We is different

singular, dual, exclusive and inclusive pronouns

When it comes to translating the Bible, you expect there to be times when you can’t find a convenient word to use in the language you are translating into. There are various solutions to try in such situations, one of which is to use a more generic term. Revelation 19:14 says in English, “The armies of heaven were following him, dressed in fine linen, white and clean.” The only way to specify “linen” in Nya Huba is to borrow the English word. In this context we chose instead to use a more generic term and translated this as “The soldiers of heaven were following him, riding white horses and wearing good, clean, white clothes.”

Did you know that sometimes you have to introduce greater specificity in the translation process? We can use the pronoun system of Nya Huba, here in Nigeria where we are working right now, as an example. When it comes to pronouns, in English we have two sets: singular and plural. But in place of our one general “plural” category in English, Nya Huba has three different first-person-plural pronouns: dual, inclusive and exclusive. In Nya Huba, ma is the dual form, and that is the one used in Philemon 1:11, where Paul writes to Philemon, referring to Onesimus, “Before he did not benefit you, but now he is a thing of value to ma [dual, or in English, ‘you and me both’].” Okay that one’s not too hard—a single, simple pronoun is used in Nya Huba where a phrase is used in English. The inclusive/exclusive distinction is a little trickier. The exclusive first-person-plural pronoun in Nya Huba is ea, and that one is used if the “we” does not include the person being addressed. The inclusive pronoun is mən, and that one does include the hearer. To translate “we/us/our” into Nya Huba, you have to determine whether the inclusive pronoun or the exclusive pronoun is appropriate. For the most part, Nya Huba speakers can figure out pretty quickly which form to use. Titus 3:5 is translated using the inclusive pronoun mən: “He saved us (inclusive), not because of our (inclusive) living right, only because of his mercy. He washed us (inclusive) and made us (inclusive) born again and gave us (inclusive) new life through the Holy Spirit.” The exclusive first-person-plural pronoun ea fits the context in Revelation 6:16, “They say to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall down on us (exclusive) and hide us (exclusive) from the face of the person who sits on the throne!’” The translators weren’t sure at first what to do with Titus 3:3, but here is how we ended up translating it: “At one time we (inclusive) were foolish and without listening [i.e., disobedient]. Our (inclusive) heads were turned [i.e., we were deceived] and we (inclusive) did slavery to desire[s] and pleasure[s] of the body. Our (inclusive) living was full of cruelty and wickedness, we (inclusive) weren’t loved and we (inclusive) didn’t love each other.” First Thessalonians 3:11 has a mixture of first-person-plural inclusive and exclusive pronouns: “Now our (exclusive) wish is that God our (inclusive) Father himself and our (inclusive) Lord Jesus Christ will open a way for us (exclusive) to go to you.”

There happen to be two forms of “there” in Nya Huba also. Hinga is “there (where you are)” and hinda is “there (where neither of us is).” The former would be used in the sentence, “I’m going over there to join you,” and the latter in “Let’s go over there to see what’s happening.”

About David Frank

descriptive linguist, linguistics consultant, translator, editor
This entry was posted in Bible translation, descriptive linguistics, travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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