Monthly Archives: June 2017

“Urgent Appeal” by African Leaders for DRC Peace

When looking up the latest on DRC elections forcast, I found the following post from yesterday on the Kofi Annan foundation’s website:

This is in the context where questions of the possibility of an election are being raised on the basis of both violence and funding:

And early last week we learned that “quickly” doesn’t necessarily mean “in the next twelve months”:

So please pray for Congo. Pray that they would have a just peace. Please pray specifically for an election soon. Pray against financial and insecurity issues, and against the objections of politicians. Pray for something that would give people some confidence that they live an a democracy, in which they are better off than if they were to fall back into war. And if it must be war, please pray that God would be merciful and that the church would grow, even in the midst of that horror.

Making and Maintaining Connections

Photo op with Simon (left) and the Ndaka chief (center)
Photo op with Simon (left) and the Ndaka chief (center)

I have found myself saying a number of times over the years, “I didn’t get into missions to do ___.” Fill in the blank with supervising other people, managing money, raising money, helping people get along with one another, keep my family in working electricity and water; there are so many things this can apply to.

One thing that is more necessary than you might think in Congo is paying respect to authorities. The first time I remember doing this, I was completely at the mercy of students of mine, who were taking me to their home area to present work we had done together on their language. I was surprised at this last minute stop along the road, then surprised that it was NOT optional (we were late, but they were clear that we had no option to just pass by). But then when the guy we were supposed to see wasn’t there, and after we had done due diligence in waiting for him (in the presence of his office staff, who could tell him how long we had waited), we finally moved on. Pardon me if I admit that the whole scenario sounded like just a bunch of posturing to me.  But someone once said to me, that if you only have one thing you do, and someone takes that away, what do you have left? So the guy who puts a particular stamp on a particular form has to put his stamp on your form, or you’re denying his value (and his livelihood, where money is involved).

Fast forward to more recent times, and I’m much more comfortable schmoozing with bureaucrats. Partly because I know they really do have a lot of power, even if its different than the kinds of power I’d been used to. But also because I want to confirm and establish the legitimacy of what we’re doing, and this is not only the simplest and most straightforward way to do that, but also the right one (anthropologically speaking). And it’s also very validating to simply show them what we’re doing, and let them see the value of it.

The Ndaka chief pictured above was hard to get ahold of; I think this was our second or third visit to his office this trip. But all he had to do was see the vowel booklet that we’d done the time before, and he was smiling (but obviously not in the photo; never smile in a photo). Yes, he has lots of power, and spends lots of time traveling with other Congolese bureaucrats (at least based on how hard it was to see him). But show him an alphabet chart and vowel booklet in his language, perhaps the first printed materials he’s ever seen in his language, and he immediately gets the value of what we’re doing. I frankly doubt that he gets the eternal significance of our work. But it is clear that he got that there were people visiting him from another country, that were willing to come and work because they cared about him and his people. And that care communicated gave us an open door to do this work in his community.

A bit aside, I was curious to see that he had an office worker that I had met some seven years before, while doing alphabet work for that worker’s language. So in addition to the printed work in Ndaka for the chief, I also had a Nyali-Kilo man (and his employee) telling how I had been a part of this same work being done in his language. Given my reticence to put too much time and energy into hobnobbing, it’s great to see how God went before us, preparing our path to clearly communicating our good work in the community, based on our care for the community, so the leader of that community would give us the go ahead to keep it up. But then again, I’m not sure why I should be surprised by that, given the word on authorities:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
(Rom 13:1 ESV)



Treebeard and Quickbeam

Joel just finished reading the Lord of the Rings, and today he decided to put his love of fantasy into Lego. He had found kits online for $200+, but decided he could do it himself. Anyway, here he is, proud of his creations.   For those that don’t remember Quickbeam, he wasn’t in the Jackson movies, but he took care of Merry and Pippin for the greater part of the entmoot, while they were deciding to go attack Isengard (Saruman’s fortress).

