[Paleopsych] Alister McGrath: (KJV) Something New Under the Sun
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Mon Jan 24 21:42:24 UTC 2005
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
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.
List of Hebrew idioms welcomed into Modern English
The Tongue Who Would Be King
Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave
Lost In Translation
More information about the paleopsych