Cool article (via bloug) for a number of reasons. But the one thing that really popped out for me was the fact that missionaries, in order to convert other cultures to Christianity, are first converting other cultures into written-language cultures.
It’s like “terraforming” (converting a planet into one hospitable to earth life forms), but for religion. The missionaries are certainly creating written languages for spoken ones in part to just help societies enter the global community (I suppose), but also to get them on track with Biblical scripture and whatnot.
And it begs a question, for me (and not out of disrespect, because I still consider myself Christian), about the nature of religious truth. Or truth in general. How does the cognitive landscape shift when a culture’s language suddenly becomes writable and readable? How does it affect history and communal understanding?
I can’t imagine a more fundamental, bone-level shift in reality for human beings.
Based in Dallas, S.I.L. (which stands for Summer Institute of Linguistics) trains missionaries to be linguists, sending them to learn local languages, design alphabets for unwritten languages and introduce literacy. Before they begin translating the Bible, they find out how many translations are needed by testing the degree to which speech varieties are mutually unintelligible. “The definition of language we use in the Ethnologue places a strong emphasis,” said Dr. Lewis, “on the ability to intercommunicate as the test for splitting or joining.”