Monday, 3 December 2018

Measuring 'Lord' Usage Today

In the last post we noted that modern translations like the NIV have maintained a strong reliance on the word "Lord", including those that claim that they have a fundamental commitment to dynamic translation and avoiding word-for-word translation traps. So, how does that double commitment work out? One way to check is to attempt to measure the dynamics of 'Lord' usage today, given my analysis that it should now be considered antiquated and 'old hat' in a way that its underlying Greek term was not.

Let us then look at some data. First, we can track is the trajectory of a word’s usage in English books[1], tracking ‘Lord’ usage from 1500 to 2008 alongside a selection of authority titles: ‘God’, ‘King’, ‘President’, ‘Chief’, ‘Leader’ and ‘Duke’:

Here we have the same terms again but focussed on the most recent 60 years:

Compared to its lofty heights in the 1600s where ‘Lord’ averaged around 0.08% of published words, it seems to have slumped to around 0.01% of words by the early 2000s. Indeed, the first graph also clearly shows some other relevant trends: all of the popular seventeenth-century keywords followed a similar pattern – ‘God’, ‘Lord’ and ‘King’ (and maybe ‘Duke’). However, it is interesting to note that the arrival of some other terms like ‘Leader’ and ‘Boss’ (not included above) have not outpaced these historic titles. You might think this implies that rather than painting a picture of a language that moves (like a painter painting over his old paint), evolving languages are simply diversifying and expanding (the painter is painting around his old paintings on an infinite canvas). Should we perhaps not question the validity of ‘Lord’ after all then? This first data pool, however, is derived primarily from published books and stops in 2008 and we have a couple more checks to do yet.

A second more up-to-date source provides a list of the top 5000 words from a large and balanced corpus of American English pool of 450 million words. The definite article, “the” occupies the top rank. “God” is 3,302nd, “King” is 2,359th, “Chief” is 1,781st, “Leader” is remarkably high at 464th and “Boss” is 2,344th (source: “Duke” and “Lord” do not make the cut.

This is interesting – why the discrepancy between these two measures? Clearly language usage is not an easy thing to gauge. We need a third metric. Let us return to the most successful online search engine, Google, to focus on their News section, surely an accurate reflection on contemporary usage. Here are the number of hits per title as I write this in November 2018:


Two out of three of our metrics above seem to show a strong tension between:
  • CBT’s intended stance on Bible translation (dynamic),
  • CBT’s reinforcement of ‘Lord’ language (nearly 8000 instances, a few of which as insertions), 
  • The current linguistic situation of ‘Lord’ (low usage in mainstream discourse).

[1] Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer,

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

NIV reliance on "Lord"

WE NOTICED SOME wonderful words have evolved more slowly despite their place in an evolving language like English, like "love", "grace" and "true", perhaps because they transcend their rapidly shifting linguistic housing. In English Christendom, at least one central Christian word seems to have survived for other reasons: “Lord”, the primary focus of my current research. It continues to prevail in song, sermon and Scripture (although I would argue to a lessening degree in conversation and testimonial). 

In Scripture, ‘Lord’s bedrock, it comprises no occasional reference! While English translations will vary, the total number of occurrences of ‘Lord’ is usually situated in the mid-to-high 7000s[1] translating various Hebrew and Greek terms. The NIV appears even to consciously seek to reinforce the word. For instance, to translate the New Testament’s Greek word ‘hagiōn’, traditionally translated in English by ‘the saints’, the NIV writes, “the Lord’s people”[2]. As a result, it succeeds in bringing its own New Testament ‘Lord tally’ to nearly 700. Next to ‘God’, ‘Lord’ must be said to occupy one of the most important roles in the New International Version.

However, given the NIV's Committee on Bible Translation strong stance on respecting language dynamics, does this fit the usage of 'Lord' today? In my next post, we will attempt to answer that question according to three different metrics.

