Change in English Usage: Tyndale and Encarta World English Dictionary

There have been many attempts since the Reformation, most of all in the late 20th century, to produce translations of Holy Scripture which are both accurate and in language which could be understood by a broad spectrum of readers. These twin aims characterised Wycliffe and the Lollards. William Tyndale, of course, had the advantages of being able to translate directly from the Hebrew and Greek languages and the availability of mass production because of the printing press.

It is significant that Tyndale not merely identified with his anticipated audience but that he clearly stated, in a way not dissimilar to a present day Mission Statement, that the wanted even the ploughman to understand God’s Word represented in his translation. His concern though was not limited to the ploughman group in late Mediaeval English speaking society, but any readers of English. Unlike many in the early 16th century, Tyndale was sensitive to his cultural environment and strived to communicate what he believed to be the purely Biblical Christian Faith to anyone, high or lowly, who might be prepared to hear God speak, without numerous obstacles set up by the Church which appeared to have been designed to prevent people hearing that word.

The Church in the New Testament era was acutely aware of it’s cultural setting and conscious of its mission to confront peoples with good news from God in Jesus Christ. Greco-Roman religious life in the first century AD was very ritualistic and in many cases contained occultic practices. In fact, some pagan religions were heavily influenced by, if not deeply rooted in Eastern religion. For example, the goddess Artemis (Diana) worshipped in Ephesus portrayed strong Asiatic features.

The language in which the New Testament was written was common Greek which incidentally was not quite the language of ancient tabloid newspaper readers! Nevertheless, it was generally understood and used by both the highly educated and so-called ordinary person. Centuries later, when several movements throughout Europe were demanding fundamental Christian religious reform, Tyndale sought to translate Scripture into an English language style and word usage which could be understood by educated and (formally) uneducated English readers alike.

The present day is a time of almost unprecedented religious, philosophical, and cultural change. Although English may not be the language spoken by the greatest number of people worldwide, it is probably now the lingua franca language globally. There are at least three significant reasons for this phenomenon: it is the stipulated language for international air traffic control and pilots; the distribution of television programmes; and the overwhelmingly dominant language used on the internet. One effect of this is that the English speaking Western, especially American Post Modern cultural influence has spread to the far reaches of the planet. As a result English usage has in turn been adapted and not simply adopted by people whose indigenous culture differs immensely from their main source of spoken and written English.

The publication of the Encarta World English Dictionary on 4 August 1999 provides English speakers and readers with a comprehensive reference work reflecting contemporary global English. This is a feature unique in this Dictionary, but it is most significant. One reviewer concludes, ‘With these features Encarta World English Dictionary lives up to its promise as a reference tool for our post modern one-world future’. [1]

To what extent modern Bible translators have succeeded in achieving Tyndale’s aims in today’s radically different age will continue to be debated.

More new English language translations are underway, three of which I am aware. [2] These are faced with rapid developments in information technology and further changes in the use of the English language. Nevertheless, at the beginning of this new millennium it may well be timely to take a fresh look at Tyndale’s objectives in his era when translating the Scriptures now. Would it be asking too much for an English translation of the Holy Scriptures which is both faithful to the best original language texts available and translated into good quality English; reflecting current global English usage well placed to communicate God’s Word enabling even the humblest computer user to understand, a World English Bible?

Derek J Lewis


  1., Online review by Rob Lightner, cited 25 August 1999.
  2. These are: The NETBible, the New Revised Version, and a gender neutral version to be published by the translation Committee of the New International Version (to be given a name to distinguish it from the NIV).

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