A peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons. (Dictionary.com)
A shibboleth has come to mean a type of signal, usually verbal, that betrays what group someone actually belongs to. Having spent some years in the Philadelphia, PA, area, I know that locals pronounce water as wooder and call sub sandwiches hoagies. These verbal cues betray that they have been shaped by the dialect of a particular city. My wife being originally from the Rochester, NY, area, means that she happens to add and “L” sound into the word both, pronouncing it as bolth. Arabs usually can’t say the letter “P” and instead of Pepsi, they say bibsi. And Americans have an awfully hard time with the “Q” sound of Arabic, often mispronouncing the name of the country Qatar as kataar or gutter.
The term shibboleth itself comes from the book of Judges, from one of the many tribal conflicts that takes place in that book of uniquely highlighted human depravity.
Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.” And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell. (Judges 12:4–6 ESV)
Alas, the dialect of the Ephraimites had lost the sh sound and so their tongues gave them away when they were asked to reproduce shibboleth, the Hebrew word for ear of grain. As one who struggled even as a six-year-old to pronounce the tricky American “R” sound, I feel their pain. But I only had to go to speech class and miss my 2nd grade Thursday afternoon movie. Once their lie was exposed and they were found out to be Ephraimites, they were promptly killed.
I was surprised to hear a very similar account echoed by my Muslim neighbors here in our corner of Central Asia. Our region, like many tribal and mountainous areas worldwide, has many diverse dialects. These dialects are supposedly all part of the same language (though linguists debate at what point a dialect becomes its own language). The dialect of our new city is surprisingly different from the dialect of our previous city, for being geographically as close as they are. We are currently in the throes of learning a whole new set of vocab that we thought we had already mastered. Turns out many of the words that are commonplace in our previous city are just not used here, and vice versa. I’m talking about words you use every day like spoon, nose, neighbor, y’all, and cow. Well, maybe we don’t use cow every day, but it would have been a word used daily until the very recent past. But the term for cow used in our city and our previous city are as different as the English words mail and saunter. In other words, there is no connection between them whatsoever.
Not too long ago there was a civil war between these two cities and they unknowingly performed a live-action remake of Judges 12. As they say, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But instead using shibboleth as a shibboleth, they used the words for cow instead. When someone was caught at a checkpoint professing to be a friendly member of the soldiers’ side, they were put to a linguistic test.
Their answer, at least until word got out, determined their fate. Their chosen word for cow, of all things, was the difference between life and death. Though civil war is always tragic, locals do find humor in this tale of their recent conflict. It seems to somehow appropriately highlight the absurdity of conflicts that really boil down to the basic competition between two tribes, and nothing deeper than that. “It was a stupid war,” locals will say. “To this day we really don’t know why it even happened.”
Stupid and inexplicable. Like most human conflict. In the new heavens and new earth, if we still have shibboleths, I’m sure they’ll only be used for fun. “So, you’re a Philly boy, eh? I caught that usage of wooder.” Thankfully, the age where shibboleths are used for evil will then have finally passed away.
Is there evidence that other ancient civilizations believed in a past where the world had one language, as Genesis 11 teaches? Yes, apparently.
11:1 one language. A text from Mesopotamia called the Enmerkar Epic indicates that the people in that culture also believed that the earth had previously had a single language. The tablet reads in part:
“Man had no rival.
In those days the lands of Shubar (and) Hamazi,
Harmony-tongued (?) Sumer,
the great land of the decrees of princeship,
Uri, the land having all that all is appropriate (?),
the land Martu, resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison (?),
To Enlil in one tongue…”
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 27
Like the better-known parallels to the great flood (e.g. Gilgamesh), it appears that language disaster of Babel was also remembered and passed down in other Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Fascinating.
