Top language, top Bible, top people: Melvyn Bragg meets the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis


To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in English, Melvyn Bragg (a man not noted for his reliability on such matters—see my post for March 30th last year) managed to get himself a BBC documentary on the subject. (King James’ Bible: The Book that Changed the World) The credits say that he wrote it as well as narrated it, so all errors are his own, with the possible exception of the director’s decision to devote so much of the hour to close shots of Bragg’s face as he muses on his subject. This is always an error, even when the narrator is photogenic. Bragg, reading from his autocue, is an old man with distractingly young hair and a gaze point somewhere just above the viewer’s right eyebrow.


But I digress. The real point of this post is to unpick the bizarre thesis of the programme, namely that the true power of the Bible lay dormant for centuries until it was translated into English in 1611 by a committee of scholars working for King James. Yes, I am simplifying here somewhat, but that is because the lines of argument taken by Bragg are meandering and self-contradictory. Nevertheless¸ the main idea is that God’s word was inevitably muffled until it was made available to humanity through the sparkling medium of early Modern English, whereupon its effect was electric and immediate, inspiring  democratic revolutions, civil rights and all of modern science. 

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