Other People's Noses

A Goga man vividly described to me what it is like to have no written form of your language, yet to have a desire to do things that use written language; it's like "breathing through other people's noses." Our interpreter was able to summarize the main point of this rich metaphor in one word: uncomfortable. The Goga people of Myanmar want to use their own noses to breathe – to have, know and teach God's Word, and to sing and share songs of worship with their own language—and in written form too!

Every small or tedious task in making an orthography is deeply meaningful to the Goga since they began the process this past year of determining ways to breathe through their own noses! How is that transition made? Here are three key principles:

We are not inventing a language. The Goga language already exists, and it is a complete and complex language! The Goga team, with our help, is just determining how to represent their language in written form. This new writing system allows this spoken language to be used in new ways—in writing.

Letters are not sounds; letters are symbols. Creating an orthography involves pairing up sounds to symbols (letters). This requires knowing all the sounds the language uses first, and then assigning available symbols to represent the sounds. Though the Goga have chosen to use the same set of letters that English uses, the specific sounds these letters symbolize are as unique as they are in every language which uses these letters. Ask me sometime what sound q represents in Goga (but please don't ask me to pronounce the rh sound!).

You won't know until you've tried. We can't just gather in our office, use abstract patterns to determine nice, neat rules of spelling and grammar, and expect the job to be finished. Somebody (or ideally, many somebodies) has to use the rules to see if they work. Rules for spelling are good only if people use them to read and to write with success. First, the Goga tested the alphabet symbols chosen by attempting to write lists of words. Adjustments were made. Next, they tested it further while writing stories for primer lessons. Adjustments were made. Next, they gathered a group of teachers to learn and practice teaching the primer. Adjustments were made. Next, they will continue teaching others with the revised primer, and writing songs and stories on their own. More adjustments will be made!

The Goga through diligent effort are refining an orthography that can feel like breathing comfortably through their own noses, and preparing for the writing of Scripture one day. Do we, like the Goga, desire to overcome obstacles to know and worship God? Or are we comfortable and don't see our needs? We are not lacking an orthography to use, but we should learn from the Goga to strive and to seek God earnestly to remove any hindrance to spiritual growth.