Jacob calling Rachel his wife prior to the wedding followed common practice – a betrothed woman had the status of a wife (Deut. 20:7; 22:23-24). The Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi attests to this custom in laws 130 and 161.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 52
I took note of this information on Genesis 29:21 because this custom is still carried out among our focus people group. Early on, I ended up in thoroughly confusing English conversations with local friends after they told me they now had a wife. I would respond with hearty congratulations and ask them when the wedding had taken place. When they would respond in the negative, that the wedding had not yet taken place, I would insist that they must have meant they had a fiance, not a wife. But they would insist that no, they meant wife.
Clarity eventually came when we realized that the local language often refers to a woman as a wife from the moment of engagement. Even though they are not living together and there hasn’t been a wedding, she is still considered officially the wife of her betrothed. My local friends were carrying this aspect of their language into English, much to my confusion. Turns out our sequential understanding of male-female romantic relationships in the West is quite different from how these things are spoken of in Central Asia. But their way of doing things probably has stronger precedent than ours, going all the way back to the time of the patriarchs and even Hammurabi!
Another linguistic surprise was how families would speak of brides. An elderly man once told me that he had four brides, one of them new. But it wasn’t polygymy that was going on. Sometimes that does happen among our people group, leading to this very un-Islamic but honest experience-based proverb: A man with two wives is a man with a liver full of holes (i.e. he leads a painful life). However, in this situation, this man’s son had just gotten married. In the communal (rather than individualistic) thinking of this man, the brides who married his sons were obviously the family’s brides. He could even accurately say they were his brides. The mother-in-law could say this also. It is said in the West that you don’t just marry an individual, you also marry their family. Well, in the Middle East and Central Asia, that concept has been taken to a whole new level and is communicated even by the languages themselves as they speak about who the brides belong to.
After a successful proposal, a man in the West might say, “This is my fiance and my future bride.” In Central Asia, during the same stage you’re just as likely to hear him say, “This is my wife and our bride. Want to come to the wedding in six months?”
While walking in a park yesterday, a friend and I spotted a bird with a long blue/black fan tail. My friend wasn’t sure what it was called in the local language. Apparently, it doesn’t show itself very often in the city. I shared with him that it reminded me of a bird we had in Melanesia called the Willy Wagtail. As I explained to him what wag means in English, and how we use it for the tail of a dog, he exclaimed, “Oh! That’s what we call tail cracking! Like when you crack your knuckles. We use the same verb for both situations because it’s like the animal is cracking it’s tail.”
One of the great joys of language learning is stumbling onto new ways in which to describe reality and connect its different parts. I never would have seen a connection before between the wagging of a dog’s tail and a person cracking their neck or their knuckles. But my Central Asian friends have seen it and reflected it in their language. I guess when a happy dog is next to a door, there is a rhythmic crack crack crack as his tail repeatedly hits the surface. Perhaps this is where it came from. Or just the swaying action looks similar to a human trying to stretch back and forth in search of a refreshing series of pops. This crack/pop verb is also the same one used for the firing of a gun and related to the word used for the explosion of a bomb. Indeed, the more you chew on it, the more you can see the common thread tying these things together.
Later in the afternoon we had a language lesson. As we studied a regional folktale together, our tutor pointed out the phrase used when a character suddenly fell in love – her heart was roasted. The same verb used to roast something in the oven, which is also used in adjective form for a rotisserie chicken. Not too distant from certain poetic ways the English language speaks of love, such as being inflamed or burning with desire. But roasted? What an interesting way to conceptualize having a serious crush on someone. It carries with it a certain completeness in the effect of the emotion upon the heart, deeper than you might get from the mere idea of a flickering flame.
As we discussed folktales and oral tradition, we learned that the phrase used to describe how a story is passed from father to son is that it has come from chest to chest. This is because the historic understanding here was that memory was located in the chest, the core of the person. So, naturally, something which is memorized by one generation and then passed on to be memorized by the next is understood as passing from chest to chest. I really like this one. It reminds me of 2nd Timothy 2:2, “and what you have heard from me, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Pass it on from chest to chest, dear Timothy.
