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The Battle for the Language of the Bible 



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Episode credited cast:
Bible Readings
Himself - Presenter
Mark Saban ...
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Release Date:

13 November 2003 (UK)  »

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In The Beginning Was The Verbum.
24 December 2014 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

A superior documentary on the historical development of the English language. This episode deals almost as much with religion and politics as it does with linguistics.

The affable presenter describes the situation before the Renaissance, when the Catholic church basically laid down the values expressed in everyday interactions. Church attendance was compulsory. Nobody knew what the priest was saying, partly because he mumbled to himself. And they wouldn't have understood if he'd spoken more clearly because Latin was the language of religion and scholarship. When the priest reached an important point in his reading, a few tiny bells were rung. I was raised as a Catholic, when Latin was still used in the mass, and I'd always wondered what the hell those little bells were all about. Now I finally know. If I describe these episodes as "informative," that's the sort of thing I have in mind.

Outside the church, ordinary people learned the Biblical stories through passion plays. The story of the three Magi would be enacted in the Old English of Chaucer's day on a primitive stage, in plain speeches that were to the Bible as a Daily News article is to "The Great Gatsby," a kind of cartoon version of the tales.

John Wycliffe (pronounced "Wick-liff") disliked the arrangement. The Catholic church of the time was pretty corrupt and many of the priests and friars didn't know where the ten commandments came from. So in the 1380s, Wycliffe committed an outrageous act. He translated the Bible into the English of his time, and it was copied over and over. It gave us phrases we still use, like "Woe is me," and "An eye for an eye," and words like "canopy" and "frying pan." (Is that "informative" or what?) You should see the surviving copies of Wycliffe's Bible. It may be in English but it's still hard to read the words through all the decorative and colorful roses and writhing vines.

This caused the church some disturbance. They burned Wycliffe's Bibles. They burned Wycliffe's followers. They condemned Wycliffe as a posthumous heretic, dug up his remains, burned them too, and dumped his ashes in a tributary of the Avon. I didn't know that, because Wycliffe had just been an obscure historical figure to me. I didn't know, either, that English had never really become a written language until it was standardize around 1470. Previously there had been dozens of dialects across England, each with its own spelling, if it was written at all. People didn't travel very easily at the time, and geographic isolation will do that to a language, just as it does to an organism. Even a political divide separated by a river will serve: "house" in America is "hoose" in Canada, as everyone knows.

Around 1500, Wycliffe's hand-painted manuscripts had been bought up and burned but there was no stopping the spread of books after the printing press. Tindall translated the New Testament not from Latin but from the original Greek and Hebrew, giving us phrases like "broken-hearted", "the apple of my eye," "stranger in a strange land," and "scapegoat." Most of the familiar King James version is from Tindall. England was flooded with his pocket-sized English Bibles. Neither the church nor the state could burn all of them but they managed to burn Tindall.

It was no use. Soon Henry VIII was king of England and wanted a divorce, which the Pope wouldn't grant, so Henry decided to forget about the Pope, embrace the English Bible, and establish English as the language of faith. Nothing in the Bible about divorce. It all fits together rather nicely.

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