William M. Morrison's "Eureka" Moment

A Virginia native who answered God’s call to serve His kingdom in Africa, William McCutchan Morrison protested against atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo, and authored a grammar-dictionary of the Buluba-Lulua language. His biographer, T.C. Vinson, recounts a certain “Eureka” moment that Morrison had as he attempted to understand the native tongue.

Mr. Morrison tells us in his own words the manner in which he accomplished this great linguistic feat. "The key words to any language are the questions, 'What is this?' and 'What did you say?' Once these are gotten, the way opens up and the language begins to unlock. And these phrases are best gotten by taking a seat in a group of people and pulling out a pocket knife or some other article with which the people are not familiar. Now, listen with all ears, for some one in the crowd is almost certain to utter the mystic words, 'What is that?' When it has been gotten, the names of all familiar objects can be obtained at once. By intent never-tiring listening the more common verbs will begin to come, then adjectives and other parts of speech, together with phrases and sentences, the meaning of which is known but the grammatical construction of which is still a mystery. It is unnecessary here to go into all the intricacies of language study — the getting of words and sentences and idioms and the working out of the laws of inflection, concord, etc. To complete all this — if indeed it can ever be said to be completed—is the labor of many weary days and months and years. And yet this has been for me a work fraught with much pleasure. Some of the happiest and most exhilarating moments of my life have been over the discovery of some new words for which I had been searching perhaps for years, or over the solution of some grammatical construction which had baffled me for so long. Often have I jumped up, leaving my astonished language teacher behind, and have run across the station crying out, 'Eureka,' in order to announce to my colleagues the discovery of such a word as 'Saviour,' or 'Redeemer,' or 'Comforter.' It was more valuable than a diamond dug out of the rubbish — this word that would be a gem through which could flash new light and beauty into benighted souls.”

From his grammar-dictionary:

  • Saviour - musungidi, muhandixi

  • Redeemer - musungidi, muhikudi

  • Comfort - samba, bomba, kälexa mucima