Sawi he spoke

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Lately, for the eight-year-old's bedtime story, I have been reading the book Peace Child by Don Richardson. In 1962, Richardson, his wife Carol, and their infant son went with Regions Beyond Missionary Union to the Sawi, a people who live in the sago palm swamps along the Kronkel River in what was then Netherlands New Guinea, now the Indonesian half of that island.

The story is told in an engaging and suspenseful manner, with the end of each chapter leaving my son anxious to learn what happens in the next. The book begins with stories of Sawi intrigue that took place prior to the Richardsons' arrival, illustrating the value the culture held for treachery -- "fattening with friendship for the slaughter." You might invite an enemy to your home, feed him and treat him with honor for weeks or months before springing the trap on your trusting victim. You have him over for dinner... and then have him for dinner.

Richardson then takes us across the Pacific to the frozen tundra of Canada's Prairie Bible Institute, where he and his wife met and where they heard the call to take the gospel to the isolated inland tribes of Netherlands New Guinea. From this point on the story follows the Richardsons as they arrive in New Guinea, meet neighboring tribes, survey the Sawi territory, make initial contact, build a home, and begin learning the language and customs of the Sawi.

I had been helping my daughter and her friend through a tough passage of Latin, one that made extensive use of indirect discourse with accusative subjects and present, perfect, and future infinitives in active and passive voice. We finished, and I went to read the next chapter of Peace Child to my son. This passage on the grammar of the Sawi language seemed apropos, so I brought the book and my son back to where the girls were studying and read it to all of them. You think you have it tough with six Latin tenses?

Peace_Child.jpgSpeaking Sawi was proving far more than an exercise in stringing simple terms together. Often a single word turned out to be only a stem to which a seemingly limitless number of suffixes or chains of suffixes could be attached.

Each verb, for example, has nineteen tenses in its indicative mood alone. So far I had isolated the functions of only one-third of those nineteen tenses. Also, each of the nineteen tenses occurred in both a first-person and a non-first-person form, making a total of thirty-eight verb endings to choose from every time I wanted to make a simple indicative statement in Sawi.

Another group of verb endings were slowly emerging as the subjunctive mood of the language, a system for expressing "if," "could have," "would have," and "should have." Further, I was getting glimmerings of an imperative mood, a brace of suffixes which say "let me," "let us," "let him," as well as give commands in the second person.

Apparently concrete verb stems became etymological phantoms which could assume any one of fifteen different shapes even before one began extending them with suffixes. One form of the stem proclaimed the subject as singular, another as plural. Still othres indicated action aimed at either a singular or plural object. Other forms signified operations which were either customary, progressive, repeated, reciprocal, experimental, conclusive, partial, excessive or obstructed.

In Sawi, every sequence has to be in correct time order with no steps omitted. The grammar is correspondingly set up to handle long action sequences in a smooth, flowing manner.

Every statement has to be classified as either firsthand or secondhand information. Sawi won't let you take credit for someone else's thoughts. Nor will it let you avoid responsibility for your own utterances. It abhors indistinctness. It tolerates no nonsense. It would resist a translation of Alice in Wonderland like oil resists water. Surgically precise, transistorized description is its goal.

Sometimes I felt like my brain circuits would get shorted before I mastered Sawi. And yet learning it was a great adventure. I often felt like a mathematician must feel as he tackles problems and breaks through into new formulas which work like magic.

Sawi is so enchantingly specific in its vocabulary. In English you open your eyes, your heart, a door, a tin can or someone's understanding, all with one humdrum verb "open." But in Sawi you fagadon your eyes, anahagkon your heart, tagavon a door, tarifan a tin can, and dargamon a listener's understanding.

If someone had shown me a statement of Sawi grammar and asked me to guess the type of persons who developed it, I would have guessed a race of pedantic-philosopher types obsessed with fastidious concern for handling masses of detail efficiently.

And yet, looking deeper, I would have guessed they were also poets -- an entire subclass of Sawi verbs is devoted to personifying inanimate objects as speaking! If a flower has a pleasant scent, it is saying fok! fok! to your nostrils. Is it also beautiful? It is saying ga! ga! to your eyes. When a star twinkles it is whispering sevair! sevair! If your eyes twinkle they are calling si! si! If mud squishes around your feet, it is murmuring sos! sos! In the Sawi universe, not only man, but all things are communicating.

