In 1912 James Barton, foreign secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, wrote in praise of the linguistic work of Christian missionaries around the world. One of the linguist-missionaries Barton mentions, Elias Riggs, worked on the Albanian language. His chapter on missionaries, languages and literature is reprinted here in full.

Languages and Literature (by James Barton)

Missionary and linguist, William Carey

Missionary and linguist, William Carey

Missionaries cannot preach the Gospel until they discover and master the language in which to preach. From the beginning of modern missions, English has been of little or no use in mission countries as a preaching tongue. Wherever the missionary settled down for work in the early days he found himself among a people who had no knowledge of the language he spoke and no particular desire to learn it. If he expected to influence them there was only one thing for him to do and that was to make their language his own.

This was no mean task, especially when the language itself had never been embodied in writing, as was the case with many languages of Africa and of the islands of the Pacific as well as elsewhere. It meant more than the creation of an alphabet; it demanded the making of grammars and lexicons, followed by the creation of a general literature.

The early struggles of the new missionaries were primarily with the languages of the countries to which they went. These strange, unwritten, Eastern tongues stretched like impassable barriers across the approach to the people, and it was only by persistent effort and superior intellectual application that the conflict was won.

How much the world owes to the philological achievements of the missionaries could hardly be re corded in a single volume, even of large proportions. They have made a far greater contribution to this subject than all other students of language combined.

Commissioner Sir H. H. Johnston, of British Central Africa, emphasizes the huge debt that philologists owe to the labours of missionaries in Africa. He reports that nearly two hundred African languages and dialects have been illustrated by grammars, dictionaries, vocabularies, and Bible translations; that many of these tongues were upon the point of extinction and some have since become extinct; and that we owe all the knowledge we have of them to the intervention of the missionaries.

When we turn to the Pacific Islands we find that our knowledge of the many languages spoken there is due almost, if not wholly, to the missionaries. As we go over the groups, the Sandwich Islands, Ponape, the Mortlocks, the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, as well as the more remote, the Fiji, the New Hebrides, and the Solomon Islands, we cannot but be impressed with the value of the missionaries’ contribution to the world’s knowledge by their discovery of the languages spoken by these peoples and the embodying of the same in an orderly literature. It seems but yesterday that Dr. Hiram Bingham was with us, who, together with Mrs. Bingham, gave to the Gilbert Islanders their own tongue, with a grammar and dictionary, embodying it in hymns, a New Testament, a Bible Dictionary, and other books.

Starting with William Carey in India, who is credited with translating the Bible in whole or in part into twenty-four Indian languages and dialects, until the present time, the missionaries have been searching out the unknown tongues spoken by that great polyglot people, in order to put them into permanent form as the channel through which Christian truth may be conveyed.

In a word, wherever missionaries have gone they have been students of the vernacular before they were preachers of the Gospel; and they have been architects of grammars, vocabularies, and lexicons and creators of a Christian literature in the form of Bible translations before they erected churches.

If missionaries had not done this work, who would have undertaken it? It could not have been expected that independent students of philology would have been content to bury themselves for a lifetime in the centre of Africa or upon an island in the midst of the Pacific or in the interior of China, simply for the purpose of giving to the world a correct knowledge of the vernaculars spoken by the people in those different regions. The sacrifice demanded would have been too great for the promised reward. No one would expect that the merchants who touched but the fringes of the great Eastern countries would give much attention to the niceties of the language of the people with whom they traded. “Pidgin English” seems quite good enough for their uses, and in fact is one of the mercantile contributions to the philological museum of the world.

It is only the missionaries, as a class, who have had a motive strong and permanent enough to carry men and women of the highest intelligence and training into the uttermost parts of the earth and there hold them at the task of language study until it eventuated in an extensive and orderly literature.

Over four hundred effective and living versions of the Bible, translated for the most part by missionaries and native co-workers trained by them, are now in use. These have stood the test of scientific scrutiny and are the crowning proof of the thoroughness with which the chief languages of Africa and the East have been mastered by the missionaries.

It is not claimed that the missionaries have done extensive work in comparative philology. Their task has been to make themselves masters of one, two, or, as in the case of Dr. Elias Riggs, of Turkey, of several languages, not for the purpose of comparing one with another, but solely for the purpose of coming into the closest relations with those to whom the conquered language was a household tongue. Philologists of the West have made the accurate preliminary work of these pioneers the field for their own investigations and comparisons.

The literary work of the missionaries has introduced into all of these countries the modern art of printing and has built up extensive printing establishments in all the eastern centres of population which are producing millions of pages annually of vernacular literature. This includes not only the Bible in whole or in part, but all kinds of educational books, besides translations and original productions, religious, scientific, and literary, for the general enlightenment of all classes.

This work has now made such progress that many presses which began under the direction of missionaries and were aided with funds from the missionary societies are now owned and conducted by native firms. Much of the publication work of the missionaries them selves in some countries, like Japan and India, is now done entirely by native companies.

But we have digressed from philological contributions to literary output, which is nevertheless a part of the same subject. It is through this extensive out put that comparative philology is kept up to date and that the rapid changes taking place in so many of the Eastern languages are traced. This study is materially aided by the great number of vernacular periodicals published upon mission presses and forced to keep up with the modern linguistic trend in order to command the attention of their clientele. Educated native scholars are now carrying on this work.

The missionaries are following closely, as are the native scholars, the linguistic changes that are taking place in languages spoken by peoples that are making rapid progress in general education, like the Bulgarian, the Armenian, and Turkish, some of the languages of India, the Chinese, and the Japanese. It is the business of the missionary to keep close watch of all literary changes in order that he may put his message into such form that it will command respectful hearing.

If it were possible to bring together in one place samples of all the grammars, dictionaries, hymn-books, Bibles, school-books, and works of general literature of every kind and from all parts of the world which have been written or translated during the last century by missionaries or under their supervision, it would make one of the most complete exhibits of the languages and dialects spoken by more than five-sixths of the people of the world that could be produced. On the other hand, if there could be collected all that has been done in this direction by others than missionaries or by those working with them, we would find but a meagre exhibit showing conclusively how indebted we have been and yet are to the missionaries for their persistent, scholarly, and accurate endeavours along philological and literary lines. While the work in this respect has been unquestionably missionary, it has at the same time been highly scientific; and while it has contributed directly to the success of missionary work, it has added enormously to the philological knowledge of the world.

The results of this labour are now available for the Church to employ in reaching the intellects as well as the hearts of the people of the East.

Extracted from: Barton, James L. Human Progress through Missions. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1912, pp. 26-31.