The Word for the Gullahs (and the rest of us, too)

Another exciting article about the recently published New Testament for the Gullah speakers in the Sea Islands of Georgia and the Carolinas appears in the latest issue of Christianity Today online. There is, I believe, an important lesson for all English users of the Bible to be learned from the effect that this New Testament in the heart language has upon Gullah speakers.

Gullah is an English creole language, with many words originally from English. But Gullah has a grammar distinct from that of English. The lesson for those of us whose heart language is English can be drawn from these lines from the C.T. article:

Most Gullah speakers know English, but reading the Bible in the language they first learned changes their experience. Ravenell [a middle-school teacher from South Carolina] says, “For me, it was like I had come home to the Word of God when I heard it in Gullah.”

Now, listen carefully to the effect that the Gullah translation is having even on Gullah speakers with college degrees, people who can speak English well (as their second language):

Along with the emotional appeal, the Gullah translation also brings clarity. “[Gullah speakers] are accustomed to thinking that the Scriptures are not meant to be understood,” Frank [the linguist who helped the Gullah translators] says. “They’re pleasantly surprised to find that the translation into Gullah speaks clearly, and it helps reinforce their culture instead of having to go through another language like English in order to understand God’s message.”

“Even I, who have a graduate degree and have read the Bible in English all my life, can better understand the Bible now,” says Emory Campbell, another translator. “It makes a whole lot more sense to me.”

Have you ever sensed this effect upon you when you have read a translation of the Bible that was written in the form of English that is your heart language, rather than a special church English? If not, I encourage you to find a Bible which is written in your English, your heart language. Read it. Listen to your mind and heart as they process that translation. You need not use that Bible as your study Bible, if you already have a preference for a different dialect of English for study. But I think it is a very special thing for anyone to experience the power of the written Word of God in their own heart language, including English speakers who may have have only read or heard the Bible in a speciality dialect different from the English they learned at their mother’s knee.

Try it! You might like it. You might even find your heart warmed by hearing God’s Word written in language that speaks most directly to your mind and heart, since it was your first language.

“And the Word became human and dwelled among us.” And the written Word has also been incarnated in our own words and is dwelling among us. Will we listen? Dare we listen? If we do, it can change us.

Update: Heart language, as used in this post, is usually a person’s first language.

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13 Comments

  1. Ted Gossard
    Posted December 20, 2005 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Wayne, very interesting. thanks.

    kind of reminds me of my switch from the KJV to the Living Bible and TEV (Good News for Modern Man) as a new Christian. then later my switch from the NASB to the NIV.

    I especially remember the latter switch. it was an eye-opening experience for me. and surely the former as well. (too long ago though)

  2. Tim
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    Of course, for some people it works the other way around, too – ‘church language’, as you call it, truly is their heart language, and the magnificent cadences of the Tyndale/KJV/RSV tradition touch them more deeply than anything else. I don’t feel this so deeply myself (although I have glimpsed it), but I know people for whom this is undoubtedly the truth.

  3. Wayne Leman
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Tim said:

    Of course, for some people it works the other way around, too – ‘church language’, as you call it, truly is their heart language, and the magnificent cadences of the Tyndale/KJV/RSV tradition touch them more deeply than anything else.

    Veeeery interesting, Tim! You have said something important here.

    Unfortunately, I see from your comment that I did not make clear enough that I was using the word “heart language” as a technical term for a person’s first language. And I assumed, along with many other linguists, that a person’s first language is their heart language.

    You keyed in to the word “heart” and properly came up with a different meaning for “heart language” from the one I intended. And you have pointed to something which is very true about many church people, they are deeply affected by the familiar phrasings of church language, whether in liturgy or their favorite Bible version.

    Thanks for adding to this important topic. What you have just mentioned deserves a post, or even a book or dissertation, all its own.

  4. Michael Sly
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    Tim & Wayne, this could very well be why the ESV has become so popular. It is the first “modern” version (at least one produced out of that lineage since 1952) that keeps the “church language” in tact.

    Just a thought . . .

  5. Ted Gossard
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I have read the ESV and maybe it’s from not having catechisms to read from my tradition and upbringing…But I just can’t see how the NASB, NIV or TNIV depart so far from traditional church language. From words like “justified”, “atonement”, etc.

