Friday, December 19, 2008

Mindeth thy language

Jan Freeman (no relation) muses on clumsy archaisms:

Last weekend, I was ready to grouse and grumble once more about my fellow journalists' weakness for misusing ye olde Elizabethan verbs.
First there was Gail Collins in the New York Times: "I like thinking of next year's senate as a kind of mythic quest movie," she wrote, "in which a Democratic hero in need of a stimulus package or a Supreme Court confirmation is told: 'Go forth and seeketh the Women of Maine.' "
The next day, the Sunday Globe's main page one headline - on a story about the Bruins' resurgence - was "The icemen returneth."
My problem is not the archaism but the grammar: These constructions are as off-kilter as "They has a problem" or "We loves Christmas." That verb ending on seeketh and returneth is not a poetic flourish, but a mark of the third person singular: He, she, or it returneth. Thou return'st, if thou must, but for everyone else it's just return.

Fair call.

One of the few places we still see authentic archaisms is in Biblical quotation: “Thou shalt not kill”, “And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.” The King James Version had a huge influence on the development of English, although it of course reflected existing language use at the time (1611).

Thing is, for us to quote it now is a little bit phony. I can happily agree that its language is often very graceful (perhaps not surprising, as I’ve been brought up in its cultural wake). Compare, for instance, the New International Version (1970s): “You shall not murder”, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. Ugh. Probably better semantically (killing in self-defence is now acceptable), but there’s no poetry.

But there’s a phoniness involved in the archaic KJV quotes and readings that we hear: it’s old language; it feels old; thus it feels authentic. But it’s not. None of the characters in the Bible, including the ones that actually existed, spoke Early Modern English. They spoke appropriately contemporary language.

And then there’s the manner of speech. Take this passage:

But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. (KJV)

When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’. (NIV)

Now, for my money, the KJV kicks arse. But it’s also ridiculous for us to be using it as a reference tool. Even though all the words are still in use, the phraseology is all wrong. Nobody now says ‘much displeased’ unless they’re intending to sound theatrically (or even Biblically) formal. Ditto constructions such as ‘forbid them not’. This usage of ‘suffer’ is near-extinct – and it would certainly be extinct if not for the famous texts, such as this, that use it.

Jesus, by all accounts, was not a lofty establishment figure. He was a man from a common background, without a privileged upbringing. That’s part of the point. There’s simply no way he would have spoken in such overwrought, self-consciously formal archaisms. The KJV, while it might have been reasonable in the 17th century, and while it might still have more resonance, now misleads us in this respect.

But for those of us who treat the Bible as a mish-mash of mythology, allegory, dodgy history, anachronistic diet tips, guesswork, fiction, genealogy and moral teachings that are intermittently wise, banal, arbitrary and bigoted, that’s fine. We can pick the version that reads the nicest (should we want to) and not worry about accuracy, because the whole fundamental premise of this odd collection of texts is itself wildly inaccurate.


Matt M said...

I've never been able to agree with those who claim that the King James Bible is great literature. But then I've always preferred plain prose to more poetic language. (Although the latter has its place). After a while all the "thous" and "-eths" become repetitive, while the story and characters just aren't interesting enough to hold my attention.

'Paradise Lost' (for one) kicks its arse in terms of the language.

Tom Freeman said...

Yeah, there's certainly plenty of it that's dreary and turgid. But there are also a lot of elegant gems in there. As someone my mum once saw a Shakespeare play with said: it's full of quotes!

tim f said...

For what it's worth, the language of the KJV wasn't particularly accessible in the 17th century. Much less so now. There are much better translations out there that are clear, vivid and poetic.

Eunoia said...

"Few spak it than, an' noo there's nane
My puir auld sangs lie a' their lane,
Their sense, that aince was braw an' plaine,
Tint a' thegither,
Laik runes upon a standin' stane
Amang the heather."

Whilst that was written for the Scots language, it remains true of all dialects changing across time.