Bible Translation

Enjoying the newly translated Luke’s Gospel

The Bamunka language, spoken by just 30,000 people, was not written down before the Bamunka Bible Translation project started, so no-one knew what the alphabet would look like, which way words would be spelt and how the grammar would work.

When the basics were decided, key people then had to be taught how to read and write their own mother tongue. Only then could Bible translation begin and literacy teachers start classes for adults and children, using primers written in Bamunka.

Nearly fifteen years on, the Gospel of Luke is published, there is a draft of the whole New Testament and there is a self-sustaining literacy programme.

The area is now in a war zone and much prayer is needed as the work continues under very difficult conditions.


By Jon Blackwell

Today, the 21st February, is International Mother Language day, which in 2009 was designated by UNESCO as a day on which the 7,400 languages of the world can be celebrated.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, says:“The theme of the Day this year, “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society”, thus encourages us to support multilingualism and the use of mother tongues, both at school and in everyday life. This is essential, because when forty per cent  of the world’s inhabitants do not have access to education in the language they speak or understand best, it hinders their learning, as well as their access to heritage and cultural expressions. This year, special attention is being paid to multilingual education from early childhood, so that for children, their mother tongue is always an asset.”

For the Christian Church, the day is also an opportunity to remember that of the 7,400 languages in the world, nearly 4,000 do not yet have any Scripture. Some 1,200 of these languages are not healthy enough to plan translation work, and more than 700 have work in progress. That still leaves some 2,000 languages which need translation to begin.

But I have my own story to tell, which I think teaches us something about Bible translation. My own mother language is English, but it was not always so for my forefathers. Eleven generations ago, in the village of St. Erth, located in the far south-western tip of England, William Blackwell, born in 1596, spoke Cornish as his mother tongue. Already the language was in decline, having vanished from East Cornwall. Church services would have been conducted in English. How well did William and his wife Jane, who he married in 1633, understand what was said in church?

We do not know the answer to that question for sure, but we do have the testimony of Andrew Boorde, who in his 1542 Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, said:  “In Cornwall is two speches, the one is naughty Englysshe, and the other is Cornysshe speche. And there be many men and women the which cannot speake one worde of Englysshe, but all Cornyshe.”

So, when the English Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity 1549, people in many areas of Cornwall did not speak or understand English. The intention of the Act was to replace worship in Latin with worship in English, even though this was known by the lawmakers not to be universally spoken throughout England. But instead of merely banning Latin, the Act was framed so as to enforce English. The Prayer Book Rebellion, which may also have been influenced by the retaliation of the English after the failed Cornish Rebellion of 1497, broke out, and was ruthlessly suppressed: over 4,000 people who protested against the imposition of an English prayer book were massacred by Edward VI’s army. Their leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.

The rebels’ document claimed they wanted a return to the old religious services and ended, “We the Cornishmen (whereof certain of us understand no English) utterly refuse this new English.” 

The loss of life in the Prayer Book Rebellion and the spread of English afterwards,  proved a turning-point for the Cornish language. Peter Berresford Ellis cites the years 1550–1650 as a century of immense damage for the language, and its decline can be traced to this period. In 1680, William Scawen wrote an essay describing sixteen reasons for the decline of Cornish, and of particular interest to anyone concerned with the task of Bible translation today, he cites among them firstly the lack of a distinctive Cornish alphabet and secondly the lack of a Cornish Bible!

Amongst those in Scawen’s day who were concerned about the decline of the language, was William Rowe. In the 1690’s, Rowe was a farmer in Sancreed, just a dozen miles from St Erth, where Thomas Blackwell, the grandson of William Blackwell, was living as a young man. We don’t know if the two men met, but we do know that William Rowe believed his native language was dying and that it might soon be lost, so he wrote in Cornish the key beliefs of Christianity such as the Ten Commandments, the story of Adam and Eve and the tempting of Christ in the wilderness, as well portions of the Scriptures.

However, though William Rowe and his wife both spoke Cornish as a first language, they only spoke to their children in English, as Cornish was seen as a backward language. Indeed, some families at the time even changed their surnames to appear English. The grandchildren of William Blackwell had almost certainly abandoned Cornish for English by this time.

The damage was done. But why did Cornish die when other related languages such as Welsh, Scots Gallic and Irish did not, despite the suppression that they suffered? One modern commentator has given this explanation: “Of all the Celtic languages, it was only Cornish that did not have its own translation of the Bible. This was a severe handicap:   if the Bible had been translated perhaps the language would not have died.”

Mercifully, a process to revive the language was begun in the early 20th century. In 2010, UNESCO announced that its former classification of the language as “extinct” was no longer accurate, though it remains “critically endangered”. Since the revival of the language, some Cornish textbooks and works of literature have been published, and an increasing number of people are studying the language. Recent developments include Cornish music, independent films and children’s books. A small number of people in Cornwall have been brought up to be bilingual native speakers, and the language is taught in schools. The first Cornish language day care opened in 2010. Indeed, a very small number of families now raise children speaking Cornish, which results in first language speakers of revived Cornish.

At the end of the 20th century, a serious Bible translation effort started, and in 2004 the Cornish New Testament was published (An Testament Nowydh). Some 20 Old Testament books have been completed and published and 15 more are in preparation.

So we can see that Cornish was almost lost altogether and is now only just hanging on, not only because it was supressed, but because:

  • It lacked a proper orthography (writing system);
  • the people themselves did not value their language; and, most interesting of all,
  • there was no Bible in the language.

Could there be a stronger argument for the work of linguistics, literacy and Bible translation in the mother tongues of Cameroon?

Sandra and I have been privileged to help in the development of the Bamunka written language and the translation  of the Scriptures, the largest body of text that has ever been written in Bamunka and probably the largest that ever will be. My own people made big mistakes in their attitude to their Cornish mother tongue and as a result the language was nearly lost. I pray that the Bamunka people will not make the same mistakes and that the translated Scriptures will not only provide a solid spiritual foundation for the people but also be the bedrock on which the preservation and the development of the language is based.

But my story is not quite complete, in 1849, a man called George Grenfell was born in the same village of Sancreed that William Rowe, the Cornish Bible translator, had lived in some two hundred years earlier. In 1874 Grenfell was accepted by the Baptist Missionary Society to work in Africa and in 1875 went to Cameroon with Alfred Saker, the first Baptist missionary to  that country and the translator of the Douala Bible. Over a century later, Sandra and I found ourselves in the same Country with the same mission: to see lives and communities transformed through the Scriptures in the Mother Language of the people. What a privilege!

Note: For the linguists among you, see here for some details of the Cornish language grammar. Go here to hear someone speaking in Cornish!