Tuesday, 21 November 2017

"The Forgotten Ghost of the English Language"

A Legacy That Has Lasted Nearly Five Hundred Years

William Tyndale was martyred, but not before he had translated the Scriptures into common English.  He was born in 1494--two years after Columbus had set sail.  He had relatively humble beginnings, learned the classical languages (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) at school and then subsequently at Oxford.

He proposed to translate the Bible into English--and was refused permission by the Bishop of London.  He, therefore, left for the Continent and lived in the Netherlands and Germany.  He worked largely alone.  He was often a fugitive.  He had published a tract, The Practyse of Prelates opposing Henry VIII's annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragorn.  That was sufficient to have Tyndale placed on a "capture" list.  Eventually he was betrayed and arrested on the Continent.
He was tried on a charge of heresy in 1536 and was condemned to be burned to death, despite Thomas Cromwell's intercession on his behalf. Tyndale "was strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned".   His final words, spoken "at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice", were reported as "Lord! Open the King of England's eyes."  [Wikipedia]
That might have been expected to be the end of Tyndale's influence upon the world.  How wrong that would have turned out to be.
  In fact his translation of the Bible formed the basis for many subsequent translations--all of which drew extensively upon Tyndale's work.  His influence upon the English language continues to this day.

Many English language expressions, coined by Tyndale, are still in common usage.  Few realise they are quoting him, yet they are.  He is indeed, "the forgotten ghost of the English language".  Here is a smattering of "Tyndalisms":
"the salt of the earth," "the fat of the land," "the powers that be," "let there be light," "the spirit is willing," "signs of the times," "the apple of his eye," "a law unto themselves," "filthy lucre," "as bald as a coot," "the straight and narrow," "my brother's keeper," "blessed are the peacemakers," "let my people go," "eat, drink and be merry," "flowing with milk and honey," "a stranger in a strange land," "the flesh pots," "thou shalt not kill," "Love thy neighbour as thyself." 
Some of the most authoritative and widely-used English translations of the Bible have relied extensively upon Tyndale's translation, nearly five hundred years later.  Included are the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version--which we happened to have used extensively, blithely ignorant of the debt these versions owed to the "ghost".

There are few living today, we warrant, who will be influencing the thought, words, and deeds of millions of people alive in five hundred years time.   But we expect that the "forgotten ghost of the English language" will still be hard at work--for his works have lived on after him in a manner few (if any) others have managed.

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