Should Barbarians Get to Have God’s Words?

Salmon are anadromous.

That’s a $25 word that feels how terms found in encyclopedias are supposed to feel: formal, scientific. It’s in a higher register of English.

But if you know a little Greek, you’ll see immediately that all it means is “running back.” The salmon “run back” upstream to spawn. And it’s not to avoid confusion with American football that we say anadromous instead of “running back”: it’s because in our culture, scientificky terms are supposed to sound highfalutin.

Countless Latin and Greek terms sound formal and intelligent coming from people in white lab coats. But many have very mundane etymologies, or word histories:

  • Aedes albopictus, a species of mosquito, comes from “odious thing painted white.”
  • Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruitfly, comes from “dew-loving black-belly.”
  • Bradypus pygmaeus, a species of three-toed sloth, comes from “slow-footed dwarf.”

There is nothing necessary about all this. It’s an accident of history (ultimately a providence of God, of course) that the ancient tongues of two neighboring countries on the Mediterranean, Greek and Latin, have become the universal languages of biological classification. One can easily imagine a world in which this did not occur, one in which we called salmon “running-back fish” and thought nothing of it. Or one in which Chinese or Swahili were our preferred source of scientific labels.

“Running back fish” doesn’t sound formal enough to us to be the name of a species; it sounds quaint or primitive. But if we think this way, we critique ourselves, because even our most elaborate, pretentious scientific terminology is no different etymologically. We name our daughters Melissa (honeybee) and Margaret (pearl). Is our language so superior to that of the “primitives”?

Primitive barbarian language

Why doesn’t English sound quaint or primitive to us? Because in many respects it is the top language of the world. Depending on how you count, more people speak English as a second language than any other. It’s the default language of international scientific papers; it has a huge and well developed literature. We have no trouble thinking of our language as a fit vessel for the words of God.

But it wasn’t always this way. English was once a “down-market” tongue that had no dictionary and not much literature to speak of. In the England of yore, it was French, brought in by the socially ascendant Norman conquerors, that sat atop the linguistic hierarchy. (Latin sat both beside and above it in ways I confess I don’t fully understand.) If you are a native English speaker, you have no idea what it’s like to speak English in such a cultural setting. You can’t even imagine it.

So let me help you, by quoting from a “Bible” that is sure to provoke a very negative reaction (along with a few chuckles) from every reader of this blog. This is from the LOLCatz “translation” of the Bible. Yes, this is a thing.

1 In teh land of Uz wuz a man calded Job. Teh man wuz goodz, wif respeck fur teh Ceiling Cat and hated evilz. 2 Teh man hadz seven sunz and tree doters, 3 And lots of mices and camlez and rinoceruseses and servnts and stuff. srsly. 4 His sunz tok turns mading cookies, and they all eated them. 5 And Job wuz liek “Oh noes! Wut if cookies were sin? Gotta pray, just in cases.”

I’m betting that this language felt rather too informal, slangy, and sacrilegious for most of my readers to belong in a Bible. I’m betting it didn’t feel like a real language. It felt like it’s breaking the rules. And, fwiw, like srsly, I agree!

But that’s something like how John Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible (1380s) made plenty of educated people feel. Dominican friar Thomas Palmer, writing in 1404 or so, said,

How…the properties of the [Greek] language can be preserved in the English tongue, or any other barbarous tongue, which is by no means governed by rules of grammar, I fail to see.

I’m sure he’d say the same of the LOLCatz Bible. And yet, can’t we all agree that he was wrong to sneer at English, even at an earlier stage in its development? Did English speakers not deserve to hear God’s words in their own language, just because Shakespeare and Spenser hadn’t been born yet to show what English can do?

I purposefully chose a caricature of English as my example above because, frankly, if I chose real-life Englishes from outside the ones my readers know from TV (the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa), I’m afraid some readers would write me off. The temptation to sneer at others’ speech as “barbarous” is so strong. Twice in my life, as a young college student, I did precisely this when I heard varieties of English I hadn’t encountered before. I sneered out loud. I feel so embarrassed about giving in to that impulse—an impulse we should resist, for at least two reasons.

