Every two weeks, the world loses another language.
That’s the conclusion of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in a summary of a recent briefing. Although there are 7000 languages spoken around the world, the linguistic experts note that languages are rapidly dying in northern Australia, eastern Siberia, British Columbia, large swaths of South America, and through Oklahoma and the southwest of the United States.
Now, the crass viewpoint would view this as some sort of linguistic evolution. English rises as the world’s primary language of business and diplomacy, and the weaker, smaller languages get left in the dust. But there’s much more going on here. Listen…
Languages that embody the history and traditions of people are dying….losing languages means losing knowledge…
K. David Harrison, assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College says, ‘When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.’
If the last speaker of many of these languages died tomorrow, the languages would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind…languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment. The children may be the first to do this, realizing that other more widely spoken languages are more useful.
Now all of that is interesting enough from a sociological viewpoint. But it gets sobering when you think about this from the standpoint of our Christian language. Over the past decade or so, there has been an increasing pressure to find and use more accessible language to talk about our common faith and belief. That concern has primarily been directed in 2 directions, one focused inward (passing faith to the next generation) and one focused outward (communicating Christian faith to a post-Christian culture.)
How has that been attempted? By promoting a change of language about Christian faith through Biblical translations and paraphrases. From the Good News Bible to the Living Bible to the Contemporary English Version and The Message, various groups have attempted to communicate the faith in lowest common denominator language. They have often used reading level equivalencies as the basis for word choices and more. That’s true of more mainstream translations like the NIV and New Living Translation as well.
When you add that to the increasing diversity of curricula for all ages (including individual churches and larger publishing houses) that often feature a unique paraphrase of Scripture passages, I think a case can be made that we are steadily losing a common Christian language. Like so many other aspects of faith, language about faith is becoming a matter of individual taste.
But all words have meanings. And Christian words have meanings that provide the substance of our faith. If you hold to a high view of inspiration, the Holy Spirit moved on human writers of Scripture in such a way that the words they wrote were precisely the words Almighty God wanted to use to reveal Himself and communicate His character, heart, ways and plans. (see 2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21) Think of it. Is it really possible to conceive of Christianity apart from very specific meanings for God, man, law, sin, flesh, grace, gospel, justification, redemption, adoption, sanctification, glorification, salvation, faith, disciple, kingdom, justice, church or sacrifice? If a people (the church) loses a common sense of meaning to those words, and then abandons the use of those words, can the faith long survive?
Of all the challenges the contemporary evangelical church faces in passing on faith to the coming generations (only 4% of which identify with a Christian church), this may be the most hidden and most deadly. The rush to relevance that has led us to adopt different musical styles for worship, embrace media as a communication tool and add unique programming for every life stage has also led us to jettison ancient language in favor of more “user-friendly’ terminology. So, we have raised a generation of Christians who no longer share or even know the words that have most defined us for centuries.
Why is this a problem? Remember the phrases above: “losing languages means losing knowledge…. When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking…. languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment…realizing that other languages… are more useful” With the increasing ignorance about these hugely important Christian words, aren’t we losing knowledge of the concepts or doctrine they represent? Aren’t we losing connection with centuries of thinking done by our spiritual forefathers and pridefully talking to ourselves as if there is no “great cloud of witnesses” who has faithfully gone before? Have we decided that these words are an impediment to our mission-mere words that sound dusty, archaic, and quaint? Is this why that increasingly, the vocabulary of our pastors and leaders is drawn from the worlds of psychology, business and government that just seem more “useful”?
The Christian life is rooted in Christian thought, and Christian thought is fed by Christian words and concepts. I think it’s time we do some serious thinking about how we might recover our language. The director of the Living Tongues Institute says “the key to getting a language revitalized is getting a new generation of speakers.” They work with local communities to develop teaching materials and making recordings. How do we do that? By helping people in our local churches learn and speak the language again.
Doesn’t this really boil down to a matter of preference for Biblical translation philosophy (dynamic equivalence of the NIV vs. literal approach for ESV, etc.)? That’s a part of the issue, but there’s more. Some are sure to point out that this precisely the argument that KJV-only fanatics have been hammering for years. I’m certainly not advocating a return to 17th-century Elizabethan English as the standard; that language died a long time ago.
Teaching Christians to wrap their minds and tongues around their unique language is a matter of intentional discipleship, yes, even catechesis of the young and old. To paraphrase Chesterton, these words haven’t been tried and found too hard for contemporary Christians; they simply haven’t been taught, practiced and learned. Pastors and leaders must study to know our people and their cultural context so well that we can become linguists of the soul. This is part of what it means to be missional. We learn the language of people in our world– and teach them the language of another world. It goes hand-in-hand with making sure our people know, really know, “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3). Most importantly, we’ve got to speak our own language fluently or a world full of spiritually lost people drifting to destruction will be deaf to the gospel call that “Jesus saves”. They’ll think that we’re just talking about the same stuff as everybody else.
Let’s make sure that the world doesn’t lose the Christian language. The message it carries is far more important than information about “seasons… reindeer, edible flowers… and the everyday.” Our language whispers and shouts the hope of a Love that changes everything and a Life that lasts forever.