28 April 2011

Happy Birthday, KJV

I live in a weird language dichotomy, unique to those who were (or still are) ELang and editing students. On the one hand, I am a grammar snob: a prescriptive believer in the purity of language, its origins, and its power. On the other hand, I am a linguist: a descriptive understander that language evolves, that varieties are not better or worse than each other, and that our dialectal differences are what make our language fascinating. Like most dichotomies, it is a confusing one, and I find myself continuously (or is it continually?) vacillating between the two ideas. I have labeled myself as a descriptive prescriptivist, but even that classification is not always entirely accurate. I never know exactly where I stand.

Except with one thing:

I love the KJV.

I’ve never been able to totally define my strong feelings toward this particular text; I think the Geneva is quite nice as well, and I will acknowledge that the NIV does a good job with its more contemporary translation. But I will always, always refer back to KJV, no matter how much anyone attempts to convince me that another translation is better, more accurate, or easier to understand.

This year, as I hope many of you know, marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version. I know it sounds a (lot) bit ridiculous that I am getting sentimental about this, but I am. I love this translation. I love it for its message, yes, but right now I love it for its language and how much it has affected ours. There have been several tributes to it in recent weeks, to which I would like to draw your attention:

The end of Charles McGrath's article is a better explanation of my feelings than I have articulated thus far.

There are countless new Bibles available now, many of them specialized: a Bible for couples, for gays and lesbians, for recovering addicts, for surfers, for skaters and skateboarders, not to mention a superheroes Bible for children. They are all “accessible,” but most are a little tone-deaf, lacking in grandeur and majesty, replacing “through a glasse, darkly,” for instance, with something along the lines of “like a dim image in a mirror.” But what this modernizing ignores is that the most powerful religious language is often a little elevated and incantatory, even ambiguous or just plain hard to understand. The new Catholic missal, for instance, does not seem to fear the forbidding phrase, replacing the statement that Jesus is “one in being with the Father” with the more complicated idea that he is “consubstantial with the Father.”

Not everyone prefers a God who talks like a pal or a guidance counselor. Even some of us who are nonbelievers want a God who speaketh like — well, God. The great achievement of the King James translators is to have arrived at a language that is both ordinary and heightened, that rings in the ear and lingers in the mind. And that all 54 of them were able to agree on every phrase, every comma, without sounding as gassy and evasive as the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, is little short of amazing, in itself proof of something like divine inspiration.

Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

To celebrate its birthday next month, I would like two presents. First, this amazing book by one of my favorite linguistic authors, David Crystal. You should go check out NPR’s review. It will make you want it too.

The other is this amazing poster. Tell me you aren’t in love with the idea. I want that on my wall.

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