Authoring the English Language

318063If you want your child to grow up to be a linguistic prodigy, name him William. Last week we talked about William Shakespeare and his impact on shaping the English Language. Today we’re going to talk about William Tyndale, and how his translation of the bible laid the framework that allowed Shakespeare to rise to such great heights.

William Tyndale was an author, linguist and theologian of the 16th century. This early in history books were extremely rare, and most people couldn’t read. And even those who could, could read only English. The Bible, as well as a great many other religious and scientific texts, were written in Latin, inaccessible to the English people. Tyndale’s goal in translating the new testament was to give every Englishman, peasant or noble, the ability to read the word of God for himself, without having it translated by a priest. He has been described as the man who taught England to read, and Shakespeare to write. But translating the bible into English was a crime in those days. So while Shakespeare’s name is heard around the globe, Tyndale’s reward was to be burned alive at the stake.

Phrases we think of today as purely religious references actually originated with Tyndale. English was a soft clay in those days, and had he made different choices in translation we might never know phrases such as salt of the Earth, powers that be, or a moment in time. We might never have been able to give up the ghost, come to pass, or fight the good fight. Without these phrases writers such as Joss Whedon, Jim Butcher, and even Charles Dickens would be hard pressed to create their masterpieces. Tyndale’s translation laid the foundation for all those which followed, becoming the first best seller, where it remains to this day.

Tyndale_Bible_-_Gospel_of_JohnWhile many of the early writers in the English language are accused of being so classical that it’s practically another language, William Tyndale’s writing is eerily modern. Leaving aside the irregular spelling, (Tyndale thought standardized spelling a waste of time and effort) and the thees and thous (which are actually correct English; the lack of them is a serious lapse in grammar) his writing is immediate and personal, the language one that we can understand rather than something reserved for frilly actors upon a distant stage.

I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he does.

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