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 →

Update on the Nyiha translation project, 6 years on…

December 21, 2010 in Prayer, Wycliffe, Africa, Bible translation, Language, Mission, Tanzania

Those of you who have been following our progress for a while may remember that back in 2004 (before Laura and I had even met…) I was involved in a sociolinguistic survey of the Nyiha and Nyika peoples of southwest Tanzania and northern Zambia and Malawi. My diary of the survey trip, which I look back at with some embarrassment from time to time, is in the archives

Several years later, after lots of reviewing by different people, the sociolinguistic report has been published on the SIL International website, along with reports from the Fipa and Sichela language surveys. (Again you can see my diary and some photos from our Fipa and Sichela research trips).

The Nyiha of Tanzania are part of a Bible translation program centered in the town of Mbeya, and have recently translated the first Bible portions in their language for almost 100 years! You can find out more about the Nyiha translation project and those involved here. Some of the other Nyiha and Nyika groups mentioned in the report may be able to adapt these Scriptures into their own languages at some point.

The main question that we were seeking to answer during the Nyiha survey was whether there were different dialects of Nyiha that were sufficiently diverse so as to require separate translations of the Bible. We were able to talk with many people in a variety of villages throughout the Nyiha-speaking area, listening to their opinions and comparing some of the words that they used. Our conclusion was that if the translators were chosen from some of the villages in the center of the area, and stuck to the language used there, then all the Nyiha should be able to understand the Bible well.

It’s exciting for me to see now that not only is the report now available to anyone who wants to know more about the Nyiha people and their language, but more importantly, the recommendations of the research are becoming a reality and the Nyiha are starting to produce Scriptures that can be used throughout the whole community.

Pastor and Retired Pastor reading the Nyiha alphabet chart, August 2004Two Nyiha Pastors reading the newly produced alphabet chart in August 2004

Language Assessment in Zambia

May 20, 2010 in Prayer, Wycliffe

On Sunday 23rd May I’ll be heading to Zambia for a couple of weeks, to work alongside an organisation called Worldwide Mission, as they seek to reach out to communities in Western Zambia that don’t yet have access to the Bible in their languages.

As ever, the first stage in any translation project is for the various partners to assess in what language and form communities are most likely to engage with the Bible, and to think through how and where projects should be started. I’ll be spending a week with the team of Zambian and South African missionaries in the town of Mongu, helping them to think through how to help the communities decide on the best way forward for any language project.

We’ll be discussing things like:

  • Planning the research trip, to make sure that we’re asking the right questions
  • What languages people use in their daily lives, and which of these they would be most likely to engage with Scripture in
  • Which communities would benefit from Bible translation projects into their previously unwritten languages
  • Which communities could use the same written materials, and which require separate translations
  • Within a language area, which dialect is best to use for the Bible and other materials
  • Who potential partners are in a language project
  • What the language situation is likely to be like in the coming generations

During the second week I’ll be accompanying the team on a trip to some of these communities as we begin to research some of these questions. The aim is that by the end of the time they will feel confident to continue the research in the rest of western Zambia – a large area about the size of England – working alongside many ethnic groups.

Please pray for the time – that it would be profitable for all involved. I haven’t had much time to prepare the workshop as I’m still working in recruitment for Wycliffe UK at the moment, but my hope is that together we can work through the basic principles of the research and that the team will understand the situation sufficiently to be able to continue on their own over the next few months.

I’d appreciate prayer for safe travel too – both internationally and within Zambia – and for safe non-volcano-interrupted flights each way! Laura will be on here own at home for the first time while I’m away, but has several friends around to make sure she survives!

If you’d like to follow my trip, I’m hoping to be able to continue sending updates on twitter whilst in Zambia, which you can find here.

An estimate of the languages spoken in Zambia from

Babel: A Curse to be Broken or a Blessing to be Fulfilled?

March 2, 2010 in Mark, Bible, Bible translation, Language, Mission, Theology

According to Brian, one of the most neglected sections of scripture (in the modern western church) is Genesis 1-11. And yet, Brian says:

The stories of Genesis 1-11 are foundational for understanding mission, salvation, and sin. They describe the world as God intended it as well as the world in which we now find ourselves. They are presupposition for the rest of Scripture. If we miss the message of these texts, we run the risk of mishearing the Bible. read more

I have just been reading about this section of the Bible in Chris Wright’s excellent The Mission of God, which has led me to agree with Brian that these chapters are key to understanding the rest of scripture. If we fail to understand what is happening in these chapters we can completely misunderstand the nature of God’s mission to the diversity of nations he has created.

