The Miracle of 'And'

This article appeared in THE SPECTATOR on 8 January 2000 and we are grateful to them for allowing us to reprint it.

There are many explanations for the triumph of the English language. In the view of Bismarck, the single most important historical fact was that English emerged as the language of North America. But to explain the staggering Darwinian success of English - the language of the Internet, of air-traffic control, of business - you must look beyond the influence of Britain or America. The secret is inherent in the language itself.

English has won because (unlike Bismarck's native language) it has so few inflections, and because it thrives on simplicity of expression. And as we hug ourselves for giving this imperishable blessing to humanity, let us thank the man who is responsible for this happy state of affairs.

Ignore, for the moment, the brackets and words in bold:

[When Jesus was born] at Bethlehem in Jewry, in the time of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem saying: 'Where is he [that is born] king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east, and arc come to worship him.' [When Herod the king had heard] this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him, and [he gathered] all, the chief priests and scribes of the people, and asked of their where Christ should be born. And they said unto him: 'At Bethlehem in Jewry. For thus it is written by the prophet "And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Jewry. art not the least concerning the princes of Juda. For out of thee shall come the captain, that shall govern my people Israel." ' Then Herod privily [called] the wise men, and diligently enquired of them the time of the star [that appeared], and [sent] them to Bethlehem saying: '[Go] and search diligently for the child. And when ye have found him, bring me word, that I [may come] and worship him also.'

Matthew ii, 1-8

Ah, you say, the dear old Authorized Version of 1611. Wrong. It is William Tyndale, 1534, from whom the AV cribbed mercilessly, and without acknowledgement. The AV, in fact, is about 90 per cent pure Tyndale. Since the AV was crucial in shaping the work of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and, therefore, ail subsequent prose-writing, Tyndale can be said to have invented English prose. Further it is thanks to Tyndale that it is all so simple, and so glorious.

For the New Testament, Tyndale depended on two ancient sources: the original Greek and Jerome's translation into Latin, which had been commissioned by Pope Damasus in AD 382. Tyndale was the first Englishman to translate the New Testament from the original Greek.

He made three very simple decisions which were to change the face of English prose-writing for ever: he opted for finite verbs, he killed the participle and used 'and' wherever he could. In this way, Tyndale broke decisively from the tyranny of classical usage and established the foundation of English prose.

The classical languages love subordination. In other words, they tend to say e.g. 'When A happened, B happened'; or 'C happening (participle) and D happening (participle), E happened'. Tyndale likes finite verbs, so he is happy to say 'When A happened, B happened'. But he likes 'and' more, so he will often say 'A happened and B happened'. But he has his knife out for participles, so in the second example, he will, consistently say 'C happened and D happened and E happened'. These tiny features establish the glorious rhythms of the AV.

Here is a fine example. The wise men are bringing gifts to the infant. The Greek translation says:

And seeing the star, they-rejoiced great rejoicing exceedingly. And coming into the house they-saw the child with Mary the mother of-him, and falling-down, they-worshipped him, and opening the treasures of-them they-offered to-him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Jerome translates this word for word, and in the Greek word-order too (this is Holy Writ, and he must stay as close to it as possible):

videntes autem [= 'and'] stellam, gavisi sunt gaudio magno ['with great joy'] valde; et intrantes domum, invenerunt ['they found'] puerum cum Maria matre eius, et procidentes adoraverunt eum, et apertis thesauris ['treasures having been-opened'] obtulerunt ei muneru, aurum, tus et murram.

Tyndale writes (clauses turned from participles into main verbs bracketed):

When they saw the star, they were marvellously glad: and [went into the house and] found the child with Mary his mother, and [kneeled down and] worshipped him, and [opened their treasures and] offered unto him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The AV writes:

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and [tell down and] worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold. and frankincense. and myrrh.

I note that in the Greek and AV they 'saw' the child; but in Jerome and Tyndale, they 'found' him. But we are not playing at textual critics at the moment. To the issue:

In Tyndale, only 'When they saw the star' is subordinated. There is not a participle in sight. The AV subordinates a little more -- 'And when they were come' and 'when they had opened their treasures' - but, again, participles are out, finite verbs in. Now look again at the passage with which this article began, taken from Tyndale's version of Matthew's Christmas story. It has only two participles in it (printed in bold), both used in highly formulaic positions, neither underpinning the sentence structure. In the Greek, however, there are nine more (again, indicated by the brackets).

Look, by contrast, at John Wyclif's translation. This was made almost two centuries before Tyndale and was the first translation of the whole Bible into English. It was, naturally, based on Jerome's Vulgate, and it shows:

Forsooth they, seeing the star, joyed with a full great joy. And they, entering the house, found the child with Mary his mother; and they falling down worshipped him. And their treasures opened, they offered to him gifts, gold, incense and myrrh.

It is as Latin as English will allow.

Tyndale was a controversial figure - in 1536 he was, appallingly, executed for his work - who once promised that 'a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scriptures' than his ignorant clerical hosts at table. He intentionally wrote in a plain, rapid style, for an unsophisticated audience. If the AV can be said to improve on Tyndale, it would be in its tweaking of Tyndale's basic rhythms, giving the text a greater variety, smoothness and orotundity, without ever falling into bombast. The AV was, after all, 'appointed to be read in churches' and its compilers were sensitive to what it would sound like read aloud. They felt that slightly more grandeur was required for the word of God.

Take the following passage from Tyndale:

Which of you (though he took thought therefore) could put one cubit unto his stature? And why care ye then for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They labour not neither spin. And yet for all that I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his royalty was not arrayed like unto one of these.

Now compare it with the AV:

Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment) Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

The AV's modest reworking seems to me wholly successful. But the point is that it is a reworking. The real star is Tyndale, and it is to the credit of the AV's revisers that for the most part they simply copied him out, word for word. For ever after, the very best English was to assume the syntactical simplicity and sure rhythmic sense of the first prose master.

Peter Jones

Peter Jones's An Intelligent Person's Guide to Classics is available for 11.95 from The Spectator Bookshop (tel: 0541 557 288). Please quote ref. TSJ15.

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