You’re From Fried Chicken and Beef Sandwich?

When words get adopted from one language into another, unpredictable things happen to them. There’s almost always some correlation between its new meaning and its former one, though sometimes even this can be almost completely lost in adaptation.

The Melanesian language I grew up speaking had adopted the English words for break and screw, but had come to apply these terms to the concepts of bend and bodily joints, respectively. Thus, to pray was to brukim skru, “break your screws,” i.e. bend your knees in prayer. The English words for turn and belly had also been adopted, but while turn mostly kept its original meaning, belly came to mean the soul. Thus, to tanim bel was to “turn the soul,” i.e. to repent and believe in Jesus. It was not uncommon to hear testimonies where people would say that they “broke their screws and turned their bellies,” – meaning simply that they prayed and believed.

This morphing can also happen to place names and the different things associated with them. I am originally from Philadelphia, but Kentucky has been our home base in the U.S. for a good many years now. However, these names in our Central Asian language have become solely associated with certain foods which each location is famous for in other places. Locally, kantaki has come to mean fried chicken and fladelfia means an elongated beef sandwich – the foreign relative of the famous Philly cheesesteak. Pat’s and Gino’s have come a long way. So has Colonel Sanders. They have taken up residence not only in the diet of a far-flung people, but also in their language.

The problem with this is that no one here knows that Kentucky and Philadelphia are actually places, not merely foods. Why is this a problem? Because I am often asked what part of the US I am from. Being a third culture kid (TCK), this is already a complicated question even without the complexities of inter-language morphology. But when I answer with the truth, “I live in Kentucky but I am from Philadelphia originally,” it gets understood as, “I live in fried chicken and my people are those of elongated beef sandwich.” This, understandably, leads to some bemusement. It gets even worse if I explain that I was raised in a Melanesian country famous for its former cannibalism.

Why does this foreign guy have a background so strangely intertwined with food?

Sadly, neither Philadelphia nor Kentucky are famous enough as places yet for most locals to know about them – unlike Texas, which everyone knows and constantly compares to a nearby tribal town famous for having more AK-47s than people. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that’s any better.

These word connections are relatively recent. But some connections exist that are ancient, proof that many thousands of years ago, the ancestor of the Persian-related tongue that we have learned is the same ancestor of English – Proto-Indo-European. The local compound word for a deep trust or faith is an ancient relative of our English words for back and fasten. To trust someone completely is to be fastened to their back, metaphorically carried by them. Thus, to “trust in the Lord with all your heart” is rendered in our translated Proverbs as, “Full-hearted, be strapped onto the Lord’s back.” Not a bad way at all to communicate complete trust. After all, a child riding on his parent’s shoulders is exercising a high degree of faith that he will not be dropped. His safety is entirely in the power of the one carrying him.

These kinds of word connections – new or old – can be fascinating, fun, and even frustrating. Language is a remarkable thing and our human ability to borrow, to shape, and to poetically turn a phrase is almost infinite.

That must be because God’s capacity to play with language is infinite.

Photo by Aleks Dorohovich on Unsplash

A Proverb On The Power of the Tongue

A word gone to a mouth goes to a mountain.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the power of the tongue, specifically how seemingly private speech can all too quickly spread like wildfire. It agrees with the warnings of scripture regarding the dangers of the tongue. “So also the tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5).

I can’t tell you how many times locals have prefaced a sentence with the disclaimers “Just between me and you,” or “Let no one else know this.” Yet in spite of these common agreements of confidentiality, word almost always spreads anyway. This represents a major problem in our local culture, one which constantly undermines trust and breaks relationships. Gossip is very deeply rooted, one of those parts of the culture so ingrained that local believers despair of ever driving it out. We trust that it can be driven out, however, and a redeemed tongue will be one of the astonishing markers of the redeemed community.

On the other hand, this proverb could be turned on its head and applied in a counterintuitive way to sharing the gospel -“good gossip” as it’s been called. If the Central Asian loose tongue could be harnessed for the sake of evangelism, now that would be a mighty force to be reckoned with.

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From Runes to Inventing New Languages

The Irish received literacy in their own way, as something to play with. The only alphabet they’d ever known was prehistoric Ogham, a cumbersome set of lines based on the Roman alphabet, which they incised laboriously into the corners of standing stones to turn them into memorials. These rune-like inscriptions, which continued to appear in the early years of the Christian period, hardly suggested what would happen next, for within a generation the Irish had mastered Latin and even Greek and, as best they could, were picking up some Hebrew. As we have seen already, they devised Irish grammars, and copied out the whole of their native oral literature. All this was fairly straightforward, too straightforward once they’d got the hang of it. They began to make up languages. The members of a far-flung secret society, formed as early as the late fifth century (barely a generation after the Irish had become literate), could write to one another in impenetrably erudite, never-before-spoken patterns of Latin, called Hisperica Famina, not unlike the dream-language of Finnegans Wake or even the languages J.R.R. Tolkien would one day make up for his hobbits and elves.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 144

It’s interesting to note this explosion of linguistic energy among the newly-literate Irish. Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to language. We can’t seem to help it, we just keep on inventing new languages, whether on purpose or not.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Hazards of Second Language Sermons

Today I preached to our local church plant from John 12:44-50, a passage often titled “Jesus Has Come to Save the World.” Preaching today meant that yesterday I sat down with a local believer, *Harry, to go over the sermon manuscript, checking for language mistakes and smoothing out the grammar. For the dozens and dozens of times that I have now preached in the local language, God has never failed to provide me a local brother to help with this important prep work – and every time that local brother manages to save me from at least a couple proverbial foot-in-mouth situations. Last night was no exception.

