Influence of the Bible on English Language

The influence of the Bible on English has been both thematic and stylistic; that is, it has provided the English men of letters Scriptural themes and has also modulated their literary style. Thus Bunyan and Oscar Wilde imitated the simple, rhythmical, repetitive style of the Bible. Further, ideas, sentiments, and even phrases have been frequently drawn upon from the Bible for use in writings of both religious and secular nature. Ruskin, particularly, was fond of packing his writings to the brim with biblical quotations which came to him with amazing facility. Many phrases from the Bible have become a part and parcel of the English language. They are often used in writing and conversation by those who have never read a page of the Bible. Such phrases as ‘clear as crystal,’ ‘arose as one man,’ ‘The sweat of his face,’ and ‘a broken reed’ are instances of this point.

The first English translation of the Bible was done in the 14th century by John Wycliffe. William Tyndale took English translation to a whole new level by doing an excellent translation of the Bible creating modern English. The Tyndale Bible generally refers to the body of biblical translations by William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), credited with being the first English translation to work directly from Hebrew and Greek texts. The Coverdale Bible, compiled by Myles Coverdale and published in 1535, was the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible, and the first complete printed translation into English. The Authorized Version of the Bible was published in 1611. It was the work of forty-seven scholars nominated by James I, over whom Bishop Lancelot Andrews presided.

Many proverbs and phrases, which are in common use in modern English, are the gifts of the Bible. Quotations from the Bible are given profusely. English language has been enriched by the Bible so much that a proper assessment is practically impossible. Some illustrations of Biblical phrases are given below: ‘arose as one man’, ‘broken reed’, ‘a law unto themselves’, ‘the man of sin’, ‘moth and rust’, ‘clear as crystal’, ‘the eleventh hour’, ‘city of refuse’, ‘whited sepulcher’, ‘wash one’s hands off’ and many other familiar scriptural phrases and allusions. From Tyndale we owe ‘long-suffering’, ‘peacemaker’, ‘stumbling block’, ‘the fatted calf’, ‘filthy lucre’, ‘mercy seat’, ‘day spring’ and ‘scapegoat’. From Coverdale we have ‘tender mercy’, ‘loving-kindness’, ‘valley of the shadow of death’, ‘avenges of blood’ etc. Many such Biblical phrases and idioms are current in modern English without even knowing its source.

Right from Chaucer to the present day the influence of the Bible is clearly discernible in poetry. Even Chaucer drew the material for some of his tales from the Bible. Spenser’s Fairy Queen is also steeped in Biblical references. Milton’s Paradise Lost is Biblical while the metaphysical poets were interested in Biblical allusion. In the twentieth century the poetry of T.S.Eliot, Yeats, and Dylan Thomas is full of the Biblical references. Technically the Biblical influence can be seen in the use of ‘th’ such as in ‘hath’, ‘loveth’, ‘hateth’, ‘giveth’ etc in place of ‘has’, ‘haves’, ‘gives’ etc as a poetical style. Again, we find old past tenses in ‘gat’, ‘clave’, ‘brake’ instead of ‘got’, ‘clove’, ‘broke’ in poetry mastered by Tennyson, Morris, Coleridge etc. Instead of using  ‘s’ ending in verbs we have: ‘He prayeth best who loveth best/All things both great and small’- Ancient Mariners.

On the analogy of the scriptural ‘holy of holies’ which contains a Hebrew manner of expressing the superlatives, we get in modern English similar phrases such as: ‘In my heart of hearts’, ‘the place of all places’, ‘a friend of friends’, ‘the pearl of pearls’, ‘a prince of princes’ etc.

Further, scriptural proper names are often used as appellatives to designate types of character. As for example, ‘to raise Cain’ meaning to make a determined angry fuss; ‘David and Jonathan’ means ‘any pair of devoted friends’.

Biblical usage has revived some of the lost words into full life. Such words are like ‘damsel’ for young women, ‘raiment and apparel’ for dress, ‘firmament’, as a poetical synonym for ‘sky’.

 

Ever since the publication of the first translation of the Bible by Wycliffe to the publication of the Authorized Version in 1611, its influence on English literature and language has been constant and steady. The modern world has seen many changes; but it has, so far, seen no movement that has shaken the supremacy of the greatest of English books, ‘The Bible’.

 

Last modified: Tuesday, 3 April 2018, 2:00 AM