Speaking of entrusted, the very name of this blog comes from discovering a new way to speak of death in our local language, that a person is entrusted to the dirt. A dear friend told me last week that the name of this blog sounds to him like Lamentations, like a “face in the dust.” While my title does certainly reference death and its connection to the dirt, I actually chose it because of the subtle hint of resurrection implied by the word entrusted. When something is entrusted, it has not been lost or abandoned. There is a certain stewardship implied, a certain aim, perhaps even a return. Like 2 Tim 2:2, that aim might be faithful preservation and multiplication of a body of teaching. In the case of believers’ bodies and the soil, it is a trust given anticipating a glorious return. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). We entrust our dear ones to the soil and we eventually entrust ourselves, knowing by faith that glory and resurrection will be the sure and unstoppable outcome. It’s still dirt, it is still death, it’s still not the way things are supposed to be. But that’s not the end of the story. The dirt holds a mighty secret. All of creation whispers that resurrection is coming. And so our tears are mingled with a certain flicker of joy.
Each language is like a unique form of poetry, all of them attempting to describe creation as God has allowed us to experience it. As such, there is fascination and even delight to be found in the ways other tongues speak of things like tails wagging, hearts burning, stories passed on – and even of death itself. Take heart, weary language learners out there. There is more wonder in the end than there is drudgery. One of the things I’m looking forward to in the New Heavens and New Earth? Being with believers speaking thousands of complex and poetic languages – and all the time we need to learn each and every one of them.
Plus a resurrected brain with which to learn them. Let’s not forget about that part.
Nestorian translators and scholars built the bridge linking the knowledge of classical antiquity with the European Middle Ages.
During the ‘Age of the Translators’ (sixth to ninth centuries), Nestorian and Jacobite physicians and scholars translated the Greek classics of philosophy, mathematics, geometry, medicine and astrology from Greek into Syriac and then into Arabic. The greatness of their reputation can be seen in the fact that Caliph al-Ma’mun (ruled 813-833) appointed the Nestorian philosopher and physician Yuhanna Ibn Massawah as head of the state library and university that had been founded in 832 and was called the ‘House of Knowledge’, and paid in gold for the translations of the most renowned Nestorian scholar, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (808-873). Thanks to these translation projects, the Arab-Iranian culture preserved the treasures of Greek knowledge and, through the University of Toledo, offered them to Europe, which had lost them in the darkness of the early Middle Ages. Finally, the revival of Aristotle and the starting points of the work of Thomas Aquinas would have remained unthinkable without this Nestorian-Arab bridge.
Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 6
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, classical and biblical manuscripts were preserved by two unlikely sources, the newly-Christian Irish scribes and the minority Christian scholars of Mesopotamia, living under Zoroastrian and then Muslim rule. Both preserved the written treasures of the West, with the Irish preserving mainly the Latin texts and the Eastern Christians preserving the Greek. Thus, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that some of Western Civilization’s most forgotten and unlikely heroes turn out to be the ancient monks of Eire and Baghdad.
We had been teaching through the sermon on the mount and the portion on oaths had fallen to me. It was not necessarily the text I would have chosen to focus on in that busy season of our fledgling church plant. But we had committed to teach through Matthew, believing that every part is God-breathed, even the parts that felt less relevant. So I studied Matthew 5:33-37 as best I could and labored to explain it and apply it in the local language. After the meeting finished I approached *Frank and *Patti, two local new believers.
“Was everything clear? Any questions?” I asked. I wasn’t really expecting a lot of response.
Both stood with furrowed brows.
“Yes, very clear… But if this is true, then we need a whole new language,” Frank responded.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Patti chimed in, “It’s impossible to speak our language without starting every other sentence with an oath. We need to learn a whole new way to speak! We knew that following Jesus would mean change, but this is going to be really hard!”
“This was a very surprising and important part of the Bible for us to learn about. Thank you,” Frank said.
If my local friends were surprised at this part of Jesus’ teaching, I for my part was surprised by their response. Didn’t see that one coming, I thought to myself, and not for the last time. We later debriefed with our teammates about this conversation.
