Category Archives: Linguistics

Celebrating Our First Rule of Tone Writing

We took this photo at the end of the day today, to celebrate our first tone rule, resulting in our first rule about how to write tone in this language!

It took us awhile to get there together, but I think it was worth it. We found eight different tone melodies in nouns of form CVCVC (where C is a consonant and V is a vowel). In isolation, each of the melodies falls in the second syllable. The same thing happens when you put a high tone or a low tone before the word.

But when you put either a high or low tone after the word, none of them fall anymore. This happens if you’re adding one or two syllables.

The short version is that the last syllable of the phrase falls. So it looks like the words have a falling tone in isolation, but that’s just because they end the phrase. The same thing with the possessive pronouns (high and low after the noun); they fall because they end the phrase, not (necessarily) because something in those words makes them fall.

So people will certainly be tempted to write this fall, as it is easy to hear. But as it is clearly attached to the phrase (rather than any of these words), it shouldn’t need to be written, except perhaps with a period.

For this interested in what “phrase” means here, so am I.😅 This may be an utterance, a phonological phrase, or a syntactic unit. We’ll need to investigate some longer utterances to find out.

Using the Scriptures in a Digital Age

As we think about Bible translation, and how to facilitate the impact of the scriptures in the worldwide church, it’s interesting to consider the impact of recent technology. Many Americans show up to church on Sunday morning without a printed Bible (I have observed). Whatever you think of that, it constitutes a change of culture and practice, which is driven (at least) my the fact that you can store a whole, searchable Bible in no more space or weight than you already carry with your phone.

How does this impact the worldwide church? Others noted at least a decade ago that in Africa, cellular technology leapfrogged over land line telephones. That is, while I grew up learning to use a phone that was permanently attached to a wall in our house, many Africans (that I know) have cell phones, never having seen a land line telephone. I have seen cell towers in the rainforest in DR Congo, where no one would ever consider laying down wires for telephones.

In a similar way, I know people here with access to the scriptures on an Android app (as in the above picture, from church this morning), but this week I saw my first print new testament in this language –in my third workshop with this group! They are working on the old testament, having had the new testament since 1988 (if I have my facts correct; this at least sounds right).

So are people printing Bibles? And are they buying and selling them? Why would they, when installing an app on the phone they already have costs so much less in money, volume and weight? I’m not saying this is the best for the long term health of the church, but it is certainly a reality that we must consider –people may be leapfrogging over the printed scriptures, to access them digitally without ever having used them in print.

The pic above is obscure, because it was taken inside the church. For those interested in seeing more of my friend Paul, here’s another picture taken outside:

If you’re wondering why I’m working in a language that already has a new testament, this is one of a number of languages which was found to have problems with the writing system. Tone studies have come a long way since this work was done (50+yrs ago), as have writing system development studies.

So people are hoping we can come up with a way to write tone which will work better for these guys and enable more fluent reading, giving more powerful and effective scriptures.

Which brings us back full circle: how can you think of making changes to the writing system after printing your scriptures? That would be very cost prohibitive –in print. But electronically, you just put in the changes and update the app, and move on…

I personally think there should always be a place for written, printed scriptures, if only to archive them in a format that doesn’t die with electricity –or time. But for many use cases, Android makes a lot of sense, at least in the eyes of many here. So I think it’s wise to consider how to make the most of it.

POSTLOG: after reading the above, Paul informed me that his phone battery died just after I took the above picture –a risk not present in printed Bibles.

Missionary Construction

I’m not sure if missionary construction is more or less well known than missionary linguistics, but they are likely both a bit of a mashup for most people. I took this picture on my way home last week (stuck in holiday traffic, plenty of time to get the shot…) as one of a series of vehicular graveyards I’ve seen across the decades almost everywhere I go in Africa. Typically, it makes me think of how things fall apart here, and how little people probably expected this outcome to whatever they started out doing.

But today I’m reading one of my favorite missionary biographies, “To the Golden Shore”, by Courtney Anderson, on Adoniram Judson. I identify with him in a number of ways. The call to pioneer. Depression. Fruit and very painful circumstances almost constantly mixed. Bible translation.

