William Tyndale: Contribution to the English Language and Father of the English Bible
The English language is constantly changing. More and more editions of the Webster’s Dictionary are being published every decade, more vernacular is being considered as “standard English,” and more and more leniency is being advocated for by students in higher-level academics. English, on the whole, has always been a language of variation, a turbulent construction of roots, suffixes, and tenses. Due to a very long process and many historical upheavals, however, English has stabilized into the useable vocabulary taught today. Still, one has to wonder how it got to be what it now is. What and who influenced the stabilization of English? What major texts helped to solidify the chaotic reordering of English vocabulary? Who helped to promote English as one of the most prominent languages in the entire world?
To discover the truth, one needs to go back to the beginning. Yes, most scholars would agree that Shakespeare and King James I’s Authorized Bible are the “founding texts of modern English” (“Hero”), but is this really the case? The answer, upon investigation, is certainly “no.” It took the work of many generations to create the English that Shakespeare himself would use, the English that King James’ crew of translators would fashion into the greatest work of the early 1600s, the English that thousands of authors from several dozen countries would manipulate into best-selling works. Specifically, it took the work of a dedicated young man who would not only choose to provide his fellow Englishmen with a tried and true language of their own, but would provide that language in the form of the most important book that they could ever possess: the English Bible. Consequently, William Tyndale would become the first iconic hero of the freedom of religion and freedom of the press. Himself a mere student of the Church and a dedicated follower of the teachings of Christ, Tyndale would become the most influential – though unrecognized – translator of English in history.
The first difficulty Tyndale would have faced was the most prominent one: the fact that translating the Bible into English was ruled illegal. The article “A Hero for the Information Age,” published in the Economist, points out a key factor in Tyndale’s desire to make the Bible accessible for his fellow countrymen. Across the way, Martin Luther was already causing a stir for his open defiance of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and, in turn, his own translation of the Bible into German. An “idealist scholar,” Tyndale was soon “drawn into high religious politics” (“Hero”), a subsequent result of his genius in the field of linguistics and theology. As in Germany, the Church in London, England “dominated the spheres of scholarship and education” (Robinson 384), holding the key to theological and educational understanding; anyone with proficiency in either subject was considered either an asset, or, in Luther’s and Tyndale’s case, an enemy of the state. This would not have been a problem for such a genius as Tyndale – except for the fact that he greatly regretted the lack of understanding the rest of his countrymen had, both literarily and theologically. Not only had the Church prevented the English people from learning their own language and history through lack of education, but they had also stilted their theological understanding and prevented them from knowing the Gospel that Tyndale held so dear. He greatly wished that “every boy who driveth the plough” (“Hero”) would be able to read the Bible for themselves, thus educating themselves in language, and in the Word of God.
This, of course, infuriated the Church officials, who knew that if “laymen” could read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves, their institutions of brutal – and unbiblical – doctrines could be unearthed and would ensure their loss of authority over the people. As Robert Baral brought out in his 2006 printed sermon, Tyndale was himself also veering away from the doctrines he had originally believed, “gr[owing] closer to Luther’s [beliefs] with time, coming to see [t]he Bible as the central authority upon which Christian faith should be based – not…the dictates of the Roman Church” (Baral 6). This would have influenced his translations as well, providing the people with a non-Catholic version of the Bible; the fact that the Catholic Biblical Quarterly recently published an article describing the nuances of a Catholic-influenced translation proves that this is still a topic of debate today (Wcela). As if that was not enough, Tyndale also added to his list of ‘crimes’ by defying Henry VIII’s decision and political spinning to divorce his wife, Anne, which, as Baral states, “earned him the enmity of the then good king of England” (Baral 6).
