Word Play – Biblical scholarship and the English language

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, June 19th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

Hey, before we get to Word Play, let me just say a huge thank you to those of you who have stepped up during our June Giving Drive. Yesterday we ticked over the 60 percent mark, so we’re in a solid position to reach our goal by June 30th.

BASHAM: Yes, and we know that is no small matter, especially this year. With the economic downturn this spring, we know not everyone is in a position to give. Maybe your role this year is praying for us. We are grateful for that. 

But if you have the ability to give, we thank you for considering the cause of sound journalism grounded in God’s Word. You can get involved at wng.org/donate. That’s wng.org/donate.

BROWN: OK, next up, George Grant explores the legacy of William Tyndale.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: Who was the most influential writer in shaping the English language? Most experts would probably agree that it had to be William Shakespeare. 

A good case might also be made for John Milton for the stunning innovations he introduced in Paradise Lost. Some might even argue that Samuel Johnson’s name should be mentioned in the conversation because of his pioneering dictionary. 

But it may very well be that the single most influential English prose stylist was William Tyndale. He was a 16th century reformer and the father of the English Bible. His translations of the Scriptures published between 1526 and 1534 provided the basis for the King James Version—comprising as much as 90 percent of that literary masterpiece. 

As a consequence, Tyndale was in fact one of the founders of the modern language—indeed, Shakespeare either quoted or appropriated Tyndale’s Biblical phrasings more than 2,000 times in his acclaimed plays and sonnets.

Tyndale bequeathed so much of the eloquent phraseology, the picturesque imagery, and the familiar cadence that have made English so rhetorically lyrical. 

He had a knack for plain, yet elegant construction: “And God said, ‘let there be light, and there was light,’” “My brother’s keeper,” “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: the Lord make His face shine upon thee,” “The salt of the earth,” “The powers that be,” “A law unto themselves,” “Filthy lucre,” all these proverbial expressions came from the pen of Tyndale. 

As biographer Melvyn Bragg has asserted, “It would be hard to overpraise the literary merits of what he had done.”  

But, it wasn’t just Tyndale’s turns-of-phrases that made his work so remarkable. He often found that English simply did not have the vocabulary to capture the meaning of certain Greek or Hebrew terms. 

So, he coined a large number of words—words that have now become commonplace. Passover, Scapegoat, Mercy Seat, and Showbread were all his creations. He took the vowels from the Hebrew word Adonai and the consonants from Yahweh to create Jehovah. And, he crafted the elegant word, Atonement, from an awkward Hebrew phrase that Wycliffe had translated as “at-oneness” or “one-ment.”

His English rendering of the Bible was not the first—the 7th century monk, Caedmon created a few paraphrases; in the 8th century the Venerable Bede translated portions of the Vulgate; in the 9th century King Alfred translated a few selections; and in the 14th century John Wycliffe translated much of the canon. 

But Tyndale was the first to translate from Greek and Hebrew. And of course, it was Tyndale who gave Shakespeare, Milton, and Johnson the tools with which they were able to mine their own great literary works.  

I’m George Grant.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

One comment on “Word Play – Biblical scholarship and the English language

  1. Vangie says:

    Have you seen “The Adventure of English?” The producers came to the same conclusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.