It was this last that struck me today. This was the passage, presumably from one of his letters:

I sometimes feel alarmed [he reported] like a person who sees a mighty engine beginning to move, over which he knows he has no control. Our house is frequently crowded with company; but I am obliged to leave them to Moung En, one of the best of assistants, in order to get time for the translation. Is this right? Happy is the missionary who goes to a country where the Bible is translated to his hand. (pp398-9)

Perhaps the most important sentence in this section is “Is this right?” How can a missionary set aside talking to potential converts, to work on a book maybe no one will ever read? This must strike the conscience, and it must be dealt with.

The correct answer, I think, has to do with the relationships between longer term and shorter term strategic priorities. What can I do today that will make tomorrow better in some way? To just push off people is unconscionable, but so is continuing to labor day to day with no effort to get the scriptures to those who are (or even may be) converted.  So Adoniram made the tough (and I think open to criticism) choice of delegating daily evangelism for the sake of the future growth and health of the church.

For me, there are two problems with this. First of all, I’m working another step removed. I’m not working so that a single people group will have the scriptures some day. I’m working on systems, and training and raising up workers, so that all of central Africa will have scriptures that speak with power. So it’s an even longer term investment than daily translation for a single people group.

But the other problem is the message of the vehicular graveyards. Who ever built (or bought, shipped, maintained, etc) a car so it would decorate some corner of the forest as it decomposed? I even saw a rusting carcass of a printing press once. Certainly that was bought and shipped there with the idea that it would help the missionary enterprise, not that it would just take oxygen out of the air.

So what will become of my work? I know nothing lasts in this world, but as I consider longer term strategic priorities, I must consider the possibility that I shoot so far out, that nothing comes of it before it starts decomposing. My time in DRCongo felt a bit like this; I planned for ten years, and prepared and built tools with that horizon in mind, but they weren’t used very much when we left only four years later.

So I try to constantly mix planning horizons. I feel the pull Adoniram described, to work for future missionaries, so I must set aside time for that. Added to this is the repeated realization that I know no one with the vision or capability to do what I’m doing now (not bragging, just reality; this is a niche work).

But Kim and I also sing in the church choir most weeks, and I lead several of the men of the church in Bible study most Saturdays. These are each a different horizon (making worship happen this week and growing up future leaders), but they both address the question of the people right here in front of me.

Then there’s the team that’s actively translating the scriptures, without understanding the tone writing system developed for them some fifty years ago. Has the language’s tone system changed? Probably. Has tone and writing system theory changed in that time? Definitely. Can I help them get back on track? I hope so.

Then there are A→Z+T users, present and future. I’ve been doing a lot of prep work for a tone workshop in the spring, which involves getting people up to speed with A→Z+T and evaluating their trained for the workshop. During this time, I’ve gotten to interact (face to face, by email, and through zoom) with people at different levels of competence and preparation, so I’ve gotten a broader vision for what A→Z+T’s user base will most likely look like.

Sometimes the user question is addressing specific issues, other times it’s fixing things in a more principled way, to avoid future issues. But I’m also working on a workshop presentation and book chapter to help potential users get a vision for what is now possible.

So it feels like running a sprint, a 5k, and a marathon, all at the same time (not that I’ve ever run a marathon, but I imagine…)

But it gives me courage that I’m not the first one to confront these questions, even if some of the details are new. Adoniram didn’t have Python, Autosegmental theory, or object oriented programming (though he did have snakes, elephants and tigers), but he did know the difficult task of prioritizing the needs in front of him today, and what most be done (today) to prepare for tomorrow.

And when I think of Adoniram’s first ten years of missionary service, including a death prison, the loss of his first wife and several children, along with any hope that his translation work would be preserved through the Anglo-Burman war, I’m encouraged to know that God did preserve that translation work, though a series of improbable coincidences. And he ultimately built his church in Myanmar on it, with generations of Christians using that translation to great effect.

