Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Legacy of the Bible in Translation

In this week’s World in Words podcast, a BBC special on the Bible’s influence in translation.

We hear how the translated Bible has profoundly affected the English spoken by Jamaicans. Poet Kei Miller talks about how his religious upbringing and his linguistic upbringing were intertwined through the words and images of the King James Bible. For him, Jamaicans understand their lives on Earth through biblical metaphors. They make sense of “a lifetime of oppression and hardship” by thinking of themselves “as the children of Israel…living through Babylon.” Phrases like “an eye for an eye” live alongside African proverbs. When Miller, who now lives in the UK, wants to remember the rhythm of speech in Jamaica, he just cracks open his copy of the King James Bible.

To this day, the King James and other translations of the Bible are profoundly influencing languages. Today, the only languages left not to have a written version of the Bible are languages without script– oral languages. (Check out this previous podcast, and this one).  Take Kalenjin, spoken in parts of Kenya and Uganda. The Bible translated into Kalenjin draws draws people who aren’t necessarily religious, or at least Christian. It has become almost like a dictionary of the language, a repository of its words and phrases.  Of course, new phrases and concepts came into being with the translation, and that’s the tricky part: how much did outsiders’ translation of the Bible improve the status of the language by establishing a writing system and literacy, and how did it change the course of the  language and the culture?

Recent technological advances are speeding up the process of Bible translation, not without controversy. Through it all, Bible translation and linguistic research have marched hand in hand, sometimes producing unintended results. In 1977, Christian missionary Daniel Everett went to Brazil with the intention of bringing the Bible to the Pirahã people of the Amazonian basin. He didn’t manage to convert anyone–  except himself.  He lost his faith, and became an expert in the Pirahã language. He theorized that Pirahã has no recursion, or ability to embed phrases within sentences, as  in relative clauses. This was a direct rebuke to Noam Chomsky’s theory that all languages are recursive (which is a cornerstone of the idea that all languages share a “universal grammar”). Some linguists have taken issue with Everett’s findings.

Michael Ford of the BBC’s religion program, Heart and Soul did the reporting on this documentary.  I’ve since listened to several other Heart and Soul docs: on Hebrew, on Christianity in China, on communing with those who died in the Vietnam war. All excellently produced.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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What’s Assyrian for Canuck?

After a global effort lasting nearly a century, the University of Chicago is publishing an Assyrian dictionary. We hear from one scholar at the British Museum who dedicated three years of his career to the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Project.  In the scheme of this endeavor, three years isn’t especially long: the project began in in 1921. It is 21 volumes long.

Why spend so much time on a “dead” language? Because this was the world’s first written language, according to most experts. The cuneiform script — used first for the Sumerian language, and then to write Assyrian and Babylonian — inspired  that better-known ancient writing system, hieroglyphics.

The raw material for this dictionary was text written on Mesopotamian clay and stone tablets. There were legal and medical documents, love letters, epic poems, the lot. There is now hope that ancient history will now be rewritten, giving pride of place to Mesopotamian culture. Egpytians, Greeks, Romans: your time is up.

Also in the pod this week, Donald Keene’s love affair with Japanese has culminated with his move from New York to Tokyo at the age of 89. Keene recently stopped teaching at Columbia. His retirement received far more coverage in Japan than in his native United States. He learned Japanese in the 1930s, then honed his skills interrogating captured Japanese troops during World War Two. In New York, he leaves behind him a Japanese cultural center named after him.

The pod features two other items:  France prohibits broadcasters from saying Facebook or Twitter on the air. And is the word Canuck offensive? Not to most Canadians, says Vancouverite (and Vancouver Canucks fan) Andrea Crossan. However, the delighfully cheesy song Andrea  dredged up to make this point may offend even if  Canuck does not.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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The US Government’s Metaphor Program, and Lingodroids

Once every month or so, Carol Hills and I pick our five favorite language stories. Big stories, obscure stories, we love ’em all.  Here’s the latest rundown:

5.  Slangy Scrabble.  New entrants in the Collins Scrabble Dictionary include innit, grrl and thang.  The dictionary is called  Collins Official Scrabble Words, and for now it is only available in the UK . So, maybe you don’t want to use any of these words quite yet, if you’re playing on US territory. (Also, Brits and Americans appear to disagree on the extent of a certain r-roll: it’s usually grrl in Britain and an angrier grrrl in the US. I think we should go with grrrl. The word was invented in the US. ) Other “new” words now permitted in Scrabble include heatwave, catflap and inbox.

4. Origins of Japanese. Of the major global languages, Japanese is perhaps the most shrouded in mystery. No-one can say for sure where it came from, and how it initially developed. Among the many theories, two predominate.

The first is that it is a language indigenous to Japan, developed by the first people to settle there more than 12,000 years ago. The second theory is that the language came into being on mainland Asia, arriving in Japan some 2,000-2,500 years ago during a mass migration of farmers from the Korean Peninsula. There is some DNA and archaeoligical evidence to back this up. And now there may be some linguistic evidence. A new University of Tokyo study traced the roots of  210 key pieces of voculabulary. Today, those words vary across the 59 Japanese dialects that the researchers studied. But those words shared common roots dating back nearly 2,200 years ago, possibly coinciding with the migration from the Korean Peninsula.

3. US Intelligence and metaphors. A research arm of the US government intelligence establishment wants to decode foreign languages through their metaphors. The reasearch agency is called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). It is inviting organizations to propose tools to analyze metaphors in foreign languages, as a way of gaining a deeper understanding of those languages and cultures.  Laudable idea, though some might wonder what federal spies might then do with that information.  That is assuming that the information will make any sense at all after it is put through the bureaucratic wringer of flow diagrams and metrics.

2. Barack Obama’s bilingual early years. The release of a new biography of the President’s mother, Ann Dunham, has shed further light on Barack Obama’s early schooling in Indonesia. Indonesian was the language of instruction at the two schools Obama attended in Jakarta. Ann Dunham’s decision to send him to Indonesian schools was in marked contrast to most English-speaking expats who sent their kids to English schools, and generally lived in an expat bubble.

Ann Dunham herself eventually spoke fluent Indonesian. According to Janny Scott’s biography,  Dunham loved to tell stories of how she mangled Indonesian in her early days  in Jakarta, when she was an English teacher. During one class, she tried to tell one of her students that he would get a promotion if he learned English. The correct way to say get a promotion in Indonesia is naik pangkat (literally: “go up rank”).  But Dunham said naik pantat (literally “go up buttocks”).

Obama’s parents, incidentally, met at the University of Hawaii in a Russian class.

1. An experiment to get robots to speak to each other in a language of their own invention. Ruth Schulz of the University of Queensland (Australia) has developed a language for robots. She has concluded that human language is too cluttered to be useful to robots. So she’s programmed her “lingadroid” robots to create vocabulary that works for them. This is mainly navigational language, mapped across simulated and real spaces: for each specific place the wheeled robots visit, they generate a certain set of programmed syllables that then becomes the agreed name of that place.

The place names are concise and sci-fi-y. And they don’t have caps: pize, kuzo, reya.

Watch the lingadroids in action here.

Listen to the podcast via iTunes or here.


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