Verbal and Nonverbal Communication

A reading for Cultural Anthropology

by David Hesselgrave with some editing by Howard Culbertson

(Adapted from Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally. Used under the educational "fair use" provision of the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act.)

     Years ago, an American politician traveled to a Latin American country. When he arrived at the airport of the host country, he emerged waved to the assembled crowd which included dignitaries and reporters from the local press. Someone asked the American politician how his flight had been. In response, he used his thumb and forefinger to flash the common "OK!" gesture as the news cameras busily recorded it all.
     Leaving the airport, the American politician went for a short visit with local government officials. Next, he went to the major university in the area to deliver an address. He was accompanied to the university by his official U.S. government translator who happened to be a military man in full uniform. The American politician's speech dealt with the United States' desire to help its Latin American neighbors by way of economic aid that would develop their economies and better the economic conditions of the poor.
     Sadl, the trip was a disaster. Why? Because, though the American politician's verbal communication was satisfactory, non-verbally he had communicated an entirely different message.
     When he had ben asked how his flight had been, the American politican had flashed what to him was a positive "OK" hand gesture. That gesture had been photographed by news media and was printed on the front page of the local newspapers. What the politician did not know is that while his hand gesture means "OK" in the USA, it is a very obscene gesture in that part of Latin America.
     Furthermore, the university where the American politician delivered his policy address had just been the site of violent anti-government demonstrations. The government chose the university site for his address in hopes of communicating their sympathetic understanding of students' position. The students, however, viewed the American politician as a friend of the local government who was invading their university with a translator in militar uniform. The students interpreted the presence of a military translator to mean that the American politician supported the policies of the local government.
     The American politician had communicated two radically different sets of messages: one verbal and one nonverbal.

     What is the first thing you notice about a person? Dress? Face? "Style"? Whatever, it is probably not their language. Though language may not be the most prominent characteristic of a person, it is certainly one of the most revealing. Until verbal communication is established, knowledge of a person is limited and one-sided. Language opens up people -- their thoughts, their interests, their view of life -- in effect, themselves.
     Language is spoken. Language is heard. The verbal, audible form of language is its most obvious characteristic. It consists of audible symbols voiced by the speaker. Our responses to these symbols vary according to our understanding of and familiarity with the specific language. Communication also occurs in a nonverbal, inaudible context. Certain body movements augment and amplify audible speech messages. In some cases, the associated body movement may replace speech altogether. A raised eyebrow may indicate "yes" or a hand movement signal "goodbye."
     Language may also be in written form. Various alphabets, including hieroglyphics, pictorial, or phonetic orthographics have been used throughout history. To be sure, not every society has a written form of its spoken language. However, every language has the potential of being written, and every speaker of that language is a potential writer of it.
     Language communicates what members of a society need to know. It is a major tool of any social group, affecting loyalties based on past, present, or future events and relationships. Language can also disrupt society since it can destroy relationships and loyalties. The Apostle James' description of the tongue as a fire is an apt one. He exclaims: "Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark" (James 3:5).
     This leads us to define language as verbal, systematic, and symbolic communication. At its core, a language is verbal. Spoken language is the basis for all other forms of language: written language, sign language, and gestures. The symbols we call written language stand for sounds.
     Language is not just something spoken; it is also systematic. All language is structured. There are relationships between actors and their actions and their modifiers. The structure formed by these relationships is called grammar. Every language has a grammar and its speakers follow its rules whether or not they are aware of them. Five-year-olds may not know the difference between a noun and a verb, but they can speak a grammatically correct sentence. Grammar gives meaning to language. It tells us who the actor is and who is being acted upon.
     Besides being verbal and systematic, language is also symbolic. We use symbols to stand for classes of things. These symbols are arbitrary and not directly related to the class of objects they represent. For example, there is nothing about the four-legged, furry animal that is man's friend that suggests "dog" or "perro" or "chien." These are simply sounds that the English, Spanish, and French have agreed to call that particular beast. Symbols are abstract. That is, we can talk about a dog that is not present or even one that has never existed. We can manipulate the symbol. Language is possible because human beings are capable of symbolic activity.
     While language is verbal, systematic, and symbolic, its function is communication. Indeed, we can even define language as communication. Language is a vehicle used to try to "transport" what is in one person's mind into another person's mind. Language is a vehicle for abstract concepts.