It was true. How could we have missed it? The local language was absolutely chock-full of oaths. Coming from a culture and language where oaths are mostly archaic, we hadn’t really noticed them, even as we ourselves learned to start our sentences with some of them, mimicking the cadence of our local friends’ speech.
By God. By the sacrifice. By the Qur’an. By my grandmother’s grave. By both of my eyes. By the top of my head. By my honor. As we reflected we realized just how hard it was to make a serious statement in the local language without prefacing it with an oath. This passage from Matthew may have been very practical after all.
We were at that point just beginning to learn that the Central Asian culture where we serve is riddled with deceit and duplicity. This is the real downside to an honor-based culture. Everyone is lying all the time to save face. This is likely where the oaths came in, trying to create a more reliable kind of statement where the hearer can be assured that the speaker isn’t just lying to save face. But it didn’t really solve the problem. Like some strange cousin to the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception, it just punted the problem up one level. How does it help you believe in Jesus’ sinlessness to claim that Mary was born sinless also? What about her parents? How does it help you believe your friend who would normally lie to you just because this time he used an oath? Wouldn’t a liar just keep lying, even if using an oath?
We began trying to purge the local oaths we had learned out of our speech and it did prove remarkably difficult. We held on to using By the Truth, feeling like we had some precedence to lean on by Jesus’ usage of Truly, truly, I say to you.
Going deeper in our understanding of the local culture helped us better understand the first-century culture Jesus was rebuking. To cultures and languages that try to maintain two levels of speech, normal and oath-backed, Jesus says, “Enough! Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” No more tolerating certain lies and trying to convince others to believe you by linking your statement to something holy or something you foolishly think you have power over. In the kingdom of God, followers of Jesus will be known for honest character and honest speech such that oaths are now no longer needed.
It may be the distant echoes of this teaching that lead Muslims to still say about the local ethnic Christians and about Westerners, “They are honest people compared to us.” Islamic teaching advocates for deceit in the cause of good. This, of course, has been like pouring gasoline on the dumpster fire of human deceitfulness. Lying and duplicity have in time become some of the deepest besetting sins of the Middle East and Central Asia. This makes me truly appreciate the local translation of Romans 12:9 – “Let love be without two-faced-ness.”
Frank and Patti were partially right. In one sense, they would need a whole new language. But not in the religious sense where some human tongue is elevated as more holy than another. No, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, or English are not superior spiritual languages, regardless of the bad precedent set by Christianity and Islam. Rather, Frank and Patti’s fallen language, not unlike their fallen bodies, was now under new ownership. Their language was to be redeemed and made part of the eternal Revelation 7:9 choir. That would mean purging some elements, like oaths, and the addition of many others, such as new forms of theology, thanksgiving, and worship.
Jesus is transforming Frank and Patti’s language from the inside-out. It will be remarkable to see the future church there speaking the same tongue, but now transformed into a mature vessel of glory. A language remade! Now that is encouraging to think about.
One night our taxi driver neighbor called me, asking if his family could come by for a visit that same evening. We readily agreed, excited that this more traditional family felt free enough to pay a visit to us, their strange American neighbors. We also had a Texan friend over that evening, who himself had lived in this family’s home city, one of the few Americans to do so. I was excited for the potential of the visit.
Things went well enough for the first hour or so. We had tea together, munched on sunflower seeds and banana bread, and even joked around some. In what I thought an obvious jest, I told my neighbor that my Texan friend was the nephew of George W. Bush. I later found out the sarcasm must have gotten lost in translation as months later my neighbor was telling his taxi passengers that he had actually met W’s nephew! Attempts at humor in a foreign tongue can sometimes go awry.
About an hour and a half into the visit, the conversation took an abruptly serious turn as my neighbor asked me what the new password was for our wifi. The previous tenant had not had a password and since we had installed one, our neighbors had come to request that we give them the password and thus restore their free internet access. The quiet and focused attention of the family on me when this request was made led us to suddenly realize what the visit had been all about in the first place. Our neighbors hadn’t come and invested an hour and half visiting because they were primarily interested in knowing us. They had a request to make. And an hour and half visit was their way of indirectly spiraling into this one simple request.
