A Linguistic Legacy

My great-grandfather was a printer’s reader by profession but he was also a linguist. I don’t know how many languages he knew although he certainly had a classical education. He used to frequent second hand book stalls and built up an extensive library over many years. In the family it was said that if there was a mistake in a book he would find it and indeed all his books seem to attest to this. I don’t think there is one book inherited from him that does not have somewhere a correction, written with indelible pencil in his miniscule handwriting. One of the books he acquired and which now has pride of place on my own bookshelves is “The Gospel in Many Tongues”. This delightful little book, published in 1939 by the British and Foreign Bible Society to illustrate the work of the Society, contains specimens of the 734 languages and dialects in which the Gospels had been published by the Society and includes 80 different alphabets.

This is an interesting snap shot of the language world at this critical date in modern history. Marking the start of the Second World War and the beginning of the end of the British Empire 1939 is a key date after which many things were never to be the same again. Some of the languages listed in the book are now difficult to identify and many of the countries and geographical areas in which they were said to be spoken have since changed their names. Just under 300 of the languages illustrated are from Africa, just over 200 from Asia, 100 from Australasia, about 90 from Europe and only 50 from the Americas. The distribution of languages reflects the geographical emphasis of British missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

There were a large number of languages from Papua New Guinea but relatively few from Australia. Perhaps Australian missionaries took responsibility for native Australian languages. It may however be due to the fact these were not written languages. On the other hand as the prevailing focus of the time was to educate native Australians in English may be a decision was taken to provide the Bible only in English.

Many of the languages appear in more than one version, typically two or three. These may be alphabet or dialect differences. Seven Arabic languages are listed. These relate to different geographical areas. Some versions are colloquial. Twenty Chinese languages are listed covering the whole of the country so no distinction is made between Cantonese and Mandarin. Miao and Manchurian though are listed separately.

Great-grandfather has ticked some 300 languages in the book but I have no idea why. He certainly couldn’t claim to have learned them all. In addition some are quite obscure and I doubt he would have come across “teach yourself Motu” in his north London bookshops. Perhaps he ticked them because he was able to locate them on the map, an activity I intend to pursue myself. Perhaps his church activities put him contact with missionaries to parts of the world where these languages were spoken. He has corrected the Greek and the Latin and added missing chapter and verse to one or two less well known languages such as Bogos (Northen Abyssinia), which is written in the Amharic script. There is an index of the different scripts and I thought he might have gone through the book ticking off the languages in each script. This seemed to work for Amharic but only as far as the letter G.

There were other editions of this book, at least one earlier and one later than the 1939 edition that I have. The Bible Society as it is now called moved from London to Swindon in 1985. The work of translating and distributing Bibles is shared with other Bible Societies worldwide. The Bible Society’s website claims that there are currently 6,912 languages in the world, 451 of which have translations of the whole Bible and 2,479 have translations of part of the Bible. This leaves 4,421 languages without a translation of a single book of the Bible. The Society still has a lot of work to do if it is to make the Word of God available to every man and woman on earth in his or her own language.

I wonder about the number of languages quoted. For one thing there is no consistency on this or other Bible websites about the number of world languages, for another it is clear from the 1939 edition that some of the “languages” are actually dialects, variants or colloquial versions of a single language.

Many of the gospels translated in the nineteenth century are now having to be retranslated because some have been found to be inaccurate, many of them having been created with enthusiasm rather than academic rigour.

Great-grandfather also had a book containing the Lord’s Prayer in many languages, but sadly this book did not come my way. I have never even seen it but my father has mentioned seeing it several times. Through the Internet I have found a link to a facsimile of a book that great-grandfather may once have owned a copy of.  One of the most interesting things about this little book is the historical English texts. I am currently reading about the history of English so I will be returning to these texts again.

Within minutes of writing this blog I was amazed to read in my local paper of the visit of a Travelling Bible to Bracknell. This Bible which is an initiative of the Seventh-day Adventists church consists of 66 books each written in a different language. It has been travelling the world since 2008 and is intended to finish its journey in 2010.


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