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7000+ languages and counting: Sheng, Ayapanec, Manx and more July 17, 2015

Posted by P, J, or J in Uncategorized.
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Manx Sheng and Ayapenco

One of the reasons languages are so hard to count is that they keep changing (a key characteristic of any living language or culture).

For example Sheng began as urban street slang in Nairobi and may or may not be a language in it’s own right. It is mainly derived from: Swahili and English, and has begun to make it’s way into wider popular culture and media.

I don’t know much about it, but someone in an email list had just heard about it and wondered if it classed as a language in it’s own right yet and if anyone was (or should be) doing any Bible translation into Sheng.

Where languages are dying, and the next generation has shifted to speaking something different there is perhaps a point at which Bible translation may not be needed. I blogged recently about Ayapanec, a language where the the two remaining speakers had spent years not talking to each other. They are now and with a little help from Vodafone the language is undergoing some revival.

Manx (spoken in the Isle of Man) is another such language. Wikipedia states that, “Although the last of the original native speakers, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974, the language has never fallen completely out of use.” In fact some of the lessons learned and technologies and techniques explored in current revival efforts my well be of value for other communities around the world. This is partly why I’m a bit vague on the subject of how many languages there are. (about 7000 but 200 or so don’t have any ‘first language’ speakers, and others are in danger of dying out)

But what about where new languages are emerging?

Such decisions are highly complex.

Intrigued by Sheng, I Googled, read a couple of articles and pondered the question. Such a decision obviously needs to come from people who know the situation better. There is an interesting looking website at http://sheng.co.ke which appears do be doing some research and lots more academic articles out there. Scholars can debate whether it is a language or not, church leaders can debate whether it is appropriate for communicating God’s word, but meanwhile people are using it and people who’s first language is neither English or Swahili are connecting with each other using Sheng.

It could prove to be excellent candidate for scripture based products and some story sets for urban youth but it may be too early in it’s development as a full language to attempt a full Bible or New Testament.

I can imagine a provocative campaign asking if Jesus would have spoken Sheng and an urban church having a workshop (or a facebook competition) that encouraged youth to try translating a few verses and stories into Sheng.

Of course if you can imagine something then it’s worth Googling and seeing if someone has already imagined it.

They have.

Here’s some existing attempts:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrquMdHlJn4Uploaded on 23 Oct 2011, 7000+ views “Two Form Three students demonstrating how the Bible would sound in Sheng”
http://www.graduates.com/Forum/Comments/242746 “Bible in Sheng Ha Ha!”
http://shengilia.blogspot.co.uk/ – only one post on Acts 9

Translation has definitely been done for a number of established Pidgins and Creoles and within English there have been lots of ‘street language’ scriptures.
As for the current state of Sheng it may be exciting and dynamic but like most street vernacular it appears to be in constant flux: “The language is familiar enough that a Sheng dictionary came out recently. But dictionaries for Sheng have a short shelf life because of how rapidly the vocabulary change. “After a year,” he says, “the dictionary is expired.” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/roads/2013/11/sheng_is_becoming_a_kenyan_language_how_the_urban_slang_of_nairobi_slums.html

So should Christians be using Sheng to communicate the gospel? What would you do?

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Comments»

1. RG - July 24, 2015

Of course we should use Sheng to communicate the Gospel. And dictionaries? An online wiki dictionary should be flexible enough to keep up with the rapid changes in Sheng.

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