We were initially discouraged by this realization. It felt like they didn’t value us as people, but had used the relational visit as a means to increase the force of their request. But the more we learned about the culture, the more we came to understand that this kind of indirect communication, couching requests or statements in visits or metaphorical language, this is meant to be highly respectful. It’s also meant to be clearly understood, but we straight-shooting Westerners sure end up missing a lot of it, much to the consternation of our Central Asian friends.
Indirect vs. direct communication is another prevalent difference in cultures which can often lead to misunderstanding. Many cultures which are more honor/shame oriented speak indirectly as a part of everyday speech. This is certainly true of Middle Easterners and Central Asians.
In our corner of Central Asia, if you mean to accept an offer, instead of a direct “yes,” you should say “no,” “don’t trouble yourself,” “thanks,” or “may your hands be blessed.” Instead of refusing an offer with a direct “no,” you should say “If God wills it,” “May your house ever be this blessed,” or “thanks.”
That’s right, “thanks” can be used to indicate either yes or no, and “no,” for the first three uses or so, actually means yes. Confused? Welcome to the murky world of cross-cultural communication.
“We Iranians laugh and say that we eat like this,” a refugee friend once told me, curling his right arm over his head in order to put a bite in the left side of his mouth. I have often thought about this image as I’ve been in contexts where polite questions are asked about someone’s welfare, their parents’ welfare, their cousins’ welfare, Trump’s welfare, etc., before the actual reason for the visit is stated explicitly. Indirect communicators spiral into serious topics, like a missionary pilot’s Cessna circling a jungle airstrip, trying to find a break in the cloud cover. Let the evangelist take careful note of this point. Just because the conversation hasn’t gotten to spiritual things in the first hour doesn’t mean the evening won’t lead to fruitful discussion. The plane may only be halfway done with its spiral descent.
Indirect communicators also make heavy use of poetic and symbolic phrases. Proverbs, metaphors, and similes are all leveraged for the sake of honorable and gracious communication – or sometimes for the opposite purpose, to take a dig at someone. To tell someone to stop being such a pain in the neck, you can say, “If you’re not a flower, then don’t be a thorn!” On the other hand, when a father and son visit another man’s household to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, they lead with the phrase, “You have a beautiful rose in your garden.” All the men in the room know exactly what that means. An engagement negotiation is about to begin.
“But this all seems so inefficient!” our Western sensibilities cry out. Why not just speak more plainly? Several things are important for us to understand about direct and indirect communicators. The first is that both kinds of people and cultures believe they are being clear. The aim of almost all communication is to be understood, so indirect people and cultures are not usually trying to be opaque – though sometimes they are trying to keep plausible deniability. Usually, indirect communicators have been raised to understand the clear meaning in phrases that, without context, seem unclear or even dishonest to a foreigner. My Central Asian friends believe that everyone knows that the first “no” doesn’t actually mean no.
Second, we need to realize that every culture makes use of both kinds of communication. Even in the West, we tend to speak of sensitive or offensive things in indirect ways. Why is it that no one directly asks about your salary, rent, or your giving to your local church? How would you feel if your waiter asked you directly if his service meant you were going to tip well instead of saying, “And how was everything this evening?” Many a Western marriage has learned that “Little man is stinky!” actually means “Please change our son’s diaper for me.” Or, as many a seminary student has figured out the hard way, it doesn’t usually work to speak too directly about marriage the first time you take a girl out for coffee.Brother, keep the fact that you are interested in marrying her an indirect, open secret for at least the first few dates!
