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Language Death, Revival …and Parrots? February 20, 2023

Posted by Pete B in Language revitalisation.
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Sometime when the last speaker of a language dies, the language dies with them. Sometimes living fragments live on in shared vocabulary and sometimes written records or audio recording remain. In an age where we see value in slowing or even reversing language loss, there may even be attempts to begin teaching the language again.

When the last of the Maypuré people were killed in 1799 by a neighboring tribe, fragments of their language lived on in the brains and voices of their pet parrots.

These were documented by German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, who carefully listened to the parrots and to the best of his ability wrote down all he could of what they said phonetically. Skip forward almost two hundred years to 1997 and something else interesting happened – artist Rachel Berwick, to the best of her ability, took those transcriptions, taught them to a couple of parrots and made an art installation. This made a few news stories at the time but what happened next?

Well to parrot Berwicks own words:

While it was first exhibited in 1997, may-por-é has continued to evolve as I have worked with additional parrots, one pair in Turkey for the Istanbul Biennial in 2001, and another pair in Brazil for the Mercosul Bienal de Porto Alegre in 2004 and finally, Innsbruck, Austria in 2008 for the exhibition “Voice and Void.” For these venues younger parrots learned from my first two parrots. I trained them largely through the use of recordings of my birds and “Berlitz” tapes for lessons. Volunteers who were on site conducted lessons with the young birds and additional lessons were transmitted via the Internet. There are now a total of eight Maypuré speaking parrots worldwide.


The revival of the Maypuré language is definitely limited, and as far as I can tell from some admittedly limited googling there are no known descendants of the actual tribe alive let alone relearning the language.

In many other instances of language death the process has been more gradual but of over 300 languages that are classified as ‘nearly extinct’ almost 40 are (or were) down to the last one or two known fluent speakers in 2022.

Each year there are news stories of the death of the last know speaker and updates to a Wikipedia List of languages by time of extinction. For 2022 it currently lists just two but there may be more:

DateLanguageLanguage familyRegionTerminal speaker
5 October 2022Mednyj AleutMixed AleutRussianCommander Islands, RussiaGennady Yakovlev[1]
16 February 2022YahganIsolatedMagallanes, ChileCristina Calderón[2]

The stories of many of these last speakers are inspirational and today though videos, recordings, and living memory their words live on. By the time a language is almost dead, the chances of reviving it are slim, but not impossible. Stories on language death and language revitalisation will continue to appear on this blog and on wikipedia pages and news sites around the world.

You might even see a few hit the headlines as part of International Mother Language Day each year on Feb 21st.

I hope to follow up with a few more stories of how technology, strategies and above all, people are making a difference.

2023 starting the year well with online Bibles January 1, 2023

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Scripture Engagement, Statistics.
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Happy New Year! …and no, the balloons aren’t wrong. I’m celebrating the fact that at the start of the year there are online Bibles, New Testaments, or portions of scripture available via Bible apps in at least 2,322 languages. (there may be a few I don’t know about plus a couple harder to classify)

  • YouVersion provides 2,867 versions in 1,913 languages, many with audio and video as well as text.
  • Faith Comes by Hearing provided audio scriptures in 1,740 languages by the end of Dec. (figures released early 2023. They also provide text and video for many of these and for a few they have text but no audio yet)
  • SIL’s Scripture App Builder isn’t a single app but rather a tool for creating scripture apps and so far they have been created in at least 1536 languages.

In some languages scripture is available on only one app, in others there is a choice and so between them, according to my best attempts at combining the lists scripture is available in 2,322 languages via these platforms and there are others online in other ways too. ScriptureEarth.org and Find.bible are two sites that try and list all the available languages and versions. On this blog I don’t try and list everything but I do point to these and other sites and encourage you to do so too.

You might only speak one or two languages languages or you may speak several. Digital Bibles in (all) the language(s) you speak may have been on your phone for several years. They might only have been added in the last 12 months or they might be still to be added, or even translated.

2023 is a year you can celebrate that more Bibles, in more languages, will be available to more people, as each platform increases its content and its reach. You can help too, through your own work in Bible translation and Scripture Engagement (several colleagues read this stuff); through praying for, encouraging and financially supporting people and organisations; and through the simple practice of telling or showing people where and how to access the Bible in their languages on their phones.

…oh and don’t forget to read/listen to/watch the Bible throughout this year and let it speak to you. Just like the print versions, Bible apps are much more useful when opened regularly.

“I will put my law in their phones and write it on their screens.”