Climbing up a notched pole, I entered the manhouse and sat down on the grass mat among the men of Haenam and Yohwi. They didn't look like the philosopher-poets their language suggested they were. I felt I was sitting in the presence of a mystery. How did a culture addicted to barbarism develop such a refined, logical and efficient language? Perhaps the swift thought and keen reflexes needed to survive in a violent context served to produce linguistic efficiency also.

Or was their language an artifact pointing back to an earlier age of more complex aspirations? I had already noticed that the Sawi had a deep, almost compulsive esteem for their ancestors. Perhaps there was more than just a sentimental basis for it.

"A race of pedantic-philosopher types" brings to mind Tolkien's design of the languages of Middle Earth or the scholars who constructed languages like Esperanto and Volapük.

In the same chapter, Richardson feels he has enough of the language to attempt to explain the story of Jesus to a group of Sawi men. He is shocked to find that they see Judas as the hero of the story and Jesus as his dupe -- the ultimate example of fattening with friendship for the slaughter. The realization causes Richardson to feel hopeless that he could find a way to communicate the gospel to this culture. But he prays and God provides in a surprising way, and that's the rest of the story.

Notwithstanding the cannibalistic treachery of the Sawi, Richardson describes with admiration their language and the efficiency of their way of life, using the flora and fauna on hand to sustain themselves.

When progressives hear conservatives condemning multiculturalism, they wrongly assume that conservatives wish to eradicate other cultures, other languages, other folk customs and force conformity to bland Anglo-Saxon suburbia. In fact, conservative Christians may be doing more than anyone else to preserve dying languages and musical traditions, through the work of groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators. The practice of the evangelical mission community is to translate the gospel into the "heart language" of every people group and, as they come to faith in Christ, to express their faith in their own music.

Richardson's account of the Sawi way of life allows us to draw an important distinction. Multiculturalism insists that we suspend all value judgment of another culture, and so we must not condemn the cannibalistic treachery of the Sawi -- live and let live. A Bible-believing Christian would say instead that there are aspects of a culture which are morally neutral, aspects which are positive, and aspects which are -- let's not mince words -- evil, aspects which disfigure the imago Dei borne by every human of every tribe, tongue, and nation. While every culture in this fallen world has negative elements, some cultures have a built-in engine for reform and improvement, while others may only shed negative elements under outside encouragement or pressure, and so we ought to reject a false moral equivalence between cultures.

MORE:

Don Richardson sells his own books, books on related topics, and his own artwork depicting the cultures of New Guinea on his website.

In 2012, fifty years after his arrival, Don Richardson and his three sons returned to the Sawi lands:

Never the Same from Pioneers-USA on Vimeo.

The New Testament has been translated into Sawi, but only three Papuan languages have a complete translation of the Bible. World Team, the successor agency to Regions Beyond, has five current translation and literacy projects that need your support.

The Summer Institute of Linguistics' Ethnologue has a map showing the incredible linguistic diversity of eastern Indonesian Papua (New Guinea). Here is the Ethnologue's entry on the Sawi language, which has an estimated 3,500 speakers.

An index of online resources for the Sawi language.

Here is a collection of audiovisual Bible lessons in the Sawi language.

Volume 14 (1986) of the journal Irian: Bulletin of Irian Jaya has a paper describing kinship and marriage customs among the Sawi.

A prime example of the failure of multiculturalism: Officials turning a blind eye to the exploitation of young girls in Rotherham, England, for over a decade out of fear of being thought racist or Islamophobic. James Delingpole writes:

The impression given was that to be against multiculturalism is like being against chicken tikka masala, or bhangra, or arts festivals or smiley brown skinned people or fun generally.

But multiculturalism isn't and never was a handy synonym for "multiethnic". And at last, it seems, the majority of British people have twigged.

Multiculturalism is the philosophy that says the grooming, trafficking and mass rape of underage white girls by Muslim gangs is not as bad as being thought Islamophobic.

Multiculturalism is the philosophy that says it's better to let a little African girl get tortured to death by her relatives than it is to be thought culturally insensitive or judgemental.

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1 Comments

Graychin said:

Is the "To Serve Man" apron a reference to cannibalism?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 16, 2014 12:17 AM.

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