One Little Vowel Changes Everything
I frequently hear stories of how God changes lives through the Scriptures, but few have had the impact of this one. In July, 2012, Bob Creson, the president of Wycliffe USA, wrote the following story. If you have seen it before, keep reading, because there’s more to the story I read just today. Bob wrote:
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 was and how He wanted 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?” “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?” Everyone laughed. “Of course not! 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? 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.”
Today I read another letter from Bob. Another translator named Patricia Wilkendorf used this Hdi story in her language:
Patricia told her audience that Lee asked the Hdi translation committee, “Could you ‘dvi’ your wife?” “Yes,” they said. She explained that ‘dvi’ meant that the wife had been loved but the love was gone.
She sensed that her listeners were tracking with her. They didn’t have a grammar construction like that, but they knew what it meant to stop loving a wife.
She went on: Lee asked the Hdi men, “Could you ‘dva’ your wife?” “Yes,” the Hdi men said. ‘Dva’ love depended on the wife’s actions, Patricia explained. The wife would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband well.
There were murmurs of agreement as Patricia’s friends acknowledged that, yes, they understood the meaning of ‘dva’. In their culture, too, wives were often treated like servants, receiving love as long as they were useful and faithful.
Then Patricia repeated Lee’s next question: “Could you ‘dvu’ your wife?” To the Hdi men, she said, that would mean, “Could you love her even if she never got you water, never made you meals? Even if she committed adultery, could you love her then?”
The Mbam men’s response was immediate. They laughed—exactly as the Hdi translators had done. It was clear that, like the Hdi men, they were thinking, “Of course not. That would never happen!”
Quietly she quoted Lee’s next words: “Could God ‘dvu’ people?”
Silence. Total silence. And then, one by one, these men who were responsible for conveying God’s truths to their communities began to click their tongues, signaling their recognition of a surprising new truth. God loved them unconditionally. The idea was as new to them as it had been to the Hdi translators. God loved them not because of what they did or how they loved Him, but because it was in His divine nature to love them. He would never stop, whether or not they loved Him, whether or not they served Him, whether or not they were faithful to Him.
When she thought they were ready to move on, Patricia quoted Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, ‘dvu’ your wives, just as Christ ‘dvu’-d the church…”
Again silence reigned—silence longer and deeper than before. She could almost see the thoughts swirling around in their heads. Were they really to love their wives that way? Unconditionally? No matter what the wives did or didn’t do? Impossible. Unheard of. And yet, if the God of the Bible told them to…if He had set the example in Christ…
Patricia was caught a bit off guard. She’d meant to encourage her Mbam colleagues to seek out the very best ways to represent Scriptural truths in their mother tongues, and they had grasped her intention. But she hadn’t predicted the extent to which they’d begin to engage with the Scripture and catch a vision for a whole new way of relating to their wives.
These men had discovered one of the defining elements of Christianity: God expects his followers to respect and honor women; men are to love their wives and to care for widows and orphans. That’s not a given in most societies, but it’s a distinguishing characteristic of communities that have been transformed by God’s Word.
Translated and understood, God’s Word has incredible power to change lives and communities. It transforms the way people relate to God and the way they relate to others—including women. It gives them a whole new worldview.