alphabets – not one size fits all!

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PNG, Dinangat taking notes on chron lessons

PNG man taking notes on Bible lesson

Imagine God allowed you to move into one of the 2,500 still unreached people groups of the world. You have progressed well in learning the unwritten tribal language and understanding your new friends’ culture. So where do you go from here? How do you move into Bible translation, evangelism and discipleship? 

The first step is to determine an excellent orthography (alphabet). Did you ever stop to think that alphabets are not “one size fits all?” Every language has different sounds, put together in their own unique way (because our amazing God left His touch on the languages when He confused them at the tower of Babel). So every language needs its own special alphabet and grammar.

Missionaries learn unwritten languages by writing down what they hear using a phonetic alphabet. This system of writing has a symbol for every possible sound the mouth can make, including the clucks and clicks found in some languages. While the phonetic alphabet is perfect for determining the exact sounds in the language, its complicated symbols are not easy to learn to read.

So the teams take their language data written in the phonetic alphabet and boil it down to an easily readable alphabet for that language. Normally, this would follow the alphabet of the national language of the country as closely as possible. This makes it quicker later on for the people to transition into reading the national language. And with an excellent alphabet in place, your team is ready for the next steps in ministry: literacy, Bible translation, evangelism and discipleship.

So next time you try to spell a word or divide a word into syllables, thank God you speak one of the languages with an alphabet and translation of the Bible! And pray for the millions of people speaking one of the languages that do not.

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