The Other English William

When asked about the pioneers of our language, the architects, the real ventriloquists, those who put the words in our mouths, who taught us how to shape our thoughts, if you're like me, the first name that comes to mind is William Shakespeare. His wordcraft is so integrated, so thoroughly interfused into our speech, so much a part of the sound we make, we are hardly aware of it.

But hold that thought for a moment.

2011 was the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. And it is right that we celebrate. The offspring of a poetic age, the KJB is part of our deepest cultural memory, and after 400 years, this great book remains a testament to what has proven excellent in our linguistic past.

While it certainly deserves the attention, truth is, the King James Bible gets the applause that rightfully belongs to William Tyndale, who translated the first English New Testament 85 years before the first printing of the King James. Indeed, 90 percent or more of the King James New Testament is Tyndale's translation, and most often word for word.

Though associated with the KJB, the following expressions made their first appearance through Tyndale. While old and well rehearsed to you and me, to the Englishman in 1526 they were astonishingly new.

Give us this day our daily bread

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory

Behold the Lamb of God

I am the way, the truth, and the life

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Seek, and ye shall find

Let not your hearts be troubled

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak

Fight the good fight

The presence of Tyndale's New Testament was electric. It was also forbidden, which only added to the enchantment. An English Scripture was against the law -- to translate, own, smuggle or speak. The punishment was often death, and by burning. Tyndale translated roughly a third of the Old Testament as well (Genesis to II Chronicles, and the Book of Jonah). The following are Tyndale translations:
  • Let there be light
  • Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh
  • Am I my brother's keeper
  • Let my people go
  • Entreat me not to leave thee
  • The Lord bless thee and keep thee
  • A small still voice
Any study of Tyndale's craft must also include his single word innovations: Godspeed, busybody, thanksgiving, network, seashore, waves, ungodly, Jehovah, zealous, rose-colored, intercession, passover, atonement, impure, longed, brotherly, sorcerer, viper, godless, brokenhearted, dearly beloved and hundreds more. And it is not enough to say that Tyndale merely Englished the text before him (Hebrew or Greek). It needed the right negotiator, a broker of authentic genius. In his 2011 book, "The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible," renowned literary critic Harold Bloom said that

"Tyndale's New Testament is so vast an aesthetic improvement upon the Greek text that I am perpetually delighted ... Nearly everything memorable in the English New Testament is the achievement of the matchless William Tyndale and not of the early Christian authors. No honest critic able to read the koine original could resist the conclusion that Tyndale throughout transcends his proof-text [original ms] to a sublime degree."

Tyndale had to live and translate as an outlaw. His book was outlaw. His thoughts were outlaw. He had a price on his head and a target on his back. He was forced to leave England to work and survive. But the severity, far from crippling his text, seemed only to empower it.

In Jesus and Yahweh, Bloom, vociferously non-Christian and a confessed Bardolator [Shakespeare zealot], said that William Tyndale is the "only true rival of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Walt Whitman as the richest author in the English language," that only Shakespeare's prose "is capable of surviving comparison with Tyndale's." This is no small endorsement.

And here we come to the main event.

Considering his impact on the English language, and Englishness itself, even the great playwright must concede that he is but heir to what the translator left behind. Because English in the early 1500s was considered "the bottom of the pond," that is, a somewhat scruffy and inglorious tongue, to suddenly quote an English Scripture, and one that came to them in such splendor and clarity, put a new taste in the mouth for the English word. It ennobled the tongue, and long before there was a Hamlet or a Lear. That same nobility is traceable throughout the Shakespearean canon.

Here, Tyndale alone is the architect.

Indeed, it was a vernacular Scripture that liberated the English voice, and the English conscience along with it. It had the effect of an awakening. It came upon the English spirit with arousal, the way perhaps only great art can (though the word art itself can hardly explain). An English Scripture kindled a new English pride.

It is in Tyndale that the English became a people of the book. Tyndale scholar, David Daniell, said that, "Tyndale gave to English not only a Bible language, but a new prose. England was blessed as a nation in that the language of its principal book, as the Bible in English rapidly became, was the fountain from which flowed the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest prose thereafter." The sound and shapes of our language are largely due to Tyndale's wordcraft and the peculiar working of his genius.

But what is dumbfounding to me, and which is, in part, the point of this article, is how hidden Tyndale remains, how misprized and how thoroughly uncelebrated. Tyndale had little choice but to make a science of flight, of working and hiding while on the run. But I think he may have learned to hide too well. Though his presence in our language is inescapable, though we owe him a debt we are hardly aware of or could ever hope to repay, by some curious injustice William Tyndale remains in a kind of exile to this day.

David Teems is author of 'Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice' and 'Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible.'