In case you’re worried about him hyperfocusing on one genre, don’t; he’s now reading Jurassic Park. 🙂

Theoretical Musings

Throughout most of my career as a linguist, I have enjoyed doing descriptive work. Practically, that means I describe what is found in languages, rather than prescribing what should be in a given language (as a teacher might). But descriptive work can also find itself set against more theoretical work. That is, figuring out what makes up language more generally, as opposed to how things work out in a particular language. So far, I have been content to figure out what’s going on in a particular language, since that’s my concern: I want to see particular people groups able to read and write. While studying for my M.A., a teacher once described theories as tools in a toolbox. One may be useful for solving one problem, and another may be useful for solving another, so we use the tool that is useful, then set it down when we finish that problem.

Needless to say that for some linguists, this is a horrifying idea. For some, the whole purpose of doing linguistics is to understand the principles of language generally, not the details of a given language. The desire is to understand the language functions of the human mind, not how a particular subset of humans uses it. But there is another reason the concept of theory I picked up at Oregon horrifies some: for many, a linguistic theory is not just helpful (or not) in a particular instance, it is supposed to be True (note the capital ‘T’; this is not the ‘my truth’ v ‘your truth’ kind of truth). So if a theory is supposed to reflect what’s actually going on in the mind, then it shouldn’t be dropped in favor of another theory to deal with the next problem.

During my last several years at UT Arlington, I’ve had plenty of chances to interact across this divide; few people here are interested in descriptive linguistics. And I often get the question, after presenting a good (IMHO) description, “so what does this mean (i.e., about language in general)?” And “it means that this is how these people use language” is not a sufficient answer.

I’ve grown more competent in developing more theoretically interesting conclusions (i.e., interesting to those interested in theory development, not only theoretically interesting…:-)), but I have remained mostly uninterested in developing theory, nonetheless. So I continue to do my descriptive work, showing what’s in a particular (set of) language(s), and I throw in more theoretically interesting conclusions for those more interested in theory.

Until recently, when I got hit by something I hadn’t expected. What would happen if you were working on a complex job, and you realized you needed two different tools to make it work? What if those tools were not designed to work together? What if you could only figure out a couple ways of making them work together at all, and any one of those ways limited the operation of each of the two tools? This is something like what I’ve run up against.

For over a decade, I’ve been using a theory of what makes up tone that has been described in The Geometry and Features of Tone, by Keith Snider. It builds on earlier work in Feature Geometry (how the bits that change one meaningful sound into another interrelate) and Autosegmental theory (how things like consonants and vowels interact with things like tone and stress). Perhaps the most important contribution of GFT is that tone is made up of two features that distinguish sound, and each has its own contribution to how a word with tone is pronounced.

More recently, as I’ve interacted more with languages with Consonant-Tone Interaction (see this blog entry for more on these consonants), I’ve been using a theory ([L/voice], from Bradshaw 2000) that says that low tone is intrinsically bound to voicing (when your voice box vibrates, more or less). This theory has proved helpful as well, though perhaps in a smaller selection of languages. But in any case, those are the languages I’m working on now, so this tool is in my hand, as it were.

But as I was writing up some of my work based on these two theories, I realize that GTF says that low tone is really two features (low tone and lower register), while the [L/voice] theory says that low tone is intrinsically linked to your voice box. But neither theory explicitly addresses the other, despite the fact that I need to use them both at the same time. I originally thought that I would sit down one afternoon and sketch out a number of different ways to possibly make them work together, but I could only come up with two. The longer I beat my head against this problem, the more I found arguments against any other way of making the two theories fit together. That is, voicing must be bound to either low tone, or lower register. Period.

I had been assuming that I would be able to make both tone and register features bound to voicing, but that simply can’t work, at least not without making radical adjustments to either or both theory.

Anyway, I’ve been presenting this information to my committee, and for the first time in my career as a linguist, I’m seeing not only very practical implications of our theoretical assumptions, but I’m seeing things that need to be figured out on a theoretical level, and I might be the person best placed to do it. Which is to say that I entered this Ph.D. program to help develop a number of languages in eastern DRC in a more strategic way, but I may well end up with something of broader implications (with whatever theoretical claims I make informed by, and informing, the description).  But maybe that’s why they call this degree Doctor of Philosophy, and not Doctor of a couple things I wanted to write about.

