Category Archives: Minority Languages

What can we sing about?

In recent conversation with friends we were considering why it seems to us somewhat odd to sing (in church, or I guess anywhere) about “God of concrete, God of steel, \ God of piston and of wheel,” etc. Here’s my working theory:

Romantic ideology or worldview still exerts an influence on what Western people consider things to sing about. That gives us nature, love and war and the full range of emotion turmoil as topics to work with. The church is not immune from cultural influence and so our hymns and songs are likely to be constrained by these limited aspects of life. So “when through the woods and forest glades I wander” fits our expectations of something to sing about rather than the starkly modern “when through the Facebook posts and blogs I browse…” or “when in the office juggling meetings and politics…” Perhaps this also explains our difficulties when it comes to singing some Psalms.

But let me back up a bit:

What and not just how we sing is an interesting part of culture, and it’s very easy to assume (erroneously) that all cultures will sing about the same things, even if their singing style is different. This is one reason why translating books of hymns and songs from one language to another may not be a particularly great basis for a new church’s song-life. The very topics contained in the songs may be awkward, embarrassing, boring or just odd for the target culture. (However, using a few translated songs from another culture may well address our own cultural blind-spots.)

I’ve already said that my guess is that we today inherit a list of singable topics from European 18th Century Romanticism, which just happened to coincide with some significant church growth and mission efforts. What I really should do, is to gather up older hymns and compare with ‘Romantic period’ hymnody and modern songs to try to gauge how well my theory is evidenced in reality.

Is there a problem? Romanticism was essentially escapist and a reaction against the urbanising, industrialising forces at work in Europe at the time. Are we in danger of yoking a significant part of church life to an escapist ideology if we limit ourselves to just the Romantic topics? Certainly the gospel can be powerfully expressed within the confines of Romanticism, but we need to be aware of some distorting influences that might slip through unnoticed. If Romanticism had a focus not just on escapism but extreme emotion, then it is quite possible that our singing may end up with a bias in that direction. And then since Romanticism excludes gritty, ordinary, working-class and modern aspects of life, is it possible that in our singing in church we may unwittingly reinforce the notion that the Christian gospel is primarily for the middle-classes? (They have the leisure to muse on higher things.) Might we end up excluding the impact of the gospel on everyday matters from our song-speech together?

Anyway, this is really just observation at the moment and so I’d find insights from others interesting.

Languages I have been working with

As we’ve talked about our work in Nigeria, several have asked about the language(s) I work with. One quick way to find out some basic information about any language in the world is to look it up on the SIL Ethnologue. So roughly in order of more – less involvement on my part here are a few languages:

  • Gworok (just starting their work)

    • If you look at the page linked, you’ll see that Gworok is officially listed as a dialect of Tyap, which already has been developed fairly significantly, and has a Bible translation project well under way for some years.
    • At first sight it seems that there are some fairly significant differences between Gworok and Tyap, though some Gworok speakers can just about follow the Tyap Bible. But there seems to be substantial interest in having a Gworok translation.
    • Gworok is sometimes known as Kagoro, which is the town at the centre of the language area. Often outsiders refer to a language by the name of the most significant town in the area.
    • I really don’t know the number of speakers of Gworok. I’d hazard a guess at 50,000+.
    • Similar in some ways to neighbouring languages Ninkyob (who are still struggling to start) and Irigwe/Miango (whose New Testament was just launched).
  • Maya (started 2008, but still a fragile project)
  • Duya (started around 2010)
  • Koro Waci (started 2011)
  • Nyankpa

Those with good memories may remember I thought I might have involvement with the Tal Bible translation project. I’ve had some chats with the Nigerian missionaries involved in church planting there but there’s not been anything in particular for me to help with yet.

I think I’ll SayMore

Why can millions of people can happily speak languages that they can’t easily write? How do pioneer writers develop a natural written style for their language? How can mother-tongue speakers take responsibility for recording and carefully archiving some of the precious songs, stories, speeches, teachings and other communication from their languages? How do we transcribe texts in the post-cassette age? SayMore is here to help. Continue reading I think I’ll SayMore

WeSay hacks: New kinds of tasks

There are some tasks that the WeSay Configuration Tool doesn’t let you configure directly. But you can write your own quite easily (as someone else has discovered) since the XML configuration file format has quite a lot of scope for extension using just Notepad or another text editor. Here we show how to do this and give some sample tasks that you can copy and paste into your configuration files to fine-tune data collection. Continue reading WeSay hacks: New kinds of tasks

Why Dictionaries Matter in Bible Translation

Here’s a disclaimer:
I first came to Nigeria in 2001 on a short term trip to help people finish off a dictionary as part of a Bible translation project. I thought that might be the last of my dictionary-making, but even though it’s not really my job now I reluctantly find myself drawn back to it.

Bible translation projects require a good foundation of linguistics to work out a decent writing system and to help writers stay as faithful as possible to the natural grammar of the language whilst staying as faithful as possible to the meaning of the biblical text. Along the way some translators and advisors collect words into a dictionary. Most are never completed, never published. Some Bible translators eventually get round to working on a dictionary after the Bible has been published. Well surely that priority is right for a Bible translator, isn’t it? Yes and no, but mostly no, I reply. Continue reading Why Dictionaries Matter in Bible Translation

WeSay: Dictionary-Making For New Linguists

There is a fantastic program called WeSay for facilitating dictionary development. It’s particularly aimed at helping people gather and describe words in their own language even without strong computer experience or traditional linguistic training. It doesn’t replace analysis tools like FieldWorks, but presents a complementary approach and is interoperable. Where Fieldworks lets you document a word at a time completely, or organise lists of all your entries in whatever way you like for analysis, WeSay concentrates on doing one kind of task at a time, whether gathering words, adding meanings, adding example sentences, etc. One particularly exciting feature is that as many computers as you want can work on the same database and merge changes together. This – combined with the fact it has the Semantic Domains/DDP4 list of questions built-in – makes WeSay the best way of facilitating Rapid Word Collection, by far. Continue reading WeSay: Dictionary-Making For New Linguists