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.

Ideophones and prayer

Some time ago, I was at a training event where an African was praying in her language. In the middle of the prayer came a rapid, staccato “dedede” (pronounced day day day). The person was using very common kind of word in African languages – an ideophone. When linguists first encountered these words in African languages they said that the words were “painting with sound”. And that’s how they came to be called idea-sounds, which is what ideophones means. (Not to be confused with idiophones which is a class of musical instruments. If you remember onomatopoeia from your English classes in school, you may wonder if ideophones are just onomatopoeia. Actually, ideophone is a broader term. Onomatopoeia are a kind of ideophone.)

Information about this ideophone from "The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese", Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Information about this ideophone from “The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese”, Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Cock-a-doodle-doo is an ideophone. While English has ideophones, there are not nearly as many as there are in African languages, nor are they used as frequently. In English, they are limited mostly to sounds made by animals and machines. In African languages ideophones are used for many other things such as the way something moves, its shape, or its position. One of my favorites means “gigantic, unwieldy blob of a thing”

In African languages, ideophones have the same sounds (consonants and vowels) as other words in the language, but they put them together in ways other words do not. They are also different because they don’t take prefixes or suffixes.

We can say that the rooster was cock-a-doodle-dooing, or that he cock-a-doodle-dooed, but African ideophones can’t add things like “ing” and “ed” the way we do in English. These features make ideophones a separate class of words in African languages.

But the most important thing about ideophones is that they paint mental images that stir up feelings, visual memories, or sensations. Their use in a prayer is a sign that the the person praying is saying something straight from their heart. In fact, the person is saying something that would require a whole phrase or sentence to say without the ideophone. An ideophone is a like a very compact, and therefore powerful, dose of images.

Praying 1

Prayer in a church in Congo

But ideophones are somewhat in danger. Many educated Africans don’t say them often. Perhaps they have been influenced by the official language, English or French, they learned in school. Or, they may mistakenly consider them primitive. So when an educated African Christian uses an ideophone in prayer in front of other educated people, that person is showing an attachment to and respect for their language that goes beyond the ordinary. It also shows that they are conveying to God thoughts and emotions that come straight from their heart.

We work in Bible translation, but our concern is wider than that. Through translation, we want people to know that they can use all of their language to connect to God, so that they will connect to him from the deepest part of their being. The person praying was doing just that. – Woo woo woo woo woo!!!

Hmong alphabet

Today is International Literacy Day. So my blog today is about literacy, and it will be about literacy next week too.

Hmong alphabetThis is a wood carving in the Hmong language. It uses a writing system developed in about 1959 by Shong Lue Yang, a Laotian peasant farmer. He may be the only person in history who was killed for creating an alphabet. Writing their language in an alphabet developed by one of their own, the Hmong people began to have pride in their identity. These developments cause some to perceive Shong Lue Yang threat, so they had him assassinated in 1971.

I know of similar situations in Africa. In one case, a people dominated by another began to assert their rights after the development of an alphabet for their language and the start of the first literacy classes. The group that had dominated them reacted with violence. They even attempted to burn down the buildings of the organization doing literacy.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Literacy is about learning to read and write, but its effects go well beyond the realm of reading. Christians in Ghana who learn to read and write their languages become more active in their churches, so much so that some churches now recognize the ministry of uneducated lay people who have learned to read and who read the Bible in their languages. Women who learn to read and write are more likely to undertake new initiatives or businesses and to speak out in their communities and churches, even though the literacy classes don’t teach any of those things.

Literacy among minority peoples is a very neglected but effective form of Christian ministry. As I have written before, through literacy a person can touch many aspects of life: spiritual, economic, social and even political.

PS: The photo of the Hmong alphabet comes from Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets Project. They have a gift shop with some very beautiful and unusual gifts.

How words get their meaning

Humpty DumptyIn Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, we find this exchange about the meaning of words between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

What about Humpty Dumpty’s approach; can words really mean whatever the person saying them wants? Can I say “house” and mean “flower”? The problem, of course, is that if everyone did that, words would end up with no meaning at all.

SelfieThe people who create dictionaries comb through masses of data including ­ newspaper articles, books, magazines and more. That is how they determine what words mean, and that is how Oxford dictionaries named “selfie” word of the year for 2013. My word processor has not caught up. It is still marking selfie as a misspelled word!

ColoredDictionary makers also track changes in the meaning of words. An interesting case is word “colored” especially in the phrases “colored people” or “people of color” which are now offensive. It was once considered a term of racial pride. But in the 1960s, “black” replaced “colored people” as the acceptable term.

The fact that it used to be acceptable is shown clearly in the name of an organization – the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

dictionariesHumpty Dumpty’s approach is the wrong one. The meanings of words are established by collective use, not by the pronouncements of any one person, no matter how expert. Dictionary makers know this, so they compile how people really use words and they produce new dictionaries to keep up with the changes.

