 1:27)

It turns out that the things people readily dismiss as useless provide the real leverage for transforming communities and bringing Gospel life.

Dead-End Translation

Presbyterian Bible translator

Last week, this blog was about how Bible translations done in Ghana in the late 1800s contributed to dramatic church growth in the first half of the 1900s. I also noted that after a first wave of translations carried out by German Presbyterian missionaries, there were no translations started in other Ghanaian languages for 50 years. The churches that grew on the basis of those translations, who used them widely and enthusiastically did not take up the task of translating the Bible for their fellow Ghanaians who still did not have the Bible in their languages.

This situation is not unusual. The Bible was translated into the Ge’ez language (also called Ethiopic) of Ethiopia sometime in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries. It was one of the first translations of the Bible coming just after Jerome did his translation, the Vulgate, into Latin.

It was also followed by a time when no more translations were done, but the stoppage in Africa lasted over 1000 years! Having been blessed with a translation in their own language, Ethiopian Christians did not start other translations. Exactly the opposite! Even when the Ge’ez language died out sometime before the year 1300, the church and Christians in Ethiopia continued to use and revere the Ge’ez translation that no one understood except a few academics. Not only did they fail to translate the Bible into the Amharic language which became the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, they insisted that the incomprehensible Ge’ez translation was the only real Word of God.

Ge’ez translation

History shows that it is the usual pattern that people who receive a translation of the Bible from missionaries and use it enthusiastically, do not then decide to translate the Bible for others. In fact, they might insist that others use the Bible in their language, even when that translation becomes archaic or the language even disappears. In this sense, translating the Bible is often a dead-end task. Oh, it bears fruit in terms of faith and the growth of the church where that language is spoken. In that way it is anything but a dead-end.

But translating is most often a dead-end in terms of prompting the beneficiaries to do a translation for a language next door or in the next country. There are probably many American Christians who are deeply blessed by the Bible in English but who have not thought about making sure those who speak other languages have the same blessing.

Our role in Ghana is to work with Ghanaians to show the churches here the dead-end sign they have erected without thinking about it so that the Holy Spirit might prompt them to take it down and build a continuation of the road missionaries started by translating the Bible into the Ghanaian languages that still don’t have it, and then continue beyond Ghana’s borders.

Translation, Church Growth, Ghana

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that missionaries working with local people completed the first translations of the Bible into the languages of southern and central Ghana. At the time, less than five percent of Ghanaians were Christians. The German Presbyterian missionaries saw their churches grow slowly but steadily.

Then two things happened no one expected.

The first was World War I. At the time, Ghana was then The Gold Coast and it was a British colony. As you can imagine, Germans were not welcome when Britain entered WWI, not even missionaries. The authorities expelled the German missionaries. The church they had started had to stand on its own. It did, and it grew, using the Scriptures and liturgy in local languages.

The second unexpected event was the arrival of Pentecostalism. A layman named Peter Newman Anim left a church founded by missionaries, encountered some pentecostal theology coming out of Portland, Oregon and founded the Christ Apostolic Church. Those who ministered with him were uneducated farmers, laborers, fishermen and even hunters. So they didn’t know English. The Bibles in Ghanaian languages became their only source of faith and truth. They worshiped, read, taught and evangelized in those languages. In the first half of the 20th century, Pentecostalism reached deeply into the uneducated who were most Ghanaians at the time. They learned to read in church, their songs were full of Scripture and they took the Bible as the Word of God. The results were astounding. Over the first five decades of the 20th century, the percentage of Ghanaians professing Christian faith grew from a paltry 5% to at least 50% (it stands at 60% today). But only where the Bible had been translated. Elsewhere, other religions made headway.

It was quite a combination: the Scriptures in the mother tongue and a church that took both the mother tongue and the Scriptures seriously. They had no doubts whatsoever that God speaks through his Word. Nor did they wonder if their language was up to the task of conveying Bible truth.

Some of my colleagues recently went to visit the head of the church Anim founded. On hearing that they are involved in translation into Ghanaian languages, he spontaneously launched into a historic and theological rationale for the use of the heart language (including the translation of the Bible) to create vibrant churches. He should know; his church has grown to have several million members and although it has many educated members, the backbone is still preaching, singing, worship and reading the Bible in the heart language.

The modern religious map of Africa reveals in a striking way the close connection between the growth of Christianity and the widespread employment of the vernacular. The converse also seems to hold: Christian growth has been slightest in areas where vernacular languages are weak—that is, where a lingua franca such as English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili has succeeded in suppressing mother tongues. -Lamin Sanneh in Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

The translation of the Bible in Ghana stopped after the German missionaries left. No new translations were started for 50 years.  In the 1960s, a new wave of Bible translation, this one initiated by Wycliffe Bible Translators, started in the north. By the 1970s New Testaments were being dedicated here and there in the North. More recently, and 100 years after it happened in the south, a number of whole Bibles have been dedicated. Just as happened in the south 100 years ago, churches based on the Scriptures in the heart languages of the people are taking hold. But, there was a short stoppage again from 1990 through 2010. We are working to have the third wave of translation in Ghana be the last and be the one designed, implemented and resourced by churches and Christians in Ghana.