So apparently (he comes to realize, again) God does know what he’s doing, even if His planning horizons are even longer and more complex than we can imagine. So please join me in prayer, that the One worshipped by the magi would lend me some of His wisdom in these days, as I sort through what to do when, and prioritize appropriately long term strategies that will produce fruit that will last.

Chufie’ workshop

several of us from the workshop
Hanging out at the end of the workshop

I just got back from a workshop where we tested out AZT in a longer workshop, and things went well. I say “longer”, because it was supposed to be three weeks, but we had to isolate after the first day, because of a COVID-19 exposure (the first in our whole community in months). But we got tested:

Our first (negative) test

And then again:

Our second (negative) test

Anyway, it was good to get back to the workshop:

guys working

When we debriefed the workshop, I had two main questions for the guys. First, was the tool easy enough to use? One guy responded that he didn’t really know how to use computers, but this tool was easy to use. So that was great news. I had suspected this, and worked for it, but it was good to hear we’re hitting that target.

The other question was about engagement and involvement: did the guys feel like they were actively taking a real part in the work? Again, they answered yes. In the picture above, the guys are talking through a decision, before telling the computer “This word is like that other one”, or “this word is different from each word on this list”. Framing this question is important, because this is a question that people can discuss and come up with a real, meaningful answer, without knowing much about linguistics. If we were to ask them to tell us if this phrase had a floating tone in it (yup, those are real), we would be asking them to guess and make up an answer, since they would have no idea what the question meant —probably just like most people reading this post. :-) But floating tones are important, and we need to analyze them correctly; we just want to get at them in a way that enables the fullest participation of the people who speak the language.

I didn’t come up with this on my own; far from it, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, who pioneered how to engage people meaningfully in the analysis of their own language. What’s new here is that these methods are modeled within a computer program, so the user is clicking buttons instead of moving pieces of paper around on a table. Buttons are not in themselves better than paper, but when we work on the computer, each decision is recorded immediately, and each change is immediately reflected in the next task —unlike pen and paper methods, where you work with a piece of paper with (often multiple) crossed out notes, which then need to be added to a database later.

The other major advantage of this tool is the facilitation of recordings. Typically, organizing recordings can be even more work than typing data from cards into a database, and it can easily be procrastinated, leaving the researcher with a partially processed body of recordings. But this tool takes each sorted word (e.g., ‘corn’ and ‘mango’), in each frame (e.g., ‘I sell __’ and ‘the __is ripe’) it is sorted, and offers the user a button to record that phrase. Once done, the recording is immediately given a name with the word form and meaning, etc (so we can find it easily in the file system), and a link is added to the database, so the correct dictionary entry can show where to find it. Having the computer do this on the spot is a clear advantage over a researcher spending hours over weeks and months processing this data.

Once the above is done (the same day you sorted, remember? not months later), you can also produce an XML>PDF report (standing again on the giant shoulders of XLingPaper) with organized examples ready to copy and paste into a report or paper, with clickable links pointing to the sound files.

Anyway, I don’t know if the above communicates my excitement, but thinking through all these things and saying “This is the right thing to do” came before “Huh, I think I could actually make some of this happen” and this last week, we actually saw this happen —people who speak their language, but don’t know much about linguistics meaningfully engaged in the analysis of their language, in a process that results in a database of those decisions, including organized recordings for linguists to pick apart later —and cool reports!

Screenshot of PDF (which has clickable links, though not visible in this screenshot)

Writing Systems

One of the side benefits of the consultant conference I attended in September was that it was in Thailand, where some of our colleagues are based. Specifically, those who work on WeSay, a program I have put to good use in DRCongo, and hope to continue using in Cameroon. The same group also works on non-roman scripts (Writing Systems Technology). Anyway, I got to greet them face to face for the first time, having corresponded with some of them for more than a decade.

One of the highlights of that visit was seeing different font and printing issues they had faced. As I work in writing systems development, this was particularly interesting to me. They work on a different end of the puzzle, though: I work on figuring out what are the consonants, vowels, and tones in a language, and how to represent them well in writing (#FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles). This team works on how to take a developed writing system and represent it well in a (unicode!) font for printing.