Jer 31:33 (Altered Version) …not as good as the original

“I have hidden your word in my phone
that I might look at if I remember” 

Ps 119:11 (Altered Version) …not as good as the original

More Bits of the Bible in English dialects …and what to call this stuff December 26, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Dialect versions, Scripture Engagement.
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Yo’n often wondther’t, aw darsay, why wi durn’t o talk th’ same lingo! Well! aw lippen
ther are various explanations, an’ ‘ere’s one fro’ th’ owd book, as sarves as a soart o’
link between Noah’s new start an’ th’ foundin’ o’ th’ Jewish nation.

Brooks, Rev. Joseph Barlow, Th’ Amazin’ Stories o’ th’ Bible (i’ th’ Lankisher Dialect) (1937)

There are over 7000 languages in the world, and many of those consist of a variety of dialects that are also very much part of people’s local identity. Samples of text from Th’ Amazin’ Stories o’ th’ Bible are available here as part of a collection called the Salamanca Corpus but neither these nor the 1938 edition of Th’ Good News accordin’ to Mark : Arrang’t an’ thranscrib’t fer Northerners, i’ th’ Lankisher appear to be available in print or in copies circulating in used bookshops.

I’ve recently blogged about the Gospels in Scouse, which was endorsed by the (then) bishop of Liverpool, the Cockney and Aussie Bibles, endorsed by the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury, the (then) Archbishop of Sydney and the (then) deputy prime minister of Australia.

One version that I’d heard of but not looked at was Clarence Jordan’s Cotton patch gospel which in a later imprint included an introduction from the former president Jimmy Carter. Clarence Jordon’s, Cotton Patch Version was billed as “a modern translation with a Southern accent, fervent, earthy, rich in humor.” and is infamous for not only for the style of language in his retelling but for also substituting the place names to southern USA locations, and switching the names of the a few people such as the twelve disciples: Rock, Jack, Jim, Andy, Phil, Tom, Bart, Matt, Jim Alston, Simon the Rebel, and Joe Jameson.

The three other titles pictured above don’t have such prestigious endorsements. Dew Yew Lissen Hare by Colin Riches uses Norfolk dialect, Andrew Elliott’s Geordie Bible is in the local dialect of Tyneside, and for those readers of this blog who are unfamiliar with the Black Country of Kate Fletcher’s 1986 dialect work, it refers to coal rather than ethnicity and an area of the UK’s West Midlands covering Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall. I also previously blogged about an older 1968 Black Country Nativity and about “Gods Brainwave: The Story of Jesus doing the job his old dad sent him to do” by Bernard Miles a retelling of the gospel in the language of the Chiltern Hills, originally commissioned for radio by the BBC’s Religious Broadcasting department.

One characteristic of the various ‘retellings’ of Bible stories in English dialects that I’ve encountered is that they would make many a number of people, especially Bible translation consultants, nervous about referring to them as translations.

Fortunately “ A guide to Bible Translation: People, Languages, and Topics“, published by UBS in 2019 provides another term used by scholars for these works: “Adaptive retellings”. The article on this is an edited version of an earlier article by SIL’s Freddy Boswell, “Classifying cotton patch version and similar renderings as adaptive retelling rather than translation

Each retelling seems to be full of anachronisms, often add unnecessary detail an dialogue, and are as Boswell notes “Lexically, very expressive”. Are they meant to be taken seriously? Yes and no. They are meant to be fun but also engage people who wouldn’t necessarily read much if any of the “proper” translations but are intended to set the stage for something deeper.

There is a lot to consider (hence a nice long academic article) but in point 11 of his conclusions Boswell stated “Perhaps it goes without saying, but I will state the obvious: I believe the Adaptive Retelling approach definitely qualifies as a legitimate, useful, and potentially highly successful entry point for delivering God’s Word to a language group”.

It’s the day after Christmas as I write this blog and I’m not sending any work emails until the new year, but I do look forward to asking a few colleagues what they think of this approach and in one contexts they consider it might be appropriate.

The Cockney and the Aussie Bibles (Well, Bit of ’em anyway) December 17, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Dialect versions.
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Covers of the Bible in Cockney a nd the Aussie Bible

When the Gospels in Scouse were published in 1967, the publishers advertised five other versions in preparation for series:

  • The Gospels in Cockney
  • The Gospels in Geordie
  • The Gospels in Brum
  • The Gospels in Glasgae
  • The Gospels in West Indian

As far as I can tell these particular versions were never published but drafts may live on in some distant corner. Over 30 years later a London RE teacher, Mike Coles tried to make Bible stories more engaging to pupils by retelling them in an East London dialect complete with Cockney Rhyming slang. The retold old testament stories lead to a verse by verse translation of the gospel of Mark and by the time it was published it received an endorsement by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey.

If you find that hard to believe you are not alone. A decade after the original publication it was featured on British TV show Would I lie to you, were panellists pondered whether it was true or not, possibly the only time in which the Lord’s prayer was read on the show.

