Years ago when starting work with the Koro Ashɛ translation team (whose language is called Ishɛ) the translators asked me about an issue they had. There were too many Hausa words in it. In particular the word ‘amma‘. It’s a common conjunction rather like English ‘but‘ and you do actually hear it very frequently. Many Nigerian languages surrounded by Hausa end up picking it up and appropriating it for their own uses. So that gives us quite a challenge: how should we decide what is too much and when it should go? Some teams end up creating a ‘pure language’ equivalent. But that introduces further issues. Essentially none of us could properly answer the question without looking carefully into how this word ‘amma’ is currently used in Ishɛ storytelling, teaching and conversation.
That’s what we have done for the last 2 years, and the results were rather interesting.
We’re enjoying being around friends and family in the UK for Christmas for the first time in 4 years, but missing our friends and co-workers in Nigeria.
We have now been in the UK for nearly 6 months, and had various plans for our time here which haven’t exactly worked out, but we’re making progress. We hoped to catch up with supporting churches, update them on our work in Nigeria, and hopefully get a little opportunity to arouse some interest in supporting our Nigerian missionary colleagues. David was also hoping to continue doing translation consultancy remotely supporting the Ashɛ translation team.
Here’s a quick update on what has actually been happening.
A rare guest appearance from Julie! (Perhaps I’ll persuade her to contribute more here.)
Sometimes we may think we have thought of something for the first time and it turns out that someone else got in there before us. In Bible translation work nowadays we are committed to using local languages to express Biblical concepts, but in modern English a lot of our key Biblical terms are very Latinate: jusitification, sanctification, redemption, resurrection. It almost looks as though, when Christianity was taking hold in Britain that English wasn’t seen to be sufficient to express these ideas. Or was it?
I’ve been having a look at Christian vocabulary in Old English and that really doesn’t seem to be the case at all. (Old English was spoken for over six centuries and the precursor of Modern English, with some Latin, French and other languages thrown in along the way.) Old English, a bit like modern German, could easily make new words by combining old ones; and it seems that Christians of the time often used words that were already in the language to express Christian ideas in ways that would be clearly understood. Then somewhere along the line people lost their nerve, decided that English really wasn’t the proper way to talk about these things and we have been left with Latin ever since.
Have a look at the table below.
Modernised Old English
righting (we still have the word ‘righteous’ from the same root)
to make holy (holy and hallow are both from Old English)
infleshness (or perhaps inbody-ing)
giveness (the Old English word is closely related to ‘forgiveness’ and ‘gift’)
Now some Old English words have stuck. We still talk about church (cirice), but something to do with the church is ‘ecclesiastical’ and not ‘churchly’ (in Old English they had ciriclec). We have ‘heaven’ (heofon), ‘sin’ (synn), ‘holy’ (halig), ‘forgiveness’ (forgifnes) and ‘worship’ (weorþscipe – a noun denoting something with worthiness or excellence), and ‘God’ (God).
And, of course, we still have ‘Gospel’. The Old English for that was ‘Godspell’, made of god (‘good’) and spell (‘news, account or story’). But nowadays we have an ‘evangelist’ rather than a ‘gospeller’ (godspellere). The ‘gospeller’ might go around ‘gospelling’ (godspellian).
So many of our Christian terms are fairly meaningless for the unchurched in modern Britain. Most people don’t think of ‘undeserved favour’ when they hear the word ‘grace’, for example. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out the Anglo-Saxons’ book and consider how we can express the good news in really down-to-earth language, in English as well as in many languages throughout the world where the speakers don’t yet have Scriptures or key Biblical terms. That’s one way for us to be ‘gospelly’ (godspellic).
“What I like about English,” a student pastor told me at the end of one class, “is that you have so many special words for things, so that means you can think and talk about so much more than we can in our own languages.”
This sounds fairly convincing. English has a word ‘justification’ and so it’s easy to talk about it — easier than trying to talk about the same thing in a Nigerian language, at least. It’s not just religious terms but science too: how would you teach people about hydration or polymers or anatomy. This is commonly a justification for rushing kids to English in school and abandoning the foundational languages they come with. There are no words for these ideas in the home languages and we have no textbooks (and don’t intend to write any) in local languages for children to memorise. So far, so convincing, but of course that’s only part of the picture. Leaving aside the slightly questionable Sapir-Whorf exaggerations, the argument relies for its adequacy on two questionable assumptions which no-one really questions.
