Can natural language develop from literal Bible versions?

Every language changes over time. English has changed much over its long history. Many have noted the profound impact the English of our traditional English Bible translations has had upon the English language. Shakespeare used some phrases from the Bible. It used to be that the KJV Bible was the only English Bible that most people used. And that state of affairs existed for several centuries (some, of course, wish it were still the case). It used to be that people were much more biblically literate than they are today.

Many of the expressions, including idioms and other figures of speech have come into the English language and been so widely used that they would be considered natural language. At least this was true as long as people were familiar with Bible English. That kind of Bible literacy (familiarity, particularly with the KJV) has decreased significantly among English speakers. Yet some expressions which were literally translated to English from the biblical languages persist in English today. I would consider that a high enough percentage of English native speakers understand these biblical expressions that they could still be considered natural language.

Often a figure of speech which comes into English from literally translated Bibles has been customized by English speakers so that it no longer has exactly its biblical meaning. Take this sentence as an example:

“John escaped by the skin of his teeth.”

“To escape by the skin of (one’s) teeth” is an English idiom. Its meaning has nothing to do with the meaning of the words that make up the idiom, nothing to do, for instance, with skin or teeth. But English scholars generally recognize, I think, that this English idiom was brought into English from Job 19:20 where Job says:

“I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.”

This probably means that Job got away with nothing at all, not the same meaning as the English idiom which has to do with barely escaping.

Literal translations of idioms and other figures of speech which came from the Bible and are used by most native English speakers would be considered natural language for them. I think this is a very fascinating area of study, what biblical language has become natural English language.

Other literal translations of figures of speech in the Bible are not widely understood by native speakers of English. These have not become natural language and probably will not, given the poor state of biblical literacy today. If we want our Bible translations to communicate as accurately and clearly as possible to the most number of English speakers (and not everyone agrees with me that it is appropriate for English Bible translations to do so), then translation teams should avoid using literal wordings from the Bible which have not become natural English.

What are some other idiomatic expressions you can think of which come from the Bible and have become natural English? Please try to include the biblical reference for it if you can.

9 thoughts on “Can natural language develop from literal Bible versions?

  1. dru says:

    I suspect ‘gave up the ghost’ (see my post on what is natural English) Mk 15:37 et al, often used of recalcitrant machinery, comes from the AV rather than vice versa.

    The noun ‘atonement’ and the verb ‘atone’ are alleged to have been coined by Tyndale. It’s even possible that ‘atone’ is a back formation from atonement.

    ‘Draw a bow at a venture’ meaning to take an actual or a metaphorical pot shot at something, 1 Kings 22:34, though I haven’t heard it used in casual conversation for at least 40 years.

    ‘an hairy man’, usually used jocularly in stead of the more normal ‘a hairy’ , is a direct quotation from the AV Gen 27:11.

    I Kings 19; 12 ‘a still, small voice’ is used idiomatically, something that none of the other translations of this verse have managed to achieve.

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    Interesting example, Wayne. Teeth have no skin – so perhaps Job’s Hebrew is itself an example of an image of opposites where we ought to in fact invert the verb’s meaning. The word escape occurs 10 times in Job – mostly in the opening of the frame story. It is one of the words I did not translate concordantly in my own exercise. In this case (without a footnote!) I rendered this verse as

    To my skin and to my flesh my bones cling
    and I am stuck in the skin of my teeth

    I may be guilty of explaining! I don’t have any of my commentaries here and will check them next week at the library. It could be that I have followed Tur Sinai or that there is another reading.

  3. Steve says:

    More about scapegoat. Would you believe that the KJV did a more meaning-based translation of this than The Message did? It seems like the Hebrew says one goat for YHWH and one for Azazel. (I’m not a Hebrew scholar so I’m open to correction here). So for the KJV translators to change “for Azazel” into ‘escape-goat’ was a dynamic translation.

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    Regarding “skin of my teeth”, I’ve often wondered if it originally referred to the gums. If that is true, then the Hebrew phrase probably meant something like “impoverished.” And “impoverished” is very close to not having escaped at all.

    I think “in Jesus’ name” is an idiom we (Christians) use which doesn’t really mean what the original meant.

  5. Daniel Goepfrich says:

    I have a little book in my library that argues the superiority of the KJV using this very argument. The writer listed 75 words or phrases from the KJV that are now “modern sayings”. He wrote, “Hundreds could be presented, but we’ll limit ourselves to seventy-five” (p. 4). A few of the possible ones (most in his list are laughable):

    “babbling” Genesis 11:7-9
    “britches” Exodus 28:42
    “apple of his eye” Deuteronomy 32:10
    “lay me down to sleep” Psalm 4:8
    “beware of dog” Philippians 3:2

    Daniel

  6. Joel says:

    More about scapegoat. Would you believe that the KJV did a more meaning-based translation of this than The Message did? It seems like the Hebrew says one goat for YHWH and one for Azazel. (I’m not a Hebrew scholar so I’m open to correction here). So for the KJV translators to change “for Azazel” into “escape-goat” was a dynamic translation.

    Maybe. Most people (myself included) think it was an error.

    You are right about what the Hebrew says. One goat is for azazel, which the LXX translates as apopompaios. While the Hebrew may come from az (“goat”) and azel (“leaving”) — which is where the KJV, following Tyndale gets “scapegoat” — more likely it’s a proper noun, and the term was the name of a demon.

    Joel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s