Third, the Bible is full of both kinds of communication. Not only do we have examples like Abraham and Ephron communicating effectively and indirectly, but God himself speaks to us in direct and indirect ways. Much of the Old Testament in God indirectly communicating through narrative that salvation by trying to keep the Law just doesn’t work. What is required is faith in God’s promises of a redeemer. Then he says so directly in passages like Galatians 2:16. When Jesus says in Mark 10:18, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone,” he is saying indirectly that his questioner is not good enough to inherit eternal life (he’s in the category of no one after all), but Jesus is also likely hinting that he himself isgood in this true sense, meaning he is God.
As with time-orientation and event-orientation, Christians are in danger of making our preferred directness or indirectness of speech a black-and-white issue, rather than an issue of Christian liberty or preference. If we hold on to the biblical principle of clear, honest, and loving communication (Eph 4:15, Col 4:4), then we are free to leverage different styles of communication as fits the occasion. We all know there is a kind of directness that can be unloving – and that there is a kind of indirectness that can be dishonest. I’m not saying those cliffs don’t exist. But here again I am arguing for a spectrum of biblical fidelity when it comes to the communication cultures of believers.
I can love my American brother by taking his word for it when he says he doesn’t want a cup of coffee. But in order to love my Central Asian brother, I need to press past the first few indirect responses so that I know how I can host him well. Just as we train our children for what questions and observations are polite to deal with directly in our culture, so we can learn these things about the cultures of other believers also. Again, simple spiritual friendship can make all the difference.
What did we do with our neighbors’ request for free wifi? Well, given the honor/shame dynamics of the situation, we made a call on the spot and temporarily agreed to give them the password. But we knew that from a security standpoint we would need to not have others using our wifi network. So a few weeks later, we changed the password again. I think this worked out honorably all around. Our neighbors understood that we were not able to share our wifi as the previous tenant had. They never asked again. We were able to save face by granting their request temporarily, but later indirectly communicating our final decision.
The way to honorably and clearly decline a request is an area we continue to find challenging in our focus culture. And it’s possible we got this situation wrong. Yet we keep trying to learn more so that we can communicate with clarity, wisdom, and grace – whether that be directly or indirectly.
How have you worked through the challenges of direct and indirect communication in your own families and ministries? Feel free to comment below.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV)
Human language is a stunning mystery. There are over 6,000 surviving languages in the world. Yet not one of these natural languages emerged through a process of careful planning and human creation. They simply emerged in an act of collective unconscious (re)creation, complete with complex rules of grammar and diverse and nuanced vocabulary. How in the world did that happen without any planning?
In tribal Melanesia (where I grew up), there are hundreds of unique tribal languages, some so difficult it is said that no one over forty years of age can learn them. Many of these tribes were living in stone age conditions until the mid-20th century. Yet the complexity and beauty of these tribal languages developed nonetheless, making Melanesia the most linguistically diverse part of the planet. It’s almost as if the creative impulse in these tribes, foiled to some extant by the lack of basic technologies, couldn’t help but overflow somewhere else. The result was a linguistic environment just as rich and diverse as the thousands of plant and animal species in the surrounding rain forest.
Human beings seem to be hardwired to create and hardwired to speak. It’s so deep within our nature that we can’t help it. Entire languages and dialects are born on accident. They continue to change and develop over time with a will of their own, shifting and morphing in spite of most heartfelt protestations of the proverbial grammar nazis. Dictionaries and grammar books try in vain to communicate what “proper” language is, but all they do is provide a snapshot of the never-ending human recreation of language. Once a language is formalized and written, it may result in a slower pace of change, but it does not stop the process of language change. Nothing in this world seems able to stop it.
What is to account for this great mystery of human language? I believe our ability to collectively and unintentionally create thousands of languages must be rooted in our own creation in the image of God. What exactly this means has been a topic of great theological debate throughout the centuries. Does the image of God primarily refer to dominion over nature, relational ability between humans, the possession of a soul, the way ancient near eastern kings set up images of themselves in territories under their rule? While much of this is likely, it does seem that language, the ability to speak and understand speech, is one core part of being made in the image of God.