Education is chiefly about learning big words and regurgitating their definitions to pass tests, get a qualification and thus get a salaried position.
If we all use the same terms, then we’ll all understand the same thing. Shi ke nan! (Kinda Hausa for Slam Dunk!)
I’ll leave aside the educational philosophy issue for now and tackle the second.
“Go hand your head in shame, Apple: you’re still not doing software engineering right.”
Now, when you’re lambasting someone for doing something stupidly wrong, wouldn’t you try to make sure you don’t do the same thing yourself? Of course in true Dave Gorman fashion I turned to my live English Corpus (Twitter) to check and sure enough “Hand your head in shame” is a thing. Well, I guess if you can’t get the hand of English idioms, it’s not a handing offence is it?
(PS: In case you don’t know, it’s supposed to be Hang your head in shame. But maybe face-palming is more common these days.)
In a fascinating lecture from my alma mater (Trinity Hall, Cambridge), Professor John Clarkson talks through how he cut his teeth on engineering challenges that gave him a ‘systems approach’ to all kinds of other problems. He applies what he’s learned to a process for improving healthcare.
I think there’s something here for Bible Translators to learn from too, since often we are aware that we could and we must do things better.
One of my favourite quotes from this is around 40 minutes in: ‘Common sense is not common’. The other quote I love is ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ I think that’s often what I as a translation consultant am trying to do when translators propose a particular translation. ‘How could someone possibly misunderstand or misuse this?’
Back ‘Home’ in the UK for 9 months we face many changes while colleagues in Nigeria help the Ashɛ and Wachi and other teams prepare for a crucial training event in September.
We’ve spent the last 6 months nearly managing to finish writing a newsletter, and then getting delayed with bits and pieces of work or technical difficulties so that then what we had written seems not so fresh any more. So, I’m laying all that aside and we’ll do something of a catchup and review of the last 3.5 years in Nigeria later on, but here’s an update about what’s going on now.
We’re now in the UK!
That hopefully isn’t too much of a surprise to many, but given our lack of communication you would be forgiven for losing track that we’ve been in Nigeria since March 2016 except for the occasional brief trip back. So we are due a furlough or ‘home assignment’ and wanted to time it so that the big 3 girls can slot into school at the start of a school year. They have just entered P7, P5 and P3 in Glasgow. Rebekah was shocked as she realised that little Abigail is now a big Primary 3 — just what she was in when she left Shawlands Primary school.
In late April, four of the Ashɛ translation team were in Gardi — deep inside Ashɛ land — to greet chiefs and others, and to participate in an Ishɛ language service on the Sunday.
While Arams often complains about how things aren’t as they used to be, many children and adults swamped Moses’ house to look at the strange visitors and to listen to the Ishɛ story that we’ve studied together and which Arams told to the attentive audience.
In the mid-19th century, the renowned French/Russian entomologist Jean-Marie Syccof discovered and described the behaviour of an intriguing group of ants native to Algeria.
These days everyone knows how fiercely ants will defend their queen, but before Syccof’s time understanding of the social behaviour of ants was less clear. The queen herself hides deep in the anthill or nest producing offspring and she relies entirely on worker ants bringing food to her, since she can’t go to forage for herself. She can’t even defend herself while she’s producing more workers and so soldier ants defend her from enemy ants or other predators. You don’t want to get in the way of soldier ants, I can tell you!
On some rare occasions a queen will go rogue and will start consuming her offspring or other worker ants. This is clearly not good for the colony, but Syccof found that in certain ant colonies the soldier (defensive worker) ants will rise to defend the queen even when she is doing this. It doesn’t make sense for the colony (workers can sometimes start laying eggs if the queen dies), but Syccof theorised that the soldier ants became so used to backing and defending their queen from any and every attack that they would even help the queen fight and kill their own workers before eating them. In their unthinking defence of the queen therefore, Syccof’s soldier ants were in fact accelerating the demise of the colony. At some point distressed worker ants would disperse and attach themselves to another colony or a group would leave and a new queen would start laying. While what was good for the queen was normally good for the colony, that principle could badly backfire.
Perhaps there are lessons today even for humans. Go to the ant!
Mission ceases to be biblical when it is focused more on what humans get out of it (salvation) than on what God gets out of it (glory)… the former is anthropology the later is theology and if you do not properly order these your missiology will constantly go astray.