William Tyndale: The Father of English Prose

Tim Ward, © 2003

An Angel Assists Tyndale's Translation

            The King James Bible, since its publication in 1611, has had a profound influence on the development of the English language, not only in the words and phrases that it employed but also in the syntax and grammatical usages that it rendered into the English vernacular.  Modern literary and linguistic scholarship has certainly acknowledged the debt the English language owes to the K.J.B. or Authorized Version but very little credit seems to be given to the individual on whose work over 80 percent of the A.V. relied, William Tyndale.[1]  Tyndale’s early translations (his first translation of the New Testament was published outside of England in 1525) were based on the premise that “…it was impossible to stablysh the laye people in any truth excepte the scripture were paynly layed before their eyes in their mother tonge, that they might se the precesse ordre and meaninge of the text”.[2]  It was a belief for which he would eventually be asked to give his life.

            William Tyndale’s influence, not only on the early translations of the Bible into English, but also on the development of an Early English Modern prose has been significant enough to earn him the title of “The father of English Prose”.[3] The purpose of this article is to question first whether the epitaph is indeed appropriate and secondly, if so, why so little academic research has been done examining his influence.

            Tyndale was born in Catholic England in approximately 1492, a time of growing political and religious unrest, not only in England but also throughout most of Europe.  The seeds of the Protestant reformation had been planted only a few years earlier during the Great Schism (1378-1417) during which time, two popes competed for the authority of the Church and as representatives of God’s divine will.  The schism greatly undermined the authority of the pope and led the reformers to question, if the pope’s word was no longer infallible, on what authority could the Christian faith be built.  The alternative authority that the reformers were looking for was found in the Bible itself.  If the papacy could no longer be trusted then the Bible could act as God’s word to mankind and that the individual could commune with God without the intermediacy of a priest.  The ramifications of this thesis were monumental because it struck at the heart of papal authority which the reformers were claiming had grown corrupt and it implied that the scriptures needed to be translated into a vernacular that could be widely understood.

            In 1409 Archbishop Thomas Arundel had banned the reading of the vernacular scripture and, as a result, the only scripture used in religious ceremonies was the Latin Vulgate based on St. Jerome’s translation.  Not only was the scripture read in Latin which no one but the educated clergy understood, the service itself was performed in Latin.  Tyndale, and other reformers, argued that the Church had degenerated into an empty form and that mass had become, for most participants, a meaningless ceremony. The societal implications are difficult to understand from a modern and particularly secular perspective but the pervasive fear about the soul and  particularly its destination in the afterlife was incredibly  real in the 15th and 16th centuries so that the Church’s control over the soul and matters pertaining to it (birth, baptism, marriage, death, etc,) was incredibly far reaching and, at the centre of this control was control over language.

            A number of other factors also played an important part in the pivotal role that Tyndale was to play in the development of the English language.  Concomitant to the developments of the Protestant reformation was the rise of academic humanism as opposed to the scholasticism that had dominated the universities and academia for some time.[4]  With respects to the impetus towards translating the Latin Vulgate into English, the emphasis turned towards translating texts within a historical context and a return to the original language texts.  This movement was resisted in the universities in a manner similar to that of the Church as it eroded the position of those in the universities whose authority lay with the medieval scholastic curriculum.

            There was also an increased knowledge of the original biblical languages. Tyndale studied both Hebrew and Greek while he was at Oxford and probably Cambridge. Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament and the Pentateuch were not the first in English; Wycliff had translated an earlier English version in 1380 but he relied solely on St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (earlier translations of the bible had been made during Anglo-Saxon times but they lost currency when Norman French rose to ascendancy and Latin became the official language of the Church)[5] but Tyndale’s English translations were the first to make use of the original Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek and there is little doubt that he was greatly influenced by Erasumus  and his Greek translations.

            Much of the debate over the place of a vernacular scripture that took place between the Catholic Church and Tyndale was performed by Thomas More who fought vehemently against Tyndale’s translations and their implied associations with Martin Luther and the “heresies” of the reformation.  It is interesting to note that the academic debate which took place between More and Tyndale in tracts that were published was written in English rather than the previously accepted standard of academic debate, Latin which, of itself, appears to prove a point that Tyndale was trying to make.  More and the Church strongly opposed the translations into English by individuals because so much of the translations were open to interpretation, interpretations that could significantly alter the teachings of the church.  For instance, Tyndale translated the Greek “eccelisia” as “congregation”, rather than “church” in what appears to be a direct protestantization which emphasized the communal nature of the church and undermined the authority of the clergy.[6]         