Why sneering at “inferior” languages is wrong

First, Paul specifically wipes out the category of “barbarians” when it comes to the Christian religion. In Christ, there is no such thing:

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:11)

Paul isn’t outlawing all mention of these differences—or he’d be condemning his own writings, which are full of discussions of Greek and Jew, slave and free. He’s using beautiful language to show that membership in Christ’s body transcends all other identities.

And what did Paul’s readers dislike about barbarians? What marked them off as a “down-market” variety of human? Their very name gives a clue: They were called barbarians because their speech sounded to the Greeks like the babblings of primitive cavemen: bar, bar, bar, bar. Barbarian was originally a slam on the so-called barbarians’ language.

Don’t do that; don’t despise people for their speech.

Second, God promised to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham. He promised to bless even people who aren’t born into a family speaking a high-status language, a language with a rich culture full of the literature that literally surrounds me as I write. I’m sitting in a small public library; and yet the number of books here dwarfs the literary output of many low-status languages combined. These languages shouldn’t have to wait till they have well-developed literature to get the Bible. Bible translators are even now rightly giving their lives to put the Bible in the down-market tongues of peoples you’ve never heard of.

I don’t know how much literature existed in the languages of the “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites” who were present at Pentecost, who said in astonishment while a bunch of unlettered Galileans were testifying to them about the great works of God, “How is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8) I don’t know if their languages had theological terminology appropriate for translating the knottier bits of the Pauline epistles.

I do know that at Pentecost “there were also residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belong to Cyrene,” not to mention Latin speakers and “Cretans and Arabians.” I know that every single person heard the disciples speaking to them in his or her own tongue. And I know that “all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:8–12 ESV).

I’ll tell you what it means: when God wishes to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham, he meets them where they are, linguistically speaking. He doesn’t make them all learn another language (or an archaic or higher-status version of their own languages). He doesn’t even make them cock their heads and say, That’s some funny Phrygian.

We rightly revere the Word of God. But it’s possible to revere it in such a way that we deny it to others, to sneer at their speech as only so much barbarian grunting.

Give the word of God to the people. To all the families of the earth God wishes to bless.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a writer for Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

***

When it comes to God’s Word, there’s no shortage of opinions on which language—or which translation—is “best.” In his newest book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, Mark Ward builds a case for English Bible translations that should be readable by the common man. Get this book today!

Comments

  1. Mark, tanks fer the heartfelt article you so wonderfully crafted. I don’t often read your blog but the title of this one caught my attention. I must tell you that each article of yours I have read has been a delight. You strike me as a man with a good mind and heart for the Lord, His church and His people.
    You are appreciated,
    Reverend Dr. Gary Salmans, First Baptist Church in Leoti, Kansas

  2. Mark, just let me say Amen! to your thoughts.
    I had a seminary professor who asserted that if you didn’t read the Bible in the original language that “it was like kissing your beloved through a veil.”
    Many years ago, when I lived in The Netherlands, working with the Air Force in a multi-national NATO assignment (where the official language[s] were English and French), I found that while I was fluent in American, and I was only passable in English. I had one British duty officer remind me (with a chuckle in his voice, and a smile on his face) that in NATO, English spelling and usage was governed by the Oxford and not the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
    During my Air Force career, I lived 12 of my 27 years overseas (both throughout the Pacific Rim, and in Central Europe). In the land of these “barbarians” I always tried to learn enough of the local language that I wouldn’t go hungry, and wouldn’t get my face slapped. However, I cannot count the number of times I heard colleagues complain about locals who spoke English quite poorly (talk about “The Ugly American”). My word, at least they were trying! However, early on, I decided I shouldn’t complain about these “barbarians” if I couldn’t speak their language better than they could speak mine. Perhaps that’s an attitude I learned from my French Canadian, Roman Catholic, mémère who married an Irishman, and who had a Japanese gardener. Regardless, I never achieved that linguistic goal.
    Thanks for reminding us that English isn’t the only language in which God’s word can be heard and understood. Thanks for reminding us that God hears our prayers, not only in our native language (whatever it might be) but in whatever language we use (even if it’s LOLCatz).
    Blessings to you and yours and your work,
    Dale