Hmong alphabet

Today is International Literacy Day. So my blog today is about literacy, and it will be about literacy next week too.

Hmong alphabetThis is a wood carving in the Hmong language. It uses a writing system developed in about 1959 by Shong Lue Yang, a Laotian peasant farmer. He may be the only person in history who was killed for creating an alphabet. Writing their language in an alphabet developed by one of their own, the Hmong people began to have pride in their identity. These developments cause some to perceive Shong Lue Yang threat, so they had him assassinated in 1971.

I know of similar situations in Africa. In one case, a people dominated by another began to assert their rights after the development of an alphabet for their language and the start of the first literacy classes. The group that had dominated them reacted with violence. They even attempted to burn down the buildings of the organization doing literacy.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Literacy is about learning to read and write, but its effects go well beyond the realm of reading. Christians in Ghana who learn to read and write their languages become more active in their churches, so much so that some churches now recognize the ministry of uneducated lay people who have learned to read and who read the Bible in their languages. Women who learn to read and write are more likely to undertake new initiatives or businesses and to speak out in their communities and churches, even though the literacy classes don’t teach any of those things.

Literacy among minority peoples is a very neglected but effective form of Christian ministry. As I have written before, through literacy a person can touch many aspects of life: spiritual, economic, social and even political.

PS: The photo of the Hmong alphabet comes from Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets Project. They have a gift shop with some very beautiful and unusual gifts.

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.