English Language History – The English Bible

English in the 14th century

English in the 14th century began to replace French as the official language of Law and Government and there was a new confidence in English literature.  By the 14th century, there started a movement to return English to its central place in society.  However, the struggle to establish English as the official language took over 100 years and was often violent.

Society in the late 13th century was religious.  The Catholic Church controlled and invaded all aspects of life. The Catholic Church only allowed the Bible to be read in Latin, a language that only the clergy and scholars could understand.  However, English set out to become the language of God; thus creating a conflict with the Catholic Church and reformists.

Latin was the only language of Bibles and Church in the 14th century. There was no bible in English, and most people could not read nor understand Latin; therefore, the Bible was a closed book. Biblical stories and plays for ordinary people were cartoon versions of scripture.  Only the clergy were allowed to read the Word of God, and they did that silently.  For the authority of the Catholic Church, a priest needed to stand between the believer and the Bible.

In the 14th century, there was a counter-movement that turned the English speaking world into turmoil, it would tear the Church in two, mark the end of the middle ages, and would cost many lives.

John Wycliffe

John WycliffeThe battle for an English bible started in the late 14th century.  This battle split the Church in two, marked the end of the middle ages, and cost many lives.  People wanted a bible written in English and were willing to fight and die for it.  It was the boldest way for English to become the language of power.  The prime mover was John Wycliffe.  Wycliffe was fluent in Latin; he was an Oxford scholar and theologian.

John Wycliffe believed the Bible should be available to everyone and was fiercely opposed to the power and wealth of the Church.

“When men speak of the Church,

they usually mean Priests, monks, canons, and friars,

but it should not be so, whether a hundred Popes and all the friars turned to cardinals,

their opinions on matters of faith should not be accepted, except as far as they are founded on the scripture itself.”… John Wycliffe

The Church in Wycliffe’s time was often lazy and corrupt.  Bible reading, even among the clergy were surprisingly rare, and often they didn’t have the Latin. When the Bishop of Gloucester surveyed 311 deacons and priests, he discovered that over half of them could not repeat the ten commandments. About 10% did not know where the commandments came from, and 13 percent could not recount the Lord’s prayer.  Wycliffe spoke about the right of every man to read the Bible for him or herself.

The creation of the English Bible

Scholars copying the bibleMaking an English bible available to people was heretical and seditious.  The creation of an English Bible had to be done in secrecy because it’s aim was to overthrow the powerful with words.  By the beginning of 1380ad, Wycliffe had organized the translation of the first English Bible from Latin.  Several scholars worked on the translation, once translated, Wycliffe had the enormous task of reproducing and disseminating the Bible.  The mission of handwriting hundreds of bibles in the script was carried out by armies of people copying it in secret.  Wycliffe trained men who became known as ‘Lollards’, to distribute and preach the Bible.

One hundred and seventy of these bibles have survived to this day, which is remarkable considering how ruthlessly the Church tried to eradicate the English Bible. The English Bible was considered a cause worth dying.

Many new words and phrases entered the English lexicon via the introduction of the English Bible.

illuminated ManuscriptSome of the Latin words introduced into English include:

  • emperor
  • justice
  • profession
  • city
  • cradle
  • suddenly
  • angel
  • multitude
  • glory

The Church condemned Wycliffe for the English Bible, claiming that making the scriptures available to the layman and laywomen. The Church proclaimed: “The jewel of clerics is turned to the sport of the laity, the pearl of the gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine.”

The proliferation of the English Bible

Wycliffe began to organize and train what amounted to a new religious order of itinerate preachers, the Lollard’s, whom he dispatched around England. Their purpose was to spread the Word literally in English. It was like a guerilla campaign; they were determined to win the battle for God.

In the highways, byways, taverns, Inns, and village greens, they preached against church corruption and proclaimed Wycliffe’s anti-clerical ideas. Wycliffe’s preachers were and influential movement but hated by the Catholic Church because they went straight to the source of God’s teaching and cut out the priests.

