Stella Read: Tyndale's Speech

Professor Daniell, in a lecture he gave at the Bristol University Tyndale Conference, advanced the suggestion that Tyndale's choice of language in his Bible translation may have been influenced by the speech surrounding him both during his Gloucestershire upbringing and later during his post-University work as tutor to the Walsh children at Little Sodbury Manor.

In the course of his lecture Dr Daniell read several passages from Tyndale's translation, including Genesis 22. In verse 5, Abraham is made to say to his servants: ‘Bide here...’ In the Gloucestershire country speech this would, of course, be pronounced ‘bide yur’, and I remembered hearing this many times when a child (together with the injunction ‘bide quiet’). When I remarked on this to Dr Daniell he asked me if I would be willing to do a trawl through Tyndale's Genesis to see whether I could find any other examples of Gloucestershire phraseology.

I agreed to do so but, on further consideration, I realised how long it was since I had been surrounded by the kind of speech whose evidence I was about to seek. Fortunately I was put in touch with a lady at present living in South Gloucestershire who agreed to co-operate with me. Each of us, independently of the other, read through Tyndale's Genesis and wrote our reports.

I do not know how my contact approached the text, but I read it aloud to myself, with the accent remembered from my youth. How far this may have influenced my attitude to it I do not know. When I compared our lists of the examples we found which seemed to us to reflect Gloucestershire speech they were almost identical, save that she had included a couple I had omitted because, while they had a country ‘feel’, I could not clearly identify them as Gloucestershire. This is our list:

My fellow-worker, despite the examples she identified, expressed doubts to me as to whether Tyndale's upbringing, probably with a private tutor, would have allowed him much contact with Gloucestershire countryfolk. I myself have no such doubts. There would have been the servants in the house at the very least and I cannot imagine his not being free, at least sometimes, to wander about the village and the neighbouring farms and even, maybe, to play with the local boys. My own reservations are quite different and arise from my lack of knowledge of the history of spoken English. The translation has, to me, a ‘country’ feel about it, but I could not press this without knowing whether in Tyndale's time town and rural speech were markedly different. No doubt the speech at Court and University would have been of a different kind, but Tyndale was not a courtier and in his translation he was deliberately writing for ordinary people and not for scholars. When I say this I do not in any way mean to imply that his work was not scholarly, but only that he had what the Shaker hymn calls ‘the gift to be simple’.

I think it is also necessary to know the extent to which country speech differed across the midland counties and central southern England. Is it fair to pick on a few words or phrases and label them as native to Gloucestershire rather than, say, Northants or even Dorset? East Anglia, the extreme South-East and the northern counties may well be another matter.

What is needed here is a philologist with a particular knowledge of the development of the English language as it emerged from Middle English and became recognisable as the language we know and use today. How and when did regional dialects develop? Were the differences between them as great in vocabulary and idiom as in accent? Have the areas displaying these differences been mapped? Did the differences develop in the Middle English period or do they perhaps go back even further than that?

The suggestion made by Dr Daniell is an interesting one, but all my preliminary investigations have succeeded in doing is to raise even more questions, none of which I am able to answer. Can any reader of this article help?

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