On the KJV’s impact on the English language, post #1


In the process of editing the special issue of Christian History on the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, I worked up notes for an article on the impact of the KJV on the English language. The article was finally not used (I axed it to make space for other things, including a whimsical article by Alister McGrath on the odd Hebraisms that made their way into English idiom via the KJV). But readers of this blog might be interested in some of the things I learned while researching the article. Here they are, in no particular order, with sources identified:

First, from Robert Alter and Alister McGrath:

Robert Alter, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible

Mostly I used bits of this book for the article I wrote for this issue on the KJV in America (which did make it into the issue). However, I found the following quotation interesting on the larger question of the impact of the KJV on English:

“There are surely moments in literary history when a translation, whatever its closeness to or distance from the original it represents, becomes an achievement in its own right. For reasons that we cannot entirely explain—three that come to mind are the mining of William Tyndale’s brilliant version of the Bible, the richness of English literary culture at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the peculiar and productive decision to follow the contours of the Hebrew in idiom and often in syntax—the translators convened by King James shaped an English version that introduced a new model of stylistic power to the language.” (32-33)

Alister McGrath, In the Beginning

McGrath’s is an interesting book, worth reading for fans of the KJV. Some of his insights on the KJV & the English language follow:

1-2         “The King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians. The influence of this work has been incalculable. For many years, it was the only English translation of the Bible available. Many [2] families could afford only one book—a Bible, in whose pages parents recorded the births of their children, and found solace at their deaths. Countless youngsters learned to read by mouthing the words they found in the only book their family possessed—the King James Bible. Many learned biblical passages by heart, and found that their written and spoken English was shaped by the language and imagery of this Bible. Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address [on that last one, see Alter, Pen of Iron] These, and innumerable other works, were inspired by the language of this Bible. Without this Bible, the culture of the English-speaking world would have been immeasurably impoverished. The King James Bible played no small part in shaping English literary nationalism, by asserting the supremacy of the English language as a means of conveying religious truths.”

2             “The King James Bible . . . shaped the contours of English-speaking Christianity in a period of unprecedented expansion and growth, as the great missionary undertakings of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries got under way. The ideas, language, and images of the churches of Africa and Australasia were deeply shaped by an English translation of the Bible that had been prepared centuries earlier.”

254        “Paradoxically, the king’s translators achieved literary distinction precisely because they were not deliberately pursuing it. Aiming at truth, they achieved what later generations recognized as beauty and elegance. Where later translations deliberately and self-consciously sought after literary merit, the king’s translators achieved it unintentionally, by focusing on what, to them, was a greater goal. Paradoxically, elegance was achieved by accident, rather than design.”

255        “The idea of ‘the Bible as literature’ was unknown to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which saw accuracy as the supreme goal in translation.”

257        “One of the unintended functions of the King James Version was to establish norms in written and spoken English. Should not the language of the Bible shape the language of the people? The growing acceptance of the King James Bible in shaping public and private religious discourse inevitably had its impact on the language as a whole. Yet the English used in the King James Bible was not a ‘universal’ English, accepted by all throughout King James’s realm. Northern forms of English made little, if any impact on the translation. As we stressed when considering the identity and origins of the companies of translators, virtually all were drawn from the southeast of England. The King James Bible is written in a standard literary language, free from the confusing variations of local dialects.”

258        “Initially, the language of the King James Bible might seem unnatural, artificial, and stilted to some. Yet continuity of usage, private and public, soon diminished the apparent ‘strangeness’ of the translation. Hebraic phrases—initially regarded with some amusement—became accepted parts of the English language. The growing acceptance of the King James Bible must be seen as a major force in the shaping of standard English. The production of editions of the King James Bible suitable for personal use—such as the quarto and octavo editions—increased the influence of the work on the growing reading public.”

258        “By the first decade of the seventeenth century, it was clear that the English language was in a state of flux. The Elizabethan and Jacobean periods can now be seen to have been the periods in which modern English received its distinctive cast. The influence of printed books had been of critical importance: fixed forms of spelling were now beginning to emerge, and certain lexical patterns were becoming accepted as normative. The King James Bible was published within a window of opportunity, which allowed it to exercise a substantial and decisive influence over the shaping of the English language. It is no accident that the two literary sources most widely identified as defining influences over English—the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare—both date from this critical period.”

259        On the way the King James Version brought Hebraisms into modern English: “As a result of centuries of use, many Hebraic phrases and idioms have become so common in normal English use that most modern English speakers are unaware of their biblical origins. They have become assimilated into English. . . .”

Series continued in post #2 here.

One response to “On the KJV’s impact on the English language, post #1

  1. Pingback: When you report on the KJV, get it right | Unsettled Christianity

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