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Does the Bible Have to Be Written Down?

With non-written forms of information such as audio and video becoming more and more prevalent, does every language still need a written Bible? For many of us who take literacy and a written Bible for granted, our instinctive answer would probably be “Of course!”. Historically, much of the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, was initially passed down through oral tradition. It was only later, when literacy became more widespread, that the Scriptures began to be recorded and disseminated in writing.

Hindi Bible - Zeke du Plessis, WGA

As ancient civilisations developed, writing systems were devised. Initially, these were only to record texts that were considered important enough to be preserved accurately for reference and study. This was an improvement over relying on the memories of specially trained people whose major role was to act as record-keepers for their communities.

Now that we have the means to accurately record and preserve audio and video, are there any benefits of writing down texts, such as the Scriptures? Here are a few:

  • Writers have time to deliberate over word choice (and many/most audio and video scripts would be first written and edited before recording).

  • Written texts can be corrected and edited more easily (e.g., using a ‘global change’).

  • Readers are more easily able to scan back and forth within a text, and to study, compare, and interpret at their leisure.

  • Written texts are less technology-dependent for access!

Beyond these benefits, it has been observed that a language community often has a higher view of their own language once it can be written down and they have written materials in their language. This usually boosts their pride in their cultural identity.

Translating the Bible in an Unwritten Language

Are there languages without a writing system? Yes, there are! There are still many languages, often those of minority ethnic groups, which are entirely oral and have no established writing system or orthography. An orthography is a system for representing a language in written form, and includes the symbols that represent the sounds as well as the rules that govern how the symbols are arranged when written down (e.g., word breaks, punctuation, diacritics, capitalisation, hyphenation, etc.).

To translate the Bible into a language without an orthography, an Oral Bible Translation (OBT) method can be used. This avoids having to first devise an orthography, then teach the people to read and write their own language, and so provides the Scriptures to the people more quickly. However, even if an oral method of translation is preferred, at least some members of the translation team would need a way to write down the text to make it easier to correct and revise. So, if the language has no writing system, one of the first needs is to devise an orthography. And eventually, some of the believers will probably want to have a text version to read and study.

How do you devise an orthography?

Writing Systems Of The World - Chumwa, Wikimedia Commons

Several factors have to be considered when designing an orthography:

  • Government policies, e.g., a certain type of script may be mandated.

  • Type of script, e.g., character-based, alphabet-based, phonetic, etc.

  • Ease of learning and use, e.g., it should represent all sounds of the language with symbols that are easy to distinguish and write.

  • Ease of transferring literacy skills to other languages the reader would want to read, e.g., similar to the national language.

  • Acceptability to the target readers who may regard a specific type of script as prestigious.

  • Practical issues, e.g., ease of word-processing on computers and printing.

As you can see, this is not an easy task! A whole team comprising different specialist skillsets such as linguistics, literacy, font design, IT, etc. is needed. So if you have the skills to contribute to orthography design, and want to help get God’s word written for those who want to read it in their own language, contact us!

Links to articles about OBT:


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