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Saturday, 27 May 2006

Youth and Maidens

Counter Something else that happened this week reminded me how languages change. I came across an article written in December 1886 by the mother of some public schooled children in Northern Michigan who had attended the school Christmas program. It was held, by the way, in the Schoolhouse, which doubled as the local church-house on Sundays, there being no Township Hall.

She expressed herself in the style of the King James Version, writing such things as:

"And they compassed the stage about with curtains, on the north side and on the south side covered they it."

One expression in particular caught my eye: a reference to "youth and maidens." Now, I knew at once that this was no expression culled from the King James Version, so I did a search on the phrase, and found classically themed poetry of the mid-19th century replete with it. Thus it was that a word used only generically in the KJV had gained gender specificity in 19th century poetic expression. Now, of course, it is back to being generic; so much so, that I earlier suggested it for use in the next revision of the NIV!

Languages change, and meanings of words within a language change, depending on how they are used. To the author of the 1886 article, "youth and maidens" just seemed more fitting a phrase than "young men and maidens," which would have actually been the appropriate Jacobian usage. This shows that although bibline language flowed easily from her pen, it reveals not so much that she was well-versed in Scripture, but that bibline language formed a large and integral part of the literary culture at large with which she was so familiar. So naturally did she do this that without any background information, I could have dated her composition to the late Victorian era from the language alone.

That day is no more, and trying to fit an edition of the Scriptures to the literary language of the day will never bring it back.

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