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.