The phenomena of language

     Language serves as a bridge between the biological and cultural aspects of life. Malinowski dealt with seven key biological needs of human life: metabolism, bodily comforts, safety, growth, reproduction, movement, and health. Human beings, responding to these biological needs, form and perpetuate social structures and institutions designed to fill these needs.
     Language serves the social group by providing a vital avenue of communication among group members as they establish and perpetuate institutions designed to meet their biological needs. Of course, communication is far more than simply verbal or even written language usage. It involves the sum total of message sent within the social context: organizational messages, positional and relational messages, as well as verbal and language source messages. By linking the past with the present, language assures the group that needs are being met, or it indicates that some reorganization of society is necessary.
     A student suffering in a stuffy, overheated classroom has several courses of action. The student can simply squirm uncomfortably. This will not accomplish much because that suirming may simpl be ignored. The person could raise a hand (a nonverbal signal) and then say nothing. This might attract some attention, but no doubt the student would be considered odd or foolish. If that student tries nothing else, the heat will remain excessive. Language is needed. The situation can be remedied if the student speaks to the teacher, and the teacher speaks to the maintenance department. The person assigned to the problem will also use speech to remedy the situation.
     Speech begins in the brain. The size and complexity of the brain allows complex speech. Numerous experiments have attempted to teach certain apes to communicate with humans using speech. Although the apes can vocalize certain sounds and be understood in limited ways, they will never duplicate human speech due to their limited vocal mechanisms as well as the limited complexity of their brains. This limitation affects their ability to form sounds, to develop complex sentence types, to correlate expression with meaning, and to transmit and teach this complexity to their offspring.
     Some have tried to explain human language as a development from simple to more complex forms, or according to Otto Jespersen, from complex to more simple and thus more efficient expression. Perhaps the major pitfall of this reasoning was the attempt to distinguish between "primitive" languages and "true" languages. So-called "primitive" languages did not qualify as fully developed languages. The "true" languages were basically the European languages.
     In reality, all known languages are adequate expressions of the cultures in which they function. All languages have a regularity of structure, potential to express abstract concepts, and characteristics generally associated with "true" languages. Some languages can seem more advanced than -- but not superior to -- others in terms of their ability to communicate technological and philosophical expression. The seemingly less advanced languages have been termed "local" and the more advanced, "world" languages. Even though all languages have the resources to express the same things, languages directly associated with industrial and urban growth have developed additional vocabulary and syntactic flexibility.
     Early attempts to explain language in more scientific ways assumed there had been a transition or development from unsystematic forms of communication to language proper (from grunting to actual words, for example). Linguists worked at trying to see how such a transition could have taken place. Edward Sapir deals with the transition of language from the expressive to the referential function. He felt that language had begun as a spontaneous reaction to reality. From there, it had developed into a highly specific symbolic system representing reality.
     On the other hand, well-known linguist Noam Chomsky feels that primitive languages never existed. He noted that language, wherever it is found, is full-blown and adequate for its usage by the social group using it.

Language acquisition

      All human societies use language. The means by which the members of these societies acquire their language is of great interest to anthropologists and linguists. The following observations from Chomsky help in understanding this process:

  1.      There is no evidence of any primitive languages. All known languages have full-blown grammatical structures and are capable of expanding to incorporate any new technology or concepts which enter that society. Not only are there no known primitive languages now, but also there is no evidence that such primitive languages ever existed.
  2.      Children in every society begin learning language at about the same age. American, Mexican, Chinese, and Saudi children all begin acquiring their language at eighteen to twenty-four months of age. There is no known society where language acquisition begins earlier or later.
  3.      Children in all societies learn language at the same rate. The Chinese child learns Chinese at the same rate as the American child learns English and the Mexican child learns Spanish. By the age of five, children in all societies have usually mastered the grammatical structure of their language.