    Maybe cadence and traditional readings are factors here. The ESV does have more of the old world feel, I guess. The KJV was my first exposure to the Biblical text, and though the recorded reading of the New Testament I had from the KJV resonated well with me as a new Christian, I must say that my heart language must have made the LB, TEV and finally NIV be awakening translations for me. That is, having a much clearer and more powerful sense of speaking to me.

  6. Michael Sly
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Ted, the Lord saved me while I was reading an NIV. I was quickly told by a well meaning believer that I should ditch my NIV and get a NASB. I enjoyed using the NASB, but it didn’t have the same “warmth” as the NIV did to me. Unfortunately I didn’t recognize this until 15+ years later. From the NASB, I got sucked into the KJV Only movement. I bought into the idea that the KJV was God’s ordained version for the english speaking world and that the “old english” used within it was a “holy language.” It took me 12 years to climb out of that line of belief, only to emerge realizing that what I thought was a “holy language” turned out to be just an “old language” that I really didn’t understand. My heart was once again warmed by the Holy Spirit as I read the scriptures in the NLT. What a wonderful experience – like finding an old friend (this time, the Lord Himself) that you haven’t seen in years. I then went to the ESV and within the past two years I have been using the HCSB and the TNIV – I’ll never look back.

    I found the ESV to be too much like the KJV. I have to admit (frist time publically), that I am bitter at the KJV translation for the blindness that it placed upon me. I traded a warm, vibrant relationship with the Lord for “holy language”. I got ripped off! I realize this is just my opinion and not everyone has had this experience, so please don’t beat me up for it! :).

    I don’t think that many of the translations depart from “church language” (i.e. propitiation, sanctification, justification, and even the word “church”), I do believe that what creates the perception within a translation as being “church language”, among many other things, is the use of negative word order. For example, “touch not mine annointed” sounds much more “churchy” than “don’t touch my servant”. And as you mentioned, cadence is another factor. I have often wondered, and through my own experiences, if this type of language doesn’t appeal to our flesh more than to the spirit? It is too bad that the KJV has become the standard by which many hold other translations too.

  7. Wayne Leman
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Tim, I have thought more about your comment and I think that you are right. For many the traditional sound of the KJV (and today, the ESV) has become a heart language. Technically, I suspect that these people have become bidialectal, in which they have two heart languages, their first language plus their church language. But I also suggest that there are many, including those whose hearts are warmed by the traditional sounding Bibles, who will be impacted in a special way if they hear the Bible in their first language. At least that was the case for me. The KJV wordings still sound special to me. I am so familiar with them. But a point came in my life, as a teenager and young adult, where my ears and eyes were opened by hearing and reading the Bible in ordinary English, my first language. That spoke even more powerfully to me that did the beautiful, familiar sounds of the KJV.

  8. Tim
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Wayne, unlike you I was never a KJV reader. I came to Christ as a teenager and my first Bible was a Living Bible. I used it daily for about four years and read it through three or four times. Then when I went to Bible College I discovered the translation problems with the LB, and switched to the RSV (this was 1976). Over the years since then my main versions have been the NIV, the NRSV, and lately the TNIV. We use the NRSV at our (Anglican) Church, and I use the TNIV in my personal reading.

    My problem would be to figure out exactly what my ‘heart’ language is, using your definition. I grew up in inner-city Leicester in England. My mother once reported a conversation she’d overheard on a bus that went something like this (I’m trying to transliterate): “I woonta cared, but ah’d already gennim mine, and then ‘e guz an’ gizz im izzen”! (Translation: “I wouldn’t have cared, but I’d already given him mine, and then he goes and gives him his”!).

    Well, I left that language behind a long time ago, and although I still understand it, it doesn’t feel like a heart language to me. I do like versions that use a more ‘British’ idiom (even though I’ve lived in Canada for over thirty years now). I quite like the TNIV (although I haven’t yet got an Anglicized version!!!!), but I’ve got a soft spot for the more traditional cadences of the NRSV too – even though I wasn’t brought up on traditional Bibles and found the Book of Common Prayer a total bore when I was a kid!

    So, where do I fit in here? I’ve tried to apply your comments about ‘heart language’ to myself, Wayne, but I can’t seem to fit myself in there. I suspect I’m not alone, and that generalisations are of limited use only.

    Great blog, by the way – I’m learning a lot from it.

