When Words That Do Not Exist Communicate ~ Linguist, Part 3

A missionary must learn the language of the people to whom he is ministering.

This really should go “without saying”; but unfortunately, some missionaries rely on translators for years, making little attempt to apply themselves to the language of the people around them. I have little to say in return to such a missionary. There are so many reasons why it is important for a missionary not only to get by in the language of his people, but also to be a linguist–to study the language in an attempt at eventual fluency. (This job never really ends.)

Why should missionaries be linguists?

Well, probably most obviously, attempting to learn the language communicates love–and humility. When people see a “smart” person (and some Africans think you are smart simply because you do speak English) humbling himself by stuttering out concepts in their home language, it makes you a real, accessible person. So many Africans have been delightedly surprised to hear us greet them in their language. And for some, their delight is unbounded when they hear us converse with them even beyond the greetings. Our first male convert came about because Seth stuck out his hand to shake hands with a security guard at a grocery store and greeted him in Tsonga, “Mi njhani?”

Our first adult male convert--and he helped us learn the language and culture quite a bit, too!

Our first adult male convert–and he helped us learn the language and culture quite a bit, too!

Next, learning the language forestalls errors in translation or miscommunication. Take out the middle man, the translator; and although yes, there are certain concepts the translator will be able to say better than you, once you have learned the language, you may find that there are certain concepts the translator himself didn’t understand the way you meant them; and you may be chagrined to find out how he was translating it.

But finally and most importantly, there is a vital connection between language and culture. Learning the two go together. There is a debate about which came first–the chicken or the egg? Or in this case, the culture or the language? When you learn the language, you are gleaning eye-opening information about how those people think. What is important to them, and what isn’t? In this case, words that they do not have may communicate just as much as the ones they do have.

Here’s how an expert says it:

Ethnolinguistics, the study of the relationship between language and culture, has shown that languages provide categories through which people think. Languages mirror culture at every point. They emphasize and systematize what is important to the culture and filter out what is not important. For example, Eskimo tribes have as many as seven distinct labels to distinguish between types of snow (“falling snow, snow on the ground, fluffy snow, wet snow, and so forth”), while English has one all-inclusive word for the concept. Equatorial African languages have no term at all for snow but typically expand the word hail to include the idea of snow….

As missionaries evangelize in animistic contexts, they must realize that as outsiders to the cultures they must learn the categories of animistic thought as formulated by cultural insiders….These categories must be understood by the missionary if he is to effectively communicate God’s eternal message in contexts where animistic worldviews are present.  pg. 45-46, 48 Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts by Gailyn Van Rheenen

The Tsonga language is much less complex and much more limited, especially in words for propositions, than English. We are stymied at times to find ways to communicate important Biblical truths in words that don’t exist in Tsonga! Here are some examples, some of which we can communicate through a phrase or approximation, but some of which are simply not there:

Words Tsonga Does Not Have

  1. Affect
  2. Eternity, eternal, everlasting
  3. Condition
  4. Priority
  5. Right, wrong
  6. Moral, immoral
  7. Valid, invalid
  8. True, false
  9. Temporary, permanent
  10. Proportion
  11. Mental, doctrinal, intellectual
  12. Certain, definite
  13. Specific, particular
  14. Limit
  15. Naturally, by nature
  16. Early

Distinctions for which Tsonga has only a single word

  1. Law / principle / rule / guideline / direction / standard
  2. Job / task / role / occupation / work
  3. Late / prolonged
  4. Want / need
  5. Must / might / can / could / should
  6. Justice / righteousness
  7. Mercy / grace
  8. Old / elderly
  9. Trouble / danger
  10. Good / great
  11. Better / best
  12. Consequences / payment
  13. Speak / say / mean / communicate
  14. Worthy / Deserving
  15. Love / will / like / desire

You can see the importance of some of those words to communicate the Gospel or other important Biblical truths. What does it say about a culture when they have no words for “right” or “wrong”? We have to say instead that a thing was good or not good, or that it was beautiful or ugly. When a culture has no words for justice or retribution, how do you carefully explain those concepts as applied from God towards us? Or from the government towards its citizens?

A culture may be just fine missing some words or distinctions, as in the above quoted example of snow; but when a culture is missing certain words, it shows the spiritual state they are in–even their spiritual degradation and danger. Please pray for our dear people and for us as we use with our limited abilities a limited language to explain an unlimited, worthy God.


About Amy

I'm Amy, a missionary wife and mother of four children, blogging about our lives and perspectives on culture in South Africa.
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One Response to When Words That Do Not Exist Communicate ~ Linguist, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Learning from a Seasoned Missionary « Telling of His Wonderful Deeds

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