Anyway, as I make this turn, I’m looking forward to see how these musings can benefit a larger set of people groups, which remains the point of what I’m doing at all. I remain committed to linguistic description, and trust that the languages I describe in my dissertation will have good tone work represented there, at least, and that the people who speak those languages will be better able to read and write as a result of it. And as a result of that, that they would have better access to information about this life, and the next.



Why We Should Forgive the Unrepentant

I was asked this question in our home group recently, after a larger discussion on church discipline, and forgiving the repentant. I found a large number of documents online with various opinions. I read through the first nine that showed up on a google search, and summarized their positions below. I found it interesting that this question, like many questions, didn’t have two answers to the same question, but rather two answers to two different questions.  That is, these sites don’t so much differ on whether we should forgive the unrepentant, but on what forgiveness means, and/or how God forgives (conditionally or unconditionally).

How does this happen? There is a cool word we use in linguistics that will help us out a lot here: polysemy. Poly is many, and sem is meaning (and -y is the condition), so this is the condition of a word or phrase having multiple meanings. This can cause us problems when we don’t recognize it, because one person may use a word in one sense, and another person may use the same word in another sense, and they may not even realize they’re using the word differently. I deal with this in Bible study a lot, where two different verses or passages may use the same word with different meanings; if we don’t recognize this, we may think they are contradictory, or in some other way saying something they aren’t.

One classic case of polysemy is “the law”. When reading this phrase in the Bible you really must ask yourself, is it referring to:

  1. The Mosaic Law, i.e., the set of laws given to Moses
  2. Another set of specific laws, given to someone else, e.g., Adam, or Noah
  3. The Pentateuch (first five books of the OT), e.g., “the law and the prophets”
  4. Moral principles in nature, e.g., the natural law
  5. Moral principles known to individuals subconsciously, i.e., conscience
  6. Any set of principles that describes behavior or action, e.g., scientific laws
  7. Or some other written or unwritten code or principle.

I hope it is evident that when you read “the law” as referring to one of these, when the author intended another, there is bound to be misunderstanding.

In final defense of polysemy (in case the above does not pursuade you), I would refer you to any dictionary of quality. Almost every word in a good dictionary has multiple senses/meanings, usually indicated as in the following: “chair: 1. a separate seat for one person, typically with a back and four legs. 2. the person in charge of a meeting or organization (used as a neutral alternative to chairman or chairwoman).”

So what is forgiveness? Looking at these websites (as a good descriptive linguist would of course do), it is clear that forgiveness is being used in at least two distinct senses:

  1. Giving up a grudge against someone who has sinned against you.
  2. Declaring and/or acting as if a particular sin is no longer an issue.

Closely tied to these is a third that also occurred on occasion:

  1. reconciling relationship between offended parties

Before addressing the above, I would like to consider another point that occurred frequently on the “Forgiveness conditional on repentance” camp, AKA the “Forgive as God Forgives” camp. This side claims that God doesn’t forgive the unrepentant, so we shouldn’t. This is in the legal sense of the presence of sin, not the maintenance of a grudge. But is this the case, even legally? Does God have a PRE-condition of repentance before he forgives? I think it is Biblically clear that repentance and forgiveness go together, but I don’t know that the one must precede the other. In fact, insisting that we repent before God forgives us is tantamount to saying that we must become alive (c.f., Eph 2) before God can give us life.

To put it otherwise, a precondition of repentance is a works based righteousness, claiming that we have forgiveness because we have done the work of repentance. Rather, as our Lord said: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” (John 15:16 ESV). Or as Paul said, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8 ESV) and again “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved….For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:4,5,8,9 ESV)

But even if you take God’s forgiveness to have a pre-condition of repentance, I think the connection to our forgiveness must break down. For when Paul speaks of the action of God on our behalf across eternity: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Rom 8:30 ESV) we understand that repentance is implied, even if not stated.  But that is not a repentance that we come up with on our own, or else Paul’s argument doesn’t work. What would happen if God predestined, called, and justified someone who then refused to repent? Rather, we understand that God’s gracious calling also grants us the grace to repent. But this is not something we can do for others. If someone sins against me, I simply cannot provide him the power to repent. When God effectually desires to save and provide repentance, he does. But we, on the other hand, may well desire repentance and salvation for years, with no apparent change. Should we wait for that?

