How the Bible affected English, by English with Stephen

Reasons for English: English and The Bible

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode about how the Bible has influenced the English language.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast, the podcast that gives you everything you need in order to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Today we are going to talk about the effect the Bible had on English. I would just like to say that we are not going to talk about whether the Bible is true or not. Neither am I going to talk about the Christian religion, or indeed any other religion. My aim is just to look at how translating the Bible into English was important for the development of English.

All of that, after this.

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The historical figure of Jesus probably spoke some version of the ancient language of Aramaic. However, the word “bible” is a Greek word and literally means “books”. This is because it is a collection of books written by various people at different times. Incidentally, the origin of the word “bible” is the same as words like “bibliography” and “bibliophile”.

The New Testament, the part of the Bible that comes after the birth of Jesus was probably first written in Greek because Greek was the common language around Eastern Europe and Western Asia at that time. The Old Testament, the part that comes from the Jewish tradition, was of course written in Hebrew.

The Greek bible was quickly translated into Latin and, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, Latin became the language of the western Christian church. Even after the fall of the Roman empire in the west of Europe, Latin continued to dominate and acted as a lingua franca for educated Europeans.

There is a common misconception that the Roman Catholic Church refused to allow the Bible to be translated into local languages because they wanted to keep power for themselves. There are many examples of Bibles and other religious texts in local languages, including a very old one in the Gothic language.

What the Catholic church did not want to happen was unauthorised translations of the Bible. You see, if you change one or two words you can sometimes drastically change the meaning, and when the meaning is the word of God and how you should act in order to achieve eternal life, then words are important.

There is also another reason why the Bible was rarely translated: education. There really weren’t that many people who could read, and most people who were able to read could also read Latin, so there just wasn’t the demand for Bibles in local languages.

As we’ve seen in some recent episodes, the English Renaissance and the invention of the printing press meant that it was cheaper than ever to produce books and that more and more people were learning to read, but only in their local languages. So by the 1400s, there was a demand for a Bible in English.

In 1382, John Wycliff became the first person to translate the whole Bible into English. Wycliffe had studied the Bible at Oxford University and then became a priest. He realised that the messages included in Greek were very different to the way Christianity was being practised. He decided that one of the reasons for this was that the ordinary person could not read the Bible for themselves to discover the word of God and so they relied upon priests to interpret it for them. He blamed many of the priests for giving a false view of the Bible, a view that helped the priests to accumulate power and money.

So you can see why those same priests objected to his English Bible which had a totally different focus to the one the priests wanted to spread. Wycliffe’s Bible was declared to be against Christian teachings and most copies of his Bible were burned. The man himself died while saying mass shortly after he had finished his translation.

However, a few years later, and partly due to some of the arguments that Wycliff raised about the actions of the Catholic church, but also because King Henry VIII wanted a new wife, England split from the Catholic church and created the Anglican church. One of the first things they wanted was a Bible in English for this new English church.

Although this new Bible was translated by many people, a lot of the language is exactly the same as Wycliffe’s earlier translation. But now it was official and it was called the King James Bible.

Whatever your thoughts on the truth of the Bible, I think most people would agree that the King James Bible is a work of art in terms of its language.

Even if you don’t believe in a Christian God, or even if you have never read the Bible, you are probably going to use some phrases that first appeared in English in the Bible.

For example, if you suffer from “a broken heart”, if you pass your test “by the skin of your teeth”, listen to Queen singing ‘Another one “bites the dust” or “eat drink and be merry”, then you are using phrases from the Bible.

These are all common, everyday expressions that people use without realising they are biblical. But there are many more.

Do you believe that “money is the root of all evil”? Do you think the “letter of the law” should include “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? Are you convinced that “pride comes before a fall”? Are you sure that “man does not live on bread alone”?

In fact, there are so many phrases that come from the Bible that it is impossible to list them here. I will provide a link in the transcript that you can follow that has a very long list as well as the meanings of all of the expressions.

The translation of the Bible into English is a great example of how a language can stay the same just by the act of writing it down. Many of the phrases and prayers that are still used today use language that is now out of date.

An example comes from a prayer that isn’t in the Bible but was published shortly after the translation. The start of the Lord’s prayer is

Our father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

On Earth as it is in heaven.

We have some strange words here: “art” is an old way of saying “is” and we can also see how the pronouns have changed with the use of “thy” instead of “your”. “Hallowed” is also a strange word for contemporary times, and we would probably say “holy” nowadays.

I remember saying the words to this prayer as a kid and having absolutely no idea what I was saying. It was just meaningless sounds to me. This is the reason why there have been lots of other versions or translations of the Bible as attempts have been made to bring the language up to date. However, none of the later translations has been anywhere near as influential as the King James Version of the Bible that was heavily based on Wycliffe’s illegal translation.

That’s about all from me today. Remember you can find a link to a list of the phrases and expressions on my site, And don’t forget to go check out Truly English for some great mini-English classes.

Link: Biblical expressions

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