Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Most Beautiful Language in the World

We saw an interesting movie this past weekend. We were meeting Josh in Toronto for an early Father’s Day celebration (since he had to work on the actual day), and planned to go to a restaurant and a movie together. Finding a good restaurant wasn’t hard. Finding a good movie was. Despite the large number of films coming out nowadays, there’s a dearth of ones we consider worth watching at a theatre.

The movie I ended up choosing was a foreign film called “Mongol”. It recounts the story of Temudgin, a boy and then young man who would one day become the ruler of half the known world as Genghis Khan. Besides some spectacular scenery of that part of the world (the film was shot in China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, with the film crew having to actually build roads themselves to reach some of the more inaccessible regions), all the dialogue in the film was in Mongolian, a language I’d never heard before. As a linguist, I found myself listening intently to the words and sentences, looking for patterns that would give me an idea of how the language was structured and functioned. Yeah, I know, different strokes for different folks. Anyway, good thing they had subtitles or I wouldn’t have understood a thing!

However, the most interesting lines for me in the whole movie were when Temudgin says to his children, “Our language is the most beautiful language in the whole world. Just listen to how beautiful it sounds!” And he pronounces the word for “meat” which is something like the German word for “make” – “mach” (where the ‘ch’ is a velar fricative). To be sure, it wasn’t particularly beautiful sounding to me, but the statements illustrated a truth shared by the speakers of so many minority languages around the world even today.

People often suggest to me that rather than spending all that time and money to put other languages into writing and to translate the Bible and other stuff into those languages, it would be much more efficient and economical to just teach everyone English. Sure, it might take a few generations, but eventually everyone would learn it. I can’t disagree that it would be more efficient and probably more economical too. But it completely overlooks the fact that many speakers of other languages consider their language to be “the most beautiful language in the whole world”.

Interestingly, it’s only ever English speakers that suggest everyone should just learn English!


Stuart said...


Whenever people suggest to us that we just teach others English, instead of translating the Bible, I suggest to them that we forget English and just teach everyone Koine Greek and Hebrew. That's when people either smile, or look at me incredulously. It usually get's the point across: why should I have to learn a very strange language in order to understand the Bible?

See you in BF in September.


Mike Steinborn said...

Well stated, Stuart, especially that last sentence! It's only when we ourselves are faced with the prospect of having to learn some bizarre language that has no relation to English at all that we even begin to grasp the implications of what we're asking others to do in learning English.

In one of my presentations to groups, I ask people what they think the world would be like if the early Christians had taken that approach, expecting everyone to learn to read Greek & Hebrew if they wanted to read & understand the Bible? Then I ask, "How many of you think you would be Christians today if learning to read & understand Greek & Hebrew was a requirement?" Few if any hands go up. It's at that point that they realize what an impact & difference having the Bible in English has made in their lives. And they begin to realize the importance of Bible translation into languages that people can understand!

Thanks for your input, Stuart. Looking forward to seeing you again!