Thursday 7 April 2011

A book that changed the English-speaking world

When I was fifteen I was confirmed into the Church of England. To mark the occasion, I was given a book by my godfather, one which was frequently presented to those taking their confirmation vows for the first time. Curiously, its text dated back to 1611, no less than 361 years previously. In an era where instant messaging, emails and tweets mean that the language is constantly undergoing change, it’s quite amazing to think that a book of this age had not only survived into the modern world, but at the time – in the 1970s and later - was still being widely used in churches throughout the English-speaking realm. That book of course, was the King James Bible.

We might not know it, but English expressions from the King James Bible trip off the tongue easily. We use them every day whilst being completely oblivious to their origins. For example, employees might not see eye to eye with their boss, because he or she is a law unto themselves. A nervous student might be at their wits’ end revising for an exam, but still manage to scrape through by the skin of their teeth. And although your brother might be of your own flesh and blood, it still doesn’t mean you’re his keeper

A great deal of media attention has focussed on the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the Kings James Bible, with a spate of books and radio and television programmes on various aspects on its making, and its legacy on the English language. Author and broadcaster, Melvyn Bragg, argues that it is the most influential book in the English language and was the main instigator for Western democracy. Adam Nicolson, author of God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, claims it was a book that changed the world. And linguist and writer, David Crystal has analysed its impact on idiomatic English today.

The seeds of the King James Bible were sown in 1604 when a conference was called at Hampton Court bringing together the Puritan and traditional factions of the Church. At the time, the Reformation was still in its infancy. King James VI of Scotland - the son of Mary Queen of Scots who had been imprisoned and later executed by Queen Elizabeth I because of the Catholic threat she presented to the English Protestant monarchy - had acceded to the throne as King James I of England the previous year. The 1604 Hampton Court Conference was ostensibly convened to respond to reforms called by Puritans which had been set down in their Millenary Petition of 1603. But James was also keen to placate both sides, through a policy of divide and rule, so that he would be able to secure his own authority on his newly acquired status as King of both Scotland and England. A commitment to a new English translation of the Bible was a by-product, but nevertheless a key outcome of the talks, partly addressing Puritan criticism to existing English Bible versions being used in churches.

The Bible had already been translated in a number of previous versions, but these hadn’t been without their problems. The first acknowledged English translation, the Wycliffe Bible (1382), had been considered heretical, since the establishment believed if common people were able to understand the Bible it would bring about open insurrection. The version that broke onto the scene at the time of the Reformation was the Tyndale Bible (1530), again deemed propagandist and seditious in tone. The 1560 Geneva Bible (which most closely reflected Puritan thinking) included ‘treasonable annotations’, not least that kings were tyrants (in a reference to Herod).

So, rules were drawn up for the new Bible and a choice of contributors made, representing the most distinguished translators of Hebrew, Latin and Greek in the land. In total, these numbered 54, who came from such widely differing backgrounds and wings of the Church that they were dubbed the ‘Mind of England itself’. They were divided into 6 separate sub-committees, known as companies, two each in Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster, which were individually responsible for translating a set of books in the Bible.

The work started in earnest towards the end of 1604. Each company worked in conformity with the rules set down, having an obsession with precision and total fidelity to the original. In 1609, a General Committee of Review met at Stationers’ Hall, London to revise the completed texts from each of the six companies. At this stage, it wasn’t just how the words were written on paper, but the sound of the language as well (literacy levels at the time were about 33% of the population). Before the final text was approved, they spent a year listening to the product of their labours, verse by verse. Harmony and consistency were all important. 

When it appeared, a lot was already familiar. It borrowed freely from previous translations, most notably William Tyndale’s translation a century before. The companies aimed not “to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better”.  In fact many of the Biblical expressions we use today, as David Crystal argues, date not just from the King James version but from previous translations as well. But that barely detracts from the influence it has had on the language.

Astonishingly, the King James Bible uses only 8000 unique words, as opposed to Shakespeare’s 30,000. Therein lies much of its success. Scholars may refer to the sheer majesty of its language – few can argue with that - but what has made it survive so long was its simplicity, and the fact that it was a translation of its time. The Bible would have been read out loud to church congregations every Sunday and its language would have been implanted in people’s minds. It probably also set the standard for what was thought to be “good English”.

Melvyn Bragg, in his television documentary, likewise contends that the King James Bible stabilised the language. According to Bragg, its influence was such that it helped shape the outcome of events like the English Civil War, American Independence and the abolition of the slave trade.That may be debatable, but one thing is certain: the King James Bible is a masterpiece of the English language and has left an indelible mark on the way we use it today.

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