A Discussion at The British Library, Monday 18th September 2000

Two hundred and fifty people forsook the opportunity to sit in a queue at a petrol station on Monday 18 September and were instead treated to a delight-ful discussion about the influence of The Bible and The Dictionary upon the Development of The English Language in The British Library. It was an appropriate choice of date as Dr Johnson was born on 18 September.

This was one of a series of events put on to accompany The British Library’s Chapter and Verse, One Thousand Years of English Literature exhibition. Interestingly, neither the bible nor a dictionary feature in the exhibition, although many bibles are to be seen in the John Ritblat Gallery at The British Library including the finest surviving complete copy of William Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament.

The ‘case’ for The Bible was made by the Chairman of The Tyndale Society, Professor David Daniell who, not surprisingly, illustrated many of his points from the translations of William Tyndale. The champion of the dictionary was Professor David Crystal, a distinguished lexicographer and editor of The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language.

Praise is often bestowed upon the 1611 King James ‘Authorised’ Version of the bible as having influenced much of what we write and say today. As we now know, eighty-three percent of that edition was lifted straight from William Tyndale, yet Tyndale seldom receives adequate recognition for his contribution. (The fact that it was never ‘authorised’ or that James I had practically nothing to do with it are also facts that escape general notice).

English in the early sixteenth century was regarded as a poor language, fit for only humble communication in a society where Latin and French still held sway. Tyndale changed all that, as David Daniell said: ‘he let the bible out of the box’ to create an English ‘plain style’. From being the preserve of the few, the bible became widely available as the Tudor period progressed, for example 650,000 English bibles were bought during the lifetime of William Shakespeare when the population was about six million.

Tyndale’s example and efforts encouraged literacy. Anybody could now write and did, not least Shakespeare himself who was not a university graduate. Much of what we admire in his writing derives comes from his effective use of Saxon words.

William Tyndale was a master of coinage, creating words and phrases which we now take for granted, and in so doing allowed individual expression to flourish. This tradition is still strong. The second most popular word in English (according to a survey of more than 15,000 people, published the day after the debate) is Quidditch, the fictional witches game invented by J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books. (I notice that the spell-checker on my word-processor has just highlighted Quidditch so technology is not as dynamic as some might pretend).

The notion of ‘good and bad’ English is a comparatively modern one, dreamt up in the eighteenth century – the age of Samuel Johnson – leading to the predominance of nouns over verbs and the notion of Latin derivations being worthier than the Saxon.

David Crystal began his part of the debate by endorsing much of what had gone before. All beneficial influences on English are to be valued. The Dictionary had a different impact to that of Tyndale. Professor Crystal enlarged upon the eighteenth century pursuit of linguistic correctness. The first grammar books appeared in the 1750s, citing rules such as the forbidding of prepositions at the end of sentences.

Johnson began his Dictionary with the idea of imposing order but by the end of he had changed his mind. This was in large part a result of the size of the challenge he had set himself. As with many alphabetical reference books, his Dictionary has much more extensive entries at the beginning than at the end – the first third of the alphabet occupies two-thirds of the thickness of the book. The Dictionary is full of inconsistencies – a favourite escape route of Johnson’s when faced with a word he did not know being to define it as ‘a word only in Shakespeare and no longer in use’.

Johnson had a great influence on spelling. For example, Plain, Plaine, Plane, Playne, and Playn all become Plain in the Dictionary. Johnson applied this rule retrospectively and ‘corrected’ quotations to satisfy his new rules.

In spite of its shortcomings, Johnson’s Dictionary must not be underestimated. Johnson bothered to include simple words, like very, generally omitted from earlier dictionaries; he made good use of quotations and, while we often notice his more eccentric definitions, many are exceedingly well done. He always tried to use quotations from what he regarded as the ‘best sources’, not least the King James bible so that in that way the Dictionary carries forward the work of William Tyndale.

Roy Sully, November 2000.

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