The persecution and death of John Wycliffe

In 1382 a trial was held by the Church against Wycliffe’s work; the conclusion was pre-ordained, resulting in a statement that proclaimed Wycliffe’s work as outright heresies.  The Church also condemned Wycliffe’s associates; it ordered the arrest and prosecution of itinerate preachers throughout the land. Eventually, parliament secured a ban on all English language bibles.

Wycliffe became ill, the stress from the trial had weakened him, and he suffered a stroke dying soon afterward.  Wycliffe had created a national political movement with the English language at its heart. The style of the English Bible became the English language of the protestant reformation.

Avon to the Severn

The Severn river

The Church was not satisfied with Wycliffe’s death; it continued to burn bibles, burn people, and ordered Wycliffe’s body to be exhumed and burned.  The Church proclaimed Wycliffeas proclaimed a heretic, in the spring of 1428, the Church ordered Wycliffe’s bones to be burned and thrown into the river Avon. The Church officials scattered Wycliffe’s ashes into the stream.  Officially the Bible remained in Latin, but there was a Lollard prophesy that stated:

“The Avon to the Severn runs,
The Severn to the sea,
And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,
Wide as the waters be.”

The prophecy was right, and English would have its Bible. However, the Church would not give way to the new force of English until the State had buckled first.

Henry V

The battle for the English Bible was a battle for the soul of the English language.  That process began in 1470 with Henry V.  Henry was campaigning around France in the early 15th century, winning territory.  Henry wrote his official documents and letters in English, and this broke a tradition that had lasted 350 years.  English kings had begun to speak English under Henry V, but all court documents had been written in French, as they had been since the Norman conquest.

Henry’s letters were in defiance of the French aristocracy and sparked anti-French sentiment. When Henry returned to England, he continued to write in English, and in doing so, he made steps to creating the first standardized English that everybody could read. Once Henry standardized English as the official language of the State, the rest of the country followed.

The people spoke a range of dialects.

Why English is so hardThe different dialects throughout England made it difficult for people to understand one another.  For example, the ‘ing’ participle, as in running, would be pronounced ‘and’ (runnand) in the North, ‘ind’ (running) in the east midlands, and ‘en’ (runnen) in the west midlands.  The word ‘church’ was called ‘kirk’ in the North.

Words did not have standard spelling, and it seemed that writers could decide on spelling any way they agreed at the time. The Chancery (civil service) had a way of dealing with the problem of different spelling.  The Chancery, writing documents need a spelling standard spelling, so a document written in one part of the country could be read in all other parts of the country. These decisions of spelling seemed to be arbitrary; however, these conventions of spelling stuck.  For example, the words ‘hath’ and ‘doth’ become ‘has’ and ‘does.’ By 1500, the language, under the influence of chancery, is becoming recognizable to today’s language.

Some scholars wanted to spell things according to how they were pronounced (reformists), and scholars who tried to use existing spelling (traditionalists), and some scholars wished to maintain the Latin, French, or Old English character of a word. Examples of word spellings that include compromises according to existing conventions include:

  • The insertion of silent letters to give French character, for example,’ debt,’ and ‘doubt.’
  • Words of Greek origin had their spelling adjusted, for example, the ‘h’ in words like ‘throne’ and ‘theatre.’
  • An ‘h’ was added to the word ‘rhyme’ just because the word ‘rhythm’ had an ‘h.’
  • An ‘l’ was added into ‘could,’ ‘would’ and ‘should’ for consistency, even though it makes no sense.

If you try to figure out the logic of these spelling conventions, you will conclude that they messed it up.

The invention of the printing press

The printing press was invented in Guttenberg, Germany, around 1435.  Caxton introduced the printing press to England, and it had an enormous effect on western culture. Latin was the official language of religion and scholarship. Caxton publishes books in English by Chaucer and the legends of King Arthur. Caxton made decisions on spelling and once printed, they became the accepted spelling.

