Can People Learn to Read the English of the KJV?

by Nov 10, 2018ChurchLife, KJV, Piety12 comments

One Sunday a few years ago I asked the teens I was teaching in Sunday School to read some verses out loud, and one of them read from the KJV. This is what he said—and I quickly took note of his pronunciation errors and saved them, because I thought they raised a good question.

He hath shooed thee O man what is good; and what doeth the Lord thee God require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Here’s the question: did he understand what he read?

  • He read shewed as shooed: was this a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Was he thinking that shew is a different word than show? I don’t know.
  • He read doth as doeth: was this a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Considering that doeth is such a common KJV verb, I have to think it was the latter. What possible sense of this sentence could he have made if he stuck a regular verb in there in place of a helping verb?
  • He read thy as thee: was this is a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Again I’m not sure. I just noticed that he stumbled, at least verbally, over one of the words that everyone is supposed to find easy.

This boy was the definition of average in our youth group—in our homeschooled, raised-as-a-Christian, overachieving youth group. He was neither brilliant nor a dolt. Average. I believe he had been raised using the King James Version in church and for personal use. His errors, too, were average, common. I’ve heard them a thousand times.

Helping people read

Now, defenders of the exclusive use of the KJV commonly insist that we can teach people how to read it. Their battle cry is, “Raise people up to the KJV rather than dumbing the Bible down to them!”

One KJV-Onlyish pastor (if you’ve followed my too-many posts on this topic, this is the one critical reader who has been the most gracious with me—super nice guy) wrote to me,

If we use the King James for preaching, teaching, discipleship, training and evangelism, we must take care to plainly teach and explain the truths of the Bible. Should you choose to give the KJV to a child or a new believer, great priority and care should be given to their discipleship and biblical education. We MUST take into account all of the things discussed in your book, especially the blind areas that we have, which I believe you brought to light in my own life incredibly well.

Again, what a gracious guy!

And yet I wonder, how exactly does even this clearly sincere and motivated pastor plan to ensure that his people can read the English of the KJV well?

  1. Do any KJV-Only churches offer reading programs in Elizabethan English?
  2. The small teen Sunday School I was teaching back then is about the most ideal circumstance in which to notice and correct someone’s reading errors. But I didn’t do it, because I didn’t want to embarrass the boy—and I wasn’t perfectly certain he misunderstood. Are there other Bible teachers out there who are experts at gently correcting other people’s reading in front of their peers? Can you tell me how to do it without embarrassing them?
  3. This boy was reading out loud, so I knew where he stumbled. But I’ve always wondered: how are preachers (who, in the KJV-Only view, are supposed to be teaching their people to read the KJV English) supposed to help people with their Bible reading at home? When I was a kid, I remember thinking, Surely I’ve read the Bible cover to cover: my pastor must have covered the entire thing by now. Then I went to college and read the thing—and discovered how wrong I was. The truth is that my pastor hadn’t even come even close. I’d guess we covered maybe 3% max over the four years I sat under his ministry. How was he supposed to know if I was misunderstanding something at home in the middle of Isaiah 55 or Titus 3 or Ezekiel 16 or Proverbs 7?

Exactly how is a pastor, with all his other duties, supposed to 1) notice when people are misunderstanding KJV English and then 2) teach them to read it? I’ve never seen it done, and I don’t think it can be done. Most adults will understand most of the KJV (hear me here: I’m trying not to overstate my case). A few adults will understand very little of it. A few will understand more than most.

Bringing the average group of adults into the above-average one is not easy or straightforward. And I think bringing the below-average group to average is well-nigh impossible. (I ministered to functionally illiterate people for many years—I know this.) The story I opened with suggests that it’s hard to even know for sure when help is needed—and hard to make it happen, even in the best of circumstances.

The Bible will always contain difficult portions (2 Pet 3:16). I want them to remain as difficult as God made them. These are necessary difficulties. But if you use a contemporary English translation, all of the unnecessary readability difficulties—the ones created by the meandering and yet inevitable process of language change over the last 400-plus years—will instantly go away.