     Based on these three observations, Chomsky has concluded that there is a readiness factor involved in language acquisition. He postulates that human beings have an innate language ability.
     Biologists looking through an evolution lens have problems with Chomsky's affirmations because he sees no evidence for a simple-to-complex evolution of human speech. In fact, Chomsky's observations point to the sudden appearance of full-blown language.

Language in culture

     Language changes through time. As a result there are historical and comparative linguistic studies. Language also varies from location to location, giving rise to the study of dialectology. The result of language change and variation can be (a) a dialect -- when a smaller group has language varieties not common to the majority of speakers of the language -- or (b) an idiolect -- where individuals have developed their own peculiar usage of a language.
     Dialects of languages can vary in pronunciation. For example, Central American speakers of Spanish pronounce c before e and i and z as the English c in city while in most of Spain they are pronounced like the English th in thin. Variation may also come in the grammar, when structures are changed by addition, replacement, or subtraction of grammatical components.
     Dialects may also vary in vocabulary. Those variations serve as reference points in dialect geographies. Certain social dialects of English use the term "pancake" for a very thin cake made of batter poured onto a hot greased surface and cooked on both sides until brown. Other English speakers call the same thing a "flapjack." Still others use the word "griddlecake" or "flannel cake." The reality -- the thin brown cake -- is the same even though dialects have developed different terms.
     Distinct sociocultural groups will also assign differing qualities to objects, animals, or people. In the United States, the dog is considered "man's best friend." In the Hebrew culture of Old Testament times, the dog was a despised animal.
     It becomes necessary, therefore, to shift from a concept of language as an expression of a culture, to one of communication through the use of language. Language is the servant of the culture that gave it birth. There is no sacredness of language apart from the large context of meaning established within a culture. Therefore, students in more traditional foreign language courses are often unable to speak that language when they enter the normal cultural setting of the language. The students have learned the language in relation to their own sociocultural values and perspectives, not those of the people who speak the language as their mother tongue. Fluency in a second language is often hindered by previously learned incorrect habits. Relearning of language skills takes a long time. Some never break the bad habits, and so they never gain fluency.
     Because language is learned behavior, it is therefore part of culture. Adaptation to one's cultural setting begins even before birth. Time schedules, for example, are cultural. A fetus is subject to its mother's time schedule before birth. After birth, feeding, sleeping, and other activities are some of the baby's first lived experiences. Each culture has its own time schedule. People in some cultures rise early. In other cultures, people retire late. The power of this routine is felt only when one leaves his own culture or subculture and moves into another with a clashing routine. The schedule is so internalized that a forced change of schedule or clash with another schedule can be emotionally disturbing and disrupting.
     Cultures vary in the values, qualities, or characteristics they assign to things, animals, or humans. Cultures, or sociocultural groups, also classify the entire universe in their particular pattern. Assignment of characteristics and categories fits that pattern. For example, each society has its own division of the color spectrum. There are languages with only three vowels while others have twelve or fifteen vowels. In the same way, some societies have a limited inventory of colors while others have a much larger inventory. North American women can usually recognize and name more colors than can their husbands. Women working with fabrics can usually distinguish and name more fabrics than can the average woman. However, any North American -- male or female -- probably distinguishes far more colors than will a Mayan Indian of Central America. To the Mayan, the color spectrum is divided into only five parts plus a sixth quality of "no color." Their language reflects this division of the color spectrum, assigning only six words to colors. Introduction of a color shade not recognized as one of these six calls for the creation of a new term, the borrowing from a language having more color categories, or the modification of the color word with such concepts as very light or dark, or some reduplication of the stem word to indicate intensity of color.
     Sapir and Whorf claim human beings are "enslaved" to their own cultural process of dividing the universe into categories. Thought patterns are based on language. The theory says that linguistic categories are not the result of a process of thinking. Rather, the thought is dependent on already existing, arbitrary linguistic categories.
     H. Douglas Brown says the hypothesis of Sapir and Whorf can be demonstrated by the way various languages divide the color spectrum. All humans with normal vision see the same range of color. They all differentiate the same wave lengths of light. If language or linguistic categories were the result of thinking, we would expect all languages to divide the color spectrum into the same color bands. However, this is not true. In English, the color spectrum is divided into seven basic categories: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and purple. In Shona, a language of Rhodesia, the color spectrum is divided into three basic categories: cips uka (reds and purples at the two ends), citema (blues running into greens), and cicena (greens and yellows). In Bassa, a language of Liberia, the color spectrum is in two basic categories: hui (the blue-green end of the spectrum) and ziza (the red-orange end of the spectrum). The Zuni Indians of the American Southwest see yellows and oranges as a basic category, and the Taos Indians of New Mexico see blues and greens as a basic category. In Madagascar, Malagasy speakers distinguish over one hundred basic categories of color.

