When people see the simple conditions in which the Haruai, Kobon and Minimib people of Papua New Guinea live, they may mistakenly think that the people themselves, and their language and culture, is also primitive.

unnamedOn the contrary, their languages are of great interest to linguists, who consider them anything but primitive.  In fact, the Haruai language has an amazingly complex system for joining clauses into sentences.

Along with many other languages, English joins clauses with lots of “ands” and “buts”, and “ifs” and “thens”, and “becauses” and “therefores”.  So when for example you are listening to a story, you need to wait until after the “and” or “but” to know what happens next.  The speaker finishes one thought before continuing and telling who does what next.

For example, “I chopped firewood and he carried it home.”  But in Haruai the speaker tells more of what is coming next in the story, and specifically whether the same person is going to do what happens next, or whether it is going to be someone else who does it. This comes out something like “I-and-the-next-action-is-going-to-be done-by-someone-other-than-me chopped firewood and he carried it home”You may think this is unnecessarily complicated, and I must admit that when we were struggling to get to grips with this complex system, we were inclined to think the same. But for the material we were translating to sound natural we had to master it.  When translating God’s Word the language has to sound like the people themselves speak and not like a foreigner might speak.  And when all is said and done, Haruai children learn to speak this complex language perfectly.  They just learn to use verbs and nouns, subjects and objects perfectly, without knowing the difference between a subject and an object, and without even having a written alphabet.  Which only goes to show what an amazing gift of God language is, and just how important God considers the communication of the Truth to His creation to be that He would give people this amazing gift of language.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

It may seem strange, but it took a lot of effort on our part to convince the Haruai people that their language is a wonderful language and every bit as good as English.  We came up with all kinds of reasons in our efforts to persuade them that this is so.  And we would tell them how fascinated people who study languages are when they hear about the Haruai language.  Happily the Haruai people are now convinced of the value of their own language.  They are excited that we are working on a grammar which will be printed so people everywhere will be able to read how their language works and just how amazing it is.

John and Maila Davies serve in Translation and Scripture Engagement ministry with the Haruai, Kobon, and Minimib people of Papua New Guinea.