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  1. Robert Vaughn

    Mark, you wrote, “Are there other Bible teachers out there who are experts at gently correcting other people’s reading in front of their peers? Can you tell me how to do it without embarrassing them?”

    Setting aside the KJV/MV discussion for the moment, I wonder how others approach this topic in general, regardless of from what version one is reading? I think reading aloud in church is a good thing, but many are not-so-good readers and stumble on words as they do so. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone correct someone else’s reading — with the possible exception of when the reader was obviously stalling and hoping for someone to say/pronounce the next word for them and someone did so (or perhaps someone in further discussing the verse deftly read and pronounced it correctly).

  2. Mark Ward

    I’m with you, Robert. Never heard anyone correct someone else’s reading except in precisely that circumstance.

    I don’t call on poor readers, because I don’t want to embarrass them. I would almost certainly never offer reading assistance to an adult in my church unless he or she asked for it. And in my experience, even with functionally illiterate adults (whom I pastored for five years), they never ask for it.

    • John Zhong

      I’m John.
      I like to read KJV aloud everyday with way of relativity.
      I prefer you reach me if this was a important information for thee.

  3. dcsj

    FWIW, I always tell people when they come across those Bible names to just say it however they like, say it boldly, confidently, and everyone will think, “Oh, that’s the way you’re supposed to pronounce it!” It has helped many a shy reader get over the stumbling.

  4. Shellie

    There are so many oral readings of the Bible available… Books on tape, apps, YouTube… Those who want to learn KJV English can practice reading aloud with the reader. Some of the stumblings with KJV English is the grammar or vocabulary, the rest is simply pronunciation and spelling. Just as you or I would find a text written phonetically of English as it’s spoken in Ireland today very difficult, somehow if we watch a movie filmed in Ireland we can begin to understand with ease more and more of how the language is used just in the two hours before the movie ends. It is the same with KJV English… Fifteen minutes a day of reading along with the text of a professionally spoken reading with a clear pronunciation, correct prosody, and good pace/rhythm can clear up a lot of KJV difficulties within a few months for the average person. There are dictionaries and guides for the changed meaning of words, and what’s left is simply grammar- which is usually where the details of theology lay and are best chewed slowly.

    • Mark Ward

      Shellie, much of what you say is perfectly true—and your own prosody is admirable. =) But I did all that you say, and more, for a long time. And I’m a nerd who loves words. And I still failed to catch many of what I call in my book “false friends” in the KJV. And then I wonder: why should I need a dictionary or guide to read besom in my KJV, when “broom” will do just as well and not require any dictionary? We must use intelligible words if we want to edify (1 Cor 14).

      Also, you name grammar, vocab, pronunciation, and spelling as the things that cause difficulty. That’s already a long list (why not use contemporary grammar, vocab, pronunciation, and spelling?), but it’s not complete. There are many more dimensions of written language, such as punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing, etc. These must also be taken into account, as I do in my book. =)

  5. Chris

    I am not a KJVO guy but I do appreciate the KJV greatly, not only as a significant translation of the Bible but also as a historical and literary artifact. I do feel like most Christians should do at least some reading from the KJV on a regular basis.

    You asked, “Do any KJV-Only churches offer reading programs in Elizabethan English?” I would say that this seems to be an obvious answer. Yes, absolutely, any KJVO church should have some kind of primer on the English used in the KJV. And why not?

    We should remember that Elizebethan English is also known as Early Modern English. It’s not Old English or even Middle English. And it’s certainly not so different from the way we speak to today to be thought of as a foreign language. Most of what needs to be learned is vocabulary rather than points of grammar, so I think that with about a month’s worth of sustained effort the KJV should be quite readable without much stumbling.

