Missionaries destroy culture?

The claim that missionaries destroy culture has been around for a while. There are a lot of answers to the claim, not the least is the work of Yale Historian Lamin Sanneh and sociologist Robert Woodberry. But let me add another perspective.

Afaka script

Afaka script

Language and culture are intricately linked. A person’s language expresses their culture. It contains the concepts that pass the culture from generation to generation. So work which enhances the reach or use of that language necessarily protects and promotes the culture. Some languages have very complex scripts. Think of a script as an alphabet and the rules that govern its use. For example, in English we have an alphabet with two cases – upper case and lower case, or capital and ordinary letters. We have rules that govern when we use upper case and when we use lower case. iGnOrE tHoSe RuLeS aNd ReAdInG gEtS dIfFiCuLt, and writing too. Just try typing that! Some scripts have more than two cases. I have heard of four. And there are several other kinds of complexity used in writing systems around the world.

Devanagari script

Devanagari script

This kind of complexity poses issues for keyboarding the language on a computer. Here is a link to an interesting short slide show showing even more complex scripts. When you get to the page, click on the map to launch the slide show. You have to manually advance the slide show from one section to the next.

Tifinagh script

Tifinagh script

Some highly skilled people have put in a LOT of work so that all these scripts can be used on a computer; so that people who speak those languages can send email to each other, or post in their language on Facebook, or have web sites for their organizations, government offices, and businesses. They did this with little backing from computer companies. Who were they? Well, they were missionaries. They wanted to be able to keyboard these languages in order to translate the Bible, teach people to read and produce Christian literature. But their work can be used much more widely.

Tai Viet script

Tai Viet script

When they finished, what did they do? Did they archive the systems they created? Did they hide them? No, they spent even more time and money to make the technology available to everyone, using a widely accepted standard called Open Source, then they did more work to make it available on a website, free for anyone, none of which they needed to do for their own purposes. They did it so that the people who speak those languages, whether they are Christians or not, will benefit from the tools they developed.

A pretty strange way to disrespect and destroy cultures, I think.

Writing Systems of the World

Writing Systems of the World

Which Alphabet

Here is the next of the questions we were most asked when were last in the US.

What alphabet do you use to write an unwritten language?

John 1Most of the languages of the world which do not have a translation of the Bible, have never been written. So they do not have an alphabet. One of the first tasks is to develop an alphabet for the language. But languages are written with many different kinds of alphabets. To the right you can see just three including the Latin alphabet used to write English. A kind of alphabet is called a script.

So, which script do we use? That depends. Usually it depends on the more prestigious languages found in the same place. People speaking a minority language in Thailand, for example, will usually want their language written in Thai Script. For one thing, that makes it easier from them to learn and read the official language – Thai.

John 1:1 in Thai
ในปฐมกาลพระวาทะทรงดำรงอยู่และพระวาทะทรงอยู่กับพระเจ้า และพระวาทะทรงเป็นพระเจ้า

Isa 1 NafaanraDayle and I have worked in former British and French colonies in Africa where the official language is English or French. So languages in those countries are written with a script that is like English or French. But the languages have sounds not found in English or French, so some letters are added. Here is a typical example from the Nafaanra languages of Ghana. The text is from Isaiah chapter 1.

The people who speak the language and the relevant local authorities make the decision about how to write it. It is their language after all. What is easiest and seems best to them is more important than what a missionary may think, want or find easiest. If these scripts look impossible to you, remember that for the people who use them from their childhood they look easy and natural and our alphabet looks complex and strange. Remember, the Bible was first written in two different scripts: the Old Testament in Hebrew script and the New in Greek script neither of which is the script we use for English.

Occasionally the choice of a script can be controversial. I have seen cases where the same language is written with two different scripts. Some write it with one and some with the other. In such cases, many people learn to read both.

There are dozens of scripts around the world, some are very complex. In fact, they are so complex that special computer programs had to be written before they could be displayed or edited on a computer. That work was often done by missionaries. I’ll write about that in a future blog.

Here is a map of some of the world’s major scripts. Click to enlarge it.

What alphabet

People sometimes ask me if we use the English alphabet to write other languages. The answer is not a simple yes or no. Take this example, which is John 3:16 in Nkonya, a language of Ghana.

Tsúfɛ́ dwɛ́ Bulu lɛ́hɩɛ dwɛ́ anyánkpʋ́sa. Mʋ́ sʋ ɔlɔpʋ mʋ Bi ɔkʋkʋ́nʋ́ ɔkʋlɛ pɛ́ ámʋ há, mɛ́nɩ ɔhagyíɔha ánɩ́ ɔlɔhɔ mʋ gyi omóowu, mboún obénya nkpa ánɩ́ ɩtamatá.

A lot of the letters are the same as in English including all of the consonants. But some new vowels have been added: ʋ and ɔ for example. In addition, there are accents above the characters like those in French. So Nkonya uses the same characters as English, but with a few additions. Also, some language do not use some letters, notably q.

Two things have a big influence on what letters are used in the alphabet of a language.

  • The language itself
  • Tradition

Every language is unique, so we use the tools of descriptive linguistics to discover what sounds are in the language. That way the alphabet reflects the language, rather than imposing an alphabet that would be foreign. Plus, doing that makes it a lot easier for people to read and write the language.

The second big influence is tradition. English is the official language of Ghana, so it is natural that the way Nkonya is written corresponds to English as much as possible without changing what is uniquely Nknoya about the language. But, other places have different traditions. The speakers of a minority language in Thailand, for example, would probably want their language written in a way similar to Thai which looks like this.

เพราะว่าพระเจ้ารัก ผูกพันกับมนุษย์ในโลกนี้มาก จนถึงขนาดยอมสละพระบุตรเพียงองค์เดียวของพระองค์ เพื่อว่าทุกคนที่ไว้วางใจในพระบุตรนั้นจะไม่สูญสิ้น แต่จะมีชีวิตกับพระเจ้าตลอดไป (John 3:16)

Or consider these examples from Punjabi and Tamil:

John 3-16 in Punjabi

John 3-16 in Tamil

But sometimes people have a way to write their language that is different from the dominant language. This is the case for the Inuit language of Canada in which the Bible was just published for the first time. It does not use an alphabet, but rather a syllabary which looks nothing like English or French.

John 3:16 in the Inuktitut syllabary

John 3:16 in the Inuktitut syllabary

Remember that these strange-looking letters look completely normal to the people who read them every day and English looks just as strange to them as these do to us. If you are ever in North Carolina, consider making your way to the museum of the alphabet outside Charlotte which traces the history and diversity of ways we human beings write our languages.