If You Thought King James’ English Was Tough, What about Thomas Jefferson’s?

This is a few days late, but pairs well with the recent post about a modern English version of the Westminster Standards. H. L. Mencken believed the Declaration of Independence was showing signs of inaccessibility:

The following attempt to translate the Declaration of Independence into American was begun eight or ten years ago, at the time of of my first investigations into the phonology and morphology of the American vulgate. I completed a draft in 1917, but the publication was made impossible by the Espionage act, which forbade any discussion, however academic, of proposed changes to the canon of the American Koran. In 1920 I resumed the work and have since had the benefit of the co-operation of various other philologists, American and European. But the version, as it stands, is mine. That such a translation has long been necessary must be obvious to every student of philology. And this is Better Speech Week.

The great majority of Americans now speak a tongue that differs materially from standard English, and in particular from the standard English of the eighteenth century. Thus the text of the Declaration has become, in large part, unintelligible to multitudes of them. What, for example, would the average soda-fountain clerk, or City Councilmen, or private soldier, or even the average Congressman make of such a sentence as this one: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”? Or this one: “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise”? Obviously, such sonorous Johnsonese is as dark to the plain American of 1921 as so much Middle English would be, or Holland Dutch. He may catch a few words, but the general drift is beyond him.

With such remoteness in view, between 1776 and 1920 English, Mencken offered the following remedy (only the first two paragraphs):

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: First, you and me is as good as anybody and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day, like them South American coons and Bolsheviki, or every time some jobholder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, Bolsheviki, etc., and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.s would say the same. But when things gets so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal no much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the jump-off, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled…

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If You Can Give Up KJV English in the Bible, Why not the Confession of Faith?

The recent General Assembly of the OPC established a special committee to study the value of producing a modern English version of the Westminster Standards. Here‘s a little window into the OPC’s deliberations from the daily GA report:

As part of the work of the Committee on Christian Education, on motion, the body approved this: “That the Eighty-fifth (2018) General Assembly notify the member churches of NAPARC and other appropriate church bodies with which we have fellowship that it has erected a special committee to propose linguistic updating of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and include details of the specific mandate, and that it welcomes any input that such churches might desire to give with respect to such proposed linguistic revision.”

Speeches for and against may have depended too much on how deeply commissioners had dug in their heels. For advocates, a modern version would seem to promise a millennium of broad and popular acceptance of Reformed Protestantism. I’m not so sure. For opponents, the arguments sounded a lot like reasons to retain the King James Version. I’m not so sure. If we can welcome modern English versions of the Bible, why not our Standards? One reason is that they come in English, not German, French, or Dutch. Which is to say that CRC and URC Synods have had no trouble updating English versions of the Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, because those communions are not invested in English the way Presbyterians are. If the original is in English, English-speakers tend to think the text is sacrosanct. Same goes for the Bible. If we talked about modern Hebrew versions of the OT, or modern Greek versions of the NT, after scratching their heads (what’s the point?), commissioners would likely object.

A related concern is a teaching device as opposed to a theological standard. If the Confession were like the chemist’s chart of elements, we would likely not want a modern version, better life through chemistry and all. People using the Standards as a benchmark for theological clarity don’t mind requiring users to suffer with the alien words and forms. “Eat your broccoli.” But if you have a chemistry textbook from the 18th century, revising the language for contemporary use in the classroom makes some sense. In which case, the appointed committee may propose a modern language version of the Standards that functions as a teaching device while recommending the old English version for theological exams and the Constitution. I say “may.” I have no direct access to the committee (which hasn’t even met!).

I would recommend to the committee and everyone else, though, a podcast I heard this week. It is an exchange between linguist, John McWhorter and Mark Ward, a Bible software engineer for Logos, on King James English. Ward is also the author of a book on the KJV which goes through fifty examples of how modern readers, even ones who are well educated, don’t understand the Bible (if only because the only way to discern seventeenth-century meanings is by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, an expensive addition to any family or church library).

The podcast is a bit of a love fest because McWhorter’s arguments for updating Shakespeare convinced Ward to revise his arguments about the KJV. Here‘s part of McWhorter’s argument (beware the Jesuits):

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries. . . .

It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

At the same time, the exchange has the advantage of listening to a sophisticated New Yorker, professor at an Ivy League university, who seems to have no religious preferences, talking respectfully, even warmly, to an avowed evangelical with a terminal degree from Bob Jones University. You almost think you’ve gone back to the 1950s.