Lexical mappings of the color spectrum in three languages

English
purplebluegreenyelloworangered

Shona
cips ukacitemacicenacips uka

Bassa
huiziza

From Principles of Language Learning and Teaching

     Ethnoscience is the branch of anthropology concerned with the cultural aspects of cognitive structure. It is concerned with the effect of culture and language on the cognitive processes. That is, how does language affect how we think about and look at things? The Hanunoo have names for ninety-two varieties of rice while the English speaker would likely label them all "rice." The Hanunoo sees ninety-two different things while the average American sees one. The Eskimo has six names for snow, all of which we might call "snow." We distinguish between a Ford Pinto, a Ford Mustang, a Chevrolet Vega, a Plymouth Duster, and many more makes and models of automobiles while the Hanunoo and the Eskimo will likely call them all "cars." Roger Brown concludes:

     The findings of ethnoscience and comparative semantics suggest that it is a rare thing to find a word in one language that is exactly equivalent in reference to a word in an unrelated language. If each lexicon is regarded as a template imposed on a common reality, these templates do not match up. On the level of grammar, differences of meaning between languages are more striking and probably of greater significance. Benjamin Whorf has described some fascinating differences and has argued that they result in unlike modes of thought.
     If reality could directly impose itself on a child's mind, one would expect it to have imposed itself in that same form on the world's languages. The ubiquity of linguistic nonequivalence suggests that reality can be variously construed and, therefore, that the child's manipulations and observations are not [in themselves] likely to yield the stock of conceptions that prevail in that child's society. . . . For any concept that is cultural rather than natural the problem set by the need to master its linguistic expression is sufficient to cause the concept to be learned.