  9. Wayne Leman
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Tim asked:

    So, where do I fit in here? I’ve tried to apply your comments about ‘heart language’ to myself, Wayne, but I can’t seem to fit myself in there.

    Good question, Tim. I’ve never really thought much about some diagnostics to try to determine what a person’s heart language is. I’ll think on my feet briefly here and then your question deserves much more thought. Perhaps I can blog an answer one of these days.

    For a start, I suggest that some or all of the following can help you determine what your heart language is:

    1. What dialect do you use to tell someone that you love them?

    2. What dialect speaks most clearly and with the most impact to you when someone tells you that they love you?

    3. What dialect do you use to speak to “significant others” in your life (spouse, children, parents, etc.)?

    4. If Jesus were sitting next to you, what dialect would you use to speak to him?

    5. What dialect would like prefer that he speak to you in?

    6. What kind of vocabulary tugs most at your heart strings? Long technical words? Theological words, such as propitiation, justification, flesh, sanctification, repentance? Or everyday translations of these words, suchh as “turn from your sinful ways” for “Repent!”?

  10. Tim
    Posted December 22, 2005 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    But Wayne, an argument that the Bible be translated into what you call our ‘heart language’ (in response to the questions you have set out above), would require that the Bible speak only in one tone of voice – i.e. the intimate and informal voice we use with our closest friends and those we love. But in fact the Bible speaks in a multitude of tones – from the personal letter to the saga to the poetic to the straight narrative to – well, you name it, you’ll find it there. It goes all the way from the erotic poetry of Song of Songs to – well, to “I fell at his feet as though dead”. And even the erotic poetry of Song of Songs is NOT on the same basic level as the first love songs I heard, in my ‘first language’, as a five year old in 1963 – ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!’

    I’m no scholar of Hebrew or Greek, but I’m informed by those who are that one can detect different levels of sophistication in the original – Hebrews is highly sophisticated, for instance, while John is not. Surely, if we expect that a Bible translation always speak ‘my heart language’, we’re asking translators to translate it ‘flat’, rather than give it the variety of tone that the originals actually possess.

    My two cents’ worth (as a non-scholar).

    Tim

  11. Wayne Leman
    Posted December 22, 2005 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Tim objected:

    But Wayne, an argument that the Bible be translated into what you call our ‘heart language’ (in response to the questions you have set out above), would require that the Bible speak only in one tone of voice – i.e. the intimate and informal voice we use with our closest friends and those we love.

    I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer, Tim. The questions I listed are to discover your heart language. A language is like English (with its various dialects), Spanish, etc. In this case, in answer to the question I was asked, I gave some ideas for discovering one’s dialect of a language. Some English dialects are: Deep South American English, Midwest American English, Canadian (which actually has several dialects, including “Newfie”), Australian, Nigerian, Scottish English, British English (with several subdialects). What you are zeroing in on is what is called language register or style, and you are exactly right that there are different styles and registers throughout the Bible. But the Bible was written in 3 languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It can be translated into one of several standard dialects of English, including any of the dialects I listed above for English.

    You’re right that we would not want all of a Bible translation to sound intimate. I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear. My questions were to try to help someone determine what is the ordinary dialect they use to speak to family members, neighbors, coworkers, etc. I should have added some questions that included these categories of people with whom we would speak our heart language.

  12. Wayne Leman
    Posted December 22, 2005 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    So, Tim, to the questions I suggested for determining one’s heart language, we should add others, such as:

    7. What language do you use to speak to the checkout clerk at your grocery story?

    8. What language do you use to speak to your neighbors?

    Whatever is your ordinary, everyday dialect is your heart language. The term “heart language,” is, I can see a little misleading. The focus should not be on heart, as if everything talked about would be intimate and loving, but on heart as the center of emotions, as the metaphorical center for being impacted spiritually by what we hear and read. One’s heart language would cover the ability to speak, write, and understand all the different tones and genres throughout the Bible.

  13. Tim
    Posted December 22, 2005 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Wayne. Sorry to flog this one to death, but I’d like to ask you one more question, I guesss. Could you identify for us the different ‘dialects’ of English associated in your mind with the different Bible translations available?

    You see, I’m wondering whether, by the definition you are using, you are justified in referring to ‘church English’ as a ‘dialect’ at all.


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