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Languages, Lutherans, Catholics, Lund, and the Reformation

Monday 07 November 2016 at 9:21 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 3, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            You are reading this column during the first week of November, but I am writing it on the last day of October, which many folks celebrate as Halloween, but I like to celebrate as Reformation Day (when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the Wittenberg Cathedral door). Just a few minutes ago, I finished watching the Commemoration Service for the beginning of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, live from Lund, Sweden. It was amazing to see Pope Francis, and other Roman Catholic leaders, participating in this common prayer service commemorating the Protestant Reformation. Near the end of the service, the Pope and the President of the Lutheran World Federation signed an official document of joint declaration.

            The event did not get widespread news coverage, but it was shown live on EWTN. In addition to the ecumenical significance of this event, I was taken by the number of languages spoken during the service, English, of course being one of them. Christians are not only divided by theology but also by language. The most incredible thing to hear occurred when the entire congregated group was asked to pray the Lord’s Prayer together, each, in his or her own language. It sounded like I would imagine the first Pentecost Day sounded, -- and maybe that was intended by the planners of the Commemoration.

            The President of the Lutheran World Federation delivered the sermon in Spanish. I’m not sure which language Pope Francis used to deliver his address, because the English language sound-over masked his voice (but I’m guessing it was Spanish, because he later spoke in Spanish). Lay people participated by speaking in the language of their culture. Some of the Swedish clergy spoke in English, perhaps because English is the second most widely spoken language in the world. (Strangely enough, Mandarin, probably the hardest language in the world to learn, is spoken by the largest number of people in the world). Swedish is not one of the top ten languages, nor is German. Spanish is the fourth most spoken language in the world, and it’s certainly one of the easiest languages to learn.

            My research shows that there are approximately 6,900 spoken languages in the world today, but 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers. One such language having fewer than a thousand speakers today is the Haida Indian (Native North American) language. A language which has a fairly high number of speakers, Ibibio, is spoken in southeast Nigeria by nearly three million people. The Arabic language is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. People who speak languages with fewer than 500 speakers are no longer teaching the language to their children.

            Bible translators worldwide work together to make Holy Scriptures available to folks throughout the world, since faith comes through hearing the Word. Through the tireless effort of various Bible translator groups, the full Bible has been translated into 554 languages, and parts of the Bible have been translated into 2,932 different languages. Considering there are over 6,900 spoken languages in the world, translators till have much hard work ahead of them.

            Our Lutheran Bible Translators have in recent years helped to publish the New Testament in 36 languages, including Krio in Sierra Leone, Canar in Ecuador, Haruai in New Guinea, and Kalanga in Botswana. This is no easy task, as you may know if you have ever tried to learn new languages. I grew up in an environment wherein my parents spoke German, as well as English, at home; my grandparents spoke German most of the time; and our church services were held in German until World War II. Yet, when I took German in college, I found it very difficult to develop proficiency in the language. It is still a struggle for me to speak and write German.

            The Wendish language worldwide is spoken by fewer people than those who speak Ibibio in Nigeria. Counting speakers of both Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian, there are about 50,000 speakers of Wendish in Germany today, and I’m guessing there are less than a thousand who speak Wendish elsewhere in the world (including America). I inherited a New Testament in Wendish that belonged to my great grandfather, and even with the help of a Wendish-English dictionary, I haven’t been able to get beyond page one. Because of my Czech-American friends in Dime Box Rural School, I know more Czech than Wendish. They used to tell me how to say words in Czech, and I would tell them how to say words in German. Since our first grade teacher knew neither Czech nor German, we felt we had a secret way of communicating going on. To be sure, we weren’t quoting the Bible.

            Martin Luther was one of the first theologians to translate the Bible into the language of the people, which, in his case, of course, was German, so I guess you could call him the first Lutheran Bible Translator. Providing the Bible in the language of the people was a big step forward for all Christians.


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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