Tag Archives: Daniel Everett

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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