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.


Yesterday in 1912, Kenneth Lee Pike was born. He first studied theology and wanted to be a missionary in China, but he was not accepted. He went on to meet William Cameron Townsend with whom he went to Mexico where we learned and studied the Mixtec language. He had a very distinguished academic career at the University of Michigan; becoming a member of the American Academy of Sciences, and was nominated 15 times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

PhoneticsHis book on Phonetics is a classic in that field of study. The science he elucidated in that book serves those developing alphabets for unwritten languages. But it also serves speech therapists and others.

On one of the few times I met him, he told the story of how Phonetics came to be written. He was living among the Mixtecs in Mexico, learning their language and starting to translate the Bible. The group he was with, SIL International, also taught linguistics courses in the USA for others wanting to get involved in Bible translation for minority peoples. For that, they needed textbooks. The leader of SIL, William Cameron Townsend, wanted Pike to write a textbook on phonetics. But Pike kept putting it off, working instead on the Mixtec language.

At one point, Pike was traveling in Mexico by train. The train he was to travel on arrived at the station, but a rail-car-load of wheat needed to be unloaded before the train could continue. To pass the time and to speed things up, Pike lent a hand. But he slipped and fell, breaking his leg. He was hospitalized. With nothing to do, he started working on the textbook on phonetics which later become the book on Phonetics which is still a classic.

I can identify. When we worked on the Cerma language in Burkina Faso, it was easy to keep our focus on learning that language and culture. Requests to help other missionaries, teach courses, and so on, seemed to be distractions. Fortunately, God did not let me break my leg to turn my attention to serving others.


Another kind of KP

In addition to being a military term, KP is a sound in many African languages.  This is Konlan Kpeebi.  He directs all translation work for the Ghana. Note the KP in his name. The KP sound is quite common in West Africa.  The language Dayle and I were assigned to in Burkina Faso, Cerma (pronounced CARE-muh), had the KP sound.

The interesting thing about the KP is that it is not a sequence.  PL is a sequence – a P followed by an L.  But KP is not.  Instead, it is a K and a P pronounced together at exactly the same time.

How is that done?  I thought you would never ask. One of my favorite classes when I was studying to work in Bible translation was articulatory phonetics – the study of how we humans move our mouths and throats to produce the sounds that make up words.

But back to KP.  We’ll break things into steps.  To say a P you press your upper and lower lips together.  Say “pa” and feel your upper and lower lips touch.  To say a K you push the back of your tongue against the roof of your mouth.  Say “cake” and feel the back of your tongue make contact with the roof of your mouth twice.  If you want some help, look at the diagram at the end.

To say KP, one must press both lips together and at the same time press the back of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, then release both points of contact simultaneously. Try it.  For most people who did not have this sound in a language they learned as a child, getting it right takes practice.  I worked on it for weeks when we were learning Cerma.  In fact, practicing the sounds that were new for me was a time-consuming activity in learning the language.  But it paid off.  In fact, it was a lot of fun being one of the few Americans to meet Mr. Kpeebi who pronounced his name right the first time and see the surprise on the faces of the Ghanaians who were there. I kind of like to do things that break expectations.  Besides, I don’t mind the credibility I get.

Because most languages in Africa were not written, the first outsiders who encountered African languages did not recognize the KP sound, writing it as K or P.  But languages that have the KP sound, might have a word “ka”, a word “pa” and another word “kpa”.  So writing the word “kpa” either “ka” or “pa” will result in confusion.  Imagine how difficult reading English would be if the alphabet had been decided by someone from a language which did not distinguish L and R and so they just wrote L everywhere.  Words like “raw” and “law” would both be written “law”.  Reading would be a lot more difficult, especially reading something as long or as important as the Bible.

There are still many languages in Africa that have never been written.  Sounds like KP are why the first step toward a translation for those languages is doing some applied articulatory phonetics.  We first take down lists of words in the language using the International Phonetic Alphabet, a cool alphabet with a symbol for every sound made in human language.

In this photo Konlan Kpeebi is working with other language and translation experts in his organization, Naana Nkrumah and Sammy Ntumi.  My next project is to work with them and others to find ways to make the work go faster and have more impact.  Among other things, that means a faster was to sniff out the KPs and other sounds in the languages in Ghana which have still never been written and then figure out how to put that plan into practice.  Then every person in Ghana can know the pride of having his or her heart language written in all its God-given glory.  That means KPs and all.