     One's identity is manifested and defined partly by how that person responds to language within its sociocultural context. Identity is expressed in three primary ways: by the language one speaks, the degree to which one uses talk or silence, and by the use of nonverbal behavioral cues.
     The language and the dialect of that language which someone speaks identifies that person, if not to a specific location, at least to their being in or out of their dialect area. A native speaker of American English can easily recognize the various dialects of Boston, southern, Midwestern, or Texan speech. People also tend to identify others by the language they speak, as by saying someone is Spanish-speaking.
     North American society is a "talk" society. Silence is uncomfortable. It is difficult for an average American to spend more than a few moments of shared silence without speaking. It is not enough for a situation to be overlooked, apologized for, or clarified by actions. The actions must be explained verbally.
     It is not proper for an American subordinate to remain silent while being corrected. An American must respond verbally to show that the offense has been understood. A Filipino, on the other hand, remains silent while being rebuked. Any spoken word shows a lack of respect. The Filipino will also apologize with an action, for example, extending a favor to the one who has been offended, but saying nothing. What he has done is totally understood by the other.
     There are certain cultures and subcultures where language is taken very seriously. This is an international sore spot in the encounter between East and West. The Asian tends to take language more seriously than the North American and reacts negatively to what he considers flippant usage.
     Language is thus a major means of communication among people. It is utilized in a variety of ways, depending on one's sociocultural background, nationality, and local and personal needs. It is also closely associated with specific situations: informal or formal, conversation or lecture, detailed or general, prose or poetry, direct and straightforward, or circuitous and indirect. People adapt their language according to their perception of the demands of the situation.
     One's degree of fluency in a language corresponds to that person's degree of response and awareness within the language setting. A person's fluency is thus more or less effective; response is more or less adaptive. The child who is attentive to language, responsive to current usage, and respectful to differential usage will probably grow up able to move into any social setting in his or her own society. That person will be perceptually fluent, rising to all the demands of the language. On the other hand, the child who ignores language nuance, assuming a person with different usage is odd, and who is unresponsive to current usage, will probably grow up ignoring language dynamics and be unable to adapt comfortably to the demands of social and geographic mobility. This will handicap that person within the context of his or her own culture and any crosscultural experiences that may be encountered.
     Language considerations enter forcefully into spiritual practice. Prayer is the medium of communication which human beings use to contact God. Prayer is primarily verbal, whether or not it is audible. Because language between human beings is based on the socialization process within one society and one's attitude to that process, habits are formed which, positively or adversely, affect the God/human being relationship. Prayer in the "closet" may be quiet, rambling, and in effect, inaudible or unintelligible to other people. Such rambling prayers are also tolerable in a small group. Taken into a larger group, however, these same characteristics, which may be admirable in small group prayer, generate utter confusion. God understands each prayer equally, but corporate prayer experience is hindered unless the language is adapted to the large group situation.
     Nonverbal communication refers to the process whereby a message is sent and received through one or more human sense channels without the use of language. Such messages can be intentional and conscious or even unintentional and unconscious. A preacher's hand gestures during a sermon are usually intentional. Totally unconscious communication can be effected by a someone who, seated with their legs crossed, punctuated the end of each sentence with a jerk of the leg as they read orally. Whatever the intention in the mind of the communicator, or whatever the level of awareness of the messages being sent, nonverbal communication is very powerful and significant in people's lives life and in their interaction in the community.
     The patterns of nonverbal behavior are culturally defined. "Yes" or "no" messages are conveyed by the nodding or shaking of one's head. These patterns are part of the arbitrary selection of symbols of the culture (in some cultures the nodding up and down of the head means "yes" while in others it means "no"). These behaviors must be learned, along with language and other aspects of the structure of society, by new members entering the culture.
     Learning these nonverbal clues can present problems. The same symbol may transmit opposite messages in two different cultures, or two seemoingly opposite signals may mean the same thing in the two cultures. The hand motion with fingers extended down from the palm and moved in rhythm toward the speaker signifies "goodbye" to someone from the United States, but it means "come here" to most Latin Americans. Yet, the Latin American symbol for "goodbye" is almost identical to the American symbol meaning "come here." Obviously, this can be confusing and frustrating. When members of one culture visits or lives within another culture, they must master these signals until they perceives them according to the intent of the other person.
     Nonverbal communication is expressed and perceived through all of the senses -- hearing, touch, smell, sight, and taste. Nonverbal communication may also include body temperature, body movement, and time and space. For example, people who perspire intensely when they are nervous is communicating that message with their "wet" clothes as though they had verbalized their nervousness. That the two messages, verbal and nonverbal, may not coincide is a fascinating study in the field of social psychology. People who perspire heavily but claims they are not nervous may be either consciously trying to deceive or unaware of their motives in denying their nervousness.
     A young Mayan Indian man, viewing an elephant for the first time in a zoo, stood comfortably by the fence until the elephant approached him. By an unconscious movement, the Mayan gradually backed away from the fence until the elephant turned away. Then the young man moved gradually toward the fence. He was totally unaware of his actions. His description of the encounter was effusive, but he never mentioned any "fear" of the giant beast.
     Kinesic communication involves muscle or body movement. Specific messages are transmitted by hand waves, eye contact, facial expressions, head nods, and other movements. In an interpretive dance the movements of the entire body are high in message content. In fact, in certain Southeast Asian nations the interpretive dance is the primary nonverbal means of communicating to a group. The Thai easily read the symbolic message of the formal dance without it needing to be verbalized.
     Sometimes kinesic symbols cause frustration in crosscultural encounters. North American eye contact is far too intense for Filipinos who tend to break eye contact early. The Filipino breaks eye contact (1) to show subordination to authority, (2) to differentiate roles such as man and woman or adult and child, and (3) to indicate that staring is not proper behavior. The North American, even though placing low value on staring, encourages eye contact to show respect and trustworthiness.
     A Filipino woman in a North American class, resisting the culturally determined eye contact of a professor, eventually cried out, "You make me feel naked!" In other words, she was saying, "You stare at me as if you want to see right through me."
     Cultural factors govern body movement, determining what moves, when it moves, where it moves, and restrictions on movement. Hips may move in sports or dancing but not in the services of some churches. A child can move the body freely in gym but not in the classroom. A North American girl who grows up in Latin America may return home with more body movement as part of her flirtation pattern and find she is classified as "loose" among her peers. A Latin woman tends to move more of her body when men are present than does an American woman, although neither communicates loose morals within her own culture. When the North American girl moves into the Latin American culture, she may be seen as "cold." Conversely, when the Latin American girl moves to North America, she may be considered "loose."
     Proxemic communication implies relationships of space, duration, distance, territory, and the perception of these on the part of the participant.
     Standing patterns have been schemed by Edward T. Hall as intimate, personal, and public. North American intimate space extends two feet from the person; Latin American intimate space extends only a foot or so. This intimate-personal space border defines the space within which one feels uncomfortable in a personal, but not intimate, conversation. Thus, the Latin feels quite comfortable conversing just a foot away from the face of the other. When Latins move that close to a North American, however, they are invading that person's intimate space. Such an invasion causes the American to react defensively with visible muscle tension, skin discoloration, and even body movements of "retreat."
     The following selection from Helen Keller illustrates the frustrating and exhilarating process by which one discovers a correlation between nonverbal and verbal experiences. For most of us, this process occurs gradually when we are too young to appreciate it. Helen Keller was old enough at the time to remember the experience later. We go through a similar process, although on a much smaller scale, when we become fluent in a second language.

