From Gutter to Heaven: The Role of the KJV in Development of the English Language
By Scott Wilcher
Scholars have catalogued the familiar phrases coined by translators of the King James Version or Authorized Version of the Bible. (i.e. "long-suffering," "peacemaker," “salt of the earth,” and “apple of his eye.”) However, 400 years later, those phrases are dwarfed by the converging linguistic forces that precipitated the development of the KJV and its subsequent impact on the English language.
Beginnings of the English Language
To fully appreciate the impact of the KJV, the reader must understand the humble beginnings of the English language. Americans must imagine the situation if, immediately after the inauguration of George Washington, a French general had invaded, conquered our infant nation and crowned himself king. This new king would give the choicest land and offices to his family and his French friends. Now imagine the linguistic confusion in the nation: the King, his government and the upper classes speak a version of French; the commoner speaks English. How does the commoner sell his crops to the upper classes? How does the French-speaking land-owner communicate with his servants?
The answer lies in a pidgin, a simple blend of languages for business purposes. We’re most familiar with pidgins in their stereotypical television or movie versions: The native warrior who demands of the American pioneer, “You givum wampum,” or the Chinese immigrant who says of the laundry, “Washee Clozee.” No one writes poetry in a pidgin. No one prays in a pidgin.
However, imagine a French land-owner marries a lovely American. What language will their son speak? Certainly, the father will demand that he learn French, the language of the upper classes. The mother and her family will teach him English, but his first language will be the pidgin he hears spoken in his home between his parents.
When a pidgin becomes the first language people learn, linguists call it a creole, but no outsider takes a creole seriously. Visiting French relatives would laugh at the creole-speaking boy, and scold his French father for letting him speak this low-class mutt of a language. The boy would be ashamed. Hundreds of years later, outsiders would still mock this creole, but it would be the language of the nation, and its speakers would feel slightly less than those who spoke more “pure” languages. It was a language adequate for the marketplace, but not for serious literature, and certainly not worth of prayer or Scripture. That scenario will help us understand the perception of the English language before the KJV.
How the Bible fits into English History
In English history, William The Conqueror, a French speaker, crowned himself king of England on Christmas day in 1066. His French supporters became the upper classes lording over Anglo-Saxon natives, who spoke dialects of an old form of German. A pidgin became necessary. Three hundred years later, it is that pidgin, now a creole that we call Middle English, in which Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. Grammatically, it sounded childish and embarrassingly simple. Phonologically, it sounds like a comical collision of glottal German and nasal French, but that collision left speakers with a large and colorful word-base and, unlike the French, no compulsion to protect the purity of their language. Therefore, they borrowed words from other languages or made up new ones as needed, building the word-base still further. In that same period, Gutenburg developed a movable type press on the Continent had increased the supply of books, including the Bible, lowered their cost, and subsequently increased the literacy rates of English speakers. However, early Bible translators were burned at the stake for daring to write God’s Word in this vulgar creole, yet by 1539, Henry VIII required Bibles be available in each parish in what linguists call Early Modern English.
At this point, their language is becoming worthy of God. He spoke this creole to create the heavens and the earth. Jesus prayed in it. Therefore, the people of England could too. By 1549 the Latin liturgy was translated into the English book of Common Prayer.
Additionally in this era, several external forces converged to elevate perceptions of English. First, there was William Shakespeare, whose use of this once-laughable creole language created characters that came to life on the stage, whether they be kings or paupers, capturing the bawdy and the sublime in one language with inventive wordplay and clever metaphor. The poetry of its sounds and rhythm of its meter rendered this creole musical, even (dare they say it?) beautiful.
Secondly, in 1588 the British Navy defeated a much larger Spanish fleet sent by King Phillip to force the English to restore a Catholic to the throne. For many English believers, the victory unified them, confirming that this God that now spoke English was on their side.
Thirdly, James came to the throne in 1601, an English-speaking king calling for an authorized translation of the Bible for all English Christians. English had risen from the marketplace to the throne, to the scholars of the land involved in the translation to the very heights of heaven.
This status of the Authorized Version, backed by scholarship and government, and its widespread availability contributed to 1) the formalization of English, both in the nation-wide establishment of standards for spelling, usage and grammar, and 2) the slowing of foundational changes within the language, a natural result of printing on a language. One need only look at our continued use of Thee and Thou in religious songs and prayers to recognize that reluctance of English-speaking culture to move too far from the language of the KJV.
Since it first appeared, the KJV has emerged as what Geddes MacGregor (1968) called “the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, in what is now its most influential language.” Part of that elevation of English from laughable creole to its status 400 years later must be attributed to the linguistic influence of the King James Version.
MacGregor, G. (1968). A Literary History of the Bible: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day. Nashville, TN and New York: Abingdon Press.
After 30 years of working with young people and their families, Scott writes and speaks to church and denominational leaders about turning the heart of the adult church, esp. those known as the Old Guard, toward young people. His new book, The Orphaned Generation: The Father’s Heart for Connecting Youth and Young Adults to Your Church, has caught the attention of churches struggling to reach and retain young people. His articles have appeared in Group Magazine, Youth Leaders Only and other publications.
He is currently working toward a doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University. You may learn more at scottwilcher.com.
Log in or create an account to post a comment.
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.