Making a Language Literate with Oxen

by Translation Guy on December 19, 2011

Shanjo, spoken by some 20,000 Shanjo farmers mostly in the Shangombo district of Western Zambia, is not a written language. Or at least it wasn’t a written language up until a few months ago, when a couple of those farmers got together and jotted down a new system to write ciShanjo instead of just speak it.  They needed to come up with a writing system before they could translate anything into the language.

These volunteers attended translation workshops in the regional capital Mongu – a round trip which can take up to 32 hours, travelling by oxen, car and bus, reports the BBC

“Oxen also formed an important part of their inaugural session with Paul Tench, a retired linguist from Cardiff University, who helped the Shanjo team begin their project in July.

“Tench asked the team to think of a story and decide who should tell it; they elected one member who described the importance of training oxen for effective farming in ciShanjo. Tape of the story as told in ciShanjo here.

Each listener wrote down the story as they heard it, using the letter sounds they had learned from siLozi, (the language of instruction in local schools), and then compared their spellings with each other. Tench says, “All of these people were literate in the [local] trade language siLozi and English; they knew from these languages the consonants and vowels of the Latin alphabet and what they stood for in those two languages. They applied this as best they could to the sounds of the words in their own languages.

“Then they discussed things together in their mother tongue to agree on solutions to any problems that arose. I kept a tally of the letters used and arranged them in a chart that reflected phonetic patterns.”

A written language is born, which inevitably gets writers writing. First was that handmaiden to any orthography, a spelling dictionary, then a booklet on how to read and write ciShanjo, and a dictionary. Next is the Bible, which was the point of the whole exercise for these Christian volunteers. The effort was hatched by missionaries and local church groups eager for a Bible written in their native language rather than the siLozi version they had been using, which many Shanjo cannot understand.

The farmers also received training on translation principals and best practice. Completed translations are validated by other multilingual Shanjo church-goers, who already know their bible stories chapter and verse.

The Bible is the world’s most translated book. And for Bible translation, timing is everything, since Bibles are usually translated just at the point in time when the target language is in crisis, and the culture behind it has been targeted by global markets. In the cultural eradication passion play, missionaries always come onstage in the third act, just as the curtain is coming down on some previously isolated society on the verge of getting hornswoggled into service to the global market.

Interesting how the Bible translation transformation ride sometimes circles back to protect the old ways too, in this case the ciShanjo language. Now these new rules for writing have given Shanjo farmers a team of literary oxen with which to plow up long rows of words, turning the soil of memory to tell their own stories and record their own history.

Enoch Walubita, a farmer and translator on the project, is enthusiastic about the impact of the literacy project.

“The advantage of this project is our people will be exposed – on the map.”

“We were thinking we are nobody, but now we are the same as everyone in the world.”


  1. Alex Dean says:

    Amazing that the things we take for granted, some people don’t have!

  2. Karen Kramer says:

    That is so cool! My daughter has just gotten her degree in linguistics and I’m going to send her this link. It is especially neat that the speakers are able to put the language into writing themselves. Thanks for posting this. :-)

  3. Are you passionate about Jesus and communicating the Christian gospel to those who have never heard the Bible message in their heart language? Are you a mother tongue speaker of this language or do you know someone who is? Would you like to help us by researching or providing information about this language, or help us find someone who can help us translate or record it? Would you like to sponsor recordings in this or any other language? If so, please Contact the GRN Language Hotline.

  4. landlord says:

    A group of amateur linguists, mostly fellow farmers, who have been creating a spelling system for their mother tongue. AMAZING.

  5. Chris Carter says:

    Looks like you got some SPAM on your blog comments there. No, over. Yeah, there.

    Linguistics was born of philology which was made a worldwide phenomenon by the Christian Church who saw colonialism as the perfect opportunity to collect one of the most widespread natural resources on Earth – souls. Well, worshipers anyway. I love the vast content on Ethnologue (warning, be sure to find other corroborating sources against this one group’s data), but it was collected by missionaries in the SIL.

    The example abbove of Shanjo is a Christian Church modus operandi hundreds of years old. But the linguistic processes and sccomplishments of it are still impressive. Part of my university Linguistics degree program was studying this very practice and its various methodolgies. Very interesting.

    • Ken says:

      First contact was always the focus of my academic interest, and the relationship between evangelism and language is absolutely fascinating. I’d write more on it, but my readers don’t seem to like it much. Glad to know you share my interest. Thanks for all your comments in recent months.

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