Tongue in check

Ambarish Satwik | | Updated on: Apr 16, 2016




The King James Bible is perhaps the most influential English-language text of all time

By common consensus, the greatest and the most perfectly formed work of English prose ever written was produced by a committee of 54 people over 400 years ago. It was commissioned by a closeted gay monarch to settle a political and theological dispute and took seven years to complete. It was the time when London was laid waste by Bubonic plague, when the East India Company was being licked repeatedly at sea by the Dutch and hadn’t quite managed to move beyond elephant hunting in Sierra Leone, when England was first giddy on Shakespeare, and Othello , King Lear and The Tempest ran to packed houses at the Globe Theatre. 1604-1611.

What has been variously called ‘the perfection of English, the complete expression of the literary capacities of language’, a ‘miracle’ and a ‘national shrine, built only of words’ wasn’t even an original production. It was a mere translation from the old tongues of antiquity — Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. But such a well kitted out translation that the product was loftier than the originals; one that ended up supplying more phrases to modern English idiom than any other literary source, including Shakespeare.

It came to pass, salt of the earth, grapes of wrath, how are the mighty fallen, know for a certainty, root of the matter, thorn in the flesh, at death’s door, the way of all flesh, a law unto himself, scum of the earth, the haves and have-nots, bite the dust, my brother’s keeper, the skin of one’s teeth, as old as the hills, casting pearls before swine, at their wit’s end, the powers that be, eat, drink and be merry, and so on. All resonant phrases living on in the English-speaking world. But let us not forget that this prose for all seasons was laid down, built and assembled from common and colloquial speech; prepared for the public from vulgate raw material.

The King James Bible (KJB), ‘probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world’ (HL Menken), was actually a confederation of 66 books that introduced no more than 43 new words to the English language and were written using a lexicon of about 12,000 words only. Shakespeare, on the other hand, wallowed in 30,000 different words, many of them overbearingly polysyllabic, with many turgid imports from Latin.

The KJB was written in the clear vernacular of the people ‘so that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar’. But it had to sound stately and majestic. The KJB translating committee was divided into six subcommittees. Its members were called ‘God’s Secretaries’, but not all of them were black-gowned clerics. It’s instructive to note the profiles of some of the members. There was a mathematician, who was also England’s first Arabist (who had earlier written a book called The Blasphemous Seducer Mohammad ), a theologian who fought the Spanish in Puerto Rico, a Latinist who was a certified alcoholic, another Latinist who was better known as a cuckold, an archbishop who had previously authored a bestseller called A Brief History of the Whole World . Such prose, such pithiness of phrase required a certain kind of worldliness. And all manner of writers.

It was also written as prose that was meant to be heard, to be read out aloud. The grammar had to be uncluttered; the cadences had to be rich and compelling. The editorial process had to be, therefore, an auditory exercise. Each draft was finally submitted to a Committee of Revisers, which heard it over and over in all its sonorousness and cast it differently if it was found wanting in stateliness and rhythm. For some time now, a surfeit of academic material is being spawned to ascertain the qualitative and quantitative influence of KJB on the collective imagination of all Anglophones. There was a time when most Englishmen and Americans could quote directly from it. One can find the marks and smudges of the KJB everywhere: in the rhetoric of Lincoln and Martin Luther King and Roosevelt and Churchill and Obama, in all major works of literature from Melville and Faulkner through Steinbeck and Saul Bellow to Vikram Seth and Joanne Rowling, in the lyrics of Sinatra and Marley, in journalism and jurisprudence and advertising, in Monty Python and cricket commentary and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. In Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’, in Ambedkar’s declamations. In Tagore’s elevated, half-poetic register, in the dense mysticism of Aurobindo Ghosh. In the treatises of Amartya Sen. In prime-time television sophistry. And everything in between.

What does it take for a certain turn of phrase to unwittingly live through us? What, for instance, is the Hindustani analogue of the KJB? Where is that great quarry of Hindustani phraseology? I wish to bring to your notice here a complete inversion of the settled order. The finest and the most arresting flecks of idiomatic Hindustani started out in the spoken, not the written language. The keeper of phrase and idiom has been the rustic vernacular. The baseborn. Untouched by the ascendancy of Arabic inflections and Farsi compounds, and the gnarled prosody of Sanskrit.

To open SW Fallon’s Dictionary of Hindustani (1879, with illustrations from folklore, riddles, proverbial sayings, songs, colloquialisms and literature) is to see the invisible stream that flows all around us, full of things we have left unsaid. In his imperishable preface he blames the members of our literary nobility for the atrophy of the vulgar tongue. “These are the autocrats who have banished the people’s mother tongue, and forged in its place the artificial language which divides the people and the ruling class. With might and main they have laboured to keep out the spoken vernacular from the written language of books and legal procedure and official correspondence; and what they were unable wholly to thrust out of sight, they have mutilated, and mangled, and crushed. They have emasculated a vigorous racy language, and substituted for its living strength and fire stiff pompous words; strange Arabic sounds which have no meaning for the people, and the dull cold clay of Sanskrit forms”

Once a week, I dip into Fallon. His compendium should be seen as a monument ‘made up of words only’ (agglutinated by a committee of native informants). On its pages is found the sap and wit of the north Indian vernacular: the common stock of allusions that once played in the minds and memories of its speakers and disseminators. Language that is both ordinary and heightened, rank and sweet, and lingers in the mind. To borrow from Kenneth Burke, language that brings out the thisness of that or the thatness of this.

(Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer)

asatwik@gmail. com

Published on January 20, 2018

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