LANGUAGES AND MORE INTERNET | US
A village never lacks a beautiful [young] woman. (English)
Proverbs are often borrowed from similar languages and cultures, and sometimes come down to the present through more than one language. Both the Bible (Book of Proverbs) and medieval Latin have played a considerable role in distributing proverbs across Europe, although almost every culture has examples of its own.
The impact of the King James Bible, which was published 400 years ago, is still being felt in the way we speak and write, says Stephen Tomkins.
No other book, or indeed any piece of culture, seems to have influenced the English language as much as the King James Bible. Its turns of phrase have permeated the everyday language of English speakers, whether or not they’ve ever even opened a copy.
The Sun says Aston Villa “refused to give up the ghost”. Wendy Richard calls her East-Enders character Pauline Fowler “the salt of the earth”. The England cricket coach tells reporters, “You can’t put words in my mouth.” Daily Mirror fashion pages call Tilda Swinton “a law unto herself”.
Though each of those phrases was begotten of the loins of the English Bible, it’s safe to say that none of those speakers was deliberately quoting the Bible to people they expected to be familiar with its contents.
Phrases still with us
- Turned the world upside down Acts 17:6
- God forbid Romans 3:4
- Take root 2 Kings 19:30
- The powers that be Romans 13:1
- Filthy lucre 1 Timothy 3:3
- No peace for the wicked Isaiah 57: 21
- A fly in the ointment Ecclesiastes 10:1
- Wheels within wheels Ezekiel 10:10
- The blind leading the blind Matthew 15:13
- Feet of clay Daniel 2:33
And while a 2009 survey by Durham University found that only 38% of us know the parable of prodigal son, a recent book by the linguist David Crystal, appropriately called Begat: The King James Bible and the English language, counts 257 phrases from the King James Bible in contemporary English idioms.
Such statistics take us back to days of old when this Bible was the daily reading of millions of people throughout the English speaking world, from Northamptonshire cobblers to US presidents – though not perhaps so far distant in the latter case.
Readers absorbed its language both directly and through other reading. Tennyson considered Bible reading “an education in itself”, while Dickens called the New Testament “the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world.”
The US statesman Daniel Webster said: “If there is anything in my thoughts or style to commend, the credit is due to my parents for instilling in me an early love of the Scriptures.” Equally celebrated as a British orator, TB Macaulay said that the translation demonstrated “the whole extent of [the] beauty and power” of the English language.
Who wrote the King James Bible?
- 54 scholars, all members of the Church of England, were chosen and 47 completed the task
- Worked in six panels, each responsible for a different part of the Bible
- Based in Oxford, Cambridge and London
- Drew heavily on the work of William Tyndale, who was one of the first to translate the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek
- It was all at the request of King James I, who was unhappy with existing translations and regularly visited the scholars at work
Why has its influence been so marked? Alister McGrath, professor of theology, ministry and education at King’s College, London, is the author of In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible and how it changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture.
He points to several reasons. The Bible was “a very public text”, he says. “It would have been read aloud in churches very, very extensively, which would have imprinted it on people’s minds.”
Then, going back to the likes of Dickens and Webster, there’s the way influential people mediated and amplified the effect.
“The King James Bible” says McGrath, “had a very significant influence on the movers and shakers, particularly in London, who had a huge influence on what ordinary people took to be good English.”
Another reason was that the time was ripe. “English was in a particularly fluid state. Both the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible appeared around this formative time and stamped their imprint on the newer forms of the language.”
The King James Bible was often read aloud
Perhaps the most intriguing reason for the impact of the King James Bible is that it ignored what today would be considered essentials for good translation.
“The translators seem to have taken the view that the best translation was a literal one, so instead of adapting Hebrew and Greek to English forms of speaking they simply translated it literally. The result wouldn’t have made all that much sense to readers, but they got used to it, and so these fundamentally foreign ways of expressing yourself became accepted as normal English through the influence of this major public text.”
Examples of Hebrew idioms that have become English via the Bible include: “to set one’s teeth on edge”, “by the skin of one’s teeth”, “the land of the living” and “from strength to strength”.
