Translation of The Bible and Evolution of the English Language

Posted on June 14, 2016 · Posted in Linguistics, Translation History

There’s a bit of argument over who translated the Bible into English. Officially, the translation was completed by John Wycliffe, and that’s the name you’ll stumble across if you search for information about Bible translations into English. However, there is evidence that sections of the Bible were translated long before Wycliffe’s time, by such figures as the Venerable Bede in the 7th Century, and Aldred Provost in the 10th Century, for example. For the sake of how the translation impacted the English Language, the ‘who’ of the story doesn’t matter. All that matters is that these translations have been instrumental in shaping the words we use, and the way we speak, in English speaking countries around the world today.

Interestingly, there are actually two ways in which translation of the Bible has contributed to the evolution of the English language. On the one hand, we have standardization, and on the other we have the literal words and phrases that we use today, often without realizing their origins and associations.

English Language Standardization

Here’s an interesting question to mull over: What exactly is the English Language? It’s fair to say that the language hasn’t been especially stable over the years. For a long time, it was very, very fluid, going from the Old English of the 12th Century to the Middle English of the 15th Century, and moving on then from Early Modern English to the English we speak in the United States today. The reason why Wycliffe tends to be the prominent name when it comes to Bible translation is because, unlike Provost and others, this translation came at a time when there was a desperate need for standardization.

The translation of the Bible provided just that; standardization. It could be described as a reference, of sorts. If you were to take a look at the original texts of the Bible, you’d find that many fail to include punctuation. The letters of Paul in the New Testament are a great example of this. Punctuation was added later by translators depending on how they themselves translated the text, essentially providing a reference point by demonstrating how and when punctuation was supposed to be used in English.

Words & Phrases

How many times have you called someone ‘the salt of the earth’? Perhaps a few. How many times were you referencing Matthew 5:13 when doing so? Probably not that many, right? The same goes for all the times you’ve told someone not to ‘put words in my mouth’. Chances are you weren’t quoting Psalm 19:14 at the time. The English translation of the Bible gave us words and phrases that have, over time, become so integrated into the English language that they’re now commonplace. They’re at a point where they retain little – if any – association with the Bible, having become little more than idiom.

Why the Bible?

Other works have been translated, or standardized, over time. Why aren’t they said to have had as much impact on language as the Bible? Well, actually, many of these works are acknowledged as contributing heavily towards the way we speak today, but the Bible still tends to be the most prominent. Why?

Take Shakespeare, for example. We can clearly see how standardization of his plays and poetry played a huge role in shaping our language (check out this blog post to see what we mean). So what’s the difference? Quite simply, it comes down to accessibility.

Now, we can say with certainty that Shakespeare’s audiences were diverse – the rich and the poor, men and women, could all be counted among the audience members. But the upper classes liked to flaunt their wealth, and we also know that in 1607, the entire Globe Theatre was pretty much booked out exclusively by the Venetian Ambassador. There was no competition with the Bible; it was accessible, and it was read by everyone regardless of their class, their status, their wealth, their age, their occupation. The Bible translations quite literally affected everyone, which is why it has been so instrumental in the evolution of the English language.