They have examples of printed Bibles with roman scripts (like our letters, though with additional signs for additional vowels, tone, or other important language features):

Even though this script is based on the same alphabet as English, you can see that there are some potential problems for typesetting it. For instance, in many places there are two distinct marks (diacritics) above a vowel, what we call “stacked diacritics”. For instance, in John 13:26 (the first verse on the page) Jesus’ second word “tônuô̌” has two different marks on the final vowel. I assume the one marks a vowel difference (i.e., “o” and “ô” are not the same vowel —like English “bet” and “bit” aren’t the same vowel), and the other marks a difference of tone (i.e., “o” is not the same tone as “ǒ” —like English “convict” (n) and “convict” (v) don’t have the same stress).

When you put these two together, and you have a potential conflict. In my browser anyway (and maybe in yours) the word “tônuô̌” has two diacritics (from ô and the ǒ) typed more or less on top of each other, rather than the diacritic on ǒ being placed above that on the ô, as it should be (and as in the printed Bible). If you scan through that page, you can see lots of variations of these stacked diacritics, meaning its is important to get this correct for printing.

But they also work with non-roman scripts:

These scripts have their own issues, though I haven’t gotten into them myself, since most African languages I have worked with use roman scripts.

One interesting issue they had to deal with was multiple scripts for the same language. In this example, there was a script of high cultural value, which was not really understood by much of the population. So they wanted to print the valuable script in parallel with the script that people could actually understand:

On some occasions, they have dealt with two (or three) scripts for the same language because it is spoken in multiple countries, and each country as it’s own mandated writing system. Converting checked scripture between these poses its own set of problems.

Here is yet another script:

I don’t remember the details of this one, though the tabs a the top of the page each indicate a problem that needed to be fixed in terms of the printing of the writing system. How one writes is typically very important, both to individuals and people groups, so we want to be able to move past making mistakes if possible —though imagine checking the typesetting on this Bible!

Often the two books that help clarify and preserve a writing system are the Bible and a dictionary, which is why we want to get the work done on the writing system early, before we do a lot of printing of scripture portions. And it is again why I pair my dictionary work with writing system development, so people can see lots of words in writing, and give us feedback on problems with the writing system, whether they are technical or aesthetic.

This hard, technical work in advance is worth it because we want the scriptures to be used, and to speak with power into the hearts of the people who read and hear them read. For this to happen, the writing system needs to be acceptable and valued so people will use it, but also accurately reflect the language, so people can use it fluently. #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles


As we mentioned before we left, one of the main goals of our March trip to Cameroon was attending the second National Symposium on Cameroonian Languages (NASCAL2). It was good that we could schedule the trip to coincide with this conference, as this is part of a significant goal for my work: interacting in national linguistics conferences. Because this conference was held some six hours by road north of Yaoundé, it took some work getting there, which I’ve chronicled here.

This is the view out my hotel balcony:

and one with me in it:

Arriving on time, we had lots of time to stand around waiting for things to begin:

This is what the plenary room looked like for the first couple hours:

This gave me a number of opportunities to meet people, such as Joseph, a professor in the German department in Yaoundé:


Nelson (A PhD student):

and Elijah:

But eventually everyone got there, and the first plenary sessions got going:

I was somewhat surprised to see the style of journalism that I had assumed was unique to DRC, recording the presentations:

and the audience:

Unfortunately, the delay starting wasn’t particularly well accounted for in the schedule, and was complicated by power being cut just as the sun was going down, making light even more necessary:

Since most presenters depended on a projector, the room I was in quit for the day, in consultation with the organizers. But this decision wasn’t coordinated across the conference; at least one other room was still going a couple hours later:

So we got dinner and headed back to the hotel, to prepare for the next day:

The next morning, we were back in the same room, but with power on (and an adjusted schedule):

I got to hear presentations from other missionary colleagues, like Sarah:

And Cam:

As well as from Cameroonians like Adriel (another doctoral student at Yaoundé)

I even got to make my own presentation (on how to evaluate the importance of tone in a given language, which sparked a decent conversation):

There was also more time for side conversations with Joseph Bushman:

and Ayunwe, a professor at the University of Buea (which hosted WOCAL7):

And I got to help out with a group photo for people working with CABTAL (Cameroon Association for Bible Translation and Literacy, a member of the Wycliffe Global Alliance), plus a friend or two:

And I got to speak briefly the with Mathaus, the head of linguistics for CABTAL:

and with Adriel Bebine, who is working on his doctorate at the University of Youndé I (we also got to sit together over the closing meal, so we got to chat some more):

There were lots of corridor conferences with the organizers:

and there were a couple local performers, though I only got a pic of this one:

In the end, we had the obligatory ceremony, wherein I got a certificate confirming my participation (:-)):

After the closing ceremony, and the closing meal (which I guess I didn’t get pictures of!), we headed off to see the local attraction “Museum of Civilizations”:

though on the way I ran into Jeff, a student at the University of Dschang, who gave a loose-fitting shout-out to the Pacific Northwest:

Here is the museum, across the lake in blue:

and my selfie with the lake:

The lake itself is a fairly major feature of the area:

I have lots of pics of the museum itself, but I won’t spoil the surprise, in case you might go there yourself some day (:-)). They were very proud of it, and kept it open late to allow us to see it.

So over all, the conference went well. The organization did not allow as much time for informal interaction as I’m used to having (between presentations, over meals, etc), but I did get to make a number of introductions, which was much of what I was hoping for. On the way home, I texted with one contact I’d made about the possibility of helping with some teaching on tone, which would be a strategic way for me to use my training. So we got some relationships started, with those currently in and out of Bible translation work, and with people in universities and in other institutions. As we make our move to Cameroon this June/July (Lord willing!), we’ll be able to further cultivate these relationships, and see how we can best help the church and Bible translation movement in Cameroon!


Why I attend national conferences

One of the purposes of going to Cameroon this march is to attend the second “National Symposium on Cameroonian Languages”, at the University of Dschang, in Dschang, Cameroon. I assume it may not be obvious to you why this is a good thing, so I’ll lay out some of my thoughts on linguistics conferences here.

First of all, recall that I am a missionary linguist. That is, I am a missionary and a linguist, something like a missionary pilot is a missionary and a pilot, or like a missionary doctor is a missionary and a doctor. And I challenge people to see that I am not less of a missionary because I am a linguist, and I am not less a linguist because I am a missionary. One might even argue that these two vocations encourage and better each other —that I am a better linguist because I am a missionary, and that I am a better missionary (at least in some ways) because I am a linguist. I love that I get to analyze languages, serve minority (and therefore disadvantaged) peoples, and glorify God, all in one job. The work I do today helps people to read better, which helps their lives today. But it also gives them more powerful access to the scriptures, which provides “value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1Tim 4:8b ESV)

So how does my work as a missionary linguist apply at linguistic conferences? I have been tempted in the past to look at conferences as a massive information dump, and I think some people do look at them that way. But one obvious (yet astounding) observation I’ve made about conferences is that they are full of people. And they’re run by people. People presenting, people listening, people asking and answering questions. So whatever else is true of linguistics conferences (local, national, or international), they are an occasion for lots of people with similar interests to get together.

Which doesn’t mean that I man a booth at the side of the food court reading “come to know Jesus through linguistics”. Rather, I get to practice what Jesus teaches me about getting along with people, among perhaps the most secular crowd of people I ever interact with. There are people who are ornry and disagreeable. There are people that don’t know yet how little they know about something. There are people who know more than I ever will about something, and who have no interest in relating to mere mortals as myself —though most people I meet at these conferences could be described as “people”, without stretching the imagination much. :-)

I was at a conference a few years ago, where I had a particular opportunity to show compassion to another person there. It was an international conference, but hosted at a particular university in an African country, so lots of people from that area were able to come. This means that there were people who came from other African countries (like me), people who came from America or Europe, and people who came to the conference without using a passport, all at the same event. At one talk, the speaker used some words in a way that was initially at least confusing, if not just plain wrong (about a fairly basic concept that most people at the conference would be expected to know). I was not alone in this opinion; others asked questions afterward, trying to get the guy to clarify what he meant. They went around a couple times, but eventually they gave up on him, with a response that might be translated “he’s nuts.” Time for questions was up, and we were on to the next speaker, and people cut their losses.