“Jesus teaches us here that it is his words that will judge us on the last day,” I read out loud.

“When?” my friend asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The last day,” I repeated.

“A.W.,” Harry continued, “in our language ‘the last day’ means Friday, not the final day of judgement. To communicate your meaning you have to say ‘at the final age.'”

“Ohhh, thank you. I’m definitely not trying to say that Jesus’ words will judge us on Friday!”

“And when you say ‘the final age’ don’t forget that short vowel in the first syllable of ‘age.’ If you forget it you will be saying ‘at the final tongue!'”

We laughed, sipped our hot drinks, and continued. A little later my friend put up his hand again for me to pause.

“Stop,” he said, “Read ‘Jesus Messiah’ out loud for me again.”

“Jesus Messiah,” I repeated.

Harry shook his head. You are saying it too fast and skipping over the final throaty H in Messiah. When you said it just now, it sounded like you were instead saying ‘Jesus of the squeegee.'”

I chuckled. This was not the first time I had made this kind of mistake. Preaching through Ephesians years ago I had publicly proclaimed, “The Squeegee is our peace!” instead of my intended meaning, which was “The Messiah is our peace.” That tricky throaty H is one of the old nemeses of us English speakers attempting to learn this particular Central Asian tongue.

Idioms especially can be like hidden bombs, ambushing the innocent speaker who is merely attempting to speak in literal and clear ways. Just a couple weeks ago I was doing sermon checking with *Darius when I learned that I can’t say “the person and work of Christ” in that simple form.

“‘Person and work of’ together like that,” he told me, “is always an idiom for someone’s closest circle of relatives. You don’t mean to say that we are saved by the relatives of Jesus Christ, am I right?” He laughed. “That sounds kind of Catholic!”

Then there’s those tricky words that are spelled the same and sound the same, but differ in meaning based on the context and construction of the sentence. This kind of similarity between the local words for canary and shore led to one of my more famous blunders, when teaching through the parables of the Kingdom in Matthew.

“And then Jesus sat down in the boat, next to the canary, and began to teach about the kingdom of God.”

The local believers leaned into their Bibles trying to figure out where the song bird I was referencing had suddenly come into the text.

Last night Harry and I finished our editing work together around 9 p.m. I thanked him sincerely for his help, knowing that his investment of a couple hours with me would mean greater clarity for the rest of the church on the following day, Friday, when our church plant is able to meet.

As we parted ways I shook his hand and said to him, “See you on the last day, brother!”

“What?” he said back.

“Tomorrow is Friday. You know, the last day.”

Harry laughed and shook his head. “Right! See you on the last day indeed.”

*Names changed for security

Photo by Angélica Ribeiro on Unsplash

Written With a Capital Ox

I recently came across this article discussing the historical development of our alphabet. I think it’s fascinating how little some of our letters have changed since 3,750 years ago, when the first known alphabet (Proto-Sinaitic) was written.

Take our letter A. This started as a picture of an ox head, an ox being called an ‘alp, and this symbol came to represent the sound Ah. This ancient Semitic word for ox came down to us through the Greek alpha and has found its way into our word, alphabet. If you turn our contemporary letter A upside down, you can still see how it is descended from a pictogram of a horned ox head.

Our letter B comes from an ancient Semitic word for house, bayt, which is basically still the same word in Hebrew and Arabic (As in Beth-lehem, house of bread/meat). The original symbol looks like the outline from a bird’s eye view of a house with an open door.

So while our compound word Alphabet now means the collection of letters used to write our language, it also historically translates as ox house – or could it be house ox?

And who knew that our capital E comes from a stick figure who has been tipped over and lost his head and legs? From now on when writing by hand, I may from time to time subtly restore some of his dignity by giving him back his head.

Some letters speak to the continuity of human experience through the millennia, such as dag, which is a symbol for a fish, and the ancestor of our letter D. Other letters, such as gaml (our letter C), remind us that the past really is a foreign land. It means throwstick, which apparently was an ancient hunting device.

Check out the chart at the top of this post to see if you can trace more modern letters and their ancient ancestors. The connections are fun to see and can even make learning some foreign alphabets somewhat easier, once you realize you are merely learning a cousin of the same letter you already know.

As this article states, “Like many things in the long arc of human culture, alphabets are not as far removed from each other as you might think.” In a world of over six thousand languages, it is remarkable that this language tool has been so adaptable to so many of them.

