The Reformation of English

How Tyndale’s Bible Transformed Our Language

In the late summer or fall of 1525, sheets of thin sewn paper bounced across the English Channel, hidden in bales of cloth and sacks of flour. They passed silently, secretly, from the Channel to the London shipyards, from the shipyards to the hands of smiths and cooks, sailors and cobblers, priests and politicians, mothers and fathers and children. De-clothed and un-floured, the first lines read,

I have here translated (bretheren and sisters most dear and tenderly beloved in Christ) the new Testament for your spiritual edifying, consolation, and solace.

And then, a few pages later:

This is the book of the generation of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son also of Abraham . . .

Here was the Gospel of Matthew, translated from the original Greek into English for the very first time. The entire New Testament would soon follow, and then portions of the Old Testament, before its translator, William Tyndale (1494–1536), would be found and killed for his work.

Reforming English

For centuries past, a normal Englishman might have thought God spoke Latin. England’s only legal Bible was a Latin Bible, translated over a millennium prior by the church father Jerome (who died in 420). For them, the Psalms were simply the songs of a foreign land. The Ten Commandments rumbled toward them with no more clarity than Sinai’s thunder. They knew, perhaps, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us — but apart from bits and snatches, they had never heard him speak their language. Until now.

Over the following years, some would burn this book, and some would be burned for it. Some would smuggle this book into England, and some would cast it out. But the book itself, once translated, could not be forgotten. Illegal or not, the English Scriptures would find their way into English pulpits and English hearts, reforming England through its mother tongue.

And along the way, another reformation would take place — a reformation often overlooked, and yet, one could argue, just as far reaching. Tyndale’s translation would reform not only England, but English; it would shape the future not only of English religion, but of the English language. As biographer David Daniell writes, “Newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare” (William Tyndale, 2).

Dangers of Translation

From a distance of five hundred years, we may struggle to grasp how the English Christian church could possibly oppose the English Christian Scriptures. For, amazingly enough, it was the church that banned and burned this book. The Catholic authorities of Tyndale’s day offered at least two reasons.

First, translation is inherently dangerous. In the early 1400s, a generation after John Wycliffe (1328–1384) had published the first English Bible (translated from the Latin Vulgate, however, rather than the Hebrew and Greek), the Constitutions of Oxford declared,

It is a dangerous thing, as witnesseth blessed St. Jerome, to translate the text of the Holy Scripture out of one tongue into another, for in the translation the same sense is not always easily kept. . . . We therefore decree and ordain, that no man, hereafter, by his own authority translate any text of the Scripture into English or any other tongue . . . and that no man can read any such book . . . in part or in whole. (God’s Bestseller, xxii)

“They could burn the book, and they could even burn the man, but they could not burn away the words so many heard.”

The priests and magistrates of Tyndale’s day enforced such laws with a vengeance, sometimes burning Christians alive simply for possessing the Lord’s Prayer in English. An English Bible, of course, posed more danger to a corrupt church than to a common Christian. Even still, such was their position: translation was simply too dangerous.

Our Rude and Rusty Tongue

Apart from translation itself being seen as dangerous, however, the idea of an English translation was considered “ridiculous.” “The English language, when Tyndale began to write,” says Daniell, “was a poor thing, spoken only by a few in an island off the shelf of Europe. . . . In 1500 it was as irrelevant to life in Europe as today’s Scots Gaelic is to the city of London” (The Bible in English, 248).

Though English sufficed for everyday communication, Latin dominated the highest spheres of life. Magistrates wrote in Latin. Professors wrote (and taught) in Latin. Literary works appeared in Latin. The clergy conducted their services in Latin. How then could the Bible be translated into English?

A poem from John Skelton, written in the early 1500s, captures the supposed absurdity of an English translation:

Our natural tong is rude,
And hard to be enneude [revived]
With pullyshed terms lusty;
Our language is so rusty,
So cankered and so full
Of frowardes [awkward words], and so dull,
That if I wolde apply
To wryte ornately,
I wot not where to fynd
Terms to serve my mynde. (273)

Such a rude and rusty tongue could not carry the oracles of God. Or so the authorities thought.

