Borrowing words? Or stealing?

January 7, 2014 in Mark, Bible, Bible translation, Language

Earlier this week I came across an article about how 300 Bibles in the Bahasa Malaysia language were seized for using words that originated from the Arabic language, including the word for God. This seems to be the latest in an ongoing controversy in Malaysia about whether Christians speaking Malaysian languages should be allowed to use words that historically came from Arabic in their translations of the Bible in those languages.

From a sociolinguistic point of view, a language borrowing “loan words” from another language is something that happens all the time. Of course, “loan words” is something of a misnomer, as the new words become as much part of the language as any other words, and will never be returned! English has borrowed words from a whole range of languages – French, German and Greek to name just a few.

Whenever a new concept occurs in a language, there is a need to name it, and the new name is almost never random. People generally make up the new name, either by modifying existing words in the language (hence we now talk about a “selfie”), or by using the word that was already used by speakers of another language for that concept (e.g. “pizza”). Sometimes the name is borrowed from a similar concept in another language, but the meaning changed, for example the English word “safari”, meaning a trip to see wild animals, comes from the Swahili word meaning “a journey”. The word then becomes a legitimate part of the language – a Swahili speaker can’t tell an English speaker that they are using the word “safari” wrongly just because its meaning in English is different from its meaning in Swahili. Read the rest of this entry →

Why not teach everyone English?

March 24, 2010 in Wycliffe, Mark

When people think about the huge number of language communities in the world who don’t have access to the Bible, one of the first questions of many mother-tongue English speakers is “Why not just teach everyone English?”

There are many answers to this question – practical, technical, historical… but the main reason has to be that it just wouldn’t fit in with the God we see in the Bible and the way he works. God always reaches out to his people in a way that they can understand and relate to – he makes the first move.

Here’s Wycliffe UK Director Eddie Arthur giving his answer to the question of why we shouldn’t teach everyone English (or Chinese, Arabic, Spanish or Swahili for that matter…)

The language of church

April 20, 2008 in Mark, Church, Language

Our church at the moment is an Anglican church, which can mean a variety of things, but in our case means it’s quite traditional. In an average morning service, there are probably 5 words that I can only guess their meaning from the context, and dozens of others that I wouldn’t hear during the rest of the week.

And the idea of using different vocabulary in church to the rest of life isn’t confined to traditional churches. We were listening to a sermon online today from a church that is very alive and fruitful in many ways, but some of the words used probably hadn’t been used in regular English conversations for well over 100 years.

Why do we do this? Why do we use special old words when we’re talking to God that we would never use if we were talking to our next door neighbour? I’m not sure, but here’s some possible ideas:

  1. We think that God understands old words better. God is old. He’s been around for thousands of years – maybe he’s like our great-grandparents and longs for the good old days. Maybe if we use old words we’ll get his attention and he’ll really understand us.
  2. We’re used to using a Bible with old words. Since God speaks to us in old English, it’s only fair to reply in the same language.
  3. We want to impress other people. If God speaks old words and we do too, maybe people will be impressed that we’re close to God and know his “lingo”…
  4. We’re scared to use the same language in church as we do in the rest of our lives. If we do, that will mean that the rest of our lives are actually connected to what we do in church and we’ll have to give our whole lives to God, not just Sunday mornings.

Are there other (more genuine) answers I’ve missed? I’d love to know, because there are people who are much more godly than me, who I really respect as Christians, who use old English words. Am I missing out on something because I only use simple words…?