     The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward.
     When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hands and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed. I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed, I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit,stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.
     One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-I-I" applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words "m-u-g" and "w-a-t-e-r." Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that "m-u-g" is mug and "w-a-t-e-r" is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. . . .
     We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -- a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
     I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.
     On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
     I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them -- words that were to make the world blossom for me, "like Aaron's rod, with flowers." It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come. . . .
     I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.
     At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.
     I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word "love." This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me; but at that time I did not like to have anyone kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently around me and spelled into my hand, "I love Helen."
     "What is love?" I asked.
     She drew me closer to her and said, "It is here," pointing to my heart, whose beats l was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because l did not then understand anything unless I touched it.
     I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, "Is love the sweetness of flowers?"
     "No," said my teacher.
     Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us. "Is this not love?" I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. "Is this not love?"
     It seemed to me that there would be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.
     A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups -- two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally l noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, "Think."
     In a flash I knew that the word was the name of a process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.

     Living rooms are often arranged in keeping with the personal space relationships of a culture. People may comfortably sit closer side by side than face to face. The Mayan equivalent of a living room is designed for standing or sitting only in the extremities on a log by the walls. A North American living room is arranged so that no one is farther than ten feet from another. If the room is larger than this, a conversation area will be arranged with the seats closer than the perimeter of the room would indicate.
     Public distance includes that space in which a person feels comfortable in a public area or gathering. The amount of this space will vary according to the situation. For example, when people are on an elevator, they will invade what would normally be considered each another's intimate space. However, reduced body movement compensates for this intrusion. The outer limit of public space is the maximum distance people feel they can maintain and still feel a part of the gathering. This usually means being within the sound of the activity, closer with a public address or farther away at a musical performance.
     Seating patterns are arranged with a purpose. Frequently, the pattern includes a focal point, the performer or speaker, with the audience arranged in rows or in a semicircle facing the focal point. In theater in the round, the audience surrounds the stage; but the focus is still on the actors. Involvement theater in the sixties attempted to bring everyone into the performance itself. This was resisted, however, by many in North American society because of public space preferences.
     Competition versus cooperation is also signaled by seating patterns. When desks are separated, competition is signaled. No one can copy the work of another. The seminar room, with people seated side by side around a table, signals cooperation because people can see and share in each other's work.
     Walking patterns are also part of public space involving schedule, direction, and distance. Certain Hebrew laws were built on the distance one could walk from his property in a day. A limit was placed on Sabbath journeys with that distance being called, logically, "a Sabbath day's journey." Hebrew people soon learned to carry some of their property with them and lay it at the end of one "Sabbath day's journey"; so they could then walk an additional distance from that property.
     The schedule of walking patterns concerns the time of day one may be seen in public in a given society. Among the Pocomchi in Guatemala, men can be seen sweeping the house and walking before 6:00 A.M. but never after that hour. Likewise, no one would be on legitimate business after 9:00 P.M. In the Philippines, Saturday night is a very late night. People stroll in the parks until 2:00 A.M. on Sunday. When visible numbers of blacks were permitted in private white colleges, pressure was put on these schools to make curfews later by a couple of hours and to serve breakfast later in the morning, since the day started "later" for blacks.
     Verbal and nonverbal behavior are what social interaction is all about. These skills are learned within the context of one's society. They are expressed as normal behavior within the settings defined by that society. Only through adequate grasp of the language and non-verbal aspects of the culture can communication be carried out.

