08 February 2010

Other languages use different words

Other languages use different words for things. The word for 'chair' in French is 'chaise' and, in French, 'chair' means 'flesh'. The word for 'poison' in German is 'Gift' - a fact that caused first great consternation and then some hilarity many years ago when my mother told her German cousin that she wanted to buy his family 'a Gift'.

Other languages use different words. You think that this would be obvious. But when it comes to the word 'God', apparently not. While we're happy to let the French use the word 'Dieu' and the Germans use the word 'Gott', apparently we English-speaking Christians need to panic and object most strongly when Malay-speaking Christians want to use the Malay word for God, which is 'Allah'.

In what seems to be becoming a fashion of being misinformedly-informed, today I heard yet another person praying for the salvation of Christians in Malaysia who want to use the Malay word for 'God' to speak of 'God'.

Apparently, many English-speaking Christians seem to think that 'Allah' is the name of a god - like Zeus or Thor - rather than the Malay word for God. And, of course, it's also the Arabic word for 'God'; the Malay word has Arabic roots.

I wish this idea that Malaysian Christians are not truly Christian because they want to use their word for 'God' would go away. Today's pray-er actually prayed that Christians do not worship Allah, but we worship Jehovah. Well, actually, 'Jehovah' is a highly debatable pronunciation of the tetragrammaton which should not be pronounced in the first place. But how many English-speaking Christians studiously avoid saying 'God' in order to say 'Jehovah'? Not many that I know.

So before we start praying for the conversion of the heathen, let's make sure we know what we are talking about in the first place.

I'm putting on my tin hat now, because I reckon I'm probably going to get quite a bit a flack on this.

11 comments:

Fat Prophet said...

I had never come across this particular issue and will certainly not be throwing and flack in your direction on it.
You do raise an extremely interesting point in respect of what people call God and I am not aware of any great use of the word Jehovah among the people I know - other than to complain about the people who always seem to knock their door on Sunday lunchtimes.
I do see your point about the use of the word Allah - my only reservation I suppose is that for many of us the only time we hear Allah mentioned is by or in connection to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and this may be where the skewed idea of not calling the Christian God by that name comes from.
As you say this may be a post that attracts much comment and I will watch with interest how it develops.

DaveW said...

"let's make sure we know what we are talking about in the first place."

Always a dangerous thing to suggest! Maybe because it is so obviously good sense :-)

I guess it is another way of saying everyone else needs to be like us.

Richard Hall said...

No flak from me either, Pam. Great post!

Rev Tony B said...

Of course God is called God - he made that quite clear when he dictated the Authorised Version to Moses and Paul. At the same time. In English, because God is an Englishman.

My favourite riposte to the JWs is that I'll take them seriously when they get the Name right - the word "Jehovah" does not exist in Hebrew: what they are reading is actually two words, the vowels of adonai written over the consonants of the Name, to indicate what should be read. It was probably originally Yahweh, but nobody knows for certain.

Arab and Malay Christians have been addressing God as Allah for centuries, longer than English as a language has been around. I cringe at the arrogance and ignorance of those who see everything from their own parochial linguistic and cultural position, and expect the whole world to be like them - especially (sorry, Pam) those belonging to a nation which is less than 3 centuries old itself. Arabic Bibles have always translated "elohim" (God) as "Allah".

A Malaysian friend of mine sent this a month ago:
http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iXTElj3miGieEBuBdQ1alAqX3jWA
- it indicates some of the background issues.

(PS - why do so many people misspell "flak"... ;))

Dave Faulkner said...

Well said, Pam. Of course it doesn't help that in South East Asia Christians who use the generic 'Allah' face opposition from Muslims who want to deny them the right to do so as well!

PamBG said...

I do see your point about the use of the word Allah - my only reservation I suppose is that for many of us the only time we hear Allah mentioned is by or in connection to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and this may be where the skewed idea of not calling the Christian God by that name comes from.

Yes, I agree with you, but that's the issue I'm trying to address.

And apologies to Tony for misspelling 'flak'. :D

Fat Prophet said...

Thanks Tony for pointing out my inability to spell flak although according to dictionary.com you can also spell the word as flack - I was merely copying Pam (that's my excuse anyway).

Rev Tony B said...

My reading of dictionary.com is that it was cross-referencing flak (proper spelling) with the common mis-spelling flack, which means something else. Flak is German: fliegerabwehrkanone means anti-aircraft gun, and was the abbreviation given to all AA guns - the famous 88mm was the FlaK 36, for example. English people aren't used to seeing the final k without a c, so they tend to add it. It's wrong, that's all.

Oh, rats - outed as a military history anorak! (Wanders off in search of coffee, muttering obscure technical terms in mild bafflement at a world which just gets more complicated...) ;)

erinmichelle said...

I do think this topic is fascinating and am grateful to hear others share acceptance of cultural and language differences within our church family.

Another interesting word to look at in reference to the translation of God is the Filipino word for god - Bahala. Filipino pronouns do not have a gender as many other languages do. But every more indepth: Ba symbol represents female, ha represents spirit, and la represents male. All intertwined into God.

Just another interesting and beautiful thing about the diverse brothers and sisters in our family. I do love to hear stories about acceptance in the church (not just tolerance) and enlightenment over ignorance.

Thanks for your thoughts!
In peace with love,
your sister in Christ~Erin

PamBG said...

Erin: Thank you for that bit of information. I think the idea of she-spirit-he for God is fantastic. :-)

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