• Tim Robinson

Dialect Delights.

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I recently received an e-mail granting the new codes to seven dialects that I had requested. Before you switch off (Yawn, Ali is talking about her boring job again!) or wonder what on earth a dialect is going to do with a code, let me try to explain.

Let’s start with languages . . .

There are a great many languages in the world, 7,106 at the last count (Ethnologue, 2014). There are also lots of languages, in different countries (and sometimes even in the same country!) that share the same name despite having nothing else in common. For example, in Nigeria there are two unrelated languages that go by the name of Ichen. To save confusion and to ensure that we do not duplicate our effort needlessly we need to be able to identify exactly which language we are talking about without having to go into a great long description of that language e.g. “You know, the Ichen that is spoken in Taraba state and is related to Jukun, not the one related to Izere that is spoken in Plateau State.” Bit of a mouthful!

So, to avoid all this messing about, each identified language in the world has been given a unique ISO 639-3 code. Ichen from Taraba State is [ich], whereas the Ichen from Plateau is [cen]. No two languages have the same code.

I have to say that from a scientist’s perspective I find this rather pleasing. I used to work with small worms, crustaceans and molluscs that each had their own unique scientific names like Calliostoma zizyphinum (a personal favourite) and Crepidula fornicata. These names could be used among scientists anywhere in the world and everyone would be talking about the same thing, whereas if someone just mentioned the Slipper Limpet, it could mean any one of a dozen different species.

However, I digress. Back to languages and their dialects. So, described languages are quite tidy, they each have their own ISO code, all neat and sorted, right?

Er, not quite. You see some languages are made up of several dialects, these are closely related but sometimes still not fully comprehensible to a speaker of a different dialect. In some cases they really are so incomprehensible to each other that separate translations are needed in each dialect. So we need to go one deeper and be able to give a unique code to some dialects as well, otherwise, once again we could find ourselves reinventing the wheel in a dialect that already has work in it.

So back to the beginning – these dialects are ones where language work is progressing to ensure that the speakers of those dialects have scripture in a form that they can really relate to and understand deeply. I always think of this in terms of French but maybe if we are thinking dialects then a broad Glaswegian might be more appropriate. Imagine if you only had the Bible in audio form and the reader spoke in a broad accent using words and figures of speech that only a Glaswegian could comprehend – how well would you grow as a Christian? Always struggling to really understand what God’s Word really meant, maybe thinking that God didn’t really understand you or care about you because he didn’t even speak your dialect. For many people in Nigeria they face a similar situation.

These seven new dialect codes represent groups of people who are that bit closer to getting God’s Word in their own, fully understood, dialect. Six have active projects where speakers of the language are translating the Bible into their language!

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