Nations

member-states-of-the-unThe Bible is full of references to the nations. In the English Standard Version of the Bible, the word “nations” appears 469 times with 431 of those being in the Old Testament. The singular “nation” occurs 594 times with 529 of those being in the Old Testament. So we find well over 1,000 references to nations in the Bible. It’s a major theme that is not developed much by preachers or theologians.

Nations are not what they used to be. What we call a “nation” today did not exist before the year 1500. In fact, about 80% of modern nations have been created since the year 1900 and before that their territories were governed in ways that were different from the modern nation. That means, of course, that the idea of the modern nation did not exist when the Bible was written. So it would be a mistake to assume that when we find the word nation or nations in the Bible, it means what we mean today. But what did it mean?

We get our first clue from the Bible itself. Books of the Bible like I Samuel are full of references to the Philistines. But their country (or nation) Philistia is not mentioned. In fact, it is impossible to figure out from what the Bible says where it was. This is true for other nations mentioned in the Bible. The repeated references to “the Philistines” and the lack of references to “Philistia” make it clear that the focus was on the people, not the territory or the government. In the Bible, nations are defined by their people. An objective reading of the Old Testament leads us to the conclusion that a nation was a group of people with a common ancestry, history, beliefs and language. They had territory, but that was not in focus. In fact, territory was flexible; it could be expanded by war or shrink in war. Historians have confirmed this conclusion.

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

But today we would not call a group of people who share a common ancestry, history, beliefs and language a nation. We would call them an ethnic group. We do say things like “Cherokee nation”. In Canada, native peoples are called “First nations”. But in general, when we say nation we mean country and that is not at all what was meant in the Bible. Almost all countries are composed of peoples with different ancestors, beliefs and languages. Switzerland is mostly composed of peoples of Germanic, Italian and French descent, culture and languages. India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and many other countries are composed of dozens or even hundreds of peoples with different ancestors, cultures and beliefs. Clearly what is called a nation in the Bible is not what we call a country today.

This is confirmed by the word the New Testament uses for nation – the Greek word ethnos. Of course, our word ethnic comes form the Greek ethnos.

Why is a Bible translator writing about this obscure piece of Bible information?

Well, understanding this changes how we understand parts of the Bible. Let’s take a look at a well-known verse:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, … ” (Matthew 28:16-17, ESV, emphasis mine)

For starters, there are a few less than 200 countries in the world, but here are over 7,000 languages. The Joshua Project lists 9,832 people groups. Going and making disciples of all of them is quite different than going to the relatively small number of modern nations. Second, the focus of Jesus’ command is not geographic, but ethnic and cultural. There are many churches in Ivory Coast and Ghana, for example, but there are peoples (“nations” as the word was used in Jesus’ time) in those countries where the Gospel is virtually absent. A country with lots of churches can have places it in where there are peoples where the church is absent – where we have yet to put into action Jesus command to “make disciples of all nations”.

If you liked this, you might also like: The Guy who Obliterated Geography

Culture is not cute

It used to be the case that unmarried people working in Bible translation were assigned to languages in pairs. Quite a number of Bible translation programs have been done by two singles, especially by two single ladies. On occasion, one of the singles would leave – for health, to get married, etc. In such cases, we would assign another, usually one who had just arrived.

Local people would treat the first as senior and the newcomer as junior. The newcomer might be the older of the two, but in the local culture the one who had been there the longest had seniority. They would address all questions to the single with seniority, in some cases even refusing to discuss issues when the senior single person was absent. If the junior of the two offered an answer, opinion or suggestion, people would not accept it or act on it until it was confirmed by the senior. As you can imagine, some singles in the junior position found such situations very frustrating or even demeaning.

power-distance-index-graphThese situations were real culture clashes – a high-power-distance-culture meeting an egalitarian (or low-power-distance) culture. Local people are used to playing their role in the culture. In fact, they don’t know how to act any other way. They perceive their actions as polite and respectful while the junior person finds them belittling.

In my recent role in Côte d’Ivoire, I found myself having to constantly adjust to the high-power-distance culture. My natural reactions were often wrong. Even when I knew that I had to adjust and tried, I sometimes failed.

Some Africans have described a major difference between their culture and Western culture like this :

Western : I think, therefore I am.
African : We are, therefore I am.

They are expressing the idea that their value as individuals comes from their belonging to a group – family, clan, village or people. We Westerners, on the other hand, derive our value from being our own person with our own ideas. We may perceive belonging to a group as a threat to our individuality. Africans tend to believe that being part of a group enhances their individual existence.

flagglobe2The great irony in the situation described above is that local people are giving the newcomer a place in their structure thereby affirming that he or she is included. They are treating them exactly like a member of the community. But the junior person experiences this inclusion as exclusion. The harsh reality is that the newcomer cannot hang on to being a western-style individual in that context and at the same time fit into the local culture. Working across cultures is hard. It most certainly has its joyful periods, but if it is never hard, uncomfortable, painful, frustrating or confusing, then we’re not doing it right.

The experiences of US churches which are being intentionally multicultural bear this out. It ain’t easy. The picture some paint of joyful and easy multiculturalism is very misleading.

But we can’t follow our God by withdrawing into our own comfortable cultural space either, tempting as that is. Our God sent his only Son across a huge divide into pain, suffering, misunderstanding, rejection and finally death. The Son made the journey willingly and he invites us to follow him into the lives of people different from ourselves, down the street or around the world.

If you liked this , you might also like Right Decision.