An easily overlooked part of language revitalization has to do with the translation of religious texts used in order to bring indigenous people to Christianity. You do not need to be religious in order to truly understand how important missionary work is in language revitalization. Missionaries do incredibly important work in recording indigenous languages in order to translate the Holy Bible so they can easily evangelize their gospel.
This was seen with the Wampanoag and the Kaurna languages, which became extinct by the end of the 19th century. However, what was left of them was found in the research of missionaries. These include religious texts such as the Lord’s Prayer written by a German missionary in Kaurna, and there was a translation of the Holy Bible into Wampanoag. Of course, there is an irony involved, in that the very religious texts that were used to subjugate the indigenous peoples ended up being their primary source of linguistic liberation.
As far as modern times, there is not a lot of proselytizing involved, though there continues to be work in translating the Holy Bible into hundreds of languages. There is a project called The Joshua Project, which tracks the various languages around the world. A site that sells Bible translations is called Bible in My Language, which was many translations. This is done with the work of missionaries who employ their linguistic skills to create the translations that eventually function as a simulacrum of how the languages work.
Having strong religious convictions is not the only reason for the study and transcribing of an endangered language. Famous linguist K. David Harrison of Swarthmore College himself came from a family of missionaries who translated Bibles into many languages. It was from there that he gained inspiration to pursue a career in linguistics. Although he would document the languages of Siberia and Indigenous Australians, it was not for religious purposes, rather he saw the value these languages have with the people and the lands they lived in.
Of course, the languages might not directly translate complex theological concepts into the new language. For example, the phrase Lamb of God might not be directly translated when the languages have no word for lamb, but if they are a circumpolar people, they might use the word seal pup as substitution. Sometimes, it might not require a substitution, rather a direct calque translation if there is no word for the concept. So, covenant would be translated as agreement derived from the Latin root.
This work by missionaries should not be overlooked, since they would prove to be important for language revitalization.
- Bible in My Language.
- Covenant. Wiktionary.
- Harrison, K. David. “The Last Speakers: The Quest To Save The World’s Most Endangered Languages.” National Geographic. 2010.
- Joshua Project.
- Lockwood, Christine. “Teichelmann, Christian Gottlob (1807-1888).” Griffith University.
- “Top 100 Bible Nouns.” King James Bible Online.
- Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project.