[Paleopsych] Alister McGrath: (KJV) Something New Under the Sun

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Alister McGrath: (KJV) Something New Under the Sun

    The King James Bible, published in the seventeenth century, had an
    immense impact on Modern English, expanding the breadth and depth of
    the language. Enter the Hebrew idiom.
    by Alister McGrath

    Have you ever fallen flat on your face? Can you read the writing on
    the wall? Do you ever think about escaping, perhaps by the skin of
    your teeth before it's too late? When things are going well, do you
    look for the fly in the ointment? If you answered "Yes" to these
    questions, you are in good company.

    Shakespeare, however, never fell flat on his face. He couldn't read
    the writing on the wall, never once escaped by the skin of his teeth,
    and his ointment was always free of flies. The Bard, that great master
    of vocabulary and wordplay, could do none of these things, for these
    metaphors did not enter the English language until close to the time
    of his death in 1616. Like so much of the English language, these
    quaint and timeless expressions were borrowed from another tongue--in
    this case, Hebrew.

    The introduction of classical Hebrew phrases into the language--one of
    the most interesting developments in the shaping of Modern
    English--dates from the early seventeenth century with the arrival of
    the King James Bible. King James I, anxious to ensure religious
    stability in England, agreed to the production of this new English
    translation of the Bible. It was expected to be the best ever, drawing
    on a translation team of about fifty leading scholars. Six teams were
    assembled at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, and each was
    entrusted with the task of translating part of the work.

    The authors of The Story of English, a companion to the PBS television
    series on the history of the English language, point out that, "The
    King James Bible was published in the year Shakespeare began work on
    his last play, The Tempest. Both the play and the Bible are
    masterpieces of English, but there is one crucial difference between
    them. Whereas Shakespeare ransacked the lexicon, the King James Bible
    employs a bare 8,000 words--God's teaching in homely English for

    True, the Bible used plain and common words, but as American Rabbi
    William Rosenau observes, it took those words and "molded new forms
    and phrases, which, while foreign to the English, became with it flesh
    and bone." Here's what happened: The translators believed the best way
    of ensuring accuracy was to translate each and every word of the
    original, one by one. This literal translation of the Old Testament's
    Hebrew introduced a large number of new, and somewhat unusual, phrases
    into the English language.

    "The [King James Bible] is an almost literal translation of the
    Masoretic text, and is thus on every page replete with Hebrew idioms,"
    writes Rosenau in Hebraisms in the Authorized Version of the Bible, a
    careful study of the way in which the King James Bible translated
    Hebrew expressions. "The fact that Bible English has to a marvellous
    extent shaped our speech, giving peculiar connotations to many words
    and sanctioning strange constructions, is not any less patent."

    Because the Bible's publicly accessible style could be widely
    imitated, the new phrases were easily absorbed, often unconsciously,
    within everyday language. Soon, without anyone completely appreciating
    what was happening, they began to shape written and spoken English.

    "The [King James Bible] has been--it can be said without any fear of
    being charged with exaggeration--the most powerful factor in the
    history of English literature," Rosenau claims. "Though the
    constructions encountered in the [King James Bible] are oftentimes so
    harsh that they seem almost barbarous, we should certainly have been
    the poorer without it."

    Initially, the language of the King James Bible might have seemed odd.
    We know that some people found it unnatural, artificial, and stilted.
    John Selden, a seventeenth-century Hebrew scholar of considerable
    distinction, doubted whether the widespread use of Hebrew idioms would
    make sense to the unlearned English public. He insisted that
    translation required conversion of Hebrew idioms into real English,
    not Hebraised English.

    "If I translate a French book into English, I turn it into English
    phrase and not into French English. `Il fait froid': I say `it is
    cold,' not `it makes cold,'" he explained. "But the Bible is
    translated into English words rather than English phrases. The
    Hebraisms are kept and the phrase of that language is kept. As for
    example, `he uncovered her shame,' which is well enough so long as
    scholars have to do with it, but when it comes among the common
    people, Lord what gear do they make of it." It is interesting to note
    that Selden's English makes perfect sense to modern readers until he
    lapses into the slang of his period. ("Gear" is here best translated
    as "nonsense"!)

    Selden's fears proved unfounded. Continuity of usage, through private
    and public reading of the King James Bible, soon diminished the
    apparent strangeness of the translation. Hebraic phrases--initially
    regarded with some amusement-- became standard parts of the English

    English is remarkable in its willingness to invent new words and
    borrow existing words. Again and again, linguists find changes that
    reflect encounters with other cultures, so that studying the history
    of the language is a bit like looking into a verbal melting pot.
    Hebrew idioms, for example, were easily absorbed into Modern English,
    even while their origins lay at the dawn of civilization in the
    Ancient Near East.

    So today, when we remind our colleagues that pride goes before a fall,
    or from time to time accuse them of sour grapes, or pour out our
    hearts to them about everything under the sun, let us remember that we
    are using the vocabulary of ancient Israel, given a new lease on life.
    Maybe there is nothing new under the sun after all. Now wouldn't that
    be a fly in our ointment.

    [31]List of Hebrew idioms welcomed into Modern English

    Related stories:
    [32]The Tongue Who Would Be King
    [33]Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave
    [34]Lost In Translation


   31. http://science-spirit.org/idioms.html
   32. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=450
   33. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=452
   34. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=461

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