David Crystal in Begat, however, set out to counter exaggerated claims for the influence of the King James Bible. “I wanted to put a precise number on it,” he explains, “because some people have said there are thousands of phrases from the King James Bible in our language, that it is the DNA of the English language. I found 257 examples.”
(Based upon the phrases used in their own culture/community, someone else may find a different number of examples…)
Its impact on religious language
Has the KJB kept Christian language stuck in the 17th Century? “We thank thee, O God, for the manifest blessings that thou hast vouchsafed unto us,” is one example of such a passage.
“It’s the last thing the translators would have wanted,” argues Simon Jenkins, editor of the Christian website shipoffools.com. “Ironically, at the time, ‘you’ was a more formal way of addressing someone, and ‘thou’ was more familiar, but they decided not to use any special grammar for God. He was ‘thou’ just like everybody else.
“But when I was being brought up, people were still talking to God as ‘thou”. it’s hopelessly antiquated and alienating. The translators made the right decision at the time, but what the church later did with it doesn’t convey that intention at all.”
More importantly, Crystal discovered that only a small minority of those phrases were original to the KJB, most of them being copied from earlier translators, above all William Tyndale.
“Only 18 of that total were unique to the King James Bible. It didn’t originate these usages, it acted as a kind of conduit through which they became popular. Tyndale was the number one influence.”
He also found that the Bible coined few new words. Shakespeare by comparison, introduced about 100 phrases into our idioms, to the Bible’s 257, and something like 1,000 new words. The English Bible introduced only 40 or so, including “battering ram” and “backsliding”.
“This reflects their different jobs,” says Crystal. “The whole point of being a dramatist is to be original in your language. The Bible translators, in contrast, were under strict instructions not to be innovative but to look backwards to what earlier translators had done.” Earlier translators whose only concern was to translate the Bible literally.
So paradoxically it seems that the profound influence of the King James Bible in changing and shaping our language came through the desire to be as “linguistically conservative” as possible.
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Proverbs are often metaphorical.
Metaphor is the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another. A metaphor is a figure of speech that constructs an analogy between two things or ideas; the analogy is conveyed by the use of a metaphorical word in place of some other word. For example: “Her eyes were glistening jewels”.
Analogy plays a significant role in problem solving, decision making, perception, memory, creativity, emotion, explanation and communication. It lies behind basic tasks such as the identification of places, objects and people, for example, in face perception and facial recognition systems. It has been argued that analogy is “the core of cognition”.
In ancient Greek the word αναλογια (analogia) originally meant proportionality, in the mathematical sense, and it was indeed sometimes translated to Latin as proportio. From there analogy was understood as identity of relation between any two ordered pairs, whether of mathematical nature or not. Kant’s Critique of Judgment held to this notion.
Kant argued that there can be exactly the same relation between two completely different objects. The same notion of analogy was used in the US-based SAT tests, that included “analogy questions” in the form “A is to B as C is to what?” For example, “Hand is to palm as foot is to ____?” These questions were usually given in the Aristotelian format:
- HAND : PALM : : FOOT : ____
Most competent English speakers will immediately give the right answer to the analogy question (sole).
Metaphors are comparisons that show how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in one important way.
A metaphor is more forceful (active) than an analogy, because metaphor asserts two things are the same, whereas analogy implies a difference; other rhetorical comparative figures of speech, such as metonymy, parable, simile and synecdoche, are species of metaphor distinguished by how the comparison is communicated. The metaphor category also contains these specialised types:
- allegory: An extended metaphor wherein a story illustrates an important attribute of the subject.
- catachresis: A mixed metaphor used by design and accident (a rhetorical fault).
- parable: An extended metaphor narrated as an anecdote illustrating and teaching a moral lesson.
A proverb (from Latin: proverbium) is a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the …
The Book of Proverbs (in Hebrew: מִשְלֵי Mish’lé) is a book of the Hebrew Bible. The original Hebrew title of the book of Proverbs is “Míshlê Shlomoh” …