After selling over 20,000 copies it was printed again, and has just been re-released, this time by the Bible Reading Fellowship as a “luxury commemorative edition of a classic title“.

In Australia it inspired the Aussie Bible which sold over 100,000 copies in the first few years, was published by the Bible Society of Australia and endorsed by many including the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and Australia’s deputy prime minister.

The official website for the Aussie Bible is no longer online but lives on at the internet archive.

As mentioned, I can find no record of the other gospels by the same publisher in Geordie, Brum, Glasgae, and West Indian mentioned as “Titles in preparation”, back in 1977 when my copy of the Gospels in Scouse were published. But there was a collection of Geordie Bible stories published in the 1970’s. I am not aware of any published gospels in Brummie (Birmingham), but there are some in the neighbouring Black Country dialect.

Jamie Stewart’s Glasgow Gospel were published in 1992 and chapters serialised in Glasgow’s Evening Times. The author died in 2022 at the age of 95 (read more here and access a free copy of Psalms for the People).

2010 saw the publication of the Gospel of Luke in Jamaican Patois with the full Jamaican New Testament published in 2012 and available on YouVersion in text and audio. The Jamaican New Testament is undoubtedly a ‘proper’ translation but what should we call the others?

Dialects aren’t daft – Jesus came down to earth December 16, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Dialect versions.
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I’d already heard stories from the Bible retold in various English dialects but recently I not only found a few more, I also read the reason behind these often jokey, almost scandalous retellings.

I may post details of a few more over the Christmas break but before a brief retelling of the nativity here’s the introduction by the then bishop of Liverpool to the Gospels in Scouse:

We often read the Gospels through Churchy spectacles, putting a sort of Sunday dress on the words. This can mislead us into putting Jesus and His words into a separate compartment from everyday life. And it can hide the sharpness of His challenge to us. 

This sharpness frequently breaks through in the Gospels in Scouse; “Youse shud star actin as if youse knew de meanin uv de werd sorry,” says John the Baptist. You can hear the words ringing tune in Liverpool language and culture. “Yer norron lad,” says’ Jesus to the Devil out in the desert. “On yer way…make yer name walker.” 

If you start reading this for amusement, I reckon the Lord will be content enough; I have a feeling you may stay for something deeper. Sometimes there are flashes of real insight; “If you want to get into God’s House. don’t play knock and run at His front door. There’s so many as does that God’s liable to wait to see which knocker’s earnest.

David Shepperd, introduction to the Gospels in Scouse by Dick Williams and Frank Shaw

The Gospels in Scouse were first published in 1967 and revised ten years later. In addition to the print version it was also available on a long playing record. Sadly neither the record nor the text appear to be available digitally online so here is a sample from their adaptation of the nativity.

Jesus is born

Jesus wus born in a back yard in Beth’lem in Judea but wus the Save-yer uv the whole werld. His mother Murry was a virgin, cum from a good family. So did er husband Joseph who became Jesus’s foster father. When e was courtin Murry, in their home town of Naz’rith whur dey was very poor, (e being in the carpentry line in a small way), an Joseph eers ow she wus he was properly narked at the first. Den he gets a direck messidge fum God an he understands.

Murry, Joseph, de lot, wus all Jews, under Roman rule, like. An de Roman ruler says, through a certain puppit Jewish bigshor, dat Jew, like evry body else in de werld, must get dare names purron a big werld-wide list. To do did, days avter go back to de town dare famly come from in de first place. Der Murry an Joseph dis meant Beth’lem, where dare ancestor David used ter live. So off day went.

De town wus chock a block. The baby was due and they cudden even get in a likkle pub. So the baby was born in the back yard among the animals. But wise men and ordnry sheppids come to see him and day knew dis wus no ordinary baby.

As you may notice the retelling goes beyond what would be considered a translation I can just make out reference to some of the controversy on the sleeve notes to the LP (that is online at discogs.com/release/23584916-Rev-Dick-Williams-Frank-Shaw-The-Gospels-In-Scouse )

Since the book of the Gospels in Scouse first appeared, the Rev Dick Williams has been called Judas and – happily without adverse result – reported to his hierarchy. Yet many, of all ages and classes, in various countries, have praised it’s new approach … The controversy continues. You, hearing these extracts will make up your own mind. We believe it will prove and enlightening process approached in the right manner, even for non-Christians. When Jesus preached in Judea and Jeruslame, a provincial workingman it was uncouth Aramaic that he spoke and it was to ordinary people he appealed. Say Shaw and Williams, ‘This is our way of praying’. Will you join them in prayer? Will scouse give you spiritual nourishment?

Old copies of the Gospels in Scouse can still be found to purchase online as can a number of other dialect versions. Others lurk in attics, and archives or have been lost completely. One has recently been republished and billed as … A very down-to-earth ‘translation’ that brings scripture out of the pulpit and back onto the streets. But that’s for another post. Stay tuned.

