Speech made by Lord Melvyn Bragg of Wigton
Date Published: Thursday, 20 November 2008
Lord Melvyn Bragg of Wigton
"By the time of Shakespeare there were more than 50 languages in his poetry.
They came from trading expeditions all over the world from the classical past (Greek, Latin and Hebrew), from the Anglo Saxon, the Norse and the more recent Norman French.
It was a world language in waiting. Already its potential was there.
In the 19th century one of the Brothers Grimm observed that the unique quality of English was the reach and speed which came from its mixture of Germanic and Romantic peppered by the freckles of the Vikings. That he too thought, made it a world language in waiting.
There is no doubt in my mind that the King James Bible and not Shakespeare set this language on its path to become a universal language on a scale unprecedented before or since.
The King James Bible came out when the British were already trading with the world and began to accelerate that characteristic. Not only traders but religious groups seeking freedom of worship took the Bible with them. Wherever they travelled and they travelled the globe. The Bible followed and often led the British encirclement of the globe.
Across the seas and the continents the King James Bible was regarded as the word of God and equally the best evidence for the support of the sovereign ruler. The Bible of Earthly as well as Heavenly authority. It was King James Bible.
Several Bibles had appeared in English following Henry VIII marriage to Anne Boleyn but all of them were subsumed in the King James version which itself was enormously indebted to the unmatchable translation made by William Tyndale; a fierce believer, a linguistic genius and dedicated to the idea that the word of God should be in and on the English tongue. "I will have every plough boy know the Bible as well as thee", he said to a supercilious cleric.
So the Bible became the book of the British Empire and the British Empire was succeeded by an American Empire speaking English. Von Bismark said the defining feature of modern history was that the Americans spoke English. It was an English which largely stemmed from the Bible. In both cases, British and American, the King James Bible version swept round the globe in school assemblies, far flung churches, remotely stationed battalions ...it was the Book of the community of English speaking peoples.
So, it was the power of two empires and their linguistic borrowing, stealing and invention. It was the authority of the word of God but it was also the beauty and the still visible and audible influence of Tyndale's great translation which took it around the world. Today the language is spoken by almost 3 billion people and increasing its range each year.
New words - we use them still: "scapegoat", "let there be light", "the powers that be", "my brother's keeper", "filthy lucre", "fight the good fight", "sick unto death", "flowing with milk and honey", "the apple of his eye", "a man after his own heart", "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak", "signs of the times", "ye of little faith", "eat drink and be merry", "broken hearted", "clear eyed". And hundreds more: "fishermen", "landlady", "sea-shore", "stumbling block", "taskmaster", "two-edged", "viper", "zealous" and even "Jehovah" and "Passover" come into English through Tyndale. "Beautiful", a word which has meant only human beauty, was greatly widened by Tyndale, as were many others.
And finally, Tyndale, through the bible brought the lines of poetry which have informed the rhythms of English literature and expressed the aspirational truths which have supported faith.
Blessed are the povre in sprete: for theirs is the kyngdome off heaven.
Blessed are they that morne: for they shalbe comforted.
Blessed are the meke: for they shall inherit the erth.
Blessed are they which honger and thurst for rightewesnes: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the mercifull: for they shall obteyne mercy.
Blessed are the pure in herte: for they shall se God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shalbe called the children of God."