While my Christmas post was of the gloomy kind, most blogs I follow had more heart-warming stories. Sociolingo Africa picked up a press release coming out of Orlando, Florida issued by who-I-don’t-know, about new translations of the Christmas story becoming available just in time for this year’s event. According to the press release, the Wycliffe Bible Translators completed translations of the biblical Christmas story in nine new languages of Tanzania’s Mara region.

The translations, published this month, bring the story of Christ’s birth to the heart languages of two million people, and cap a strong year for bible translation. Wycliffe staff contributed to the completion of two Bibles, 25 New Testaments and 26 New Testament revisions, affecting some 10 million people. […] Languages in the Mara Cluster Project are part of the Bantu family of about 500 languages, spoken by approximately 200 million people, in an area stretching from the equator to South Africa, and from Cameroon to Kenya. Only about half of these languages have translated Scriptures.

The Wycliffe Bible Translators are a Christian organization devoted to making the Bible available “to all people in the language of their heart.” The language of the heart? Only a monolingual could have come up with the idea that there is only one of them. I have many languages of the heart and I’m not even sure I can identify them.

The story reminds me of one Christmas, many years ago, when I was still in elementary school, when our German teacher decided to read the Christmas story to us in what he supposed was our heart language. The language of that school was standard German and, as 10-year-olds in Catholic Bavaria, we had all heard the Christmas story a hundred times in Standard German. As a special treat for the last lesson before the Christmas holidays, our teacher decided to change the game and read the Christmas story to us in dialect, presumably so that the experience would be more moving. I vividly remember a moving experience but not the way it was intended: the experience was excruciatingly embarrassing and ended in a cacophony of thirty 10-year-olds giggling because they didn’t know how else to react. In picking a dialect version of the biblical story, our teacher, who did not share our native Bavarian dialect but was a native speaker of a dialect group from another region of Bavaria, had chosen a variety of Bavarian that it is spoken somewhere in the Munich area or maybe somewhere else – I don’t remember or never knew. What I do remember is that is wasn’t our variety and what was supposed to be a specially moving experience in our heart language just sounded weird, fake and disingenuous. It wasn’t only that the pronunciation was off and that there were some words and grammatical structures we didn’t use; the reason the biblical story in dialect sounded fake and giggle-embarrassing was that we had been trained all our lives in a language ideology that assigns different values to different languages. For us kids, both the dialect and the standard language were languages of the heart, just in different ways: the dialect touches the heart through the close relationships that are formed through oral exchange and the standard touches the heart through the written texts of high literature, poetry, and scripture.

Some dialect poetry aside, the Bavarian dialects have never been written and have thus successfully escaped standardization. The translation of certain master texts such as the bible produces standard languages, and the existence of standard languages sets up boundaries between languages where linguistic continua used to exist. ِCodifying languages takes away from connections of the heart as much as it gives. As 10-year-olds we reacted to this intrusion into our privacy with giggles. I wonder how the people of the “nine language clusters” of the Mara region reacted and what it will mean for their communities that they now have a new heart language? Beyond the gushing press release, there is a potential PhD project there: how are people, their communities and languages affected by a bible translation becoming available in a heart language that is inevitably an invention?

The invention of languages by Christian missionaries is not new. In his book Linguistics in a Colonial World, Errington provides a number of examples such as the one of the invention of Thonga, another Bantu language in a region not too far away from Tanzania (Errington 2008, 113-116). In 1872, Paul Berthoud and Ernest Creux, two Swiss missionaries, sponsored by the Paris Missionary Society, arrived in the Transvaal to proselytize in Sotho, a language they had learnt during their previous work in neighboring areas. As it turned out, no one in the Transvaal spoke Sotho, and so Berthoud and Creux took it upon themselves to learn “the local language” in order to spread the faith in the local language. It did not take them long to realize that in fact a number of different – even mutually unintelligible languages – were spoken in the area they took to be their own. However, they had practical reasons not to admit that fact. To begin with, they could not attempt to learn and describe more than one language and they did not have the funds to print religious-instructional materials in more than one language. Second, they needed the Transvaal to be one unit in order to strengthen their claim to the region and to defend if from the incursions of rivaling missionaries who were operating in surrounding areas. So, they set about their work partly describing and partly inventing Thonga, “the local language of the Transvaal.” If they were our contemporaries, they probably would have termed Thonga “the heart-language” of the people of the Transvaal:

With hindsight, the Berthoud brothers can be seen to have worked against the grain of historical and linguistic reality to create written Thonga and its history. But they succeeded in making them social facts among their literate converts. Once they had some intellectual purchase on local conditions and linguistic cultural difference, they could teach Thonga literacy and so also the Thonga language itself. (p. 116)

Not only did missionaries create the Thonga language, they also monopolized its literate forms and uses, thus establishing their version of what it means “to be Thonga.” They were so successful that a later missionary quoted by Errington (p. 116) described the language as “one of the most trustworthy and complete manifestations of [the Thonga nation’s] mind” and “the oldest element in the life of the tribe … the great bond which bound the Thonga clans together in past centuries.” Translate the bible, invent a language and colonize the heart!

ResearchBlogging.org Errington, Joseph (2008). Linguistics in a colonial world: a story of language, meaning, and power Blackwell Publishing

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

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  • Hanne Houbracken

    “In South Africa, Western-type formal education for Africans was introduced by missionaries from the beginning of the 19th century onwards. Many missions relied on African languages to convey the divine message, and some African languages were duly ‘reduced to writing’.” – (Lafon & Webb, 2008)

    The Wycliff Bible Translators, just as missionaries during the colonial period, do not actually care about the survival of languages. They care about passing on the Christian belief to as many people possible, disregarding the complex linguistic contexts in the process.

    Michel Lafon, Vic Webb. The Standardisation of African Languages. Michel Lafon; Vic Webb. IFAS, pp.141, 2008, Nouveaux Cahiers de l’Ifas, Aurelia Wa Kabwe Segatti.

  • Gin Parrish

    Thank you Prof. Piller for a very intriguing article, it has shed light on the impact of religions on languages, which is a universal problem but is often ignored by people living within their society.

    The case mentioned is somewhat similar to what happened to Vietnamese language. In the 19th century, Vietnam was colonized by the French. In order to control the local people more easily, the French brought Catholic church to Vietnam, and began to spread Christianity, and in that process they had come up with a new script – the Vietnamese alphabet script that became the national script and have been used until today.

    This reminds us of how powerful religions can be, not only can it change people’s beliefs and behaviours, it can also change the language and the history of people worldwide.