Some of the people cited below say “yes” to that question. But let’s be clear that they are saying that they will not say that a person’s sin has been paid for until those sins have actually been paid for. This I get, and I respect it so far.  But alongside that comes a temptation, I think, to hold a grudge. And this is where the polysemy above is important. Almost across the board, answers to this question have affirmed that we need to be willing to forgive. I think this is essentially one thing under the sense of giving up a grudge. Whether or not someone has a debt in their account with God, we simply cannot go through life blocked by that fact. On this point modern psychologists and Biblical scholars agree.

One point that has come up multiple times is to consider the alternative: will we really withhold relationship from everyone who has not explicitly apologized to us? If so, how would we ever get anything else done? Do we want to be held captive by the millions of peccadilloes we suffer each day?

In any case, it is clear that this willingness to forgive should be there before repentance:

  • “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'” (Luke 23:34 ESV)
  • And as they were stoning Stephen….he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'” (Acts 7:59-60 ESV)

The ultimate response to this question for me, however, is to consider the meaning of “Forgive as God forgives you”. An important rule of Bible study is to look at the context. Two verses which end with this quote are as follows:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph 4:31-32 ESV)

What is this talking about? Is Paul saying here, that we should NOT forgive until the offender repents? Even if he thought that were true, that is not his point here. Put away bad feelings towards each other sounds an awful lot like giving up on grudges, rather than like making sure your sin accounts match God’s. when I think of How God forgives me, lots of things come to mind, which are more relevant to this context:

  • God in Christ forgave me freely
  • God in Christ forgave me graciously
  • God in Christ forgave me completely
  • God in Christ forgave me lovingly
  • God in Christ forgave me for my good
  • God in Christ forgave me to satisfy His wrath
  • God in Christ forgave me while I was dead
  • God in Christ forgave me while I was His enemy

If you wrestle with the idea of giving up a grudge against someone who has wronged you, someone who hasn’t apologized, I would strongly encourage you to consider your own standing before God. Do you really understand the depth of your own depravity? Do you really understand what it cost Him to forgive you? Do you really think you changed your heart on your own? Do you really think that this other person will do what you didn’t?

And with regard to keeping our accounts in line with God’s: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” (Rom 14:4 ESV) God is the only and final judge, and He does that better than us, anyway.

Putting these two points together (that we and they must each give account to God):

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;  for it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall confess to God.”

So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Rom 14:10-12 ESV)

And this is the lesson we teach our kids on a daily basis: deal with your own issues; they are more than enough for you. Fix your side of the problem, before worrying about their side. Or, if you prefer to hear it from Jesus: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matt 7:5 ESV)

Appendix: Two different questions on Forgiveness

Benefit to the forgiver

Christianity Today: “If we wait for those who have hurt us to repent first, we will almost certainly wait for a long, long time.…  Even non-Christian organizations are emerging to show the value of forgiveness; their premise is that the greatest benefit of forgiveness accrues not to the one who is forgiven, but to the one who forgives….One of Jesus’ main teachings was that we love our enemies, pray for them, and do good to those who have hurt us.”

Focus on the Family: “You really have no choice. Either you forgive or you slowly poison your mind and heart. If you hold on to unresolved bitterness it will destroy you.…We offer this forgiveness to others purely in response to the grace we have already received from the Lord. If we are not willing to forgive, it is an indication that we have not fully understood or experienced the grace of being forgiven (see Luke 7:47). ” “On a personal level we also find ourselves feeling justified in withholding forgiveness, using our anger and resentment, and the weight of a broken relationship as tools of punishment. To forgive a brother who repents, works towards our own repentance. To forgive even when no sorrow has been offered in return works an even greater repentance….It is a mistake to become formulaic about forgiveness and repentance, creating rules about what must come first or the conditions required.…The believer who lives waiting to be asked to forgive is dangerously close to the Lawyer who asks, “Who is my neighbor?” He is too likely only to forgive with the measure of someone’s sorrow and learns to hold back what could be given freely. There is a caution in his heart that becomes the enemy of grace and repentance.

