One of the many destructive actions of the British in taking over Australia was the suppression of indigenous languages. Superior power meant that the subject people had to dispense with their own culture, including their native language, to live in the new world of their conquerors. The policy of assimilation was a polite version of this political reality. Use of native language was discouraged if not forbidden. Children separated from their parents were raised to speak English and forget their native language.
The loss of native language has a drastic effect on people. It means a break-down in intergenerational communication and common life. It means a loss of history, a loss of identity, and a decrease in communication. It frays family life. It is as serious as the loss of land, loss of lifestyle, loss of skills, and the loss of birds and animals. We have apologised for ‘the Stolen Generation’. We have not yet apologised for the stolen land, the stolen culture, or the stolen languages.
It is an even more serious crime when we think of God’s desire to communicate to people in their own native language. We believe that God accommodates himself to us in his verbal revelation, by speaking in comprehensible human language. What grace! What kindness! What mercy! And God’s words are so powerful and he is so compassionate and gracious, that his verbally inspired Scriptures can be translated into any human language, and still function as God’s powerful, life-giving, converting, and communicating word! As Augustine observed, God seems especially close to us when he speaks out own language.
The translatability of the Bible was one of the great discoveries and contributions of the Reformation. It signified that God came down to speak to everyone in the Bible. It had a profound effect on gospel progress, as it had a profound effect on all cultures, languages and nations which received translated Bibles. It promoted education in reading and writing, the study of languages, and the idea that great ideas could and should be entrusted to ordinary people, not just the elite. It promoted the democratisation of education and learning and knowledge. And if God speaks to us in our own language, then he can hear and understand us when we pray in our own language! Praise him!
God's Word in Our Words
The idea of God speaking in native languages is pervasive in the Bible. We might have thought that the story of the tower of Babel means that God does not like the many languages of the world. That is not true. The wonderful discovery of the day of Pentecost was: ‘we hear them telling in own languages the wonderful works of God’ (Acts 2:11). When Ezra taught the Law in Nehemiah 8, the Levites walked among the people to ensure that they understood what they were hearing, and this probably included translating Hebrew into Aramaic. (Aramaic, similar to Hebrew, but a different language, was spoken by many Jews in later Old Testament times and in New Testament times).
One remarkable feature of Jesus’ ministry is his use of both Greek and Aramaic. I think he spoke both languages. [Lots of debate on this question!]. But notice he called a dead little girl to life he used the Aramaic words ‘Talitha koum!’ [Little girl, get up Mark 5:41], and when he prayed for the deaf and dumb man he uses the Aramaic word ‘Ephphatha!’ [Be opened 7:34], no doubt because this was their native language. Most movingly, when he was praying for himself in the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, ‘Abba, father’ Mark 14:36], using the Aramaic and Greek words for Father. And when he was crucified, he prayed, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ [My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Mark 15:34].
Interestingly, Paul uses the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ in the context of prayer, echoing Jesus. ‘We cry, Abba, Father’. And he points out that such prayer is prompted by the Holy Spirit. [Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6]. Greek-speaking and Aramaic speaking believers can pray in their own languages.
And in the song of praise to the slain and risen Lamb in Revelation we read these words:
You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
people from every tribe and language and people and nation
It is precisely because we believe that the Bible is translatable into any language that people have worked to translate it into the many languages of the world. And although there were many indigenous languages in Australia, faithful Bible translators, both missionaries and indigenous people worked hard to do the same task here. That meant finding out the words and structure of language for each language and then producing a faithful Bible translation. The by-product of this work was the preservation of many languages which might otherwise have been lost. It was hard work, and the first complete Bible in Kriol, was only published recently (Kriol is not an original indigenous language, but a constructed common language created by indigenous people).
Support Indigenous Languages
There is currently a movement to recover and teach indigenous languages in schools. We should support this movement, as we should support the ongoing translation of the complete Bible into the indigenous languages of Australia.
Here in Australia we recently celebrated NAIDOC week (= National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee). NAIDOC began as a day of prayer in 1938, prompted by William Cooper, a significant indigenous Christian leader. You will find his letter on Wikipedia, under the history of NAIDOC.
The theme of NAIDOC week this year was indigenous languages. Believers in the God who speaks have every reason to support Bible translation into our native languages. Let’s support Bible translation into indigenous languages, and let’s pray that God will raise up young people to commit to that ministry.
From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator’s praise arise
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung
Through every land by every tongue.
Photo: unsplash.com, Phillip Zamagias (body)