But other missionary linguists and I caught up with him later, and asked him to explain himself more privately. It turned out that he was using a particular theory of a particular linguist that had been published, but that almost no one had heard of. And apparently he was using those words correctly within that theory, but that wasn’t enough to help us understand him without this much longer conversation. In the end, we were able to explain to him that the theory he was using wasn’t known or used many others, so he should either use more standard terminology, or else explain very clearly that he was using these words differently.

But the more important message, to me, was that we cared enough about him as a person (and as a linguist) to follow up with him, and help him get his thinking straight. It cost more time and energy than writing him off when his presentation didn’t make sense (even after questions), but it was worth better understanding him, and helping him be better understood. This idea is part of a core goal of my work: mentorship. That is, I want to have alphabets and writing systems done, so people can read (see above!), but if I can do that, and at the same time train up others to do this work, then I multiply myself, and the work gets on better and faster.

So while an introvert like me is certainly tempted to take every 15 minute brake I get for myself, those breaks are often taken up by processing things with people I know, and getting to know others that I don’t. And often all that rubbing shoulders yields unexpected results.

At the last conference I went to (in the US), there was a team of linguists from Ghana (IIRC), who were trying to analyze a tonal language (what I do), but without any particular training or orientation. I was able to point out Tone Analysis for Field Linguists, by Keith L Snider (full disclosure: he was on my committee),  probably the most helpful and practical approach to doing tone analysis. And I was able to sit and do some actual acoustic analysis with them. That is, they got out their computers, and showed how they were looking at the speech stream in their recordings (as I described for consonants here). Because all those lines and differently shaded areas require interpretation, and because good interpretation requires experience, I was able to give them some pointers to help them see their data in a more helpful way. It took maybe an hour altogether, but it was time well spent to help someone get along better in this work, and to show friendship and solidarity as well, and that in Jesus’ name.

Anyway, because of the prejudice against Christian missionaries common in most linguistic circles I’ve been in, any time I can show people compassion, care, and honest friendship is a win, even if just a PR win (people know who I work for; it’s on my name tag). But it isn’t just people thinking better of Christian missionaries, or of the church generally. I also get to mix friendliness and compassion with excellent academics (well, I try anyway :-)). So every chance I have to help someone think more clearly, or present his ideas more clearly, or understand someone else’s ideas more clearly, is a chance for people at the conference to see that Christians worship the Truth (John 14:6).  Not that everyone receives this, of course: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1Peter 4:15-16 ESV)

So regarding this upcoming conference, there are two kids of relationship to build. One is with my expatriate colleagues, other missionary linguists like myself. I know some of them a bit, but most not at all. So it will be good to interact with them through the conference, to enable better collaboration down the road. The other kind of relationship to build is with national linguists, whether they are involved in Bible translation movement or not. I anticipate my work in Cameroon including relationship with government and university entities; this work can only be helped by knowing and being known by Cameroonian linguists. And for those that are still in training, there is a great opportunity to come alongside them, and encourage them in ways that will facilitate more mentorship down the road.

Anyway, I look forward to this opportunity to glorify God by seeking truth and loving people in a way that I am particularly enabled to do, and in a way that will amplify our effectiveness in facilitating local Bible Translation movements throughout the central African basin.

Assignment Details

Francophone countries in blue; LST works in darker  blue countries
The LST domain is the central African Basin (darker) subset of the francophone African countries (blue). Yaoundé (captial of Cameroon) is starred.

