Bibleless Peoples part 2, language myths

I recently read “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. Douglass wrote it in 1845. It contained a number of words I did not know. Take this passage, for example.

His carriage-house contained three splendid coaches, three or four gigs, besides dearborns and barouches of the most fashionable style.

I had to look up gigs, dearborns, and barouches, having never had occasion to be around or talk about these types of horse-drawn wagons and coaches. I knew of covered wagons and stage coaches because I have seen those and heard them called by their names, but everything else was just a wagon to me.

Choir in Congo singing AIDS prevention song in their language

That brings me to bibleless peoples. They are often accused of having impoverished, substandard or unscientific languages. These accusations are bolstered by pointing out that the languages do not have words for modern things. But in Frederick Douglass’s day, even English did not have the word “microbe”. Was his language therefore impoverished? Was mine impoverished because I didn’t know barouches? Not having words for something is a silly way to judge someone’s language. Many common words today were unknown to Shakespeare and it is ridiculous to call the English he spoke and wrote impoverished or substandard. In fact, such accusations are misplaced for any language because languages adopt or invent new words for the things they encounter. Vocabulary is a function of context rather than a sign of adequacy or inadequacy. All languages can and do develop – acquiring new words as needed. Did you know that “vegan” wasn’t invented until 1944 and remained obscure for decades after that? When we were involved in translating AIDS information into Congo languages, we had to find ways to say HIV, AIDS, seropositive, virus and many other things. Those doing the translations always found good translations of all the terms and even had them approved by medical professionals.

Unfortunately, sometimes bibleless peoples believe the negative statements made about their languages. They can even believe that the lack of certain words will make it impossible to translate the Bible. Sometimes we have to convince church leaders who fear that the Bible will be degraded by translating it into “substandard” languages. It’s all part of mobilizing churches in Africa for Bible translation.

But when the translation produces the joy of salvation and the fruit of godly living, the language myths are often dispelled. Besides, dare we call any language “impoverished” in which God speaks to people?

Publications in many topics in Ghanaian languages

Long tail phenomenon

The long tail phenomenon was first described by Chris Anderson who has written a book about it. It’s gets its name from the shape of the graph that is created when you chart certain kinds of data. Mr. Anderson uses it to describe and predict how products sell online. But it turns out that lots of things have long tails, including the languages of the world. If we chart languages by the number of people who speak them, we get a long tail.

This is because there are a very few languages which are the mother tongue of lots of people. They form the spike on the left of the chart. Then there are lots of smaller languages. With just 10 languages, you can reach over 75 percent of internet users. The remaining 25 percent use the Internet in thousands of languages.

There are 7,097 languages spoken in the world. Just 23 of them are the heart language (mother tongue) of half the world’s population! They form the spike on the left. The other half of the population speak 7,074 languages. At the end of the tail are 467 languages spoken by a total of 12,758 people. That’s 27 people per language on average. These are mostly dying languages spoken only by a few older people. In fact, the tail gets so thin that I had to exaggerate its thickness in the graph to get it to show at all.

It’s the languages in the middle that come into focus for Bible translation. The biggest languages already have a translation and dying languages don’t need one. But about 1 billion people speak languages that are not dying and which do not have the Bible. The average size of their languages is 220, 000. A very few are large but many are smaller precisely because of the long tail phenomenon.

Several passages in the Bible, including the parable of the lost sheep, tell us that God cares for those in the long tail.

The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! (Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT)

Let the red reduce

I was with some Ghanaian colleagues presenting Bible translation at a Christian College in Accra. After the presentation, the dean of the college was taking an offering. He told the students “Let the red reduce”. This sentence is an example of implicit information. When something someone says or writes relies on information that is not directly expressed in what they said or wrote, then the meaning of their words depends on implicit information. In this case, the implicit information is behind the word “red”. Here’s how. The money of many countries has different colored bills for different denominations. Ghana is one of them.

Here are the bills, so that you can interpret the dean’s comments for yourself.

Just like all language, the Bible also contains passages that imply information that is not found in the words themselves like this one:

But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country; And sounded, and found it twenty fathoms: and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms. Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day. (Acts 27 ESV)

The fact that the water was getting rapidly shallower confirmed that they were approaching land, but the text does not state this obvious fact. Approaching the land at night is dangerous, but the passage doesn’t say that either, although it does say that the sailors are concerned about shipwreck and take action – they drop anchors. The anchors are designed to stop or slow the ship, another piece of obvious and therefore implied information.

What if you were translating for a landlocked people who had never seen the ocean and had no lakes? Would they know that the decreasing depth of the water meant land was approaching, that this was dangerous and that dropping anchors would slow the ship and help prevent disaster? For them, this passage might be as obscure as “Let the red reduce” was for most of you.

The Dean also said, “Give me brown, I will smile.”The Dean’s comments are analogous to an American preacher encouraging people to put fewer Georges in the offering and to even throw in some Bens.

By the way, we used to use the Acts 27 shipwreck passage in seminars on advanced translation principles in Burkina Faso – a landlocked country where most people have not seen an ocean or a lake large enough to navigate with a ship.

IPA

IPA is the International Phonetic Alphabet. It contains a symbol for every sound made in human speech. If you master the IPA, you can literally write down what anyone says in any language whether you understand the language or not. Not only is there a symbol in the IPA for every sound made in any language, the IPA contains the definition of how that sound is made by the human articulatory apparatus otherwise known as your mouth – well actually a bit more than your mouth. Every sound in human speech can be defined by the position of the parts of the articulatory apparatus. Does the tip of the tongue touch the alveolar ridge producing t or d, or does the back of the tongue touch the palate producing k or g? Do the parts touch and briefly stop the flow of air completely, as happens when you pronounce t, d, k or g? Or do they merely restrict the air flow as happens for s, f, sh and th. Are the lips rounded or not? Do the vocal cords vibrate or not? Does the air come out of the mouth or out of the nose as it does with n, m and ng?

All of this is taught in courses on articulatory phonetics and it is described in detail in textbooks. We have abundant and widely-available knowledge of the way the sounds in human speech are made. One of the foundational books on the subject was written by a Bible translator, Kenneth Pike. The process of translating the Bible starts with someone who knows the IPA sitting down with someone who speaks the language to write down words and phrases in the language using the IPA. It sounds like magic – writing down a language that has never been written – but its all described in the IPA and the books about it.

Congolese man telling of unsuccessful attempts to write his language

Without this bit of human knowledge, writing a language for the first time may prove impossible. I remember this older man in Congo saying that every since he was a child his people had been trying to write down their language without success. Oh, those who had been to school in French (the official language and the one taught in school) could write, but they couldn’t really figure out how to write some words. Also no one could read what they wrote. After a few weeks, not even the person who wrote the words could make sense of them. Decades went by. Then a few months work by a missionary trained in descriptive linguist and the problems were fixed. The old man said he was thrilled, and that he was finally confident that the translation could now move ahead. In fact, with the training given to the local translators, he said that the translation could succeed even if we missionaries left.

This was not the first time I have heard Africans tell of their repeated failed efforts to write their language. Some have even mistakenly concluded that their language could not be written. Then, decades later, a missionary linguist solved the problem in relatively short order. This happened so often in one area that I heard leaders of the biggest church in the area tell churches in other areas to be sure and ask for missionary linguists.

Bible translation is a spiritual ministry, but the science of linguistics sure helps, especially when it empowers local people.

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