Michael Erard, the Official Language Journalist of Languagehat (see, for instance, here), has written an excellent piece for the (now defunct) magazine Search called “Holy Grammar, Inc.,” about the increasingly controversial mix of religion and linguistics practiced by SIL International, a partner of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Erard describes the origin of the institute in this passage:
SIL was founded in 1934 by Cameron Townshend, an Oklahoma missionary who wanted to offer linguistics training to Bible translators during summer-long sessions (SIL stands for “Summer Institute of Linguistics”). On trips to Mexico, Townshend had realized the ludicrousness of giving Spanish Bibles to Indians who didn’t speak or read Spanish. Early on, he was joined by some serious linguistic scholars, Kenneth Pike and Eugene Nida, who had credentials and ties to a world of academic respectability.
“Early on, this fledgling program was greeted with a lot of respect from the linguistics world,” says William Svelmoe, a historian at St. Mary’s College in Indiana and Cameron Townshend’s biographer. “Pike was getting connected with all these big names in linguistics, who were fascinated by the project and just interested in the fact that here we had a bunch of people who were actually going to get out and do the grunt work.”
And for a long time linguists were happy to let these guys “do the grunt work” so they could have material to analyze. But “a younger generation of linguists are beginning to feel uncomfortable…. They’re noting how much SIL’s faith-based science has gotten woven into the DNA of their discipline.” Among them is Lise Dobrin, who “began to consider how much the presence of SIL saturated her years in Papua New Guinea”:
An epiphany came at a 2005 conference on language documentation and values that she attended. She recalls that the linguistic records of Spanish priests in New Spain (the collective historical name for Spanish colonies in the Americas) were being praised, which was a notable departure from the usual anti-colonial critique of Spanish destruction of indigenous cultures. Dobrin says she noticed SIL members in the audience, which went unremarked upon. “It’s this weird dissonance,” she says. “If we’re talking about values, why can’t we talk about how SIL is doing all these things?” In Papua New Guinea, she had seen how Christian beliefs infused everything that SIL linguists did. “Before they would do anything, they would have to stop and pray. It’s their world, and it suffuses everything they do, so the idea that you could be SIL and not be wearing your Christianity and your hopes for other people on your sleeve—I don’t believe that, given what I’ve seen.”
At the end of the conference, she talked to a colleague, Jeff Good, who admitted to the same misgivings. He pointed out that linguistics was the only scientific discipline that relies on missionaries for data and infrastructure. “And I said, oh my god, we have to do something about that,” Dobrin says. “We have to actually say it out loud, and not just to each other in a whisper.”
The result was a panel discussion at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual conference, titled “Missionaries and scholars: The overlapping agendas of linguists in the field.” Speakers had a variety of perspectives on SIL, including historian Svelmoe and linguists Patience Epps, Courtney Handman, Ken Olson (who is a member of SIL), Dan Everett (a former member of SIL, now a critic), Good, and Dobrin. A collection of essays from the panel will be published in the field’s flagship journal, Language, in September of 2009.
I urge anyone interested in the topic to read the whole article, and I look forward to the special issue of Language.