Fear took over my colleague’s face for a brief second when I told her I wanted to write this. Then she composed herself, and managed to explain, calmly, that my idea sounded intensely boring. What is one to do? I endeavoured to make this piece as interesting as I know the topic to be.
The topic is sociolinguistics (which I can agree we need to come up with a better name for). It’s about attitudes towards language, and it’s a bigger part of Bible translation than you might think. Language development and Bible translation would be a lot simpler if nobody had any real connection with or opinions about languages.
Picture the scene: a remote people group who have no written language, but want the Bible in their mother tongue. Based on listening to the language, a linguist will aim to devise an alphabet where each letter or symbol corresponds to one sound in the language. Such a system is logical and tidy, and makes spelling and reading as easy as possible. Job done, right?
Wrong. Stick a sociolinguistic filter on the lens and many changes may be necessary. Logical, rational choices of symbols may be rejected because the community associates them with another language group they consider themselves distinct from, because they associate a specific symbol with a different sound, or because a symbol just plain doesn’t feel ‘right’.
If you think this sounds strange, test your own linguistic attitudes about these suggested changes to English spelling. Or take a look at Shavian, a completely different alphabet specifically designed for English in the 1950s. How would you feel about using the v symbol for the ‘oo’ sound in ‘wool’?
You may think only communities with long-standing traditions of literacy have feelings about what their written language should look like – but this isn’t the case. Knowledge of other writing systems, whether scant or extensive, and feelings about neighbouring language communities are often in place long before a linguist starts sharpening his or her pencil.
Writing systems are in fact just the tip of the iceberg – attitudes about language affect every stage of a Bible translation. When a language has several different dialects, should the written language be a mixture of all of them or be based on a specific one? How do you choose which one? Are local staff members well-respected by the community? Are there words that would be useful in the translation but which have unfortunate connotations? These questions, and many more like them, are sociolinguistic questions.
Ignoring sociolinguistic factors could be serious and result in a lack of local ownership and ultimately the rejection of the writing system and resulting Bible translation. After many years’ work, a project could be back at square one.