The history of language is full of odd stories. In the Middle Ages in Europe, almost all poetry was written in Latin. By this fact, it was only available to the very affluent and the very educated. In about 1300, an Italian poet started writing his poetry in Italian instead. He was an advocate for writing books in Italian, including writing a book extolling the virtues of writing in everyday language entitled “On Eloquence in the Vernacular”.
One of his poems became one of the landmark works in Western literature and the greatest work of literature ever written in Italian – The Divine Comedy. His name was Dante and almost all of my readers will know the phrase “Dante’s Inferno” which refers to the first part of the The Divine Comedy.
There is a great irony in all of this because those who promoted the use of Latin thought that writing in other languages – Italian, French, German, and English, among others – was a useless endeavor.
They thought that no one of importance could or would read those languages, whereas everyone of importance could read Latin. So they thought that a writer could not become well-known or well-read if he wrote in any language but Latin. Yet Dante wrote in Italian and he became one of the most well-known poets in all of history. His name is still known world-wide, but only academics know the names of poets who wrote in Latin.
There’s something similar happening today in parts of Africa. The languages of the colonial powers – English, French and Portuguese – have stayed long after the colonial period ended. Some Africans think that these languages represent the future of their countries, and their churches. Only a few writers write in African languages. The reason given is essentially the same as in Dante’s day: few read in those languages and no one of any importance, so a writer cannot not become well-known or well-read if he writes in an African language.
These kind of ideas seep into the church, causing some African Christians to think that the translation of the Bible into African languages is of little or no value because those languages only have local influence – as though the only things that matter are those that have international influence. Jesus was born into a minority people under the rule of a foreign power. God chose Abraham and made his descendants into his people, even though they have always been one of the world’s smaller peoples and their language never has had worldwide influence.
Besides, staying with the language of international influence isn’t always the road to fame, as history teaches us through Dante and his world famous poem.