Bible English

Language and how we use it.
June 3 1998 3:30 AM

Bible English

Like it or not, the good book lies behind everything you say.

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Identify the source of the following quotation:

"For many are called, but few are chosen."

a) Marine Corps recruiting advertisementb) John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Addressc) Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakesd) The Gospel according to Matthew

If you selected a), b), or c), then you are probably not a resident of Chajul, in the mountainous Ixil Triangle region of Guatemala. Chajul is one outpost in the far-flung network maintained by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, an evangelical group whose aim is to translate the Bible into all the languages in which its words have yet to be written. The SIL, which is a sister organization of the Huntington Beach, Calif., based Wycliffe Bible Translators, has Scripture translation projects under way in some 1,200 languages (at a cost of about $100 million annually).

Because many of those languages have never even possessed alphabets, let alone dictionaries, the SIL translators are doing some of the most important linguistic work in the world. In Chajul, according to an article in the most recent issue of Natural History magazine, evangelico missionaries have made deep inroads at the expense of Roman Catholicism, as they have elsewhere in Latin America. The language of Chajul into which the Bible is newly making an appearance is the Indian language known as Ixil.

What will be the impact of a vernacular Bible on the future development of the Ixil language? One can hardly help but think back to the early days of English. All told there have been about 250 English translations of the Bible since the first complete one produced by John Wycliffe and his colleagues in 1382. From the point of view of the English language, the most important translations were those of William Tyndale (1530) and of the 54 "learned men" who brought forth the King James Version (1611). In wresting the Bible from the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, the translators set a high standard for ordinary spoken and written English. The coinages and cadences of the Tyndale Bible--"eat, drink, and be merry"; "a fool's paradise"; "fight the good fight"; "suffer the children"; "the salt of the earth"; "in his right mind"; "the powers that be"--and of the King James Version have for three centuries served both as psychic libretto and as percussion section for English speakers everywhere. And, as the printing press gave momentum to these new vernacular Bibles, so too did the English language itself acquire new cohesion and power. (An archaeological aside: The entwining of Bible, printing press, and popular literacy reveals itself in a curious fact from the New World. In religion-soaked colonial New England, pieces of movable type show up frequently during excavations of early sites; they don't show up at all at sites of comparable age in less aggressively pious Virginia.)

Whether biblical language will continue to serve the same functions in English is another story. Abraham Lincoln wrote the Second Inaugural Address knowing full well that his biblical tropes ("woe unto the world because of offenses!"--Matthew 18:7) would be recognized by everyone. I suspect that most Americans today cannot even name all 10 of the Ten Commandments. Recently I sent a team of crack investigators "to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it" (Job 1:7)--that is, I sent my associates Lessie Arnold, Alexandra Custis, Julia Livshin, Ashley Malcolm, and Katherine Romano out into the highways and byways of the Boston metropolitan area. Their task: To ask people on the street if certain well-known phrases from the Bible--not identified as such, of course--struck them as being in any way familiar; and, if the phrases were familiar, to ask the respondents to name the provenance. In all, some 300 people were consulted about some 30 biblical quotations.

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T he most surprising result is the number of commonplace expressions that seem no longer to be all that common--that did not register at all or "fell on rocky ground" (Matthew 13:5). As you would expect, everyone who was stopped for questioning had heard the words "And God said 'Let there be light' " and knew they were from the Bible. But a distinct majority of those surveyed failed even to recognize the expressions "New wine into old bottles" (Mark 2:22); "The price of wisdom is above rubies" (Job 28:18); "Put not your trust in princes" (Psalms 146:3); "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" (Jeremiah 13:23); "What is truth?" (John 18:38); "He gave up the ghost" (Luke 23:46); and "The poor you will always have with you" (Deuteronomy 15:11, Matthew 26:11). The writer of Ecclesiastes (1:9) allowed that "There is no new thing under the sun," but for half of those surveyed, the remark itself was such a thing.

In many cases, although an expression may have been generally familiar, its origin remained a matter of mystery or guesswork. Thus the statement "To everything there is a season" (Ecclesiastes 3:1) was universally known, but at the same time it was almost universally ascribed to "a song from the '60s." "The truth shall make you free" (John 8:32) was likewise known to all respondents, but only one person identified the Bible as the source. (The guesses of other respondents included: "Socrates," "something from Disney?" "Kierkegaard," "Emerson," and "Liar, Liar--the movie with Jim Carrey.") Some other suggested sources of biblical quotations: Oliver Twist for "A man after his own heart" (Samuel 13:14); Dorothy Parker for "Don't cast your pearls before swine" (Matthew 7:6); Catullus or Pink Floyd for "The writing on the wall" (Daniel 5:5); Marine Corps recruiting advertisement for "Many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14).

Note: Of all the Boston-area locations surveyed--and these included commuter-rail and subway stations, library parking lots, and suburban shopping malls--Harvard Square yielded the most embarrassing results. "If God spare my life," Tyndale once vowed to an educated friend, "ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than thou doest." Tyndale has probably succeeded beyond his imagining: Today, any Farm Belt inhabitant picked at random surely knows more of Scripture than any randomly picked inhabitant of an American university town. On behalf of the Harvard Square respondents, it must be said that ignorance was masked by a bravura self-confidence. Asked the about the expression "Suffer fools gladly" (Corinthians 11:19), the first 10 people surveyed ventured a source with disarming speed: "Wordsworth," "Hamlet," "Hamlet," "Hamlet," "Wordsworth," "Beowulf," "Chaucer," "Macbeth," "Herrick," and "Gerard Manly Hopkins." One might have been tempted to chide these respondents with the comment that "Pride goes before a fall" (Proverbs 16:19), but doubtless they would just have snapped back brazenly with "Euripides" or "Racine."

In a recent op-ed article in the New York Times, the theologian Michael Novak argued that a new appreciation for, and sensitivity to, religious matters was "stirring everywhere." This certainly would hold true in Chajul, Guatemala. Exempted from Novak's observation might be executives at Reebok, who last year professed to have been unaware of connotations associated with the name they gave to a new women's running shoe: "Incubus." (An incubus is an evil spirit that has sex with sleeping women; the term is a product of medieval theological lore, not of the Bible.) Whatever the fortunes of religion itself, a dwindling cultural acquaintance with the Bible's English is surely inevitable. To paraphrase Pink Floyd (or was it Catullus?), the writing is on the wall.

Cullen Murphy is managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, where his essays appear frequently. He also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.