In Genesis 1-11 we see a pattern of God creating good things, people misusing God’s good gifts, and then, instead of giving up on things and wiping everything out, God by his grace redeeming the situation.

In the beginning God creates everything and puts people in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve disobey him and hide, but God doesn’t destroy them but clothes them and gives them a hope of a redeeming plan. God blesses people with crops and animals, but when Abel gives back to God a better offering than Cain, Cain becomes jealous and kills him. Even in his anger God gives Cain hope however, and promises that no one will harm him. As people continue to sin in ever worse ways, God decides to destroy humanity, but in his grace preserves Noah and his family, giving them hope and a promise of a future as they leave the ark to start a new life.

Genesis 10 and 11 then give two sides to the same story as people inhabit the earth. In Genesis 1, and again in Chapter 9 God has commanded people to go and fill the whole earth. Chapter 10 tells us that they did this – spreading out and occupying all the different lands, developing different languages. Chapter 11 then tells us something of how this came about – again as an act of God’s grace despite man’s disobedience.

Chapters 10 and 11 obviously aren’t in chronological order – chapter 10 tells of various peoples filling the earth and starting to speak their own languages, whereas chapter 11 starts by saying that at that time everyone spoke the same language. Instead, Chris Wright proposes viewing chapters 10 and 11 as two sides of the same story – one describing what happened and the other describing through what means it happened. One giving an account of the diversity of God’s creation as his people inhabit the earth and develop their own languages and customs, the other showing that once again this blessing only occurs as a result of God’s grace, despite the best efforts of mankind to rebel and take a different path.

This is a great example of why we need to read the Bible in the context of the whole story. To read Genesis 11 in isolation would leave us believing that everyone speaking the same language was a good thing, and that the linguistic diversity that we see around the world today is the result of a curse due to the rebellion of mankind. Our logical response is then to want to reverse this – we want everyone to speak the same language (as long as it’s our language) and everyone to understand each other. Why not just teach everyone English?

But reading Genesis 11 in context gives us a much different perspective. The confusion of languages at the tower of Babel was in fact following the familiar pattern of God creating something good, man rebelling and disobeying/misusing the responsibility, but God nevertheless going ahead with his blessing out of his grace.

God has already told people twice (in chapters 1 and 9) to inhabit and fill the earth. As a former sociolinguist I’ve seen first-hand that when a two groups go their separate ways, in just 3 or 4 generations their language (and probably their culture) tends to diverge to the extent that they struggle to understand each other and they become very much distinct and unique language communities. As God sent out his people to fill the earth, he did so knowing that they would form different communities and cultures, seeing the world from different perspectives, honouring him through different languages, the very nature of their praise reflecting the character of their creator.

But the people had other ideas. Their desire in coming together at Babel was twofold – firstly to make a name for themselves, and secondly to avoid being scattered across the face of the earth – in direct disobedience to God’s command to fill the world.

So God confuses their languages. But far from being a curse or an knee-jerk reaction to blatant rebellion against his command, the confusing of languages and scattering of peoples was in fact God continuing with his original plan that we see commanded in chapters 1 and 9 and worked out in chapter 10 – that people would inhabit the whole earth.

In Genesis 1-11 we see again and again (with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Babel), God’s punishment which may seem at first to be a curse, but far from rescinding the good things he planned for creation, the punishment is actually a means through which God sets his people back on his original path of blessing.

We shouldn’t then be surprised when in the following chapter God calls Abraham with the intention that he be a blessing to the nations. Or when on the day of Pentecost God speaks through the disciples in a multitude of languages – to each person in their mother tongue (when he could have easily allowed them to all understand Greek or Aramaic). Or when we see in Revelation 7 a vision of people from every nation, people and language standing before God’s throne.

God’s plan from the start was that people fill the whole earth, that they speak different languages, and that they see the world in different ways. His intention was that the diversity of languages and cultures, just like that of the rest of creation, reflect his glorious creativity and imagination.

Mankind rebelled against this, as we have against so many of God’s gifts and the responsibilities he’s given us. But through his grace he doesn’t reverse his blessing but rather redeems the situation so that people of all nations can be united in Christ, bringing glory to him in all their immense diversity – just as he intended all along.

A map where each red dot shows the centre of one of the world’s 6,909 languages (via