[1] God was usually known in Hebrew by his personal Name, ‘Yahweh’, which I count at 6,867 occurrences. These are systematically translated ‘Lord’ by NIV and other mainstream translations, following a centuries-old tradition that can be dated back to Tyndale and Luther’s publications in and around the 1530s, with Tyndale using “LORde” in (Genesis) and Luther “HERR(N)” (although we know that ‘Lord’ translations had already been around a long while even before that, e.g. Wycliffe, late 14th century). Add to 6,867 tally all the human ‘lords’ of the Old Testament mostly derived from Hebrew’s 'adown, the divine ‘Lord’ from,  ‘Adonai’, and the hundreds of occurrences of ‘Lord’ in the New Testament, largely as a title for Jesus, and reach the high 7000s pretty quickly.
[2] This particular choice is peculiar. Even if it were felt that the Jesus-Yahweh relationship were to be emphasised, it does not appear to have been done so via this route by the New Testament writers. Manifestly they were aware of the Septuagint translation into Greek of the Hebrew Bible and its specific wording, and cited it frequently. When the Hebrew says something very close to “Yahweh’s people/congregation” (NIV: “the Lord’s people”) ‘Kyriou’ is present and ‘hagiōn’ is not (e.g. LXX Num 11:29, 1 Sam 2:24, 2 Ki 9:6, 2 Chr 23:16, Ez 36:20). This is the opposite of the New Testament wording.

Monday, 26 November 2018

When did this "Lord" business begin?

We live, think, reason and (for some) believe within the languages our personal histories have supplied us. Mine are very few: English by birth, and French a bit later on. English translations of the Bible have been around for so long that they can feel for many like the original language. If something sacred is understood about the Bible's nature, then it is naturally understood to be the translation that is also sacred, to such a point that its nature as a translated is hidden from our view.

Possibly the most central word to the English Bible apart from "God" is "Lord". Yet, as far as I can tell, Lord has only been around for a third of Christianity's history on this planet at best (I'm hoping that this proportion will not grow) and most English speaking Christian folk today might find that hard to believe.

Indeed, many modern translations of the Bible still keep going with "Lord" - I have a series of five reasons I will soon provide to help us understand why this title is showing such resilience. I also will provide some statistical research to suggest that in mainstream discourse, 'Lord' is indeed fundamentally religious and historical and not a contemporary term to designate authority.

Today, I just want to very briefly provide you how I understand the history of the word. Many people, myself included, presume that the English translation came about as a result of the King James Version, or maybe Tyndale might ring a bell of earliness. Of course, it all coincides with the printing press, so maybe that's when everything happened and Christianity moved itself out of Latin-only-mode.

That's not accurate.

Here's the complexity of it, in boiled-down form: translations of parts of Scripture had been going on well back in the middle ages. But back in the middle ages the language people in the island now known as the UK spoke a language so different to what is spoken today it should be understood as an entirely different language. From the Anglo-Saxon I have looked at, I literally only understand very occasional words, often simple conjunctions like "and" (we will see an example in a minute). Let's get back to Lord.

So the Wessex Gospels, variously dated but probably early 1000s, used drihten, a proto-germanic word that meant governor, Lord, etc., and was also used to translate Yahweh (or Latin's Dominus), i.e. God. From the few passages I have looked at, the article is missing. That is relevant for my research into the implications of using Lord today, since nearly 7000 occurrences of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible were written and subsequently translated deliberately without the article. This ensured that God's Name carried over into new cultures and languages as a proper name. Drihten appears to have maintained that tradition:

Drihtnes ys eorðe, and eall þæt heo mid gefyld is; and eall mancynn þe þæron eardað is Drihtnes. ("The earth is the Lord's, and all that she is filled with; and all mankind that dwell thereon is the Lord's") --Psalm 23 (24 in King James Version), King Alfred Translation (Paris Psalter)


The Hatton gospels use the same anglo-saxon term.

