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Unspoken Rules of Language

One of the most common questions we get is what exactly my job will be once we get on the field. And that's fair. When we started this journey, we didn't have a specific role nailed down, but as we went deeper into the world of Bible translation we started to narrow our options. So, my official title will be a linguist. Between a huge need for linguists and a real passion that God has developed in me for this work, we are convinced that the Lord is calling us to this ministry.


So what is linguistics?


Linguistics is everywhere! Much of what we work on in linguistics is studying those things that we do naturally in a language but never think about. It's the difference between a correct sentence and one that just sounds weird. In fact, one of the most common issues in translation is that once a text is translated, the native speaker says something like, "Something just doesn't sound right." So a linguist helps to study that language in order to figure out what doesn't sound right.


Often these things are very strict rules that a language has but that a native speaker doesn't even think about. Let me give you an example:


In English, we have very strict rules for the order of adjectives before a noun. If I told you that I had "2 large brown dogs," that would sound perfectly normal. But if I switch any of those adjectives around, it would sound weird. "I have brown large 2 dogs" would be a confusing sentence. You may even question what I'm trying to say. At the least, you'd be forced to say that it doesn't sound right. At worst, it would make no sense at all.


It turns out English requires us to put those adjectives in this order: Number-Size-Color Noun. But, as a native speaker, have you ever stopped to think before you said a phrase like that, "What order do those go in?" No! You just say it...because it sounds right!


That's exactly what we run into with translation. And a part of linguistics is to analyze the word order of a language so we can understand why sometimes a translated passage just doesn't sound right to a native speaker.


But there's so much more to it. As part of my job, I'll work to analyze the grammar and phonology of the language. The end goal is to prepare the table for translation so that the local translators have all the tools they need to accurately and clearly portray the message of the text that they are working on. Helping them have a solid grasp of their own language goes a long way toward that goal!


For a long time, this kind of stuff has been a hobby of mine. Now, I've spent the last two years training for this role. Next, we move to Switzerland where we will learn how to communicate in the most appropriate language (French) for the people we will work with. All of this work with the people and the final analysis will be done in French.


It's all starting to get real! And we're so excited to start this next chapter of the journey in Switzerland!

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