IVP - Strangely Dim - What I'm Editing: Pidgin Miracles

June 20, 2012

What I'm Editing: Pidgin Miracles

By David A. Zimmerman

When I'm bored in church, I often switch my Bible reader from displaying the New International Version (our pastor's Bible translation of choice) to Da Jesus Book, a Bible delivered in Hawaiian pidgin. Sometimes I tweet key verses because they strike me, and people poke fun at my tweets: "Who talks like that?" they share, sometimes in texting shorthand ("Who tks lk tht?").

Duh. Apparently Hawaiians do. What part of "Hawaiian pidgin" didn't you understand?

Pidgin languages are found all over the world, wherever the need of communication demands it. They are typically mashups of two distinct languages, combined to allow for rudimentary commerce: say, for example, when a Hawaiian native wants to trade goods with a European marauder. They need to understand each other to do business, so they work something out. Pidgin languages are mostly verbal/aural, though they eventually get written down because we can't help ourselves, plus we need to teach them to our young, plus we need to diversify our Bible portfolio.

Anyway, I like pidgin languages. I think they're interesting; they feel closer to the ground than the hifalutin language people so often resort to when they're writing books, which I spend my days reading and sometimes suffering through. For all their quirkiness, pidgin languages are almost by definition as plainspoken as people get.


I feel more justified in scratching this itch today as I make my final pass through a forthcoming book: The Gospel of Christmas, by Patty Kirk. Among the best-written books I've ever had occasion to edit, it is slated for release in September, in time for stores to become aware of it and stock/promote it for the Christmas season. It's strange to read about Christmas in June--even "Christmas in July" would make more sense--but such are the demands of the marketplace, which we editors dutifully accommodate.

Patty bypasses the glittery, tinselly cutesiness of Christmas in this book, opting instead to dive into the dirt that surrounds the modest accommodations of the newborn King that Christmas glories in. That means, among other things, taking a down-to-earth look at the manger scene. It helps that she's a farmer, as well as a professor of English; she can get you into the moment like nobody's business. To do so she quotes poets like Edmund Spenser: "Beginne from first, where he encradeled was / In simple cratch, wrapt in a wad of hay."

Poets get a bad reputation for being opaque and otherworldly, but read them and you see that they use words like wad and cratch, and you realize that it's we, not they, who have become addicted to abstraction.

Cratch, I learned from Patty, is a Middle English rendition of the French word crèche, which is where we lay baby Jesus in the manger scene on our piano or credenza or our front lawn. Cratch was the vernacular "back in the days when there were no spelling rules," Patty tells us. It appears in a slightly different spelling in the fourteenth-century Wycliffe translation of Luke 2:7:

And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.

Slightly less than half the words of that verse are marked as misspellings by my word processor, but you can figure it out pretty well. If I had written this on my iPhone, on the other hand, it would have autocorrected into something inscrutable:

And sche bare hit first boring some, and wlappide gym in clothis, and leide gym in a cratche, for ther was no place to gym in no chaumbir.

Here's how Da Jesus Book puts it:

An she wen born her numba one boy, an wrap him up inside some cloths, an lay him down inside one ting fo hold da cows food, cuz no mo room fo dem inside da small hotel.

Two of these renditions of Luke 2:7 make sense; the dignified, digitized third, brought to you by my "smart phone," does not. Not only, then, is Luke 2:7 an indictment of autocorrect; it's also a demonstration of the inherent value of plain speech, which does not trouble itself with such abstractions as rules of spelling but focuses on getting the point across, making the connection, sealing the deal. There was a time when English itself was a pidgin language, connecting disparate people groups one to another, allowing for trade and cross-pollination and ultimately peace. There was a time as well when the Word was made flesh, the ultimate pidgin expression of a fundamental truth of the universe: that God so loves the world that he gave his only son.

On the day of his dedication at the temple, two pigeons were offered up, which we've since remembered as the cleaner, more abstract "two turtle doves" and so, to a degree, stripped the Son of God of a little bit of his down-to-earthy humanity. But that's OK; Jesus has been stripped and worse by the arbiters of appropriateness before, and while it was degrading and scandalous and part of our history that we grieve, it was forgiven and ultimately redeemed at the cross and the resurrection. He still bears the scars, because he's fully human, but he's also fully divine, so that by those scars we are healed.

Keep an eye out for Patty's Gospel of Christmas; it's a soulful book that will get you right and ready to recall that pidgin miracle when God became man, when Word became flesh, when our earth became the cratche that held the Son of God.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at June 20, 2012 1:01 PM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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