We believe in a trinitarian God, that he is one God in three eternal persons. This means that there has been relationship and indeed, communication between the members of the Trinity for all of eternity. This is so central to God’s identity that one member of the Trinity is named the Word. This same God spoke creation into existence, then spoke to his creatures and gave humans the ability to speak back. He later sent his revelation into the world in the form of inspired written words – in three human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) with loan words from a bunch of others (like paradise which come from Old Persian).
Language is central to the nature of God. As those made in the image of God, language is also central to our own human nature. And it will be for all of eternity. I believe this is a good theological foundation for the wonder of human language. How do we account for the fact that languages seem to emerge out of nowhere with incredible complexity only to be slowly simplified over the centuries? That runs opposite to the logic of Darwinian evolution, where life moves from more simple to more complex. But it does not pose a problem for the Bible, which communicates to us a created world wonderful enough such that the “music” of the world’s founding still has not run out (let the reader understand), but continues to give us a quiet encore each time a new pidgin or creole comes into its own fresh and colorful life.
And, wonder of wonders, this incredible linguistic dance and diversity flows from a God who effectively communicates objective universal truth by the means of our world’s frolicking and unpredictable – even fallen – languages. Again, how in the world did that happen? Yet it did. In spite of the ever-changing nature of language and the overwhelming multitude of global and historic tongues, God and we effectively communicate fixed and unchanging truths through the medium of human language. No language is perfect or comprehensive, but each is effective enough to serve as a vehicle of God’s eternal words. Yet more mystery!
I’m no philosopher, but when I heard it said by some that postmodern philosophy dead-ended in the relativity of human language and epistemology (the study of how we know things) it made sense. What would any worldview without the biblical God possibly do with the problems posed by human language? But for the Christian, it’s not a problem, it’s a mystery that leads to curiosity, more creation, and worship. Oh yes, and Bible translation and literacy for every language of the world.
One final thought. In the face of the mystery of human language and the image of God, we should also embrace a posture of humility. Perhaps by contrasting ourselves with the source of all language, in the style of God’s response to Job:
Were you there when I laid the foundation of grammar?
When Old Sumerian gasped its first breaths
And Old Sogdian its last?
Where were you when I spoke eternal words through the Hebrew tongue?
And forever fixed my truth in what before was like waves of the sea?
Who wrote the conjugations of Ancient Sanskrit?
And said to Chinese, "No conjugations for you - be verbal aspect!"?
Surely you know!
For you are wise and speak maybe two or three tongues,
But I am the source of ten thousand.
There are over 6,000 languages in the world and many of them are dying out. Little seems to stand in the way of the growth of English as the first truly global language (since Babel). So why are thousands of missionaries all over the world spending years of their lives learning minority languages and translating the Bible into obscure tongues? Why not save the blood, sweat, and tears and focus only on the regional trade languages or on the globally dominant ones?
My own focus language has somewhere around five to ten million speakers. This means it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s also obscure enough (belonging to an ethnic minority) that it’s not likely to become useful or influential in other parts of the world. So is my investment in this language worth it? I want to outline seven reasons why I believe it is good and worth it to invest in minority tongues.
Theological Beauty and Limitation. Each language is uniquely able to help us worship God and each language is insufficient in itself to fully describe God. Saying that human language is unable to describe God adequately is no mere poetic flourish. Each human language is actually a limited thing, something which can truly describe truth about God, but not ever comprehensively describe him. One of the blessings of Babel is that we now have thousands of languages which can be used to worship God in ways that are uniquely beautiful (and possible) to that language. Specific sounds, titles, adjectives, and verbs exist in some languages and not in others. Some kinds of poetry, songs, and metaphor are only possible certain tongues. In this way, the diversity of human languages acts like a giant choir, where each language gets to sing praises to God in the ways it is particularly gifted. To lose a language is to lose a unique voice of the choir.
