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BIBLICAL ENGLISH

BIBLICAL ENGLISH The register of English based on the Authorized Version (AV) of the BIBLE (1611), as in: ‘And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature’ (Luke 19: 1–3, modern spelling). Since the AV, translations have to a greater or lesser degree departed from this style, and so, paradoxically, many English-language Bibles are not in biblical English. The New English Bible (1961) translates the same passage of Luke as: ‘Entering Jericho he made his way through the city. There was a man there named Zacchaeus; he was superintendent of taxes and very rich. He was eager to see what Jesus looked like; but, being a little man, he could not see him for the crowd.’

Elevated Jacobean English

By and large, biblical English is elevated Jacobean English, comparable to the style of Shakespeare and Thomas Browne. The AV, however, had a tradition of its own, evolving from or related to earlier works whose style is also recognizably biblical: for example, the Great Bible of 1539 and the First Prayer Book of 1549 (later the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican communion). Biblical English, therefore, is not a variety which appeared suddenly in the early 17c, but evolved from the Wycliffite translations of the 14c, and in various forms has continued into the 20c. Two main factors have shaped it: the style of the original texts and the ideology and situation of the early translators. In addition, English literature is full of quotations in which Bible sentences or phrases are worked into an author's own language: Shakespeare, ‘come the four corners of the world in arms’ ( King John, c.1595); Trollope, ‘Vavasour's friends knew that his goings-out and his comings-in were seldom accounted for openly’ (Can You Forgive Her? 1864); Kipling, a book title, Thy Servant a Dog (1930); Wodehouse: ‘I was one of the idle rich. I toiled not, neither did I—except for a bump supper at Cambridge—spin’ (Leave it to Psmith, 1923).

The AV had a lasting effect on people's passive vocabulary, and more than any other text (apart from the Book of Common Prayer) has been responsible for the ongoing capacity to recognize and interpret thou and -est (whither thou goest I will go), -eth (I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh), and inverted negation and interrogation (I think not; What say you?). In addition, preachers, writers, and others grew accustomed to inserting elements from the AV into everyday language: (1) Words: beget, apostle, parable, talent. (2) Names: personal like Ruth, Rebecca, Samuel, Simon, such names serving as the baptismal names of millions; place-names like Bethesda, Bethlehem, Eden, Salem, such names often being given to settlements established by Bible-reading colonists. (3) Noun phrases: broken reed, burnt offering, fatted calf, stony ground. (4) Linking statements: and it came to pass; I looked, and behold; then he answered and said. (5) Proverb-like phrases: a word in season, don't hide your light under a bushel, gird up your loins, not my brother's keeper, a multitude of sins.

A whole European culture of Bible-influenced languages spread to every continent in the world, its members sharing an appreciation of allusions to an enormous range of topics such as Noah's Ark, the Tower of Babel, the waters of Babylon, the writing on the wall, and the money-changers in the Temple. A symbol system from the Bible in the language of the AV has tended, at least as much as that of classical Greek and Latin, to dominate writers' minds; as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, English authors in elevated contexts have tended to use the symbols corn and wine rather than ‘beef and beer’, sword rather than ‘gun’ or ‘pike’, bread rather than ‘potatoes’, trumpet rather than ‘bugle’, and stone rather than ‘brick’ ( Ethel M. Wood Lecture, 1950). Samuel Taylor Coleridge contended that intense study of the Bible would elevate the style of any writer (Table Talk, 1830).

Modern developments

Biblical English is, however, most immediately recognized as extended discourse rather than as words, phrases, and styles. Many late 20c users of English recognize the vocabulary, the grammar, and the cadences of biblical English without supposing that it has a living presence beyond church services, or that it is a resource on which various groups draw. In the 19c and 20c, however, at least three movements have adopted biblical styles:1. The US civil rights movement, as exemplified in the language of preachers such as Martin Luther King Jr. The following is from a speech by Martin Luther King Sr., when his son received the Nobel Prize: ‘I always wanted to make a contribution. And all you got to do if you want to contribute, you got to ask the Lord, and let Him know, and the Lord heard me and in some kind of way I don't even know he laid His hand on me and my wife and He gave us Martin Luther King and our prayers were answered.’2. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, especially in The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ (as published by Joseph Smith in 1830): ‘For behold, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto my father, yea, even in a dream, and said unto him: Blessed art thou Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done; and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, they seek to take away thy life’ (First Book of Nephi, 2:1).3. The Baha'i World Faith, in a policy adopted in the early 20c of translating the writings of the founder Bahá'u'lláh and his son ‘ Abdu'l Bahá, as in: ‘Ye are but vassals, O Kings of the earth! He Who is the King of Kings hath appeared, arrayed in His most wondrous glory, and is summoning you unto Himself, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting’ ( Bahá'u'lláh, ‘Proclamation to the Kings and Leaders of Religion’, c.1860).

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