Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Henry the 8th and the English Language: of Popes, Protestants and Puritans

In my previous articles on the history of our diverse and distinguished tongue, I’ve spent a fair deal of time harking on about the virtues of such shining lights in the lexicon of the English language as Caxton, Shakespeare, and King Alfred. Well, the time has come to turn the spotlight away from the obvious stars, and focus on some of the lesser-known pioneers of our dialect. Except, perhaps by lesser-known, I don’t automatically mean that their names will be strangers to you, but that their actions are not always the first to be considered part of our linguistic heritage.

Now, not a lot of people know this, but Henry 8th, England’s very own embodiment of polygamy, actually made no small contribution himself to the English language. You might have imagined him as just a randy royal with an insatiable capacity for wives and executions: but no, for if it hadn’t been for His Royal Corpulence, English might well have never made it past the first hurdle. Interested? Then please read on.

Most of us with a British education might be dimly aware that in the 1530s Henry the 8th declared himself head of the English church, thus ousting the Pope and the Catholic religion at the same time. This act is usually referred to as The Reformation, and it had the obviously important effect of creating a radical decline in the status of the church in England, and also an equally clear increase in the power of the monarchy (thus leading to Civil War in the following century - but that’s another story).

In fact, where this matters in linguistic affairs is twofold. Firstly, by closing down the monasteries, he isolated the church from their hold on the written form. Remember here that in the past it had traditionally been only monks who were allowed to create texts, and these had been mostly written in Latin.

Secondly, there is the fact that there arose a particularly Protestant definition of Englishness that was defensive towards outsiders, and which began to use the English language as one of its instruments of defence. An example of this can be seen in the first publication of the Bible in English in the mid 16th century, an act of defiance which has often been understood to be one of the most decisive moments in the creation of a ‘standard’ English.

We should not forget here that Latin was still very much the language of the church back then, but was almost totally incomprehensible to the common Englander. By casting the religion of Rome back across the channel, Latin also went the same way. This, of course, left only English to step in and fill the vacuum made by the departing tongue.

If the link between Christianity and Latin had been damaged by Henry’s sacrilegious acts, it was broken beyond repair by the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in English in 1549. With the publication in 1611 of the Authorised Version of the Holy Bible, also in English of course, the definitive text became widely spread and popularly read.

In general, then, the monarchy seemed to have grasped the political significance of using translation as a way of asserting its authority. Catholic laws were written in Latin, but now there would be Protestant ones written in English. Translating these laws into the common language represented a challenge to papal authority and a ‘foreign’ law.

However, for some fat King Henry’s church reforms did not go far enough, and this had an even greater parallel with reforms of the English language. These people came to be called Puritans, as they promoted a ‘purer’ form of worship, one which promoted the idea of an essentially English church, freed of the pomp of Rome.

They championed the English language over the Latin, favouring plain and simple language purged of any Latinate eloquence, and even looked back on the Norman invasions as a disruption of our Anglo-Saxon heritage. Accordingly they took a good deal of interest in Old English manuscripts and in local dialects, publishing ‘dictionaries’ of localised words in the late 17th century.

George Fox was the founder of the Quakers, a Puritan group whose egalitarian ideas had apparently inseparable links with our use of language. He used his knowledge of Old English to argue in favour of keeping in common usage the word ‘thou’, which was being driven out by the more modern ‘you’. As we can see, though, he had little success. Language seems to chose its own rules, although in some local dialects of England you can still hear ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ commonly used.

In short, the Puritan’s outlook on our language brought with it an understanding of history and struggle, as well as an appreciation of its extended localised base. This, in turn, made it possible to perceive English as a national language, capable of uniting all the blessed people of England under the eye of God, who no doubt had a keen grasp of the lingo himself. So, one nation, England, and one language, English. As simple as that.

NB: Coming next month: ‘posh’ English and the drive for standardisation!