The printing of the English Bible

The printed Bible became the most influential book that there has ever been in the history of language.  Henry V, under the direction of the Catholic Church, ordered the destruction of all English bibles and all heretical works.  The Church burned English Bibles outside St. Pauls cathedral, and Bibles burned for two days.

William Tyndale

William TyndaleWilliam Tyndale was Oxford-educated and an ordained priest. Tyndale’s Bible was to bring about a radical change, both in the English language and society; but he had to leave England to create the printed Bible. Tyndale produced the printed Bible about 100 years after Wycliffe’s Bible.

In 1524, Tyndale left England never to return, he settled in Cologne and began translating the Bible.  He translated the New Testament into English, not from Latin, but the original Hebrew and Greek.

The battle for the printed Bible

The English Bible was a threat to the State and the Catholic religion, many copies were confiscated and burned. However, over time, hundreds of these Bibles made their way to England. SmBy 1526, 6,000 copies were smuggled into England.

The bishop of London, under direction from the Pope, bought an entire print run and then burned them all.  Tyndall used the proceeds from this sale to produce a better version of the English Bible at church expense.  The conflict was for a Bible for the people, in their language.

Tyndale’s writing was of high quality, of rhythmic beauty and simplicity of phrase, and it had penetrated deep into the English language that we still use today. Tyndale’s work provided 85% of the King James version that we still use today.

Tyndale provided many new words and phrases in his Bible that add to the richness and expressiveness of the English language.

In 1535, two hired assassins captured and imprisoned Tyndale.  Tyndale was found guilty of heresy, and he was strangled and burned.  His last words were, “Lord, open the King’s eyes.” Within a year, a Bible was placed in every parish church by the King’s command.

Henry VIII

King Henry VIIIHenry VIII had tried to divorce Catherine of Aragon, who bore him no sons, this bought him in confrontation with the Pope.  Now that Henry VIII was opposed to Papal supremacy, scripture was more important than church authority. In 1535 Henry VIII authorized the first legal Bible.  The English language had made its return, into the Church of England, the State and the people.  The protestant Church made the English Bible available to everyone. The greatest triumph of the English language was the English Bible.

King James I

King James IBy the end of the 16th century, there were so many different versions of the English Bible that in 1611 King James I ordered a standardized version. The writers of the King James Bible drew on the previous version, but mostly on Tyndall’s Bible. The King James Bible used an older style of speech that was no longer in everyday use, and this gave the Bible an archaic sound, it was designed to sound authoritative, old like it came from God.  Scholars edited the King James Bible in a way that it gave rhythm when spoken, making it a preacher’s Bible.

Further research

A History of the English Language explores the linguistic and cultural development of English from the Roman conquest of England to the present day to provide a comprehensive overview of the different aspects of its history. This best-selling classic textbook includes revisions and encourages the reader to develop both an understanding of present-day English and an enlightened attitude toward the issues affecting the language today. New features of the sixth edition include: * an additional chapter titled ‘English in the Twenty-first Century,’ which examines the future of English and other global languages and consists of an assessment of Chinese as a world language * an in-depth treatment of phonological changes, such as the placement of the Great Vowel Shift as a bridge between Middle English and Renaissance English * further coverage of corpus linguistics, especially for Renaissance English * new sections on accent and register * a further study of the recent debate between “creolists” and “neo-Anglicists” on the origins of African American Vernacular English. Balanced and wide-ranging, this textbook is a must-read for any student studying the history of the English language

Aaron Skudder


  1. What a fascinating history of the English Bible. I’ve always wondered how it went from basically Latin to the book we have today and I noticed when reading your post how very long it took for the English language as we know it today to develop. So many of these men were killed just because they wanted the common man to have access to the scriptures. I’m not religious but I do history and the stories it can tell about mans’ journey to a better life as a society.

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