Wednesday, January 08, 2014
The Bible, Shakespeare & Language Vandalism
I heard the Lord's Prayer recited in a church last year for the first time since I was a child. I couldn't believe how the elegant, poetic version I once knew had been vandalised to make it accessible to the modern churchgoer. Here's Jeanette Winterson from her book "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" on the same subject: Working-class families in the north of England used to hear the 1611 Bible regularly at church and at home, and as there was still a 'thee' and 'thou' or 'tha' in daily speech for us, the language didn't seem too difficult. I especially liked 'the quick and the dead'--you really get a feel for the difference if you live in a house with mice and a mousetrap. In the 1960s many men--and they were men not women--attended evening classes at the Working Men's Institutes or the Mechanics' Institute--another progressive initiative coming out of Manchester. The idea of 'bettering' yourself was not seen as elitist then, neither was it assumed that all values are relative, nor that all culture is more or less identical--whether Hammer Horror or Shakespeare. Those evening classes were big on Shakespeare--and none of the men ever complained that the language was difficult. Why not? It wasn't difficult--it was the language of the 1611 Bible; the King James Version appeared in the same year as the first advertised performance of "The Tempest." Shakespeare wrote "The Winter's Tale" that year. It was useful continuity, destroyed by the well-meaning, well-educated types who didn't think of the consequences for the wider culture to have modern Bibles with the language stripped out. The consequence was that uneducated men and women, men like my father, and kids like me in ordinary schools, had no more easy everyday connection to four hundred years of the English language.