Tuesday, September 21, 2010

English language: always changing

upper rapids of Niagara RiverAs to the words of the service—liturgy in the narrower sense—the question is rather different. If you have a vernacular liturgy you must have a changing liturgy, otherwise it will finally be vernacular only in name. The ideal of “timeless English” is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river.

C.S. Lewis, “From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer,” The Essential C.S. Lewis (New York: Touchstone, 1986) 409.


  1. Think "King James Only" crowd. C'mon folks, seriously, the English language has changed since King James authorized a standard version of the English Bible in 1611 (399 years ago). Speaking in Elizabethan English is not really the coolest way of drawing newcomers into the church.

    Indeed, try to think how much the English language has changed just since the 1970s. Can you imagine what it would sound like if the evening news was done in 70s style language? And yet, here we are reading out loud in our church services from our NIV Bibles (NT: 1973)! Seriously, the language has changed. English is not just a river, but in the last few decades it has been more like the fast-moving rapids of the Niagara River. (I have great hopes for the new NIV being published in 2011.)

    Lewis is actually writing about a new prayer book which was being developed at the time of his writing to replace the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but his words about the changing English language are timeless ;)

  2. Blog master how do you propose to convert the aged and the young to accept modern day translations? There is a broad cross section of parishioners who attend church because they desire fellowship and hearing the word of God. Bible translations neither draw not deter membership.

    Let the individual decide what he or she is comfortable with when it comes to reading the word.

    There is no denying the English language has changed over the years new words have been added. However I don't recall that any words have been removed from Webster's dictionary.

  3. You are on the right track. At home you are more likely to read the Bible that you feel most comfortable with. In church it seems as if you don't get the choice anymore. I can't remember the last time I saw someone at our church bringing their own Bible along. It is either a pew Bible or it is projected on the screen. I wonder if people attending church in the last 15 years or so could even find a book in the Bible if they were asked to read on short notice. As for me I like to have several different translation's around just to compare and that includes the King James version.

  4. Anonymous, I will try to respond and I'll try to stick with Lewis as well. THOU hast brought forward a pertinent inquiry.

    Sure, the words in that sentence are in the dictionary, but mostly likely with the tag "archaic." We don't use words like "Thou" or "hast" in today's English.

    You asked, "how do you propose to convert the aged and the young to accept modern day translations?" And then stated, "Bible translations neither draw not deter membership." Respectfully, I disagree with you. If someone comes to your church and the Bible is read but they cannot understand its meaning what good has it done them? Why would they keep coming back if you insist on reading in Elizabethan English? There's a reason they didn't like Shakespeare in high school - they didn't understand him!

    The Word of God is powerful. When people hear it and understand it, lives are changed. How dare we keep it from people by preserving it in some archaic language that we view to be holier than contemporary speech. As Lewis said, "The ideal of 'timeless English' is sheer nonsense.... You might as well ask for a motionless river." When the New Testament was written, it was not written in Archaic Greek or even Classical Greek, it was written in everyday Greek - the language commonly spoken by the people. This should be the goal of Bible translators -- to make the Word of God as clear and as accessible to people today as it was when it was written.

    It has been my experience that Bible translation does deter from membership, but worse than that, I have seen the effect of old translations on young people, like the teenage girl who is memorizing Scripture but thinks much of it is not for her because of the gender exclusive language (man, brothers, he, his). How dare we read a Bible that makes these young women think for a moment the Epistles (My dear brothers) are not addressed to them.

    OK, I've departed from Lewis and given you my own opinion. I was at least inspired by Lewis ;) Maybe I should've stuck with Lewis. So, here's the deal: if you don't like what I'm saying, if you think I'm wrong, don't worry about it, just forget it. Lewis's point was actually about the wording of the liturgy -- if you think it's in clear, contemporary language -- watch out because what is clearly and contemporary keeps changing.

  5. Blog master it seemeth to me that thou hast a serious ax to grind. Dost thou have difficulty in understanding this post? Suggesteth thou that most of English humanity doth not understand the King's English?

    I realize the above does sound archaic even to me however I hope you are not implying that todays generation could not make sense of it. If you do, you have offended the majority of English speaking individuals in particular Pastors, English Literature teachers, biblical scholars, playwrights, Broadway and Hollywood etc. etc.

    Blog master, are all peoples with whom you associate with of like opinion as yourself in this regard?

    What do you suggest ought to be done with all the millions of Bibles printed every day in this so called archaic language that you appear to oppose and mock so vehemently?

  6. It is very hard to correspond like this with "Anonymous" individuals as I have no idea how many anonymous posts belong to the same "Anonymous" individual. If you want to engage in dialogue like this, please try using a name, if not your own.

    I have NOT offended the majority of English speaking individuals. I am speaking the language they speak. And I do not think the church should disrespect them by forcing them to learn Shakespearean English in order to access God's Word. That would be a travesty.

    I have no ax to grind as you suggest. The goal of this blog is to present the writings of C.S. Lewis in a daily digestible format. Since Lewis was an experienced philologist and professor of literature, I value what he has to say about language. And in this reading Lewis claims that "The ideal of 'timeless English' is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river." I agree with him. But those who try to hold on to the King James Bible as the only true or worth English Bible have failed to understand this truth about language. It has definitely changed.

    If we are to reach people today with this message, we need to speak the language of the people today. In another great reading from Lewis, he says, "Great Britian is as much part of the mission field as China. Now if you were sent to the Bantus you would be taught their language and traditions. You need similar teaching about the language and mental habits of your own uneducated and unbelieving fellow countrymen." If you cannot speak their language, they may not understand you. Bottom line.

    "Suggesteth thou that most of English humanity doth not understand the King's English?"
    I do not have to suggest it, it is a fact. I do not mean to disrespect you, but you clearly do not grasp the old English you are attempting to use here. You are trying to sound like the KJV, but you are not convincing. And the more you use it, the less clear you are, so even you had to switch to more contemporary language to express your thoughts. By the way, it is not proper to refer to the language as "the King's English." The reigning monarch of England and the British Commonwealth is Elizabeth II, and, therefore, it is the Queen's English.