Bible for Plowboys

William Tyndale grew up, along with every other boy his age, hearing the word of God in Latin. The Lord’s Prayer did not begin, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” but “Pater noster, qui es in caelis.” And like some other boys his age, he spent his school days preparing to speak that Latin word as a priest to the next generation.

But he never did — or at least not for long. We know few of the reasons Tyndale grew weary of a Latin-only religion and began to burn to read the Bible in English. Perhaps he noticed that, of all Europe in the 1520s, England alone had no legal vernacular translation (Bible in English, 249). Perhaps he heard about — and even read — Martin Luther’s groundbreaking German Bible, published in 1522. Perhaps he noticed all the Catholic corruption that only a mute Bible could endorse. And perhaps, as an extraordinary linguist himself, he heard far more potential in our English tongue than did the church of his day.

We do know, however, that when twentysomething Tyndale heard a certain man say, “We were better be without God’s law than the pope’s,” he answered, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. . . . If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the scripture than thou dost” (William Tyndale, 79). The gospel of the Scriptures, Tyndale knew, “maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy” (123). But how would the plowboy sing if he understood not a lick of that gospel?

And so, Tyndale began to translate. He went first to London, to see if he could find any support for his work close to home. Finding none, he left London for the continent, and there set to work on a translation that would give the plowboy not only the Bible, but the Bible clothed in an English so fair it would endure for centuries.

Tyndale’s Translation

In the judgment of one scholar, Tyndale “was responsible almost single-handedly for making the native language, which at the start of the sixteenth century was barely respectable in educated circles, into the supple, powerful, sensitive vehicle it had become by the time of Shakespeare” (The King James Version at 400, 316). Another goes so far as to say, “There is truth in the remark, ‘Without Tyndale, no Shakespeare’” (William Tyndale, 158). Under Tyndale’s pen, English grew from callow youth to mature man, capable of expressing the subtleties and profundities of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

But how did he do it? By focusing all of his linguistic genius toward two great goals: “First,” Daniell writes, “to understand the Greek and Hebrew of the original Bible texts as well as it was then humanly possible to do. Secondly, to write in English that above all, and at all times, made sense” (92). Accuracy and clarity were Tyndale’s hallmarks, and they made for an English at once strangely new and strikingly familiar.

Moses Speaking English

First, Tyndale’s commitment to accuracy gave his English a strange newness. A foreign flavor clung to his English phrases, as if his language traveled abroad and came home with a new accent.

Sometimes, readers felt the change in the totally new words Tyndale coined to capture the meaning of the text. Intercession, atonement, Passover, mercy seat, scapegoat — these are all Tyndalisms, the work of a wordsmith in his forge. Alistair McGrath comments, “It can be seen immediately that biblical translation thus provided a major stimulus to the development of the English language, not least by creating new English words to accommodate biblical ideas” (The Word of God in English, 61).

Tyndale forged not only new words, however, but a new style, especially in his translations of the Old Testament. Striving for literalness, he crafted a kind of Hebraic English, as if Moses should speak English in the patterns of his native tongue. For example, strange as it may seem, the simple construction “the+noun+of+the+noun” — “the beasts of the field,” “the birds of the air” — came into English through Tyndale’s translation of a Hebrew form called the construct chain (William Tyndale, 285). Tyndale could have fitted this Hebrew form into existing English syntax; instead, he invented a new English form, and thus adorned our English with Hebrew robes.

“Following the syntactic contours of the Hebrew,” Robert Alter writes, “achieved a new kind of compelling effect, at once lofty and almost stark” (The King James Bible and the World It Made, 136). And more examples could be listed. The influence of Hebrew on our language (and to a lesser extent Greek), Daniell argues, is nothing short of “immense” (William Tyndale, 289) — and the credit is largely due to Tyndale. By grasping the original languages so tightly, he brought much of them back into English, to our great enrichment.

