THE DEVELOPMENT OF PROSE STYLE
English writers of the sixteenth century were self-consciously puzzled about the state of their language. They knew that it had changed markedly in the past two centuries, but they were not sure whether too rapid a change was good. They were aware also that its vocabulary was being inﬂuenced by other modern languages, especially French and Italian. They wondered whether it should be more like Latin, the international language of learning, or whether it should be true to its own native genius. The spread of printing meant that people who were not learned (who did not know Latin) could afford English books and would therefore read, as they had not done before. Notable defenses of the vernacular tongues of Italian and French had been published; some Englishmen felt that an equally valid defense of English could be made. As early as 1543 a translator, Peter Betham, proclaimed that he thought translators ought to use the usual terms of our English tongue, not borrowing terms from other languages, because, as he said, continual borrowing without repayment would make the language, as it would make a man, bankrupt. Furthermore, he deplored what he called “inkhorn” terms, learned words derived from Latin or invented by authors— words so obscure that he thought the ordinary Englishman would not be able to understand them. To be sure, he admitted, a few words of foreign origin must be allowed, since languages are clearly interlaced with each other, but the good writer of English is the one who follows Chaucer and other old writers, keeping English in its native tradition. The most notable theorist of language reform in the middle of the century was the famous classical scholar, Sir John Cheke, Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge. His theory of phonetic spelling is demonstrated in his letter to the translator Sir Thomas Hoby. The most important translations of the sixteenth century were the renderings of the Bible into the vernaculars. In England William Tyndale began his translation in 1523; he had to do it surreptitiously and outside the country; he ﬁnally suffered martyrdom for his efforts. In 1530 a royal proclamation condemned Tyndale’s translation and all other versions in the vulgar tongue. Then in 1535 Miles Coverdale published, in Zurich, the ﬁrst complete Bible in English. By this time the ofﬁcial ¨ attitude was changing, and in 1540 the so-called Great Bible was published, the ﬁrst English Bible issued with ofﬁcial sanction—evidence of the extent of the breach between the English church and the Church of Rome. The Geneva Bible (1560) was the work of Protestant refugees who ﬂed to the Continent in the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary. It was the ﬁrst Bible to divide the chapters into verses in the modern manner, and the ﬁrst English Bible to be printed in Roman type rather than the old black letter or Gothic type. It was handy in size, and in many instances more accurate than its predecessors, but the marginal commentary was strongly biased in the Protestant direction. The Bishops’ Bible (1568) was an attempt on the part of the Elizabethan church to counter the extreme Protestantism of the Geneva Bible. The bishops who sponsored it could indeed insist that their Bible be the ofﬁcial one used in churches, but the people continued to read the Geneva Bible at home, and is inﬂuence remained very great throughout the century. A Catholic translation into English, based upon the Latin Vulgate, was a belated concession to the demand for the Scriptures in the vernacular. It was published by English refugees abroad, the New Testament at Rheims in 1582 and the Old Testament at Douai in 1609–10. Though it was outside the main English tradition, it was not without its inﬂuence upon the King James Version which was to follow. King James did not like the popular Geneva Bible (some of its commentary was not
2 / The Development of Prose Style
highly favorable to kings). As a part of the religious...