We recently accepted an invitation to work in the Cameroon, on the Linguistics Service Team (LST). We’ve already begun sharing some of this informally, but I’ll describe the LST here, rather than leave anyone out. The basic facts are that my work won’t change, though the location and level of that work will.

The LST has been described as “a fairly loose association of linguists who work together on specific activities and come together to encourage each other”. I find this rather loose description encouraging, first because I have not worked in a team of linguists before (recall that I’m a missionary linguist). Everyone in Wycliffe has some knowledge of linguistics, but so far my interaction with other professional linguists has been limited to conferences, which I have attended maybe once a year. So I look forward to having other linguists look over my work, and to being able to help other linguists improve their work.

What will stay the same

The basic paradigm for my work will stay the same. As indicated in past newsletters, and in the Africa Night post, a lot of what I have done (and will continue to do) involves helping people get involved in the analysis of their own language. We use what we call Participatory Research Methodology, often sitting around a table sorting cards as a group. The purpose of this work remains twofold: to understand the sound system of a given language in order to develop a writing system for it, and to train a group of people who can take that writing system and do something with it.

What will change

While the basic paradigm of my work will remain the same, the geographic and academic scope will involve some changes. As the director described the Linguistics Service Team (LST) to me recently:

The vision of the team is to provide linguistics services that will help meet the needs of language communities, and translation projects, both SIL and with partner organisations, both in Cameroon and in the Central African Basin zone. A secondary vision is to help in the development of linguists, both expat and nationals at various levels and to provide a place where each linguist can belong and pursue their interests while working in a team.

I like this quote because it deals with a change in scope, in two dimensions.

Geographically, we’ll be working in Cameroon, but also in surrounding countries which have French as a national or official language (i.e., Francophone Africa). We plan to live in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, but we will help linguists and translation projects in other countries, such as Chad, (RO)Congo, Central African Republic, and maybe some day western DRCongo.

Administratively, I will also be working more actively to develop, train, and mentor other linguists, in order to multiply the people ready and able to do this work. This will involve bringing along assistants to workshops and identifying and mentoring leaders in each community, but also teaching at a university and seminary level. The goal, again, is to work more effectively to get more of the work done faster, without sacrificing quality.

Participatory Research Methods

I just realized I don’t have an article to refer to on this topic, while I’ve been using and talking about these methods for some years, so I’ll briefly describe what I mean here.

The term comes from “Participatory Research in Linguistics”, by Constance Kutsch Lojenga (1996). Others have used it, but the basic idea is to involve people in the analysis of their own language, as much as possible.

While this may seem a weird thing to have to say, many Field Methods courses in linguistics involve asking a naive speaker how to say things (or if saying something is grammatical), while the researcher takes notes. Those notes are not typically shared with the speaker, and it is relatively unimportant whether the speaker has any idea what is going on.

This is the paradigm that we are turning on its head, when we want to involve as many community members in the analysis, as much as possible.

Involving as many people as possible is good for our data, because it means we aren’t basing our analysis of the language on what just one person says. I join many in believing that language is a community property, not that of a single person. Yet it is not uncommon to have claims about a language made on the basis of a single person’s production. Involving more people can only increase our confidence that our data represents the language as a whole.

Involving as many people as possible is good for our analysis, as well. When I sit on the other side of a clipboard, and leave the “naive speaker” out of my thinking entirely, I’m looking at only half the problem. Sure, I can see how things look from the outside (etic), but I cannot see how things look from the inside (emic) anywhere near as well as can a native speaker of the language. Even if my analysis could be completely right without that inside perspective, its presence can confirm the rightness of that analysis. But working from both inside and outside the language allows more perspective to push the work forward faster, and on a more sure footing.

Involving as many people as possible is also good for the community of people who speak the language. I have no interest in finding out a lot of cool things about a language, publishing them and becoming famous (as if), and leaving the people who speak that language ignorant of the work. On the contrary, I think the community is best served by being as involved in the work as possible, so that as the work progresses, those who are most closely involved in the work can explain it to those around them —and typically in terms that might escape my attempts to do so. This accomplishes two things: it builds a cadre of people who are able to teach the analysis to others, and it increases the number and kind of people within reach of that teaching.