Translation

     As Christians, we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We believe it is God's revelation to humanity. It is God's message of salvation. We believe it is important to make God's Word available to every person in his or her heart language. The job of putting the Bible into the language of other people is the task of the Bible translator. Bible translation is a major part of the missionary enterprise. Ethnoscience and linguistics can be invaluable tools in translation work.
     At first glance it may seem that translation involves little more than learning another language and then substituting words from the new language into the text. It might even mean changing some word orders to fit the new grammar, but basically it is a mechanical process. Eugene Nida, a Bible translator with the American Bible Society, illustrates the hazards of mechanical translation:

     The translator must constantly be asking: "What does this expression mean in the native language?" Without such attention to the actual meaning of a rendering, he may find himself saying things which he does not intend to say. For example, in a recent investigation of three translations made into Indian languages of Latin America, it was found that the literal rendering of Acts 9:1 was interpreted in one case as meaning that Saul's spirit had died. In the second instance, the native speaker said that it meant that Saul's ghost was going out to frighten the disciples. In the third case, the informant, who had actually been one of the native translators, said that the passage meant that Saul was afraid to die. We English speakers have become so used to the idiom "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against" (AV) that we assume naively this can be translated directly into any language and the meaning will be obvious. But this is not the case.
     In one of the Bantu languages the translators rendered Romans 14:7 almost word for word: "For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone." The translation seemed acceptable until a more careful examination of the wording in the light of native religious beliefs revealed that it was quite unusable. In its literal form this wording constituted a confirmation of the native belief that people do not live or die because of their own power, but because of the presence or lack of black magic employed by others. That is to say, they contend that no person "died to himself," but rather his death is caused by the forces of evil let loose against him by an enemy. If one is to translate Romans 14:7 adequately into the particular Bantu language, one must say "we are not alone in our living and we are not alone in our dying." This does not follow the exact wording of the Bible, but it does represent the closest equivalent in meaning, while the literal rendering would give an entirely wrong impression... .
     A literal word-for-word rendering of a Semitic idiom in Hebrews 6:14 in one of the languages of Central Africa actually meant "if I bless, I will be blessed." This rendering completely misses the mark. The Biblical expression does not mean reciprocity of blessing but the abundance and assurance of the act. The closest native parallel is "I will bless you and bless you."
     A related problem is found in the translation of "grace for grace" (John 1:16). In one Indian language of Latin America the literal rendering of this idiom would be "favor in exchange for a favor." It also carries the definite denotation that God only grants a favor in exchange for a favor granted to him by people. Thus, an attempt at literal rendering winds up as a denial of grace.
     The literal rendering of "walk not after the flesh" (Romans 8:4) actually means in one translation "do not walk like butchered meat." The word used to translate "flesh" means only "butchered meat." A different word is used to identify human flesh. Furthermore, even the use of the term for human flesh would be inappropriate and rather meaningless. It would have been better in this instance to translate "body." However, the idiom "walking like the body" has no metaphorical meaning as it might have in English. Accordingly, the rendering must be changed to "do not do what the body does." This is the native equivalent and fully understandable.

