A New Testament published for the first time in an English-based Caribbean Creole, a language once used by slaves, has been hailed as one of the world's most significant Bible translation activities for 1999. Geoffrey Stamp, chief editor for the United Bible Societies, based in Reading, England, was commenting to ENI on the UBS annual Scripture Language Report, which revealed that scripture became available in 21 more languages last year.

The total number of languages in which the Bible is available in part or in its entirety now stands at 2233. But this is still barely more than one third of the estimated 6500 living languages in the world.

The Creole Bible was for the island of St Lucia. Stamp told ENI: "Creole used to be looked down on, so there is a tremendous reaction from people who feel 'now our language has been accepted'."

Although this Creole is based on English, it has developed to the point of being a language in its own right.

Stamp said that in one African country alone - Nigeria - 478 living languages had been identified. Some languages around the world were spoken by so few people that they were constantly at risk of dying out. "Bible translation fixes a language by providing a literature, so the language cannot die any more," he said.

Stamp said he knew of a group of 30 people in Papua New Guinea (PNG) who had three languages of their own: separate languages for men and women, which he said were not mutually understandable, and a language for communication between the sexes.

The UBS and its national bible society members around the world recognise three stages in making the word of God available in a language: a portion (at least one book of scripture), the New Testament and the complete Bible.

In Papua New Guinea 2500 people living in small villages high up in the Owen Stanley Mountain Range received the Umanakaina New Testament last year. Ten New Testament versions were provided for various ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea, where 817 languages have been identified.

The island of New Guinea, composed of Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, has by far the most languages in proportion to its geographical size and population in the world.

Among last year's achievements are complete bibles in Azumeina in Tchad, Nuer in Sudan and Pakpak Dairi in Indonesia - languages that have not had the complete word of God before. These versions will serve sizeable population groups - there are more than 1.2 million speakers of Pakpak Dairi, more than 840,000 speakers of Nuer and more than 150,000 speakers of Azumeina, also known as Marba.

In Bangladesh, a portion (St Luke's gospel) became available in Sylhetti for the first time. It was produced by the local Bible society in association with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, of Dallas, USA. Sylhetti is spoken by more than five million people. The language once had its own script, but, following the Bengali invasion, this was lost and today Sylhetti is written using the Bangla script. Together with its member Bible societies, the UBS is currently involved in 708 translation projects, 45 of which are at the production stage.

Geoffrey Stamp told ENI that the translation effort was worthwhile even though scripture was already available in the majority language - lingua franca - of countries around the world.

"There are empowerment issues in scripture becoming available in the language of the home," he said. "And throughout the developing world there is a move to using the first language in elementary schools, with the national language being used later on in education."

© Ecumenical News International. Used by permission.