Photos by Wikimedia Commons, Useful Charts, and Ana Cernivec on Unsplash

All Language Was a Game

So, though he [an unnamed scribe] disapproved of its contents, he copied out the Tain. It is thanks to such scribes, however cranky their glosses may sometimes be, that we have the rich trove of early Irish literature, the earliest vernacular literature of Europe to survive – because it was taken seriously enough to be written down. Though these early Irish literates were intensely interested in the worlds opened up to them by the three sacred languages of Greek, Latin and – in a rudimentary form – Hebrew, they loved their own tongue too much ever to stop using it. Whereas elsewhere in Europe, no educated man would be caught dead speaking a vernacular, the Irish thought that all language was a game – and too much fun to be deprived of any part of it. They were still too childlike and playful to find and value in snobbery.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 160

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Jesus Spoke a Persian Word From the Cross

One way to distinguish Central Asia as a region is to say that it is the part of the world dominated by Turkic or Persian-related languages. When it comes to Persian-related languages, we’re talking groups like the Dari, Tajik, Kurdish, Luri, and Balochi. There are hundreds of millions of people who speak Persian itself (also known as Farsi) or languages closely related to it.

These hundreds of millions of people are overwhelmingly Muslim – and they might be surprised to hear that Jesus spoke a word from their ancestral language while on the cross.

That word is what we know as paradise. I won’t get into the details of the etymology, but this ancient Persian word for walled enclosure and garden came into many of the languages of the ancient world, including Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic forms. No doubt the Jewish community living under Persian rule is where much of this linguistic influence came from. Plus, the Persians were the superpower of the region for quite some time. The vocab of the superpower tends to spread, just as here the local Central Asian form of laptop is, well, laptop (but said with an “ah” and an “oh”).

The old Persian term’s connection to a garden is what linked it with Eden, and thus with our concept of paradise – not only Eden lost, but heaven as well, and Eden one day restored.

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)

These are the words Jesus spoke to the dying thief on the cross who simply asked to be remembered. In this saying Jesus uses the word paradise to refer to having died and being welcomed into the presence and rest of God – Abraham’s bosom as it were.

This is not the only Persian loan word in the Bible. There are dozens of them. Somewhere around eighty in the book of Daniel alone. Yet Jesus’ words on the cross are coming at the very climax of redemptive history. And one of them is Persian. I find this fascinating. Iranians I’ve shared this with are struck as well. It’s one more example of the capacity for any human tongue to be redeemed and used in the service of God.

And what a great opening to go on and share the gospel.

The First Literates

For it was Patrick’s Christian mission that nurtured Irish scholarship into blossom. Patrick, the incomplete Roman, nevertheless understood that, though Christianity was not inextricably wedded to Roman custom, it could not survive without Roman literacy. And so the first Irish Christians also became the first Irish literates.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 150-151

And this continues to be the case. I remember my mother teaching literacy classes in the woven reed huts of Melanesia. Friends in Cameroon are teaching others to read and write for the first time. And even here in Central Asia, literacy and eventually scholarship goes hand in hand with gospel advance. Just this week I helped pay for some seminary books in one of our languages and wrote someone else asking them to consider coming and investing in one of our many unengaged minority language groups. They (or you) could be the first Christian and outsider ever to learn one of these tongues and preach the gospel in it.

Is it pragmatic to teach indigenous peoples how to read and write so that the faith might survive and advance? Sure, but I believe it’s more than that. Christians have always been people of the book. We are lovers of language who truly delight to see the worship of God breaking into more and more mother-tongues.

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The Script of Jesus and the Mongols

Likewise unquestioned is the fact that both Syriac languages and scripts developed out of the Aramaic dialect of Edessa [modern Urfa]. This language, which was widespread in Syria and Parthia and functioned as the lingua franca of Egypt and Asia Minor as far as India, was Jesus’ mother tongue and belongs to the Semitic language family. Beginning in the fifth century BCE, it replaced Hebrew as the colloquial language of the Jews. Its consonant alphabet is a further development of the Phoenician. Thanks to the Syriac Gospel harmony of Tatian (c. 170) and the Tetragospels called the Peshitta (c. 400), Syriac spread rapidly in Asian Christianity… Also belonging to the sphere of Aramaic script culture – in part because of the Nestorian mission to Asia – are the right-to-left and/or top-to-bottom scripts of the Sogdians, the Uigurs, the Mongols and the Manchurians.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 18

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An Idiom For When It’s Over Your Head

It’s like you’re counting walnuts for me.

Local Oral Tradition

This is the local equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me.” Local walnut sellers count walnuts by the handful. They know exactly how many walnuts are in each handful and are extremely fast at their arithmetic as their hands transfer walnuts lightning-quick out of their large sack and into the customer’s bag. For the uninitiated (like me) it’s very hard to follow. But apparently I’m not the only one. This speedy method of the walnut sellers has become a local idiom for any time information has simply been over your head, too complex to grasp.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get any of that. It’s like your counting walnuts for me.”

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