Mission in time – before and after 1992 December 9, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Uncategorized.
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It’s encouraging to think that for a few people from the UK their first steps towards involvement in global mission began back in 1992 in response to celebrations of the BMS Bicentenary. I know I did but I’d spent a lot more time memorising and proclaiming the words of William Carey than most of the audience.

I was part of a ‘multimedia celebration’ looking back at the history of the Baptist Missionary Society (we acted, danced and had a really big video projector), meanwhile Steve Chalke and the Shout theatre company looked to the future.

from the BMS Annual Report 1993

I don’t know how many people saw the shows or what impact they really had on the people who came along but after touring 50 different venues ‘inspiring’ people and presenting them with a slice of history and a challenge to involvement, the following year I joined in some local evangelism, started at Bible college, and on leaving Bible college joined Wycliffe.

Census 2021: Languages and locations in England and Wales November 30, 2022

Posted by Pete B in multilingualism, Statistics.
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The new census data on languages spoken in England and Wales has just been released. Here are two mapping tools to tell you what languages are in your area and where specific languages are spoken. (It is worth saying that most people living here who speak something other than English also speak English fluently).

You can search for a specific language using maps provided by the ONS. From January 2023 a new web tool from the UK government allows you to explore an increasing amount of data using custom defined maps. Keen explorers can already access data down to local authority level and from this I’ve created my own map of to show all the reported languages in each local authority (just for England so far, using information on different tiers of local government structure)

The public census information for England and Wales only includes 95 language categories –  77 languages and 18 groupings of ‘other’.

Most local authorities include speakers from languages in at least 70-80 categories. Birmingham is home to 92 languages and categories followed by Bristol, Manchester, Barnet and Brent with 91, and Nottingham, Bradford, Hackney and Haringey with 90. Apart from the Isles of Scilly no authority had less than 50 languages present.  

There are over 350 languages known to be spoken in the UK and Ireland. More detailed information is collected in annual school censuses.

There are many ways in which this information is useful, including encouraging churches and community groups to think about the additional languages spoken by people in their communities and in their congregations and I have a whole selection on my blog dedicated to the idea of a more multilingual church.

Search for a specific language —– Explore languages in each local authority

Writing down unwritten languages isn’t the only thing that’s complicated October 30, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Language revitalisation, Scripture Engagement.
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For almost 90 years linguists with SIL have been helping to write down languages, so far they’ve produced orthographies for over 1,300 languages.

The web page sil.org/orthography explains

Orthography is how a language is expressed in written form, with the symbols, punctuation, decisions on where to break words and where to join them together, and so on. It draws from linguistics, literacy and education, and sociopolitics. Though orthographies of different languages may resemble each other, each language needs to have an orthography based on that particular language.

Perhaps not surprisingly creating an accepted way of writing down a language is quite complicated and the page currently links to fourteen videos on orthography explaining a bit more about the process.

You can can read the titles very quickly and watch all the videos in just over three hours. You’d learn a lot but you’d still be ‘ll be a long way off being an expert.

There is also an orthography checklist with about 90 points on it. Again, it is pretty complex but apparently not exhaustive – there is always more to ask. I’ve not taken an orthography course and I’ve not watched all the videos but I did read the checklist, and was interested to note that while, not surprisingly, there were quite a few things relating to the science of linguistics, most of the questions are not really about language, they are about people, about their attitudes to reading and writing, what written languages they are already exposed to and what they think of them.

The goal of producing a useable orthography for a language is producing one that will be used and be useful to speakers of that language.

I’ll say that again in a bigger font.

The goal of producing a useable orthography is producing one that will be useful.

Being able to read and write in a language has many, many benefits to a community, even if only some people do much of the writing or the reading.

One of the things new orthographies are used for are is Bible Translation – this is also an incredibly complex process, that usually takes many years. As complicated as it is, orthography is only one part of one the eight conditions identified as necessary for Bible translation to have maximum effect. Again, the goal isn’t just to have a printed book (or an app, or audio recordings, videos, and more). Bible translation is complicated, and helping translation teams and local church to explore what they can to ensure translated scripture become accepted and used is complicated too.

I’ve posted a few brief things about Scripture Engagement in the past, and expect to post many more. For anyone wanting a brief introduction to the complexities I recommend a ten page article called the Eight Conditions of Scripture Engagement, there is a shorter list of the conditions on Scripture-Engagement.org where you can also find lot’s more to read.

I’ll end with a quote from the introduction to the Scripture Engagement site…

It’s not enough to translate the Bible; it’s not enough to distribute the Bible. Our desire is to see real Scripture Engagement: people encountering God’s Word in life-changing ways.


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