This leads to a difference I have with some theologians who are critics of some translations of the Bible. While they are experts in the languages of the Bible – Greek and Hebrew – their approach to English can sometimes be that of Humpty Dumpty when they declare that this or that English word is the correct translation for this or that Bible word. Sometimes I read such pronouncements and wonder how the theologian can be so out of touch with the way people actually understand the English word (or phrase) in question. That a word used to have a meaning or should have a certain meaning is not as important as how people actually understand it.

A good translation of the Bible uses words as people really understand them, not how a theological tome defines them. The great reformer and Bible translator Martin Luther said that a translator should study how ordinary people speak. He wrote:

“For one must not inquire of the literal Latin language for how one should speak German . . . instead one must ask the mother in the house, the children in the street, the common man in the market about this, and listen very closely how they speak and then translate accordingly so that they understand it and realize that one is speaking German to them.” (quoted in Luther’s Translation of the Bible by Birgit Stolt)

In other words, Bible translators should know how ordinary people use the language into which they are translating. Fortunately, almost all modern English translations take this approach, but some critics use Humpty Dumpty’s method.

It is very good to be concerned that translations of the Bible be faithful to the original languages. But we need to be equally concerned that translation is faithful to English (or whatever language) as people really understand it. When Jesus spoke, he spoke using words as the people of his day understood them, so did the prophets and the apostles. A translation, therefore, dare not use words in other ways.

Divine communication is never in a sacred, esoteric, hermetic language, rather it is such that ‘all of us hear … in our languages … the wonders of God’ – Kwame Bediako

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

One of the steps used is a solid translation programs is called testing. After a first draft of the translation is created by translators, another group of people meet (usually called reviewers or testers), read it, and comment on what it means to them. If it means something different to them than what the original text means, then the translators have to revise the draft until they find a translation that has the same meaning as the original.

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

Why Cyrillic?

Have you ever wondered why the alphabet for Russian is not called Russian, but rather Cyrillic? Well, that is because it is named after a missionary name Cyril who died on February 14 in the year 869.

Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius

In 862 Cyril and his brother Methodius moved from Rome to Moravia to evangelize. They were not the first missionaries to Moravia. But, they are the most remembered because they did things differently. They wanted worship and preaching in the language of the people, instead of Latin. Some in the church opposed that. They wanted everyone to learn and use Latin because that was the language of unity, education and progress.

But Cyril and his brother were not deterred, but they did run into a problem – the language had never been written. Cyril set out to produce an alphabet that suited the language. He did not finish, but those working with him did. That alphabet fit the language really well. In fact, it fit other Slavic languages as well. It was later modified to become the Cyrillic script which is still used in many Slavic languages, including Russian.

Places using Cyrillic Script

Places using Cyrillic Script

Eventually the objections to the use of the local language were overcome and the liturgy Cyril and Methodius developed was formally authorized for use in the churches. Cyril died in Rome on February 4, 869, but he and his brother are still celebrated every year on May 11 in Bulgaria. That celebration includes spelling bees.

Cyril was one of the first in what has become an important, if unnoticed, contribution of missionaries. Did you know that missionaries developed the alphabets of most of the languages in the world? But Cyrillic might be the only one named after a missionary. Writing is probably the most foundational element of learning and transformation, and Christians have promoted it for all languages, even in places where others have opposed it. The benefits are so pervasive that it seems unjust to call the development of an alphabet a “by-product” of Bible translation. Let’s not forget that Cyril’s alphabet documented the discoveries and engineering of a successful  space program.

Cyrillic alphabet

Cyrillic alphabet

It is ironic that the Cyrillic Script, having been developed by a missionary was then used as a tool for an atheist political philosophy, Soviet communism. But that did not last, of course, and Bibles printed using the Cyril’s alphabet now flow freely throughout Russia and other Slavic countries.

About 70% of the worlds living languages have alphabets, most developed by missionaries working in the tradition of Cyril. But there are still about 1900 languages without an alphabet. It looks like people motivated by Christian faith will develop alphabets for those in the coming two or three decades. Time is running out for anyone with Cyril’s holy ambition.

An outstanding example for Bible translators

Cornelius Van Dyck_2On this day (August 13) in 1818, Cornelius Van Dyck was born in Kinderhook, NY. As a young man, he dreamt of being a medical missionary; a dream he realized after his studies at Jefferson Medical College. He went to Syria under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

While he was a doctor, what distinguished his service as a missionary was not his excellence as a doctor, but rather his love for the people of Syria. That love lead him to become an expert in their language and culture. He took time to undertake studies of Syrian language and culture from renowned Syrian experts. He put this knowledge to use in many ways, including doing a translation of the Bible in Arabic based on a translation started by Eli Smith. It is still one of the most popular translations in Syria today.

His love for Syria and its people lead him to write medical textbooks in Arabic in internal medicine, physical diagnosis. But his work went well beyond that. He also wrote textbooks in subjects as diverse as geography, navigation, and mathematics. They were used in Syrian schools for many years. All this time, he kept up his medical work and studied theology. From the start, he had started new churches and done mission work. These activities eventually came to take most of his time and efforts. He even founded a school for training ministers of the Gospel.

His accomplishments are such that he appears prominently in a publication about graduates of the Jefferson Medical College who have had an impact around the world.