            More also questioned what was to be done with the over one hundred words for which there was no direct English translation.  How did one translate, for instance, the Greek word “agape” which points at the inability in the English language to differentiate between various types of love?  More thought that the best word was “charity” but Tyndale instead opted for “love”.  The debate is a significant one though as it shows Tyndale’s depth, not only as a theologian, but also as a linguist:

Verely charitie is no knowen Englishe, in that sence which agape reqireth… Also we say not, thys man hath a great charitie to god, but a great loue.  Wherefore I must haue vsed this generall term loue, in spite of myne hart oftentimes…  And finall I say not charitie God, or charitie your neighbour, but loue God and loue your neighbour.[7]


Tyndale argues though, that in fact, English is closer to the original Hebrew and Greek than Latin:

They will say it cannot be translated into our tounge it is so rude. It is not so rude as they are false lyers. For the Greeke tounge agreeth more with the English, then wyth the Latin. And the properties of the Hebrue tounge agreeth a thousand tymes more wyth the Englishe, then wyth the Latyn. The maner of speaking is both one, so that in a thousand places thou needest not but to translate it into the English, worde for worde, when thou must seeke a compasse in the Latin, and yet shalt haue much worke to translate it welfauouredly, so that it haue the same grace & sweetnesse, sence & pure understanding with it in the Latin, & as it hath in the Hebrue. A thousand partes better maye it be translated into the English, then into the Latin.[8]


            Much of this debate surrounds the nature of the English language itself and the direction it was to take in the next few decades.  There is little doubt that the language was regarded as being rather provincial and certainly not adequate to the rigours of scientific or theological discourse.  In 1542, Stephen Gardner described English saying, “(It) hath not continued in one for of understanding two hundred years, and without God’s work and special miracle it shall harly continue religious language, when it cannot last itself.”[9]  In fact, England, in the 16th century was country of various vernaculars and dialects and there was as of yet no fully accepted English standard[10] but here, Tyndale argues that, not only is English adequate as a language as a vehicle for God’s word, it was in fact superior to Latin.  Because of his extensive knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew, Tyndale was able to see that the vigour and simplicity of the original could be successfully translated into English and where Wycliff failed in translating directly from the Latin, creating a cumbersome text that relied directly on Latin constructions, Tyndale was able to create a text that was vibrant and direct.

            Tyndale’s influence on the English language, however, was not limited advocacy, but is also evidenced in his brilliance as a writer.  Peter Jones, in his article on Tyndale, claims that he invented English prose and that he did so by making three major decisions while translating: he opted for finite verbs, deleted the participle and used “and” wherever he could.  Classical languages, according to Jones, thrive on subordination but what Tyndale did was to remove the subordination by replacing it with coordinating clauses thus establishing the powerful rhythms of the A.V.[11]   Jones provides the following examples which illustrate Tyndale’s rendering of the Greek into workable English prose and also shows how closely the A.V. translators relied on Tyndale’s work.  First, the literal word ordering of the Greek:

And seeing the star, they-rejoiced great rejoicing exceedingly. And coming into the house they-saw the child with Marv the mother of-him, and falling-down, they-- worshipped him, and opening the treasures of-them they-offered to-him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Tyndale renders it in this manner with the clauses turned from participles into main verbs:

'When they saw the star, they were marvellously glad: and [went into the house and] found the child with Mary his mother, and [kneeled down and] worshipped him, and [opened their treasures and] offered unto him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.'

The A.V., obviously relying heavily on Tyndale:

'When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and [fell down and] worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.'[12]


                Janel Muller, in his book on the relationship between English and the biblical translations takes the argument a step further.  Not only did Tyndale recognize the similarity between the sentence forms of the gospels and the “native resources of English expression”, but Tyndale’s expressions, sentence forms and rhetorical devices, also reflected his theology.  In Tyndale, “the theological paradigm duly becomes a compositional paradigm”.[13]  Tyndale’s theology, a derivative of the Pauline epistles, claimed that the believer was justified by faith, not by works.  He felt that the clergy of his day were hypocritical, living a life of worldliness but asking the laity to do penance.  Even worse, he felt, was the clergy’s audacity in claiming to distribute God’s grace and salvation.  Underpinning this was his belief that true faith could only come through understanding the scripture; knowledge could only come through feeling.  Thus Mueller points to the “affectivity” of Tyndale’s style which followed Paul’s style of binary conjunctions:

There is no difference: for all have synned, and lacke the prayse that is of valoure before God: but are justified frely by his grace.[14]