The second trial to overcome was the vacillating state of the English language at the time Tyndale’s work was beginning. According to the fascinating study by Fred Robinson, what we know as modern-day English is really a language of “stratified vocabulary” (381), with its primary roots in the Germanic language of the Norwegians, Dutch, and other Scandinavian countries (380). The other “strata,” as Robinson calls them, come from the highly stylized French, as a result of the victory for the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, thus establishing their native French as the language of the country; and from the Latinate, the all-encompassing and highly necessary substitution of long-forgotten English words with those of the clerical Latin used by the Catholic Church (381). Obviously, the English language has had various stages of compilation – ones that would certainly have surfaced during Tyndale’s studies and presented him with a problem. Because of this highly intrusive project to incorporate Latin into English for the purpose of expanding the language – and, of course, Church-only authority on interpretation of Scripture - Tyndale would have had to consider how, exactly, to relay the proper information to his audience. Most Englishmen at the time, the “laymen” as the Church labeled them, were uneducated in even Basic English, let alone the new-fangled words that were constantly being added to their vocabulary by the clergy. There was no longer a real Basic English to be learned, since Tyndale began his translations in the midst of the Latinate takeover of his native language, which was already deprived of its original Germanic origins and instead flushed with French derivations. Now with the added Latin, Tyndale had several questions to consider: How much Latinate English would his audience know? Should he seek for a pure English word (Germanic in origin) and risk losing the sense of the original meaning of the New Testament Greek?
Not only did Tyndale have to think carefully of the knowledge his countrymen already did or did not possess, he also had to do it all with limited resources in a life of exile. Because his work was a direct violation of Church-mandated orders, he was forced to live a life of self-enforced exile for the better half of his later life, mostly in Germany (“Hero”). This separated him from the newest and most advancing invention of his day: the printing press. The Economist explains the state of the times:
“London was well supplied with book-sellers, who were prepared to shop around the continent to find material for a growing body of literate customers. Thanks to commerce, and the increasing complexity of occupations…the number of English people who learned to read for purely practical as well as devotional reasons was growing.” (“Hero”)
Tyndale’s problem was getting his work to the presses. He also had to work with not only dictionaries and lexicons of the ever-growing English language, but also with those of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. The practical difficulties that must have surfaced are apparent: this was the 17th century England, not 21st century Borders-ridden America. Away from his homeland and from the bustle of the London hub, Tyndale could not readily get his work to the printing presses; while possible, it was certainly not easy. If his time was not spent translating and juggling the precious volumes of Greek and Latin roots that he managed to get his hands on, it was spent smuggling his work into across borders into London where it could be printed – provided that it was not found and confiscated by Church spies.
Under threat of death, Tyndale had to work on his own, away from academics and theologians, mostly alone and with limited abilities. Like his predecessor, Martin Luther, Tyndale was not only seeking to translate an accessible version of the Bible, but an accurate version as well. It was not merely a project to provide an aesthetic, pleasurable read for Englishmen, but one that would set them free from the dictates of an obtrusive and oppressive religious system that virtually reigned alongside the King as a government itself. The impact of this must have been weighty, for Tyndale’s very last words before he was executed at the stake were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” (“Hero”?) He understood that without an official approval of the translation, his lifetime of work would be utterly useless. The religious governmental system itself had to go.
And go it would. Later, after Tyndale’s work was finally completed, other Englishmen realized the value of his ideas, and finally, in 1604, a brave Puritan named John Reynolds beseeched King James I of England to approve the translation of an “official” English Bible (Patterson 17). Unbeknownst to many readers of the Bible today, over two-thirds of the King James Bible is original Tyndale work (“Hero”). It was not until this translation was complete that the English language received a “founding text” that would solidify it as a world-recognized language; only now was the English language truly opened to the world, and the cultural exchange set in motion. Because of the work of Tyndale and his academic followers, not only could Englishmen now have access to their own religious text, but now a new interest in other cultures and other literatures was also born: Shakespeare could begin writing about foreign lands and use Latin words in his plays; Christopher Marlowe could translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Queen Elizabeth could translate Boethius (Robinson 385). These great men and women received most of the credit for “forging a new language out of English combined with French and overlaid with Latin” (386), but the truth is that their work was only possible through the sacrifice of a fellow Englishman that not too many remember.
Baral, Robert. “William Tyndale: The Biblical Criminal.” 21 Mar. 2006. Sermon. Web.
"Hero for the Information Age, A." Economist 389.8611 (2008): 101. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.
Patterson, W. B. "James VI and I and the King James Version." Sewanee Review 112.3 (2004): 417. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.
Robinson, Fred C. "The History of English and Its Practical Uses." Sewanee Review 112.3 (2004): 376. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.
Wcela, Emil A. "What Is Catholic about a Catholic Translation of the Bible?." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 71.2 (2009): 247-263. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.