Scripture in Plain Language

Alongside that strange newness, however, was a striking familiarity, born from Tyndale’s commitment to clarity. His English may have traveled abroad, but it never lost touch with its roots — and particularly its Saxon roots.

Latin, as we’ve seen, dominated the respectable discourse of Tyndale’s England. Yet even when an author did write something important in English, he typically adopted a Latinate style, an English filled with abstract, polysyllabic words in complex syntax. As an example, Daniell offers the following excerpt from Lord Berner’s 1523 translation of a French history:

Thus, when I advertised and remembered the manifold commodities of history, how beneficial it is to mortal folk, and else how laudable and meritorious a deed it is to write histories . . . which I judged commodious, necessary, and profitable to be had in English . . . (Bible in English, 250)

Of the 46 words in this partial sentence, 11 consist of three syllables or more, 6 of those 11 reach into the four- or five-syllable range, and most of them lie under a fog of abstraction. Turn to Tyndale, either in his prose writings or his Bible translations, and you enter a different world — a world more Saxon than Latin, populated with short words and sentences that evoke images of real life. Here we find light, not illumination; eat, not ingest; grow, not cultivate; burn, not incinerate.

Latinate words have their place in English, of course, but Tyndale knew that “a homespun Anglo-Saxon vernacular” not only matched “the plain diction of the Hebrew,” but also that it spoke to the hearts of English readers and hearers (King James Bible, 137). He translated “in the language the people spoke, not as the scholars wrote” (William Tyndale, 3) — as, for example, in the familiar Christmas story of Luke 2:

And there were in the same region shepherds abiding in the field, and watching their flock by night. And lo: the angel of the Lord stood hard by them, and the brightness of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: Be not afraid: Behold I bring you tidings of great joy, that shall come to all the people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:8–11)

Of the 87 words in this passage, only one reaches three syllables (abiding). Here was a language familiar and warm, a world of words where even a plowboy could feel at home. And yet, at the same time, here was a beautiful language, a “fountain from which flowed the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest prose thereafter” (William Tyndale, 116).

Our Wonderful Tyndalian Tongue

In 1611, 86 years after Tyndale’s partial New Testament was smuggled into England, a new English Bible appeared, a Bible that would so win the hearts of English-speaking Christians that, for three centuries, you could almost call it the English Bible. And yet, remarkably, most of the King James Version belongs to Tyndale’s pen: 84 percent of the New Testament comes from his translation, along with 76 percent of the Old Testament books he finished before he died (God’s Bestseller, 1). The translators of 1611 were so indebted to his pioneering work that C.S. Lewis could say of the KJV, “Our Bible is substantially Tyndale” (Word of God in English, 60).

“With Tyndale’s Bible came reform — theologically and spiritually, but also linguistically.”

No wonder Daniell writes, “Tyndale’s gift to the English language is unmeasurable” (William Tyndale, 158). Through his own translation, and then through the KJV, Tyndale — a hunted, solitary translator eventually martyred for his work — would tutor poets and playwrights, politicians and pastors, in “the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English” (2). Tyndale gave us an English worth speaking and writing, and not only in everyday conversations and informal documents, but in the most precious matters of life and death.

Still today, we feel his driving influence whenever we read or hear the English Standard Version, whose translators note that “the words and phrases . . . grow out of the Tyndale–King James legacy.” But his influence goes far deeper, down into the instincts and thought worlds of all English speakers. We speak English like fish swim in water, rarely noticing the qualities of the language in which we live and move and have our being (there’s a Tyndale phrase, Acts 17:28). As David Norton writes, “It is difficult to imagine how our language would have been without the Tyndale tradition embodied in the KJV — in large part because we are so accustomed to the language we have and therefore find it difficult to observe” (King James Version, 21).

We do know, however, that English is no longer the rude and rusty tongue John Skelton thought it was. With Tyndale’s Bible came reform — theologically and spiritually, but also linguistically. They could burn the book, and they could even burn the man, but they could not burn away the words so many heard. Under God, Tyndale gave the English-speaking world the gospel of justification by faith alone, and in doing so, he gave us a new tongue to sing of it.