Just 35 miles from my home in northeast Cambodia, there lives an indigenous minority called the Kachok. There are about four thousand Kachok in nine different villages. While they are ethnically related to other tribes in our region, as well as the national Khmer people, they are culturally distinct, and their language, while sharing similarities with nearby languages, is as different from them as German is from Dutch.
Several years ago, I was asked to help create an alphabet for the Kachok based on the national Cambodian script. This work involved tens of hours, maybe hundreds, recording and transcribing wordlists taken from native speakers, then working out the language’s phonemes—sound units that make a difference in meaning. Once the sounds had been analyzed, they could be matched with Khmer characters. That’s the job in a nutshell. (The work has since passed on to others, who will test and revise the alphabet.)
When I was deep into the work, I found that people would say a curious thing about me: He’s creating a language for the Kachok—as though the language this tribe already spoke wasn’t good enough! And it wasn’t just parochial Americans who would say this. It was Cambodians, too: He’s giving the Kachok people a language.
No, I was doing something much less ambitious, and I hope more useful: I was giving their language an alphabet. They didn’t need new sounds, just a way to write the sounds they had already. They didn’t need new words, just a way to spell the words they used every day.
So how is it that someone could hear me say, I’m creating an alphabet, and then turn around and say, He’s creating a language? Because literate people—and pre-literate people, too, if they’re surrounded by literate people—think that deep down at its roots, down where it counts, language is basically written language. The rest is just talk, and we can all do that, so it hardly counts.
But that’s only part of the story, and the less interesting part at that. I suspect that there’s something more fundamental about this confusion of a language with its alphabet, something that reaches all the way back to the first Man, poised to take dominion of the world, and given his first task: to name the animals.
Why that job? Why not start tilling? Or picking fruit? Or planting a hedge? Perhaps for this reason: the Creator’s work wasn’t done yet. Genesis 2, where we find Adam naming the animals, comes right on the heels of chapter 1’s orderly account of the creation, all in six days, with a seventh for Divine Rest. So when we move forward into chapter 2, we’ve actually stepped back into the creation week again, this time to stand in the garden, watching alongside the attentive Maker: he hasn’t rested yet, creation is still underway. And before it’s all done the Creator invites the Man to participate, not by making something of his own, but by bringing order to creation, by naming the creatures.
In the act of naming, Man joins the Creator in giving form to the formless, in putting things in their proper place. In a way, many of the great achievements of science have been just that: finding out what a thing is, and then giving it its right name. The Maker calls things into being with the Divine Word, then he invites Man to name that thing with a word of his own.
And here is a mystery: the word of Man is itself a created thing, a gift from the Creator’s hand, from the Maker’s mouth. Like the rest of creation, the words of a man are subject to analysis, to dissection, to naming. And so we’ve come full circle from animals to alphabets: an alphabet takes apart the words of a language, names the parts, and gathers them together again into a list. Its alphabet is a language’s analysis, a language’s name.
So does a language exist before it has an alphabet? Yes, as surely as the aardvark existed before Adam made up his mind to give it three a’s. (Yes, yes, I know. Three aleph’s.) But those who say that alphabet-makers are language-makers speak more truly than they know, because an alphabet is a language’s Christian name: it is Man’s work of dominion, under and alongside the Divine Word.
(This essay is a revision of a piece that I wrote for my friend Nathan Rittenhouse on the occasion of his fortieth birthday.)