Words all have a meaning, right?

Words are interesting things. We take it for granted that each one has a meaning, but anyone can see that is not the case. Open a dictionary, and you will see that most words have multiple meanings. We use this fact to create humor, as in the following piece of advice: “Never trust an atom. They make up everything.” Or the boy in Sunday School listening to the story of Lot fleeing from Sodom and Gomorrah. Upon hearing that Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt, he said to the teacher: “That’s nothing. My mom looked back while driving the car and she turned into a telephone pole!”

When I first saw the following chart, I loved it. It shows that some English words have a crazy number of meanings.

Words with Multiple Meanings
In spite of how weird this seems, it is actually not weird at all. All languages do it. It is normal, in fact. But there’s a twist. There is no language in the world that has a word with the same 179 meanings as does the English word “run”, or the same 127 as “take”, and so on. That makes translation more of an art than a science. This crazy state of affairs does not seem to bother God who created all languages in all their weirdness – oops, I meant wonderfulness.

On this day in 1604

King James

King James

On this day in 1604, King James agreed to order a new translation of the Bible into English. It was finished in 1611. On its 400th anniversary I wrote of its impact both historic (more than many think) and current (less than some think).  Read or re-read them by following these links:



Isn’t everyone learning English?

This week, we return to answering the questions I was most asked while I was last in the US.

It is natural to think that everyone is learning today’s world language, English. When I travel, I mostly find people who speak English. It has been assumed that the Internet would result in everyone learning English.

World languages graphicAbout 560 million people speak English as their first language, as this graphic shows. Estimates of the number who speak English as a second language range from 375 to 600 million. It is important to note that most of the people who speak English as a second (or third, or forth) language have no intention of making English their primary language. They may speak it at work, but not at home, with their friends or when shopping, for example.

Microsoft blogOne would think that modern technology would be a force for people to learn English. But some technological developments may be making it easier for people to keep their languages. Microsoft has a “Local Language Program” which seeks to produce versions of its Windows operating system in more and more languages. One can download a free “language pack” Windows which includes African languages such as Hausa, Sesotho, Swahili and more.

According to a 2012 report from Common Sense Advisory (CSA), in 2009 it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it took 48 languages to reach the same percentage. CSA also indicated that the “English” slice of the Internet language pie is getting smaller each year. Since 2009, English is down from 48 to 36 percent. Figures just released by MIT indicate that only 1/3 of tweets on Twitter are in English. These trends call into question the assumption that the Internet will cause everyone to learn English.

Ghana and Ghana in Africa

Ghana in Africa

English is the official language of Ghana. If you are in Accra, it will seem that everyone speaks English. Elsewhere, it is a different story. Most Ghanaians who speak English learn it in school, not at home. According to UNESCO, 42% of children attend secondary school. Even if we assume that all of those graduate and therefore speak good English (both are very generous assumptions), then 42% of young people in Ghana speak English competently. That is after 60 years of spending a good part of the budget on education.

So, is everyone learning English? Not even close.

But even if  they were, that might not be a good thing for faith in Christ. For a millennium, Latin enjoyed the place in Europe that English now has in the world. It was the language of government, church, education and commerce. But the church stagnated during that time. The translation of the Bible into the languages of the people was part are overcoming that stagnation. Researcher Patrick Johnson, Editor of Operation World, has written:

The use of liturgical languages and Scriptures across many cultures and multiple centuries such as Latin, Greek, Syriac, Slavonic provided continuity and impressive ceremonial church services, but damaged the transmission of the truths they contained and hastened the nominalization and even demise of Christianity

Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society has come to a similar conclusion. She writes:

Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map.

It appears that the lesson of history is that when one language becomes widespread, like English or Latin, that is good for government, commerce and even the church as an organization, but not for true faith.

Language policy to live by

Tyndale being martyred - from Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Tyndale being martyred – from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Yesterday in 1536, one of the greatest Englishmen to have ever lived was first strangled, then burned at the stake. His crime? Well, he disagreed with the king and the church on language policy. Sounds a bit incredible, doesn’t it? Kill someone over a dispute about which language should be used? Well, it happened.

Tyndale lived in a time when Latin was the language of government, education and the church. All church services were conducted in Latin. There were real advantages to using Latin. It was an international language, and it offered international mobility to those who spoke it. The disadvantage? Well, much information was locked up in Latin which few people spoke. If you could get a good education, meaning learning Latin, you had a huge advantage. Latin was the language of a small elite.

