Not-so-simple English

By Tom Castor | March 6, 2015 | ,

If you have stumbled across this blog, it is likely you either 1) have an interest in theology, 2) have an interest in missions, 3) are interested in writing, or 4) have an interest in English. Regardless of who you are, there are a few things that may need explaining in these early blog posts. The first is our MISSION as an organization. We exist to put linguistically simple, theologically clear,biblically faithful tools into the hands of grass-roots church planters. Our special interest is work in restricted access countries.

The two phrases “theologically clear” and “biblically faithful” are self-explanatory. We want to teach about God and the things of God in a way that is not confusing. We want to base all we teach on the message of the Bible – consistently and convincingly. But what about that mysterious phrase “linguistically simple”? What exactly does that mean?

In the last seven decades, English has become the global language of technology, medicine, aviation, and commerce. As a result, there is an increased interest among linguists to understand the way people use English around the globe. The research has been accelerated by largely entrepreneurial interests (read GOOGLE among others), which has resulted in an incredible amount of data available about the core questions that interest linguists. It is now possible, with a high degree of accuracy, to predict what translation errors a person (or a machine) is most likely to make depending on their mother-tongue (or first language of the programmer). That has led to a growing industry of people who write English documents (especially operation manuals) that use restricted vocabulary, are accurate AND are highly “translatable”. So, that would lead one to believe that the process of writing theology in simple language would be somewhat – simple.

That is partially true. The first simplified English Bible, called The Bible in Basic English, was published in the 1940s using a total vocabulary of 1000 words. Wycliffe Associates of Wales has been working on translations and commentaries in simple English for about 10 years and they are getting quite good at it. So it is possible. But there at least two things that make writing theology in this way (biblical or systematic or exegetical) a bit tricky.

The first challenge is the problem of accuracy. Over time, the Church has developed a significant vocabulary specifically to achieve clarity. Some of the words have come from significant moments in church history in which church counsels have wrestled over issues that were threatening the purity of the Apostolic faith. As a result, words were chosen (and sometimes created), crafted into sentences – and only when those words were used in those specific ways did the church find clarity. That special vocabulary has been accumulating for nearly 2000 years.

In English, we have been building our theological lexicon since John Wycliffe in the 1380s. It probably won’t surprise you that most of those precise theological entries rarely appear in a simple English word list. There are about five simplified English word lists that circulate in our modern era. Most of them total about 1500 words. Approximately 1200 words in any of those lists are common to all of the lists. Less than 300 are unique. Those lists differ depending on whether the list is used to convey world news or to write a manual for manufacturing widgets. Making use of limited vocabulary to communicate systematic, biblical, or exegetical theology is something few have tried. Being theologically precise is one of the challenges.

The second challenge is answering the same question every writer asks: How do I make this interesting?

Books generally gain readers because they are well written. “A good read” is filled with clever sentences that utilize idiom, metaphor, allusion, word play, double entendre, foreshadowing, and complex and unusually crafted phrases. In simplified English style manuals – all of these are “out of bounds” (a phrase that is, itself, not allowed). So, how do you write something that is clearand precise and simple that doesn’t become the linguistic equivalent of sitting down to a meal of vitamin-enriched soybean paste?

There’s the challenge. Now, the task is to do the work required to find the answers.

Tom Castor

Thomas Castor, founder of Clear and Simple Media Group, is a seasoned writer and communicator who has been delivering content with clarity and simplicity for 30 years.