The 1525-1526 publication of William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament from Greek to English holds a unique significance in the history of the English language. Tyndale's attempt to render an English style simple enough for a ploughboy to understand produced an accessible, limpid, paratactic prose that expanded the way English prose could function, as David Daniell has spent much of a career insisting and illustrating. The decisive influence of Tyndale's translation on all subsequent English Reformation translations of the Bible culminates in the 1611 King James Bible taking up many of its readings with little change. Thus Tyndale's work is the foundation from which the King James Bible exercised its world-making powers of theology but also language, as, again, a spate of monographs clustered around the KJV's quadricentennial and excavating its historical and literary influence have shown.
David Crystal's reading of Tyndale's Saint Matthew's Gospel occupies two CDs and 148 minutes. It is a lovely product. Tyndale's language is surprisingly accessible. Certain obvious pronunciation unfamiliarities present themselves quickly: for instance, the French-influenced "ci-oon" for "-tion;" the Germanic "ch" in "thought" and "light"; the dropping of initial "h" sounds in syllables; hard consonants like "g" in "gnashing," "k" in "kneeled," "r" in "hard;" and everywhere the medieval long "a"--"treasure," "Egypt," "people," the first two syllables of "perceiving." But those sonic patterns as quickly become familiar, and the vocabulary and syntax are pleasantly and comprehensibly archaic to ears trained on the King James Bible or Shakespearean idiom, welcomingly modern to medievalists. The reading itself marks no distinction between verses or chapters; it unfolds as one seamless work. For ease of reference, however, the twenty-eight tracks over two discs correspond to the twenty-eight chapters of Matthew. Crystal's voice is warm, resonant, and mellifluous, made for radio and voiceovers; his pronunciation accurate and internally consistent, grounded in his expertise as one of the world's foremost experts on English language change. He is the right person for the job. The considerable variety of his reading cadence emphasizes the syntactical turns of the text with rather less concern for dramatic expression, yet subtle pathos emerges: his voice rising in gentle wonder when "the maid arose" from the dead in chapter 9, an audible lip-curl when a thundering Jesus denounces the Pharisees in chapters 15 and 23.
The practical advantages, then, of a sample from Tyndale's New Testament as an aural version of early English are threefold. First, this particular New Testament emerges at and itself constitutes an important historical moment. Second, its language comes near the end of great phonological change in English. It would be difficult to find a major text much earlier that sounds this accessible. Third, Tyndale meant the prose to be informal, conversational, and Crystal explains that he made pronunciation choices with Tyndale's aim in mind. "A cup a' cold water," "condemn 'em," and "mouth o' God" are representative examples of this production's disarming lack of pretension, exactly the form in which Tyndale's ambition manifested. It feels, if not fresh, at least relatable, as if there's a real person behind the words.
The argument this review makes for Crystal's reading of Tyndale's Saint Matthew's Gospel is somewhat different than the argument made through its packaging and liner notes. The back cover of the CD case confines Tyndale's influence to his following century and ends it at the King James Bible. Crystal's essay in the liner notes briefly sketches the story of how Tyndale came to translate the New Testament and subsequently die a martyr, situates Tyndale's English between Chaucer's and Shakespeare's by asserting the fact, then delves much more deeply into how scholars establish phonology in the absence of recorded material and into the differences between Tyndale's pronunciation and our own. No part of the recording's packaging makes an argument for the continuing importance of the text of Tyndale's New Testament or the uniqueness of its moment in the history of English language and pronunciation. That is, it's not clear from the packaging why anyone would want or need to buy these CDs. Slotting them, as the CD case does, within the history of Reformation Bibles would appeal to Biblical scholars more directly, but surely such scholars would expect from Crystal's essay less about phonology and more about the content of the text itself or even the distinctiveness of its language from other Reformation versions. Crystal expresses a hope that his reading would be appropriate for domestic consumption--around the house, a casual walk. That would indeed be wonderful, but this product does not seem likely to make it into popular catalogs. The British Library website markets it under "Audio, Historic;" its closest companion product in the category is Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation. Other than the CD on Shakespeare, Crystal's version of Tyndale is competing with the actual voices of H. G. Wells, Mahatma Gandhi, Lawrence Durrell, and Sigmund Freud. In addition to private enjoyment by someone with strong natural interest, readers on this academic listserv could consider these CDs useful in a History of the English Language class, in any religion class with a strong Reformation component, and (particularly in order to make detailed linguistic comparisons and contrasts) in English literature classes that cover early modern lyric poetry or drama. This stuff is dynamite, undersold.
As we've just seen, Crystal powerfully imagines that this product would come to life as Tyndale intended--that it be listened to at home, or on a walk, following its listeners into domesticity, the groundwater out of which their lives grow. Tyndale wanted his Bible to be able to accompany its audience everywhere, no place too mundane. That is why he translated the Bible into English. But when Crystal reads the persecution chapters 10 and 24, one can almost hear behind his voice Tyndale's own, describing the present state of himself and his church, and accurately predicting the suffering his words would engender, after the model of Christ's. "Fear ye not them which kill the body, and be not able to kill the soul" (Matt. 10.28). "Whosoever therefore shall knowledgeth me before men, him will I knowledge before my father in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my father which is in heaven" (Matt. 10.32-33). "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 10.39). Through Tyndale these words came to English, and came to life in him and others in the Reformation.