Tyndale also makes use of the strengths of native alliteration and repetition.  In his An Answer unto Sir Thomas More, Tyndale suggests that the clergy be judged by their “penaunce, pilgrimages, pardons, purgatorie, praying to postes, domme blessing, domme absolutions…”[15]  Mueller goes on further to argue that Tyndale’s elimination of clausal subordination had far reaching consequences as “within fifty years, the staple of prose compositions become no longer asymmetric and recursive clausal conjunction but, rather, sentence forms of a binary, symmetric, and even schematic cast”.[16]

            The reasons for Tyndale’s influence over the development of the English language, not only directly but also via the A.V., are numerous.  First, there was little other available reading material and the Bible remained the chief written source of formal English for many well into the 19th century.[17]  As well, legal requirements in the 16th and 17th centuries dictated that everyone should attend the parish church.  This remained a widely accepted social custom until well into the 20th century so that the early translations were assured an extremely broad public audience.  The A.V. had a profound influence not only on writers like Milton, George Fox and John Bunyan, but also on 19th and 20th century writers like George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, etc.

            The OED cites Tyndale over 1700 times (this number should be significantly higher if James Clark argues correctly that many of the citations attributed to Miles Cloverdale are actually Tyndale’s)[18] and he is responsible for words such as ‘beautiful’ rather than the more common ‘belle’ or ‘fair’.  Others include ‘peacemaker’, ‘long-suffering’ and ‘scapegoat’.  Many of the phrases he uses appear to be of the popular, semi-proverbial kind such as, “eat the poore out of house and harbour” and “kysse the rodde”.  He is also responsible for such time-honoured phrases as "let there be light," (Genesis 1), "the powers that be," (Romans 13), "my brother's keeper," (Genesis 4), "the salt of the earth," (Matthew 5), "a law unto themselves," (Romans 2), "filthy lucre" (1 Timothy 3) and, "fight the good fight"(1 Timothy 6). Yet, for all of his effort, and perhaps as a profound testament to the power of his linguistic ability, he was strangled and burned at the stake in Brussels in 1536. But, if we are to accept, as the editors of The Oxford Companion to the English Language suggest, that the 1611 translation of the Bible stands as a landmark in the evolution of the English language and that its “verbal beauty is unsurpassed in the whole of English literature”[19] then certainly most of that credit belongs to William Tyndale.



Bridgman, Joan.  2000. Tyndale’s New Testament.  Contemporary Review Company Ltd.


Clark, James Andrew.  1998.  Hidden Tyndale in 'OED's' first instances from Miles Coverdale's 1537 Bible.  New York: Oxford University Press.


Crystal, David.  1995.  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.                                                                                      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Davis, Norman.  1971.  William Tyndale’s English of Controversy.”  The Chamber Memorial Lecture.  London: University College. 


Jones, Peter. “The Miracle of ‘and’.”  The Spectator.  London:  January 8, 2000, v. 284.


Ng, Su Fang.  Translation, Interpretation, and Heresy: The Wycliffite Bible, Tyndale’s Bible and the Contested Origin.”  Studies in Philology. Chapel Hill, Summer 2001.


McArthur, Tom (Ed.).  1996.  The Oxford Companion to the English Language.  New York:  Oxford University Press.


Mueller, Janel. 1984.  The Native Tongue and the Word.  Developments in English Prose Style 1380-1580.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Salmon, Vivian.  1996. Language and Society in Early Modern England.  Selected Essays 1981-1994.    Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

[1] David Crystal,   The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language,  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995),  p. 59.

[2]Vivian Salmon,  Language and Society in Early Modern England.  Selected Essays 1981-1994,  (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1996), p. 78.

[3] Peter Jones,  “The Miracle of ‘and’.” The Spectator, (London: January 8, 2000, v.284).

[4] Su Fang Ng,  Translation Interpretation, and Heresy:  The Wycliffite Bible, Tyndale’s Bible and the Contested Origin.”  Studies in Philology, (Chapel Hill: Summer 2001).

[5]Tom McArthur (ed.), The Oxford Companion to the English Language, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 119.

[6] Ng, Studies In Philology.

[7], Norman Davis,  WilliamTyndale’s English of Controversy.”  The Chambers Memorial Lecture,  (London: University College, 1971), p. 6.

[8] Ng.

[9]Vivian Salmon,  Language and Society in Early Modern England,  (Amsterdam: John Benjamin Publishing Company, 1996), p. 88.

[10] Salmon, p. 90.

[11] Jones.

[12] Jones.

[13] Janel Mueller, The Native Tongue and the Word: Developments in English Prose Style 1380-1580, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 192.

[14] Mueller, p. 193.

[15] Mueller, p. 196.

[16] Mueller, p. 197.

[17] McArthur, p. 122.

[18] James Clark,. Hidden Tyndale in 'OED's' first instances from Miles Coverdale's 1537 Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press).

[19] McArthur, p. 120.