The Gospel Coalition: Recognize that sin goes both ways.  Distinguishing (attitude of) forgiveness v reconciliation/restauration (of relationship). Rom 12:18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Forgiveness conditional on repentance (?As God Forgives) “We need to make an effort to understand God’s forgiveness of us if we are going to forgive others in a way that reflects God’s forgiveness. Sadly, in recent decades the word forgiveness has taken on a connotation of “psychological freedom” instead of freedom from sin, and this has brought some confusion about the whole concept of what it means to forgive.…Forgiveness offered and forgiveness received are entirely different, and we don’t help ourselves by using a catch-all word for both.… First John 1:9 shows that the process of forgiveness is primarily to free the sinner; forgiveness ends the rejection, thus reconciling the relationship….In short, we should withhold forgiveness from those who do not confess and repent; at the same time, we should extend the offer of forgiveness and maintain an attitude of readiness to forgive.” ” Offering forgiveness without repentance, however, does not follow the biblical model of forgiveness (Luke 17:3,4).…We must recognize our sin and repent to receive and enjoy God’s merciful forgiveness. God requires repentance and so must we.…If we don’t admit our sin, it’s impossible to be transformed.… If as believers we don’t require repentance on the part of the offender, we stand in the way of that person’s coming to see his need for God and experiencing His forgiveness.…It’s wrong, however, to assume that if we don’t forgive someone, we’ll be weighed down with hatred, bitterness, and revengeful desires. That’s not necessarily true because the Bible says we are to love a person regardless of whether or not he or she shows any remorse. We can love our enemies, but continue to have an unsettled issue with them. In many cases, it is more loving to withhold forgiveness until a change of heart is demonstrated than it is to offer forgiveness without the offender’s acknowledgment of deliberate wrongdoing.…Instead of giving in to revenge, we can soften our hearts toward those who have hurt us when we humbly admit that we, too, have hurt others.…The ultimate purpose of forgiveness is the healing of a relationship. This healing occurs only when the offender repents and demonstrates remorse and the offended one grants a pardon and demonstrates loving acceptance. ” (wrt adult children of abuse): “Biblically speaking, NO ONE gets forgiven without changing his ways and turning to God and godliness.…The Bible does in fact tell us that we should forgive as the Lord forgave us (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32).    But there are requirements for forgiveness.  If we read in more depth and in context about God forgiving us, including the hows, whys and under what circumstances, we will see that he only forgives us when we come to him in the spirit of remorse, change our lives through his Son, ask for forgiveness, and repent (CHANGE). So if we are to forgive others as God forgives us, then we are to forgive them AFTER they have shown genuine remorse by the grace of Jesus’ cleansing blood, and AFTER they have repented (CHANGED), NOT BEFORE.  That is the formula for forgiveness which God models for us, and that is the formula which he instructs us to follow. ” “4. God’s forgiveness is conditional upon repentance (Luke 13:3; 17:3; Acts 2:38): God’s forgiveness is conditional upon the offender wanting forgiveness and wanting to turn from His offending ways. 5. Forgiveness through repentance produce reconciliation on both sides: Offering forgiveness reduces the temperature of the conflict; but only the giving of forgiveness, in response to repentance, ends it. ….We must be willing, ready, and eager to forgive everyone….We must offer forgiveness to everyone….Some people say, ‘I can never forgive until Jim repents.’ If so, you are going to carry around a huge and growing load of resentment as you pile up unresolved conflicts in your life.” “Nevertheless, when we take the initiative in extending forgiveness, prior to repentance on the part of the criminal (as Christ died for us, while we were still sinners), we are expressing our willingness to give up our personal grievance against that individual, a readiness to bear the cost of this gracious act ourselves. But, as in the case of God’s relationship with sinners, reconciliation between us and the one who wronged us can only be brought about by the transgressor’s repentance. Our offer of forgiveness is not dependent upon his repentance, but the reconciliation between us, which brings to fruition our act of forgiving, is conditional upon his acceptance of his forgiveness which necessarily entails an admission of his guilt and a genuine sorrow at the (possibly irreparable) harm he has done.”

