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The King James Bible and the English Language
on 14 April 2011
It's been 400 years since the King James Bible was published in 1611, and it is often referred to as a source of great influence on the English language. Consider these commonly used phrases: `A fly in the ointment', 'How are the mighty fallen', `Let there be light', `New wine in old bottles `, `The salt of the earth', and `The skin of one's teeth'. Each of these phrases owes its popularity to the King James Bible.
But is it true that no book has had a greater influence on the English language? To answer this question, David Crystal, a professor of linguistics, has sifted through the King James Bible and compared it to six earlier translations. While acknowledging that the King James Bible owes much to those earlier translations - especially those by Wycliffe (14th century) and Tyndale (16th century) there are also some key revisions. Consider the impact of `Am I my brother's keeper?' with Wycliffe's `Am I the keeper of my brother?'
English has changed in the past 400 years and while (most of us at least) no longer use the exact same language of the King James Bible, David Crystal has looked at idiom rather than quotation to demonstrate its influence. David Crystal has counted 257 phrases or words that are now idiomatic, and they are each listed and discussed in the book. While only 18 of these idioms take the exact form shown in the King James Bible, 7 exact forms come from other translations. Interestingly, in 37 cases the King James antecedent has been rewritten while in the other 196 cases, the form of words in the King James Bible is paralleled in an earlier translation: the majority (160) in the Geneva Bible of 1560. There's a marvellous 38 page table setting out the occurrence of David Crystal's 257 identified idioms in the different versions of the bible chosen.
So, what is the difference between Bible quotation and idiom? Bible quotations are characterised by being used only in settings where their religious application is relevant, and they maintain their original sense, for example: `Behold a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son.' A biblical idiom that has entered the language will, in contrast, also be used by non-believers, will often have a change of meaning and will frequently (and sometimes humorously) be adapted, for example: `Let there be lite'.
David Crystal acknowledges that his classification is to some extent subjective and that other people may arrive at a slightly different number. So, what does this mean? Well, those that claim that there are thousands of examples are wrong. While 257 may not seem a particularly large number, a similar method applied to the writings of Shakespeare arrives at a total of about 100.
Fascinating stuff for those of us interested in the English language.