When speaking in five tongues was the norm

Jan 2011    

In a global world, we tend to accept, even celebrate, multilingualism. More problematic a hundred years ago were the difficulties which confronted missionaries as they worked hard to bridge mutually unintelligible languages and dialects in this part of the world. The Acting Editor of the Message, the Rev W. T. Cherry, recounts the challenging, though amusing experiences, he encountered within a single month.

‘MUCH HAS BEEN MADE OF THE LANGUAGE DIFFICULTIES confronting missionaries in Malaysia. Two or three incidents taken from a single month’s diary will show that the situation is not overpainted.

On the 9th of the month a certain missionary [the Rev Cherry] preached in the Tamil church, his sermon being interpreted into that language. The pastor is a Brahmin, the congregation was made up of Tamils of different castes, and of two distinct dialects or divisions – those from Jaffna, Ceylon, and those from the Madras Presidency.

The following Sunday found the same missionary in church with the Malay-speaking congregation to baptise three children, in which service the Malay ritual was used. One of the children was the son of the native pastor – a Straits-born Chinaman, who is quite at home with either the Malay or English languages, but who, queue, dress and parentage not withstanding, speaks no Chinese dialect. e pure-blooded Celestial son of this worthy father rejoices (or will do so when he grows up) in the good Biblical name of Benjamin – not exactly a Chinese appellation.

The other two children were bright little lads, the sons of Chinese parents who have lived so long in the Straits Settlements that their most familiar speech is the Malay. But the boys have only recently come from China to join their parents, and speak only the Teochew dialect.

But it was reserved for the afternoon service to eclipse this conmingling of tongues. The Foochow congregation was composed of people speaking the Foochow and Hinghua dialects. The infant son of a Cantonese Chinaman was to be baptised.

Now the Cantonese dialect is about as much like the Foochow as German is like English. So, inasmuch as the baptism of an infant is an utterly meaningless ceremony if deprived of the all-important part played by the parents, it was necessary and desirable somehow to make that service intelligible to the parents and the congregation alike.

So the missionary used the Hokkien dialect, that being the only dialect he knew, and used Malay to address the native pastor, who in turn read part of the service in the Foochow dialect, which the congregation best understood; and used English in directing an interpreter to instruct and catechise the parents in the only language they could comprehend, Cantonese. us it took five different tongues to baptise that child, six to discharge the day’s work, seven to get through a single fortnight’s engagements.

The missionary went home tired, but glad. A Javanese drove the horse that took him, later in the day, to church where a congregation composed chiefly of English Wesleyans listened to the preaching of an American pastor. Returning home, his baby greeted him from the arms of a Macao woman, and a Foochow cook served the dinner.

The week at least had the merit of not being a wearisome repetition of the Sabbath, for there was the Dutch contractor who is building the new church, to be interviewed. A Sikh watchman was ready to relieve the missionary of his hand baggage when he reached the downtown shops, where he turned a Kheh (Hakka) Chinaman over to a Malayalam clerk to be enrolled in the establishment where employment had been found for him.

The missionary has not used up three weeks of his diary in compiling this record; he has not interpolated a single item of the narrative that did not actually have a place within that time; and he has included only those that he had actual dealings with, not merely those whom he saw on the streets. He says, in fact, that if the record were kept open until the end of the month, he might add the Jew that regularly collects the rent.’ – MM, March 1908, page 41 – slightly edited

“It took five different tongues to baptise that child, six to discharge the day’s work, seven to get through a single fortnight’s engagements.”

REV W. T. CHERRY: Encountered challenging experiences.
Methodist Church Archives picture.


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