Where we notice a switch occurring is with the Wycliffe translations in the 14th century. "Lord" makes its appearance at last! But it hasn't yet stabilised. In 1522, Martin Luther's German Bible gave HERRN for Yahweh, all caps. 1529 was the year that Tyndale published the Pentateuch translation, in which we see a curious "the LORde" for Genesis, and "the Lord" from Exodus onward. 1539 gave rise to the "Great Bible", commissioned by King Henry VIII, which appears to be the last translation to spell Lord with an "e", Lorde, except that it consistently applied the full caps throughout (the LORDE). The last major milestone before the KJV is the Bishop's Bible in 1568, where Lord reverts back to its current spelling (and maintained capitalisation, the LORD, for translation of Yahweh). The KJV simply continued in the Bishop's Bible standardised format in 1611.

I hope that helps!

Sunday, 25 November 2018

What To Do When We Score A Blank

WHAT SHOULD WE do when we feel devoid of purpose? Empty not just of belief but also of disbelief? We should certainly not despair. Here's why (if my experience is anything to go by):

We need to be here. Christian origins, theology, the church... anything that isn't directly about the here and now can be an escape, and I'm glad to report there is a wonderful feature about all life. Well, it's got good and bad bits - I'm trying to focus on the good bits! It's called "homeostasis". It's about a universal force that draws everything back to a state of equilibrium, and I have encountered it at work in my own life time and time and time again.

At some point, equilibrium pulls me back to here. The escapism - even if it is true that it is an escape of purpose and meaning - cannot prevail, and even a crisis of belief becomes empty. This is an interesting and stabilising point for someone who perceives life as chaotic. As Tim Keller points out in his great little book, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, what I believe ceases to seem to be of such drastic importance. If my own belief or disbelief are at the centre, then I am at the centre, precisely what the wounded and inflated ego demands. But too much of that too often and homeostasis exerts its own demands. Our souls were not built to withstand that kind of imbalance indefinitely.

Right now, I feel like my own belief about metaphysical reality to draw me toward superficiality, something to which I have been consistently allergic (partly because I am). My new "ground zero" is not "Help, Father God" - invoking simultaneously a whole host of uncertain definitions and investigations.

Instead, it is simply to breathe. In. And out. And I'm here and I'm OK and I'm back quicker to a place of social availability.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Four perspectives on Bible translation

What might this constant change mean for Bible translation? We can suggest four logical basic Bible translation perspectives:

1.       Static source to static targets
2.       Static source to dynamic targets
3.       Dynamic sources to static targets
4.       Dynamic sources to dynamic targets

assorted-color clothes lotThe first perspective would imply that not only a given Greek term like ‘Kyrios’, usually translated into English as “Lord”, always held the same usage and meaning (static source) but also that ‘the Lord’ has always held the same usage and meaning (static target). Even though we haven’t yet considered how we should imagine the source Bible languages functioned, we already should realise that this first approach to Bible translation is ill-fated since we know that our target languages are constantly on the move. For example, a couple of hundred years ago we might have described our clothes as “gay” even though today we might not.

The second perspective marks a significant improvement: the source language is still perceived as fundamentally static (after all, no-one speaks that Greek anymore, right?), but it is conceded that the target language is a shifting target. Thus, “ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing” (James 2:3, King James Version) has now become “you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes” (New King James Version).

No-one really holds the third perspective, at least to my knowledge. It would imply a deep understanding of the living dynamics of interconnected languages of Hebrew and Greek, while presuming the opposite to be true of languages spoken today.