Tyndale had a different idea. He thought that information, especially the Bible, should not be locked up in a language accessible only to the elite. He told church leaders of his time:

“I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

He maintained that using Latin corrupted church leaders, enabling them to lead the masses wherever they wanted. While at the same time Latin kept the masses in superstition and ignorance. For Tyndale, then, the issue of language policy – English or Latin – was one of knowledge or ignorance, truth or falsehood, even of freedom or servitude.

I perceived how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue. – William Tyndale

It is revealing that some of his critics agreed – they predicted that a shift in language policy from Latin to English would result in an erosion of the power of the church and of the monarchy, and they opposed it for that reason. They were right! When Latin eventually did give way to English, power shifted from the church structures and the monarchy to the people.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

Tyndale’s insistence on the mother tongue lead him to translate the New Testament, and large parts of the Old into English.  He believed that ordinary people should be able to hear, read and interpret the Scriptures on their own.

The phrase “language policy” sounds boring and dull. It is anything but. Even today, much of the information minority peoples need is locked up in languages they don’t speak. Unfortunately, some Christians, and even some missionaries and pastors, think that these minority peoples should read the Bible in English – the new Latin. In some places, we are still fighting for the kind of language policy for which Tyndale died. It is still an issue of knowledge versus ignorance, wisdom versus superstition, and even freedom versus servitude.

If you liked this, you might also like Translation and Democracy; Language, Religion, Politics and Economic Growth; or Teach Them English.

Congolese boy reading the Gospel of Luke in his language - Tembo

Congolese boy reading the Gospel of Luke in his language – Tembo

Language, religion, politics and economic growth

On December 31, 1384 Oxford scholar and theologian John Wycliffe died. He was the first to translate the Bible into English. With the proliferation of translations today, that does not sound like a big deal, but in his day it was a very big deal. A ridiculous question will serve to illustrate the point.

Should we use a special language to read the Bible, pray or preach?

You probably have never thought of asking that question, which is good. But 500 years ago it was a burning question. So much so that some were burned at the stake for giving the “wrong” answer. Wycliffe and others had the audacity to use their mother tongue to communicate truth of God. You see, Latin had become the language of the church, of education and of politics, even though only a small minority spoke it.

John Wycliffe

Wycliffe studied at Oxford, and later taught there, all in Latin. When he wrote scholarly articles, they were in Latin. All preaching was in Latin and people were obliged to pray in Latin, whether they understood it or not. Ordinary people understood very little of what was happening in church. This situation created all sorts of problems including corruption in the clergy and a lot of superstition among church goers.

Wycliffe wanted something different. He started by writing some of his academic articles in English. Some were aghast. Then he started translating the Bible into English. He formed a group of like-minded traveling preachers who took his translation to churches where they read it and preached in English.

One of the results was that the common people started questioning some of the things they were being told by the church. The educated elite did not like that. They struck back. They said that:

  • English was too common a language to adequately tell the glorious truth about God
  • The average person would inevitably misinterpret the Bible. Some opponents said “The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.”
  • Believers should looks to the church to interpret the Bible for them, rather than interpreting it themselves.

But Wycliffe kept at it. After he died, he was judged by a church court and found guilty. His bones were exhumed, burned and scattered in a river. His translation and writings were banned, but the circulated in secret. His ideas did not go away, rather they continued to percolate and eventually became the norm – so much so that many do not know that church services and Bible readings in English were once illegal.

That’s right, illegal. Latin was not just the language of church. It was the language of education and of politics. If you had lived in that day, you would have gone to first grade and had your teacher speak to you in Latin. If you went to court, Latin would be spoken by the attorneys and the judge. Wycliffe’s translation and other reforms eventually led to English becoming the language of education and government in Britain. Some scholars believe that the industrial revolution would have been impossible if Latin had been retained. If the bosses spoke Latin but not the workers, it is hard to see how a factory could work well, for example. Schooling in Latin could not have produced enough skilled workers to sustain industrialization.

Yale professor of history, Dr. Lamin Sanneh, proposes that the translation of the Bible into the language of every man set the stage for democracy. If the most important truth of all – that of God — can be communicated in the common language and everyone can understand it, what rationale could there be to keep lesser information, such as that about government or law, from everyone? If everyone could interpret God’s holy book for themselves, then what rationale could there be for excluding people from making up their own minds about political matters? For Dr. Sanneh, democracy starts with the translation of the Bible into common language. Wycliffe did more than translate the Bible, his ideas ended up reshaping law, business and government.

Some of us believe that we are involved in something similar today. We are doing more than translating the Bible into obscure languages. We are also giving people who speak those languages a new way to engage with the world. One of the findings of an evaluation of a local language literacy program in Ghana was that it gave people greater confidence to undertake new ventures. In addition, it resulted in more children in school and more succeeding in school. A study of Bible translation in the languages of northern Ghana concluded that it gave people a new sense of value and identity and at the same time greater harmony with their neighbors. It turns out that Bible translation is not just a religious endeavor. It also can and does bring changes changes to other parts of life too.