A Record for Future Generations. Even languages that die are worth preserving. If the sad day comes where there are no longer any living speakers of a language, having that language recorded and documented is still worth it. Again, it shines an important window into how a certain group of people uniquely spoke about creation and about God. This can help us. Every individual language also contains data that helps us learn about the way language in general can function. Even secular reporters who bemoan the supposed “culture changing” of tribal missionaries celebrate the fact that by learning the language enough to translate the Bible, many missionaries are preserving a record of languages soon to be extinct.
Spiritual Power. The mother tongue or heart language of a person usually speaks to their soul with greatest potency and clarity. To feel this point, you will probably need to be bilingual yourself or have experience learning language in a multilingual environment. It wasn’t random when the Holy Spirit used the native languages of Elamites, Medes, Arabs, and Libyans at the day of Pentecost. When you hear someone speaking your mother tongue, you pay attention. The mother tongue is often the language of dreams, desperate prayers, and curses. It is the language most intimately entwined with our affections. So, if we want to cut to the heart, we should preach in the mother tongue when possible. Many of my friends who come to faith out of Islam report having dreams about Jesus where he spoke to them, not in the trade language or the speech of the foreigners, but in their own language. The thought that God knows my language is a very powerful one to those who have never heard this truth before.
Love and Honor. Learning the language of a minority group is a powerful way to show love and honor, especially if they have been oppressed by others. Denigrating another group’s language as somehow inferior is an age-old form of hatred. Many minority groups around the world have never had an outsider learn and love their language. When a missionary does this, it often communicates a deep love and respect for the people themselves. If a foreigner will love them that much, then perhaps the wild thought that God also loves them and knows their language is true after all.
The Priesthood of All Languages. Here I’m playing off of the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” No one language is holier than another. It is no accident that the Bible was written in three languages with loan words from many others. No one human language is the language of heaven (though there may be a spiritual language that is?). All languages are equally affected by the curse, meaning they preserve some of the image of God, though now in marred form. However, they are also redeemed in the worship of God forever in Revelation 7:9. There are many things about Islam that make my blood boil, but the claim that other peoples must worship God in 7th century Arabic and not in the language that God has sovereignly given them is particularly odorous.
The Mysteries of Providence. We don’t know what God might do with a given language in the future. No one 800 years ago could have predicted that English would come to dominate the globe. At the time, Old English was dying out due to the influence of the Norman French of the ruling classes. Yet here we are. English is the primary language not only of global business and education, but also of the modern missionary movement. When Patrick learned Irish, he could not have known how God would use the obscure Irish Christian scribes to miraculously salvage the biblical and classical literature of the Western Roman Empire after Rome fell. Their descendants would then go on to reintroduce Christianity to mainland Europe and found monastery missions that would later become cities like Vienna, Austria. We simply don’t know how God might take a humble, unknown language and do mighty things through it.
The Internet Resurgence. Many endangered languages are experiencing revival with the tools the internet provides. This has given an unexpected vitality to many languages that were supposed to die before now. The internet provides a place for native speakers to easily develop content, classes, and resources in their mother tongue which can be used to help the next generation. Sometimes languages even come back from the dead, like modern Hebrew. Languages are a lot like hobbits. They are full of surprises.
So, are we wasting our time investing in minority languages? No. Each language has unique value to God, to the Church, to current speakers, and to future generations. Learning a minority language is an act of faith. We just can’t predict the future of languages. But we can trust that on the last day, any investment made in these languages for the sake of love will not be made in vain.
Whether insoluble political realities or inner spiritual sickness is more to blame for the fall of classical civilization is, finally, beside the point. The life behind the works we have now been studying – the passionate nobility of Virgil, the cool rationality of Cicero, the celestial meditativeness of Plato – this flame of civilization is about to become extinguished. The works themselves will miraculously escape destruction. But they will enter the new world of the Middle Ages as things so strange they might as well have been left behind by interstellar aliens. One example will suffice to illustrate the strangeness of books to medieval men. The word grammar – the first step in the course of classical study that molded all educated men from Plato to Augustine – will be mispronounced by one barbarian tribe as “glamour.” In other words, whoever has grammar – whoever can read – possesses magic inexplicable.
Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 59-60