     These illustrations show the importance of understanding what the language means to the speaker. Translators need to see the world through the socio-linguistic eyes of the speakers of the language into which they are translating cod's Word. Some may object to the departures from the literal renderings suggested by Nida. They may say we should teach the people the right meaning of the language. Nida, anticipating this objection, says:

     Certain missionaries object to any such departure from the literal rendering of a passage, insisting that by proper teaching they can instruct people as to the right meaning and at the same time deny native practices. Such assumptions are largely wishful thinking. People can and will understand material only in terms of the cultural situation in which such words are used by them. A great deal of explanation is necessary to correct false meanings In most cases no amount of explanation can change a wrong meaning into a right one.

     Nida feels that it is very important that the translator avoid the pitfalls of both literal translation and paraphrase translation. In an effort to avoid the built-in problems of both literalism and paraphrase, Nida has come up with a translation approach he calls "dynamic equivalence." Dynamic equivalence is a rendering of a passage so that the same or an equivalent effect is produced in the heart and mind of the reader in the second language as was produced in the heart and mind of the reader in the original language, as the following explains:

     The ultimate test of a translation must be based on three major factors:
  1. The correctness with which the receptors understand the message of the original (that is to say, its "faithfulness to the original") as determined by the extent to which people really comprehend the meaning.
  2. The ease of comprehension
  3. The involvement a person experiences as the result of the adequacy of the form of translation.
     Perhaps no better compliment could come to a translator than to have someone say, "I never knew before that God spoke my language."

     The dynamic equivalence approach has much promise and solves many of the problems inherent in the extremes of literalism and paraphrase. However, Nida's approach does have problems of its own. The major one is: How does one determine what effect the original produced in the hearts and minds of the original readers? Also, Hebrew and Greek are not "holy" languages. One of the major problems being that most words have more than one meaning, and while context often indicates which meaning is meant, this is by no means always so. While recognizing the problems, this approach seems to us to have more potential than either word for word translations or paraphrases.
     Dr. Mayers, addressing the Association of Evangelical Professors of Missions, spoke of his experience with the translation process of dynamic equivalence:

I stumbled over this principle early in the process of translation I was doing for a Maya-related people of Central America. As I was translating in the book of Luke, I came to chapter 13 where Herod is referred to as a "fox." In Pocomchi the word for fox is bahlam, but when I began using the word, I got some strange reactions. Inquiring further, I discovered that to the Pocomchi a fox to the Pocomchi is not something sly and crafty -- that is what the wildcat is. Rather, the fox talks in a falsetto voice. Once I had restated Luke 13 utilizing the word for wildcat, the Pocomchi's reaction to the entire chapter revealed to me that they had grasped the truth intended in the passage. Had I continued with the word "fox" they would have learned a falsehood.

     The job of the Bible translator is to bring God's Word to people in their own language. A good grasp of anthropological principles, vast linguistic skills, and enormous Bible knowledge does not insure a good translation. The Holy Spirit is the author of the Bible. The translator must turn to Him for wisdom. The translator is an instrument through which the Holy Spirit may work. However, the translator should also be a prepared instrument, working in harmony with God's creation which includes different languages and cultures.

Discussion questions

  1. Is abstract thought possible apart from language? How does Helen Keller's experience fit into your answer?
  2. In what ways does language influence thought? How might this affect the communication of the gospel?
  3. When a person has learned the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation of another language, has he or she learned that language?
  4. What does the arrangement of the room in which this class meets tell you about the assumed communications patterns?
  5. What implications does the concept stated by Roger Brown have for translation work? Relate this to what Nida says.

SNU missions course materials and syllabi

Cultural Anthropology    Introduction to Missions    Linguistics    Missions Strategies    Modern Missionary Movement (History of Missions)    Nazarene Missions    Church Growth and Christian Missions    Theology of Missions    Traditional Religions    World Religions
 
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