    • Mark Ward

      Chris, I’m not sure how much of my work you’ve been exposed to, but I’m right with you *almost* all the way. =) I think I could say exactly what you have in your final paragraph. My work has focused on the last two words: what in the Early Modern English of the KJV actually causes “much stumbling”? It’s dead words and false friends of various sorts. A month of sustained effort could definitely get many people (with median educational levels) a long way toward reading the KJV well, but there will still be many dead words they will have to look up (not a huge problem) and many false friends they won’t know to look up—that’s a bigger problem. I find that most people on both “sides” of the KJV-Only debate prefer to talk in generalities: “The KJV is too hard to read!” or “I can read the KJV just fine!” I want to talk specifics, and I’d encourage you to look at my treatment of a number of specific “false friends” on my YouTube channel:

      • Chris

        Mark, I just took a look at your YouTube channel. Looks like some interesting stuff so I’ll give a few of the videos a whirl.

        I’m not familiar at all with your work, though I did take a look at the link you posted to your book. I actually found this blog post because I was looking for the very thing that I mentioned in my last post — a comprehensive, structured course on Early Modern English. Considering the historical popularity not only of the KJV Bible but also Shakespeare, you’d think this would be an easy thing to find but it’s not.

        My primary Bible translation right now is the NASB. I also use the NET, mostly for the footnotes, and I have an NRSV around here somewhere as well. Sometimes I may cross-reference a passage with the NIV or CSB or even the Douay-Rheims for good measure. However, the KJV will always be a mainstay in my household for the reasons I already mentioned, namely tradition and historical significance.

        What pains me is that, except in certain fundamentalist circles, it seems to me that the KJV has been all but forgotten. Growing up as I did in the late 80s and early 90s, I still heard the KJV recited often. It was still, at that time, thought of by many as “the standard.” Now 30 years later it seems that the translation King James commissioned has been almost fully tossed aside. Today’s evangelicals don’t simply prefer modern translations; rather, they have abandoned the KJV completely. If you were to recite from the KJV today to a group of twenty-somethings you likely would get quizzical and uncomprehending looks, and many may not even know what translation it is that you’re quoting from.

        I would like to see some interest return to the KJV, not because I think it carries some special imprimatur from God, but because it is an immensely significant Bible translation within Christianity’s history and also because, at its best, the language sings and soars in a way that you simply don’t find in contemporary versions of the biblical text. However, outside of the aforementioned fundamentalist circles, we really see very little encouragement to pick up the King James Version and read it.

        • Mark Ward

          I’m truly with you! If only because as a writer I like to have stable sources of allusion… But not only because of that: I also want people to be able to pick up allusions in other writing, especially perhaps historical Christian writing. I want my own kids to read the KJV at least once, probably in their teen years (?). I talk about this in my book.

          But what do we really expect? Language from the Coverdale Bible fills the Book of Common Prayer, I believe—but is anyone going to pull that out (if they can even find a copy) in order to catch the allusions? The Geneva Bible has real historical significance; it came to the U.S. with the Pilgrims. But are people going to read it today? It is no slight to Wycliffe that we don’t read his work now, either. For those readers who can handle well reading the KJV, by all means they should do it. But how many Bible readers can be expected to go above and beyond in the way you recommend? We’re doing pretty well to get Christian people to read the Bible at all, much less to stay abreast of historical translations. =(

          • Chris

            Mark, ha, it’s funny you bring up Wycliffe because I only recently discovered Terence Noble’s “Wycliffe Bible with Modern Spelling” and have spent some time reading it. It’s really very interesting.

            However, I would say that while Wycliffe’s translation is important, as it was the very first complete English translation, and while the Coverdale and Tyndale and Geneva translations are also important for their own reasons, it’s indisputable that the King James Version managed to sweep them all aside over the course of history and become THE dominant English translation for a great many years. If you’ll permit me to use a combat sports analogy, ultimately the KJV defeated all its competition and had a VERY long title run. On the other hand, who today, if you were to stop and ask people on the street, has even heard of the Geneva Bible?

            Really, I think it’s strange how quickly the KJV fell out of favor. As I mentioned, when I was a child in the 80s, I memorized my first verses from the KJV. To this day, when I think of John 3:16 or Psalm 23 or The Lord’s Prayer, it is the King James wording that immediately comes to mind. But like I said, very few of today’s younger evangelicals seem familiar at all with the King James text and it all happened so fast. From my estimation, it went from the standard to being almost totally swept away in less than 20 years.

          • Mark Ward

            Good thoughts.