How Christian Missionaries Created The Largest Language Database In The World

Christians went from being very translation-averse to the most prolific translators around.
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How Christian Missionaries Created The Largest Language Database In The World

The Bible is the most-translated book ever written. By a huge margin. It’s been translated into 670 languages, which is twice as many as the runner-up, The Little Prince. And if you count the number of languages that has at least a piece of Bible translation, the total jumps to 3,312. Keep in mind, there are only 7,097 identified languages in existence, so this is pretty significant.

While translating the Bible may have started as a missionary tactic to convert people to Christianity, it has a greater significance. By collecting so much data on languages, Christian missionaries have created one of the most valuable linguistic tools modern researchers have. A huge portion of this work can be traced to one company: Wycliffe Bible Translators. The story of how a small mission established linguistic dominance over the world is not very well-known, but it should be.

A Brief History Of Bible Translation

For a long time, translating the Bible was considered heresy. The Bible was the Word of God, and translating the text from high-and-mighty Latin would be to debase it. But as Christianity grew, fewer and fewer adherents spoke Latin, and even fewer could read it. That meant only the upper classes and leaders of the Church actually knew what was in the Bible, and the lower classes had to have everything interpreted for them.

Then, in the 14th century, came John Wycliffe, who believed that the text should be translated so anyone could read the Bible in their own language. This riled up the Catholic Church, and it certainly didn’t help that Wycliffe once called the Pope “the Anti-Christ.” Wycliffe believed the officials in the church were obsessed with money and power, and if there were to be reform, the Bible needed to be translated. Wycliffe, along with others who shared his beliefs, worked together on an English translation of the Bible. He died in 1384 before it was completed, but he became a lasting enemy of the Church. In 1427, the Pope had his body dug up, burned and then thrown into a river as punishment for his offense.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries was what finally caused the Church to come around. The movement was kicked off by German theologist Martin Luther, who rebelled against the Church and translated the Bible into German in the early 16th century. The reformation eventually led to substantial change, and from the 17th century onward, the Church began to acknowledge translations of the Bible.

In the 21st century, it’s a pretty big business.

John Wycliffe's Bible
John Wycliffe reading his translation of the bible to John of Gaunt. Reproduction by Ford Madox Brown / Wikimedia

The Rise Of The Bible Translators

There are a number of groups today that work on translating the Bible, but none are as influential as Wycliffe Bible Translators. Named after John Wycliffe, this company went from a small Christian mission to a linguistic powerhouse. This is in large part thanks to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the more science-based subsidiary of Wycliffe.

Both the Summer Institute of Linguistics and Wycliffe Bible Translators were founded by the same man: William Cameron Townsend. In 1917, Townsend was traveling through Central America, not as a missionary but as an American Bible salesman. He was attempting to sell his Spanish Bibles to the indigenous people, and he ran into the pretty obvious problem of indigenous people not wanting a book that wasn’t in their language. Ignoring the missionaries who warned him against translation (translation was now accepted by the Church, but not very encouraged), Townsend went to work translating the Bible into Kaqchikel, an indigenous language spoken in Guatemala. After that, he set up the Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1934 to train other pastors to begin working on more languages.

The Summer Institute, while certainly a religious organization, was heavily involved in linguistic research. Some of the languages that were being translated had never been written down before, so missionary-researchers had to learn the spoken language and devise writing systems to even begin translating. In doing so, the Summer Institute accomplished a lot for the preservation of endangered languages. To keep the science and religion slightly separate, Townsend started the Wycliffe Bible Translators back in the United States to focus more on the religious aspects of the system. Over the years, both have grown to become massively, if quietly, influential. The Summer Institute is now known as SIL International, and it sends people all over the world to research languages, and also to pave the way for converting indigenous people. 

A Caveat On Religious Missions

Before going into the benefits that researchers have reaped from SIL International and Wycliffe, it’s worth noting that they have caused controversy. Christian missions have a long history of imperialism, and they have forced their beliefs on indigenous populations around the world. The Summer Institute has been better than some other groups, at least. One of Townsend’s original goals in creating Wycliffe was assisting local governments’ welfare programs, which is fairly noble, but still imperfect.

The biggest controversy to address is when Ecuador kicked the Summer Institute out of the country in 1981. The Ecuadorian government accused the group of not properly preserving indigenous cultures, and of essentially Americanizing the people of the country. Ecuador’s complaints have been echoed in other criticisms of Wycliffe and the Summer Institute, which point out that by imposing Christian beliefs on indigenous cultures, missionaries are actually speeding up language death and homogenizing culture. The Summer Institute has defended itself by saying that changing cultures is not the same as destroying them, but that is the subject of a larger debate.

The Impact Of The Summer Institute of Linguistics

In 2018, 71 percent of the people in the world can access the entire Bible in their native language. And Wycliffe Bible Translators has announced that it hopes to have started working on every single language by 2025. Already, the company has created the largest database of information about languages anywhere. While those facts in themselves are impressive, the lasting impact of Wycliffe and SIL International will likely be in how all this data is used. Here are just a few examples of how SIL International’s research has been useful for researchers.

Cultural Preservation: Taushiro, a language of the Amazon, was once spoken by thousands of people, but is now spoken by only one. But before the Taushiro people slowly died off due to disease and various other causes, missionaries from the Summer Institute of Linguistics became close to the tribe and studied the language. One missionary spent two decades of her life preserving the language and culture. So while the language will likely die, it will at least be documented.

Machine Translation: For researchers working on machine translation, having one big book translated into so many different languages is a godsend. Plus, the translations of the Bible tend to be very conservative, meaning that the structure of the sentences and Bible verses are kept as similar as possible to the original language. This makes it easier for researchers to match up an obscure language with a well-known language in order to figure out translations of individual words and the overall structures of the languages.

Linguistic Theory: It was while working for the Summer Institute of Linguistics that linguist Daniel Everett started his research on the Pirahã language, which has upended notions of how language works. Everett wrote in his findings that the Pirahã language has no numbers, no recursion, no definitive color terms and no words like “all” or “most.” He has argued that this language provides evidence that many accepted ideas in the linguistic community — Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar being the big one — are wrong. In any case, his work starting with the Summer Institute has opened up a huge debate on linguistics that’s been going for decades.

The World’s Largest Language Database: The Summer Institute of Linguistics runs Ethnologue, a massive resource with information about languages. The company has aggregated information on every language that’s been identified, with data on how many speakers there are, where the language is spoken and more. It’s an indispensable resource for many linguists.

Bible translation is behind a surprising number of linguistic achievements. Wycliffe Bible Translators is one of the few organizations with the money and the dedication to send researchers to all the corners of the world to deeply study languages that may be spoken by no more than a few hundred people. This is both a blessing and a curse, as those who disagree with Wycliffe’s motives must begrudgingly use the company’s data anyway. It’s always worth knowing who is behind big research, and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

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