A hand-copied page from Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible


There is a controversy brewing in Jamaica. The Bible Society is translating the Bible for the first time into Patois, the Creole language of Jamaica. This is welcomed by some and opposed by others. Those who oppose it want priority put on English. Some consider Patois to be substandard and even backward. While they see English as the language of development and access to the international world.

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

The Patois controversy is recycled. At various times and places, people have opposed the translation of the Bible into the common language for exactly the same reasons. Those arguing for English in Jamaica may not know, for example, that in the 14th and 15th centuries, educated people made the same arguments but in favor of Latin and against English. At the time, it was clear that Latin was the language of world affairs, that it had a fine literary tradition, and that anyone wanting to get ahead would not do so by learning English.

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Paul Hema reads the Bambara Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Nevertheless, reformers like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale translated the Bible into English and even wrote theological books and articles in English for the first time. The famous Swiss reformer, John Calvin, first wrote his well-known theological work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, in Latin. When he revised it, he wrote in French, his mother tongue, shocking much of the world. But today, even among those who know his “Institutes”, few remember than he first wrote them in Latin.

In a BBC News article on the controversy, their religious affairs correspondent, Robert Pigott, reports that when the Gospel of Luke in Patois was read for the first time in one of the churches it had an electrifying effect. One woman, referring to the passage where Jesus is tempted by the Devil, said:

“It’s almost as if you are seeing it. In the blink of an eye, you get the whole notion. It’s as though you are watching a movie…”

Traditional leader reading Gospel of Mark in Kaakye

Traditional leader reading Gospel of Mark in the Kaakye language of Ghana

Nevertheless, more conservative Christians say that translating the Bible into Patois dilutes the Word of God. That too is an argument recycled from controversies in other times and places. Historically, those who make that argument have always been wrong, because when the Bible was eventually translated into the “substandard” language it proved to be effective for evangelism and discipleship.

As someone involved in Bible translation into minority languages, you will guess on which side of this controversy I am aligned. I have no doubt that, in the end, some of the lowly men and women who read the Bible in their insignificant languages will be found to be very wise, dignified and worthy by the final Judge of such matters.

I suspect that those promoting English think that they have a high view of the Bible. But I think that it needs to be even higher. It is not the Bible, but the language that is in danger. You see, a humble language cannot drag the Bible down, but the Bible does elevate a humble language.

But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame. (I Cor :27 CEV)

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

For a story of the impact the Patois translation is already having, see http://www.jackpopjes.com/grandson-sees-impact-of-gods-word-in-jamaican-language/.

You might be interested in checking out the Hawaii Pidgin Bible website.


One cannot live in Ghana for long without hearing about or being invited to an outdooring ceremony. If you go to one, you might see a scene like this:

The Ashanti chief, adorned with gold bracelets, rings and chains, closed his eyes, bent his head down and chanted a prayer to the health and fortune of the squirming 3-month-old boy before him. Nana Adu Adjei, a 57-year-old Ghanaian, had donned his green, yellow and royal purple kente cloth for an ”outdooring”.

But you don’t need to be in Ghana. The scene described above took place in New York City and was reported in the New York Times.

Among many peoples of Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, a baby is kept indoors until he or she is eight days old. The baby is then brought outdoors for the first time in a ceremony called an “outdooring”. It is the occasion for a party with friends and family. In many cases the baby receives its names at this ceremony and in some cases, male children are circumcised.

A word like “outdooring” is a Ghana-ism. It was born out of the contact of the English language with cultural realities for which English has no words. The word “christening” really doesn’t fit.

English is the official language of Ghana which inherited it from the colonial period when Ghana, then the Gold Coast, was a British colony. But there are over 60 languages spoken in Ghana, and very few Ghanaians speak English as their first language. They learn English in school, use it in government business, but speak their own languages in their families and in their communities. They continue to follow their many helpful traditions even when they profess a world religion such as Christianity.

English does not have words for many of the things that they hold dear, or just want to talk about. So they have invented new English words, or they sometimes use standard English words, but with new meanings.

Culture is a powerful force – so strong that a local culture can bend a world language like English to fits its needs, rather like gravity can bend light. When that happens, some mistakenly say that Ghanaians are not speaking English correctly. As I am writing, my impoverished spell checker has mounted a campaign against “outdooring”, suggesting that I replace it with “outpouring”. That Ashanti chief in his traditional regalia could teach it a thing or two about a proud part of Ghanaian culture.