The fourth perspective is where I think all Bible translation should land, regardless of readership (readership should of course be integrated, but that is a subsequent stage of reasoning). Here, the source languages and the target languages are both perceived as dynamic, alive and interconnected. If this fourth perspective is to be truly embraced, then we must bid farewell to simplistic word-for-word translation, just as the Chair of the Committee on Bible Translation, Dr. Douglas Moo, has recognised:

Do we continue to require our second-year language students to translate “word for word,” perpetuating a simplistic and ultimately false view of language?[1]

With other CBT members also echoing this perspective, it is encouraging that the NIV appears fully resonant with this reality. That is why I have chosen this particular committee as my primary intended readership and the NIV as my primary base translation for reviewing modern ‘Kyrios’ treatment.
Clearly, however, this process of linguistic change is a complex one. In many of our modern target languages, especially those that are among the richest, most developed and innovative languages, some words have evolved with slower dignity and perhaps more flair than others, both inside and outside the confines of religious discourse, like “love”, “joy”, “peace”, “God”, “hope”, “grace”, “divine” and “true”. At least one central Christian word seems to have survived for other reasons: “Lord”, the primary focus of my paper/book. So why might some historical religious language still function so prominently in some of the most successful Bible translations of our day and should that exempt it from the demands of Perspective 4?

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Tech is powering the diversity and change embedded in our language

With the evolution of the relatively few surviving languages, we bear witness to a very familiar pattern to that established by biological evolution: consensus that it happens and wide diversity on how it happens.

One factor seems to be if the language spoken is by a people indigenous to an area. These folk might be more likely to innovate than a diaspora group.

Another huge factor for accelerated language evolution is technology. Like other major players in the news media, The Guardian has recognised the power the Internet has had on accelerating linguistic change. They recently featured the following column, stating: “The usual evolution of English has been accelerated online, leading to a less formal – but arguably more expressive – language than the one we use IRL”*, writes Emmy Favilla, editor and author, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
If the purpose of Bible translation is to effectively communicate to readerships existing within evolving linguistic frameworks (and all readerships do), then Bible translation cannot just be about checking off the languages as yet “unreached by the gospel”.

In summary, languages seem to be in a deep state of constant flux, especially under certain accelerating technological factors, which should have a profound effect on the perceived task of Bible translation.

*  Favilla, E. (2017) How the internet changed the way we write – and what to do about it, The Guardian. Retrieved from  

Friday, 2 November 2018

Second book project

Well, Mutated Faith never took off, but I don't mind. It played an important role in getting me to where I am now. Folk sometimes download or consult the sample chapter I put online at Academia here.

But the point is that for some time I have been thinking the creative drive to rethinking how we translate Kyrios in our Bibles has created such a body of research and momentum even on this blog, that it is time to review it all and place it in some form greater order, which is now looking quite a lot like a book.

This book, however, is very different from Mutated Faith. Mutated Faith I had hoped would appeal to genuine seekers who were also interested in ancient Christianity and questioning their faith, but I never managed to convince publishers - not yet at any rate. In its initial edition of the current book, I want to appeal to a much smaller readership: the Committee on Bible Translation responsible for the New International Version of the Bible.

What is its working title? I'm currently using:

Kyrios 2.0: Why and how to gently relieve the Lord from 500 years of service

Some words of explanation about this title are in order.

Kyrios 2.0”: Kyrios has been translated as “Lord” or “the LORD” for centuries and is now so deeply rooted into Christian parlance that it can be difficult to rethink these as suitable holders for the crucial underlying term in Greek. The “2.0” is to suggest that it is indeed time for an update.

Why”: 2 reasons will be given as to why the Lord should be prepared for retirement - modern usage and grammatical inaccuracy.

How”: the book will propose a bespoke, context-driven methodology for translating ‘Kyrios’ and finally offer a “test-drive” of this methodology throughout the New Testament.

Gently retire”: as I started to realise in the build-up to penning Blind Lover Tina Discovers Name Change, it is impossible to overstate how deeply rooted and central the Lord is to Christianity - it is a question that goes significantly further than an ivory-tower decision on a Greek translation.

500 years”: a reference to the earliest widespread translations into English that included “Lord”, most notably the publication of the Tyndale Bible.

Service”: a clear recognition that Lord has had a hugely successful and helpful role for the church.