But Van Dyck was not just an academic. He really loved people. So much so, that 50 years after his arrival in Syria, people threw a big party to commemorate his coming. People from many religious persuasions came from all over Syria to attend the event.

His obituary in the New York Times reads:

News has been received in this city of the sudden death in Beyrout, Syria, of the Rev. Dr. Cornelius Van Allen Van Dyke, who was known throughout the civilized world as the translator of the Bible into Arabic. His death was due to old age and an organic trouble with which he had suffered for many years

The way Van Dyck combined love for, and desire to understand, those to whom he was ministering is a good reminder, especially in these days when some promote a confrontational approach to mission work and other religions. Just consider the years of hard work he put into medical school and then the in-depth study of Arabic and Syrian culture. His love was played out in a life of putting hard work into understanding them. His academic accomplishments were not done for personal academic reward, but in order to pour himself into peoples’ lives. He is an excellent model for Bible translators and missionaries even today, even for those of us who are far from matching his intellect.

Big payout coming

Kenneth Lee Pike

Kenneth Lee Pike

Today (June 9) in 1912, Kenneth Lee Pike was born. He wanted to be a missionary to China, was rejected, and ended up with William Cameron Townsend who would found Wycliffe Bible Translators. He did a translation of the New Testament for the Mixtec people of Mexico. While doing that, he became a renowned scholar at the University of Michigan. He wrote numerous books and articles, was a member of  the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States (LACUS), and the American Anthropological Association. He served as president of LSA and LACUS. He was named to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and nominated for the Nobel Prize many times. He won the Templeton Prize three times.

Tone Langauges bookBut those are not his greatest achievements, if you ask me. Those who went to Mexico with Townsend encountered languages which they found difficult, impossible really, to write. Linguists had not yet studied or described the systems of tone, for example, which are common there. Pike applied his brilliant mind to the issues, and found a way forward. Today, many Mexicans read the Bible in their languages without difficulty because of the work of Pike. The thing is, they probably never heard of him. They don’t know who gave them the gift of being able to accurately write and fluently read their languages.

And Pike’s work would never get a rousing or tearful response from a church, certainly not the way the result of a successful evangelistic effort might – with thousands saved. (Hundreds of thousands may have read the translations Pike assisted.) Pike’s contribution was crucial, and it came at the right time, but it is largely unknown outside Wycliffe and academic circles.

 “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-5 NLT)

Mixtec mapPike has huge rewards waiting for him from the Right Person at The Big Event. Today, hundreds of African Christians translate into their languages and devote themselves to helping their fellow Christians learn how to read. They are mostly unknown except in their own small communities, often underpaid and sometimes work in dangerous places, like the Tembo team we worked with in Congo, or  like the two translators killed by extremists in Nigeria and the CAR, in recent weeks. There’s a lesson here for all of us, especially in this world of celebrity philanthropy and donations posted on Facebook . Who, I wonder, has already “received all the reward they will ever get”, and who still has a big payout coming? A lot of people we have never heard of. Pike is one. May you be one too.

Phonetics book

Learning by picture

A language in Uganda, plurals in parenthesis. Photo credit: Paul Thomas

A language in Uganda, plurals in parenthesis. Photo credit: Paul Thomas

Almost all the languages in the world that do not have a translation of the Bible do not have a dictionary or other books or resources. So learning one of those languages is not a matter of enrolling in a class, buying a piece of software or getting a book, as one might to learn Spanish or Chinese. So, what does a missionary do? Well, it’s not exactly easy but people have developed a number of techniques that help a lot.

This photo illustrates one technique: draw a picture or take a photo of something, then have someone tell you the names of the various parts of it. This works for lots of things: the body, houses, tools, plants, animals, countryside scenes, etc. Then you write the words on the drawing or on the photo. The drawing or photo also makes the words easier to remember, and certainly a lot more fun to review!

What if the language does not have an alphabet? No problem! Spend a little time learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which has a letter for every sound made in human speech. Hint: Ask a linguist or Bible translator and they can tell you what part of the IPA to learn and which you can ignore for the country where the language is. Or, you can just invent new letters for “strange” sounds.

Body parts in Mayogo language of Congo

Body parts in Mayogo language of Congo

You can add internal organs, as for this drawing in the Mayogo language of Congo. Or, you can break the picture down too. So from the body you can move to just the hand and get all the parts: fingernails, knuckles, thumb, finger, index finger, little finger, and so on. This works great for getting family relationships straight. Make a friend and take some photos of his family. Then you can get the words for brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, aunt, cousin, and so on.

This method also allows you to discover how people look at the world. For example, the foot and lower leg might have the same name. Or there might be a different word for older brother and another for younger brother. These differences show up more quickly and clearly when working with a drawing or photos.

If you want, you can take this a step further. The local person you are working with might have to get the hang of it at first, but you can point to something on the photo or drawing and ask; What do you do with this? So in answer to “What do you do with a hand?”, you might get wave, stir, shake hands, carry, give, take and so on.

Best, when local people get the hang of what you are doing, you can turn it into a game. Have fun, connect with people, show their language and culture respect while learning it!


This slideshow requires JavaScript.