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17 October 2003: We've updated our News Centre to reflect news following the Primates Meeting. And our own Simon Sarmiento, who was at the press conference following the meeting, has filed a special report.

Hallo again to all.

Recently we needed to typeset some scriptural passages in the Nigerian language Igbo. It was maddeningly difficult to determine the 'correct' typography for some aspects of the Igbo language. We have decades of experience in the printing and publishing business, we consider ourselves computer experts, and we had highly-educated native speakers of Igbo to help us. But we weren't able to find anyone who was expert both in Igbo and computers, so we were forced to fall back on fax machines to transmit pages from old printed library books that had been typeset by hand.

A gospel passage in Igbo
Most of us are accustomed to thinking that a word-processor file represents the 'master copy' of something, and that printing it out on paper is a trivial afterthought. The computer stores letters, we use them to make words, we use words to write sentences, and those sentences convey meaning. It's all so simple, isn't it? A writer puts information down, a reader gets that information, and knowledge has been transferred.

In truth, the transfer of knowledge across time and space is startlingly difficult. There are so many hidden assumptions, starting with the very alphabet. When we type the letter 'A' into our computer, you see an 'A' on your screen because we share a vast number of assumptions. We are both assuming that 'A' is represented by the number 65. We are both assuming that the number 65 is represented by the binary 01000001, and we are both assuming that when the binary string 01000001 is transmitted,A Unicode character table it is sent in the order 1-0-0-0-0-0-1-0 and not the reverse, for if it were the reverse, the number would be received as 130, which is '‚', not even a letter. The code for a Latin 'o' is 111. How do we send the Igbo letter that looks like an 'o' but has a little line at the bottom? Is there a code for that? Can your computer show it? On our computer, these red letters are all variations on a lowercase 'o': ǫǒǭȫọ. Most computers, having been designed for European languages, cannot even show those characters, and you'll see something unrelated to what we wrote.

Communication is fragile, and is based on a huge number of shared assumptions. As time and distance and cultural differences increase, the shared assumptions become more tenuous, and communication becomes more difficult. 'Linguists have documented some 3,000 different languages in use today throughout the world, but only about a hundred of these are ordinarily written down'* The International Bible Society claims a more enormous number: 'Of the more than 6,500 languages spoken globally, Scripture exists in only about 2,500. Many of the Scriptures that do exist are in outdated language that is virtually impossible for today's readers to understand'. The alphabets for the Igbo language were specified by 19th-century Christian missionaries who learned Igbo for the purpose of translating the Bible, but the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries devised different alphabets and different spellings that were reconciled only in the last few decades.

We can't count the number of times recently that we've seen or heard the phrase 'Scripture is completely clear that ...' In general, the people we've overheard making that assertion do not speak any language but English and use the word 'scripture' to mean the one English translation of the bible that they own or have read. The inspired word of God, written in human languages and translated by humans, is read and interpreted by fallible mortals. We minimise the gift and the power of Scripture when we make it as simple and transparent as a grammar-school primer. Perhaps it's better to err on the side of the mystical: phylacteries with sacred writings and inscriptions on doorposts in the Jewish tradition; fanning a sick person with leaves of the Bible or swallowing a pellet of paper with a prayer written on it, in old Christian folk tradition. The mystical can of course shade into the superstitious and the tawdry, but in our sound-bited and impatient age, it's far more likely that the simple meaning of Scripture can become the simplistic.

Pray for our primates this week, dear friends. And, as always, we'll see you next week.

Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 12 October 2003

*Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts, Georges Jean (English translation, Abrams, 1992)

A thin blue line
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