Post 87 / The Next Language
April 26, 2022
Those Word Lists
But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, [even] in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; … So then faith [cometh] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Or as a Spanish translation says- “A word from God.”) [Rom 10:8, 17 KJV]
Years ago I began the practice of documenting a basic word list for every language recorded. In those days those word lists were transcribed by hand. Today, we record those basic words into an audio file that is usually less than two minutes long. Those 30 words are from the basic Swadesh word list. Swadesh found by studying several ancient written languages over time that there was a core vocabulary that did not change as rapidly as more peripheral words. These 30 words will be found in every language around the globe.
Of course a single word is not completely definitive of the differences between two languages. As with any translation process, the language helper may introduce affixations to words that make them sound different. Words don’t always share the same collocation or range of meaning. Often when we ask for the word for tail they want to know what kind of tail. In Spanish the line at the bank is called a tail. So we usually suggest it is a dog’s tail. There is the risk that a word is attributed with markers for age or gender or other inflections that would vary from what the next person would choose. Nonetheless the core of that word will be easily understood by anyone in that language family.
So, I am asked, “What is the value of recording these words that do not have a direct link to the Gospel story? Don’t we focus on story narratives rather than words or dictionaries?”
First of all, asking for a word list tells our guests that we are interested in their language. Rarely is that offensive. We found in Mexico that they too were interested in the preservation and use of their mother tongue. They immediately knew we were not looking for drugs or mushrooms or gems or gold or slaves. By nature most people are suspicious of outsiders until they understand where we come from and what our intentions are.
When all is said and done the word list is the only tangible evidence that links specific meanings to specific sounds. It documents decisions that are made about the relationship of one language variety with another. When you listen to the word for “man” in village A side by side with the word of the same meaning from village B, you can detect very small differences in tone or stress that support their own opinion that they are different speech varieties. Small differences in these basic vocabulary words suggest larger differences elsewhere in the lexicon.
Quickly you begin to find out just how much of the population actually speaks the language. You soon find out if the younger generations speak the language. You may even find that different generations have different words or speech forms. It is very instructive when you are taking a word list with a group involved. You get a lot of input. One rule that we found never failed. If a language helper had trouble translating/recording a word list, they would certainly not be able to translate a story into their language. You quickly find out how bilingual they really are and which language is primary for them.
Of course, the word list becomes a platform for investigating interest in translating the Gospel. I would often start a conversation about new recordings by playing our recordings in a nearby language on 5fish. They quickly determine whether it is their language. They can usually back-translate what is being said and you get their help in evaluating those recordings. Often just by listening they can tell you exactly where the original recording came from. That alone indicates a language variation. They then can offer their own opinions about just how different their language is. It often opens the door for the final question- “Do you need this story in your tongue?” They may take you to persons that would be most likely to work on translations and recordings.
Larry DeVilbiss | Executive Director
Global Recordings Network USA
If you are interested in learning how to share links on social media that will promote use of our recordings and the Gospel in general, please contact RolandHeck@GlobalRecordings.Net