The Function of Tone in Ndaka

In an earlier post I mentioned work I was doing to show the importance of tone in the Bantu D30 languages. Here I’d like to go through the conjugation of one verb in one language, to show how tone works, in relationship to consonants and vowels. To start with, here is one verb conjugated two ways:NDK Conjugation 1
If you have studied another language before, you might recognize this kind of listing of the forms of a verb for each of the people who do the action. In English, this kind of thing is boring:

  • I walk
  • you walk
  • he walks
  • we walk
  • you all walk
  • they walk

The only thing of any interest in the English is the final ‘s’ on ‘he walks‘; everything else is the same on the verb. But that’s not the case in many languages, including the languages I’m working with. For instance, there are lots of differences in forms, and you can correlate the differences in forms with differences in meaning. If you line up the verbs as below, you can separate the part that remains the same from the part that changes. You can also notice that in the meanings on the right, there is a part that remains the same, and a part that changes. This is the case for both conjugations:
NDK Conjugation 2

So with a conjugation paradigm like this, we can deduce that for each line in the paradigm, the part of the form that is different is related to the part of the meaning that is different (e.g., k- = “we” and ɓ- = “they”). Likewise, the part of the word forms that stays the same is related to the part of the meaning that stays the same (e.g., otoko = “will spit”).

But, you might ask, this logic gives us otoko = “(did/have) spit” in the first conjugation, but otoko = “will spit” in the second. Which is it? In fact, if you compare each line for each of the two conjugations, you will see that the consonants and vowels are the same for each first line, for each second line, all the way down to the sixth line. So whatever form indicates the difference between “will” and “did/have” is not found in the consonants or vowels. Where is that difference indicated? In the tone. If you compare the second column for each line of the two conjugations, you will see that the lines representing pitch for each word form is not the same between the two conjugations.

A similar problem exists for the prefixes that refer to subjects. That is n- is used for both “I” and “you all”, and the absence of a prefix is used for both “you” and “he”. But looking at this last one first, we can see a difference in the tone:NDK Conjugation 3

So even though there is no difference in the consonants or vowels to indicate a difference in meaning, there is a difference in tone which does. The same is found for “I” versus “you all”, circled here:NDK Conjugation 4

So the bottom line is that for (almost) every difference in meaning, there is a difference in form that indicates that difference. Sometimes that difference is in the consonants or vowels, as we might expect in languages more closely related to English (and even in English, with the -s above), but sometimes that difference is only in the tone.

But the story is a bit more complex than that, since the tone doesn’t do just one thing. We saw above that tone indicates the difference between “will” and “did/have” in these conjugations. But tone also indicates the difference between c, as well as that between “I” and “you all”. That means “you will”, “you did”, “he will”, and “he did” all have the same consonants and vowels, and are only distinguished one from another by the tone. And there’s another quadruplet with “I” and “you all”, and these quadruplets exist for almost every verb in the language: this is a systematic thing.

So with two minimal quadruplets for each verb in the language, it makes sense to ask what is the contribution from each meaningful word part to the tone, and how they come together. For instance, what is the contribution of “you”, as opposed to “he”, on the one hand, and what is the contribution of “will”, as opposed to “did/have”, on the other? And how to these different bits of tonal information combine to form the tone patterns we hear on full words? (Hint: they are a lot harder to chop up than the consonant prefixes above).

Anyway, that’s the essence of what I do, in brief. By looking at the actual pronunciations of words in a system, we can deduce what the contribution of each meaningful word part is, then make hypotheses about how they come together, and test those hypotheses until we come up with a coherent system.