What’s in a word?


Barriers are great for those who attempt to communicate across differences of culture and language.  Modern missionaries are taught to search for aspects of language and culture that open up avenues or opportunities of clearer communications.

This was illustrated in a letter from missionary friends with Wycliffe.  They shared this story from the organization’s blog. The account goes this way:

Translator Lee Bramlett was confident that God had left His mark on the Hdi culture somewhere, but though he searched, he could not find it. Where was the footprint of God in the history or daily life of these Cameroonian people?  What clue had He planted to let the Hdi know who He is and how He wants to relate to them?

Then one night in a dream, God prompted Lee to look again at the Hdi word for love. Lee and his wife, Tammi, had learned that verbs in Hdi consistently end in one of three vowels. For almost every verb, they could find forms ending in i, a, and u. But when it came to the word for love, they could only find i and a. Why no u?

Lee asked the Hdi translation committee, which included the most influential leaders in the community, “Could you ‘dvi’ your wife?”

“Yes,” they said. That would mean that the wife had been loved but the love was gone.

“Could you ‘dva’ your wife?” Lee asked.

“Yes,” they said. That kind of love depended on the wife’s actions. She would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband well.

“Could you ‘dvu’ your wife?”  Lee asked. Everyone laughed.

“Of course not!” they said. “If you said that, you would have to keep loving your wife no matter what she did, even if she never got you water, never made you meals. Even if she committed adultery, you would be compelled to just keep on loving her. No, we would never say ‘dvu.’ It just doesn’t exist.”

Lee sat quietly for a while, thinking about John 3:16, and then he asked, “Could God ‘dvu’ people?”

There was complete silence for three or four minutes; then tears started to trickle down the weathered faces of these elderly men. Finally they responded.

“Do you know what this would mean?” they asked. “This would mean that God kept loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all that time we rejected His great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.”

One simple vowel, and the meaning was changed from “I love you based on what you do and who you are,” to “I love you based on who I am. I love you because of Me and not because of you.”

God had encoded the story of His unconditional love right into their language. For centuries, the little word was there—unused but available, grammatically correct and quite understandable. When the word was finally spoken, it called into question their entire belief system. If God was like that, and not a mean and scary spirit, did they need the spirits of the ancestors to intercede for them? Did they need sorcery to relate to the spirits? Many decided the answer was no, and the number of Christ-followers quickly grew from a few hundred to several thousand.

The New Testament in Hdi is ready to be printed now, and twenty-nine thousand speakers will soon be able to feel the impact of passages like Ephesians 5:25,  “Husbands, ‘dvu’ your wives, just as Christ ‘dvu’-d the church.…”  I invite you to pray for them as they absorb and seek to model the amazing, unconditional love they have received.

As God’s Word is translated around the world, people are gaining access to this great love story about how God ‘dvu’-d us enough to sacrifice his unique Son for us, so that our relationship with Him can be ordered and oriented correctly. The cross changes everything!  Someday, the last word of the last bit of Scripture for the last community will be done, and everyone will be able to understand the story of God’s unconditional love.

I hope you find this story not just interesting, but I hope it inspires you to seek ways to clearly communicate God’s redemptive love to those about you.

Saturday evening and Sunday we will be hosting the Toonstra family as they come to share with us in our annual missionary convention.  I hope to see you there.

5 thoughts on “What’s in a word?

  1. I love stories like this!!! Wow!!! Isn’t it miraculous how His word — the living word– can penetrate our heart and mind? Your word has given me life. 🙂

    • It is indeed miraculous. Interesting how these people had the concept built into their language where it lay unused until God’s word was translated for them. It is so powerful! ❗

  2. dvu – Love, we all look at words differently. Our culture depends on words for everything, yet they mean something different to each of us. I spoke to a man the other day that remarried after his first wife had died. His second wife joked with her kids and others in a harsh way. This man picked up on the habit and started doing the same to his kids. It was not long before the environment changed from a home to a place to visit for the kids. Slowly the distance grew until one day recently when the man asked why the distance. One child said “it may be joking to you, but it hurts me.” The man went on to tell me that soon afterward he read in Ephesians 5:4, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” The couple talked about this at length and decided to change churches as the humor was carried throughout the church community.

    This story above reminds me so much of what this man said and how the dvu did not exist at a church. God can change hearts, he can change minds, and he can plant a seed of Love with a single letter. I believe it starts with me! I have to be willing to talk to those men that I come in contact with that are struggling with the Love that God has for them and how healing can take place.

      • Hi Chuck,
        Thanks for the comment. I don’t recall when he said he was at WBWC, but I know it was before the Ebenezer. He asked about a few people that attend. Just proves the world is small than we think and we never know who’s path we will cross along the way. One more plug for the “Worldview” by Caroline. – blessings Robert.