Consider the implications for literacy work. The above might not mean much to you if I’m dealing with some obscure syntactic phenomenon that you couldn’t even point out in English, like “Successive Cyclic Movement and Island Repair” (which is a real topic of conversation between some linguists, btw). But if I’m producing a booklet that should help literacy teachers teach people how to read, but no one understands the booklet, how will they teach people to read? On the other hand, when I finish a workshop, anywhere from three to fifteen people have a good idea what we’ve done, and could explain it to someone else. Maybe they’re not ready to be literacy teachers yet, but they are at least on their way there.

So involving as many people as possible is good for our data, for our analysis, and for the people we work with. Because I am strongly invested in all of these,  I use these methods almost exclusively.

There is a caveat: I’ve put “as much as possible” hedges above intentionally. I have a couple graduate degrees in linguistics, and I shouldn’t assume that everyone can understand everything I have figured out in a language, or even what I’m trying to figure out, or why. There are times where I have to accept the limits of the people I’m working on, and use what I can get from participatory methods. There are lots of things in my dissertation that I wouldn’t bring up with almost anybody, without some serious background conversation (and for some not even then). Rather, as I consider what is possible, I seek ways to simplify and explain what we’re doing so a subsistence farmer might be able to grasp it. This is why we use papers in workshops, rather than computers. This is why we stack them in piles, organizing them visually on a surface to show the differences between them. To invite and enable more participation, will only increase the value of our work.

Fluent Reading Makes Powerful Bibles

As we have thought through our messaging lately, one thing we saw friends do was develop a personal ministry hashtag. This is not just to try to be trendy (though hashtags are integral to communication these days), but to communicate a particular repetitive theme in a terse manner.

I think this was a good exercise, because it forced us to think about how we would summarize our Wycliffe Ministry in a few words, even if it was in the format #MyHashtagIsLongerThanYourHashtag…

So we came up with #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles, and I’d like to take this post to explain why. First of all, as a full sentence, I hope that it doesn’t require much explanation. 🙂

But to explain our thinking in any case, #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles makes a connection that I often find myself communicating face to face. That is, what do I do as a missionary linguist, and how does that connect to the larger Bible translation movement?

Thinking about #PowerfulBibles, something that has plagued some Bible translation projects is the question of whether the Bible will be used once produced. I think we all agree that a Bible on a shelf is not the point; we want Bibles in use, powerfully sustaining, encouraging and growing the church for the people who speak the language of that translation.

There are certainly many reasons why a Bible translation might get less usage, but the one that impacts my work the most directly deals with the fluency with which people can read the translation (#FluentReading). If people stumble over words they’re not sure how to pronounce (e.g., because a given spelling could be pronounced multiple ways), or if they have to read a sentence to understand it before they can pronounce all the words (therefore reading parts multiple times to pronounce the words correctly), then we should not expect reading or listening to be very enjoyable.

Such a lack of ability to clearly and fluently communicate meaning translates almost directly into a lack of power. If your mom calls you to the table, but stumbles over the words, would that mean the same to you? Or again, if your father corrects you, but stumbles over his words, would that mean the same? When we hear God say

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
(Isaiah 55:1 ESV)

This should sound as a mother calling children to the table, with power to provide, and pleasure on the other side for all who respond. And when we hear God say

let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
(Isaiah 55:7 ESV)

That should sound like a father disciplining a son, with power and fear for the rebellious, and compassion and pardon for the repentant.

We are, of course, not denying the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate in spite of a bad writing system. But He typically chooses to communicate through the written word, that written word is contained in one writing system or another. And that written word is turned into the spoken word by people more or less able to do so well.

The goal of my work developing writing systems is to remove as many barriers as possible to fluent reading, that the path of communication between God’s word and peoples’ hearts would be as clear and direct as possible. And this is why I’m going to keep talking about how #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles.