It my last post, I discussed the idea that has been presented by many critics of the KJV which is the idea that the KJV is too difficult to read. I presented an argument which pushed back at this notion on the grounds that the highest estimated reading level of the KJV is set at the standards for high schoolers in the public school system. I concluded that, this being the case, it is not an absurd proposition to assume that the average English speaking Christian could read at a 12th grade level, and that it is actually more of a condemnation of Christian education than of the KJV to say that the average Christian should not be expected to read at this level.
That being said, I suspect that much of the confusion on this topic is due to many not having a clear understanding of what qualifies as Early Modern English. You and I have often heard the English of the KJV called “Old English.” In Authorized, Mark Ward writes, “What’s the point in using a translation in old English that people can’t understand anymore?” He continues by making the distinction between “old English” as in to say stale or aged English and “Old English” as in the proper noun, which I find to be needlessly confusing for the reader. Nevertheless, it is common for people engaging in this discussion to frequently make the mistake of conflating the categories of stale or aged English and Old English. In order to give my reader a clear picture of why this is problematic, I will give examples of Old, Middle, and Early Modern English.
Here is an excerpt of Old English for reference.
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,egsode eorlas.Beowolf
Here is an example of middle English for reference.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,And bathed every veyne in swich licóur Of which vertú engendred is the flour;Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. General Prologue.
Here is an example of Early Modern English for reference.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.John 1:1-3, KJV
After reviewing these three passages from Old, Middle, and Early Modern English, I hope my reader can see that it is a cheap rhetorical trick to portray Early Modern English as “old English”. What is problematic is that this distinction between “old English” and “Old English” is on its face and apparently deceptive in its use. It conflates the incomprehensible English of Beowulf with the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. When people use the term “old English” to describe the English of the KJV, it gives the impression that the KJV is utterly incomprehensible. At the very least, I hope I can dispel the notion that the KJV is “Old English.” If one wishes to argue that the language of the KJV is stale or aged, I suppose that is their prerogative, though even Mark Ward seems to agree that the KJV is a “beautiful translation” (Authorized, p. 27).
The reality is that Early Modern English covers a broad scope of literary evolution, and the most significant changes from this to contemporary English is standardized spelling conventions and vocabulary. The grammar is mostly unchanged, the most notable of these being the use of singular and plural “you” pronouns (thee, thy, thine, thou, ye, etc.), which were retained in the KJV for the purpose of clarity in translating the Greek and Hebrew. In any case, it is intellectually dishonest to make the claim that Early Modern English is fundamentally different than contemporary English, and Christians should be careful not to intentionally conflate the English of Shakespeare with Middle or Old English.
To drive home my point, the online resource called “No Sweat Shakespeare”, which was developed for students reading Shakespeare in classrooms, has this excerpt on the site:
The main thing about Early Modern English is that it was an early version of Modern English and is accessible to all of us. The differences between the two are mainly the loss or change in meaning in Modern English of some words that were common in Early Modern English.https://nosweatshakespeare.com/blog/what-is-early-modern-english/
In this article, the author actually makes the point that what we speak today should be called “pre-contemporary” English, because it is not far enough away from Early Modern English to be called “contemporary.” What we can say with a great deal of certainty is that the English of the KJV is something that should be regarded as “accessible to all of us.” It is quite interesting that teachers in the public school system have a higher estimation of primary school students than Christians in the “KJV is too difficult” camp do of the church.
In any case, the myth is dispelled. The KJV is not “Old English” nor is it even Middle English. One could make the case that it is old in the sense of stale or aged, but that is quite subjective and doesn’t exactly provide grounds for not using it. The Apostle’s Creed is old, and many churches read this publicly every Sunday. That is to say that something which is categorically old does not qualify it for retirement on those grounds alone. If the argument is that Early Modern English is old and therefore should be forsaken, it is a weak argument. I imagine that is why people use the rhetorical strategy of conflating “old English” with “Old English,” to give the impression that “old” means incomprehensible.
So it seems that when we sift through all the rhetoric, the basic two arguments against the English of the KJV are that it is old, and that some of its vocabulary is old. The grammatical structure and spelling of the Early Modern English of the KJV is standard to what we speak and write today. I have always been perplexed that people who consider themselves “language nerds” would be so adamant against others reading the most beautiful and engaging form of Modern English. It’s almost as if they are saying, “I’m a language nerd but you shouldn’t be.” I, of course, am of the opinion that we should all be so called “language nerds” and should encourage each other towards that end. Reading is one of the most enriching and empowering practices you can commit yourself to today. In summary, go forth and love language, and don’t let people get away with calling Early Modern English “Old English”.
3 thoughts on “Misconceptions Regarding Early Modern English”
Have you done anything on the Derivative Copyright Law?
Plans to do Youtube ?
Hi Casey. I’ve mentioned derivative copyright here and there but I’ve never discussed it directly or at length. I do have a YouTube channel here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYVwXzBdyvpXZqTCeGWpU9A
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Well I have really enjoyed your YouTube channel, really hoping you do more videos. Sorry, I should have said “plans on getting back to YouTube.”
I have spend a lot of time (far more that I want to admit) on the derivative copyright law and on the copyright protection and implications for “bible” version. I think once you get past the “claims” and just look at what the “law” states you pretty much wipe out all modern version on the grounds prior “correct” translations of verses cannot be replicated in mass without violating a publishers copyright protection.