Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Nothing New Under the Sun"

Begat: The King James Bible and the English LanguageThe King James Version of the Bible is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year.  Oxford University Press has put out several books this year to acknowledge the milestone: a gorgeous and historically accurate edition of the Bible itself, a history of the King James Version by Gordon Campbell (reviewed on this blog yesterday), and a study of the impact of the KJV on the development of the English language.  The latter, David Crystal's Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, is a fascinating and accessible study that makes a terrific pairing with Campbell's history.

David Crystal introduces his book by wondering if it is true that "no book has had a greater influence on the English language" than the King James Version of the Bible.  In an effort to answer that question, he explores the idioms in our language today which have their roots in this translation of the Bible. 

The author is quick to point out that "simply recognizing a phrase as coming from the King James ... tells us very little about the extent to which that phrase has become a part of our linguistic consciousness."  Instead, he seeks to find "expressions in daily use, where people take a piece of biblical language and use it in a totally nonbiblical context."  That is, phrases that are extremely well known but used religiously--whether it is the "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" used at funerals or a recitation of well-known lines from the Christmas story--are not idioms but quotations.  Only phrases which are "adapted to express a special (often playful) effect" separated from the original religious context count.

Not surprisingly, many of our most popular KJV-based idioms can be found in the most popular books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament (otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible), and the Gospels in the New Testament.   Crystal tracks his way through the Bible, chronologically for the Old Testament and thematically for the New, and investigates specific idioms throughout and how they have been used.  The phrase 'Adam and Eve' can be used in Cockney rhyming slang to mean 'leave' or 'believe'.  'Adam and Eve' can also refer to fried eggs on toast.  The phrase 'Be fruitful and multiply' has been used creatively to discuss everything from sales of sculpted fruit "flower" arrangements to wise nutritional choices.  The 'multiplying' has been mathematically transformed to give us 'Be fruitful and divide' (about evolution) and 'Be fruitful and subtract' (a call to have families with only one child).

One of my favorite sections is Crystal's discussion of the phrase 'Let there be light.'  He tells us about his internet explorations of such puns as 'Let there be lite' (a phrase about dieting), 'Let there be flight' (used by the airline industry), and 'Let there be night' (coined by urban astronomers bothered by the bright lights of the city).  "Google was often bemused when I searched for such strings,"  says Crystal slyly.  "Did you mean to search for 'Let there be light'?, it asked me wistfully."

Crystal concludes his study by stating that if one looks at idioms, it is clear that "no other single source has provided the language with so many idiomatic expressions."  Although most of the phrases that Crystal suggests come to us from the King James Version were also found in other translations or were known to be in usage beforehand, it was the KJV that "gave them widespread public presence" since this translation was so widely used.

Idioms, of course, are not the only way to determine the linguistic impact of a particular text.  Crystal is quick to admit that if scholars look for the number of new words admitted into our lexicon, the King James Bible falls well behind Shakespeare.  The difference, he explains, is that the Bard worked with genres of text which encouraged linguistic play, while translators of the Bible were more "linguistically conservative"--that is, more constrained by both their subject matter and their traditional theological approaches.

Success at spawning idioms and achievement at coining new words are qualities which can be more easily quantified than broader elements of language such as grammar and rhythm.  Numerically tracing the influence of deep resonances of style is nearly impossible to do, despite the fact that poets have seen the echoes of the King James Version for centuries.  As Crystal confesses, this work remains to be done as we try to understand fully how the KJV has helped to beget our English language.

Thank you very much to Oxford University Press for sharing with me a copy of this fascinating book.

7 comments:

  1. This sounds fascinating! Sounds like a fascinating way of learning about the influence on language.

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  2. It is a fascinating book--and quite funny as well!

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  3. This sounds very intriguing as well! Although I must admit that the deeper, rhythmic and poetic influences on language are actually what I would be more interested in reading about, even as I definitely see Crystal's point that they would be very difficult to measure.

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  4. I agree, Emily. Although I loved Crystal's book and found it a quick and enjoyable read, I was hoping to hear more about eh poetic resonances over time and the translation's impact on English literature. I suppose that will have to be his next book!

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  5. Thanks! A big surprise tied into the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Version Bible:

    Two scholars have compiled the first worldwide census of extant copies of the original first printing of the 1611 King James Version (sometimes referred to as the "He" Bible). For decades, authorities from the British Museum, et al., have estimated that “around 50 copies” of that first printing still exist. The real number, however, is quite different!

    For more information, you're invited to contact Donald L. Brake, Sr., PhD, at dbrake1611@q.com or his associate David Sanford at drsanford@earthlink.net. You’re also invited to visit the www.credocommunications.net/kjv website.

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  6. There’s this poster about Shakespeare that’s a compilation of things he wrote and that we still use frequently today (e.g. it's Greek to me; fair play; seen better days; good riddance).

    Exactly what David Crystal is talking about in relations to KJV. Couldn’t find the poster online, but someone actually wrote down all the expressions into a blog post: www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/35/messages/1291.html

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  7. Alexandra: I love that we can trace so much of our language from what authors have created. And I suppose that is one of the reasons I am so interested in reading more of these great works that I have. Thanks for the comment.

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