September 01, 2014

Horse 1744 - Hunting Unicorns

Whilst listening to the Test series between England and India, a comment on Twitter mentioned that there are unicorns in the Bible (such is the nation of Test Cricket that side discussions often have nothing to do with the at times dour performances on the pitch).
I'm hardly a scholar by any stretch of the imagination but the thought seemed patently absurd to to me; so absurd in fact that it must have been correct because you don't make up stuff like this. Lo and behold, a search for the word 'unicorn' turns up nine matches¹. What is going on here?

Being the annoyingly curious creature that I am, I decided to check the Hebrew for these and find that the word that is consistently being translated by the King James Version as a 'unicorn' is the Hebrew word רְ אֵ מִ ים  or 're'im' which comes out in English 'auroch' which was a bovine type of animal (in the same family as cows), the last of which died in 1627. They are now extinct.
This sets up another question. Why did the translators who compiled the King James version of the Bible, choose to use a word which seems so strange? I suspect that the answer to this lies in the fact that the language of 1611 is also a very different animal to the one we now speak a little over 400 years later. This seems to me as though what on the face of it appears to be some sort of mistranslation, wasn't at the time.

The story of the King James Version or more properly the Authorised Version is itself quite complex and is set into an equally complex period of time. Elizabeth the First of England had died; leaving behind no children and so James the Sixth of Scotland became James the First of England as well.
Elizabeth's father Henry the Eighth had exacted a purge of Catholic monasteries and churches, following his own disagreements with the church in Rome and within a year of becoming King of England, James set about commissioning a new Bible in English. This was also set amidst a political environment which included the Gunpowder Plot which was an attempt to blow up the King and the Parliament.

This new version which was more or less demanded by puritan factions within the Church of England, was translated from Greek for the New Testament, and from Hebrew and Aramaic texts for the Old Testament. The fact that they took seven years from 1604-1611 to finally bring the text to publication, indicates to me that this was seen as highly serious work and further suggests to me that this was not a mistranslation for the time.

How do you write a new bible for a nation which at that stage was largely illiterate. Moreover, how do you explain concepts to people when they do not travel very far and more than likely, never travelled more than a hundred miles in their entire lifetime.
I think it interesting for instance that the entire of the King James Version uses only about ten thousand different words, whereas Shakespeare's works include about twenty-one thousand words. The there is the fact that the English language itself was in a state of flux and the translators deliberately chose words which at the time were slightly archaic to try and counteract this.
It is also worth bearing in mind that in 1611 there probably wasn't even a standard dictionary in use. 'A Dictionary of the English Language' by Samuel Johnson, didn't appear until 1755, which was still a gross of years away; even then his dictionary isn't necessarily and attempt to define words but rather to describe them (sort of). What is a dictionary anyway? Should a dictionary be proscriptive and say what should be, or descriptive and tell what already is?

Words are funny. There is no 'lead' in a lead pencil. A 'Jerusalem Artichoke' does not come from Jerusalem and neither is it an artichoke. 'Kiwifruits' come from China. When Sherlock Holmes proclaims to Watson that 'the problem is most singluar' he does not mean that there is only 'one' problem. When you go to the fridges in the newsagent for an ice cream a 'Golden Gaytime' has considerably different connotations to when it was released in 1959. I have even overheard youths on the train refer to their new 'kicks' as being 'fully sick' and 'awesome' at the same time and that to me conjures up a mental picture of a very large lake of vomit.
Think about this. A Bicorn is the sort of thing that you'd find on the head of Napoleon and a Tricorn can be sometimes found on the head of Jack Sparrow. I own a Cheese Cutter, a Bowler, a Pork Pie and I would like to have a Stovepipe. Have I made my point by now?

The translators group in 1604 was probably looking for a word to stand in place of a 'thing with horn/s' which was in common usage, in a language which at the time was still not standardised even from region to region upon that sceptred isle and had to be readily understood by everyone. A 1604 'unicorn' is almost certainly not the same as a 2014 'unicorn'; which by now has come to settle on something quite specific.
Probably in 1604, their 'unicorn' encompassed a large group of horned animals which upon reflection also included rhinoceroses, which are served very well indeed by that name.
Proverbs 30 for instance contains a word which even in modern English is either rendered as a 'hyrax' or a 'rock badger', a word which thanks to Hebrew's lack of vowels could either be a spider or a lizard and a phrase which is kind of uncertain.
The word 'bull' is used 155 times in the New International Version. Here's the really odd thing though: male cows, seals, alligators, buffalo, whales, gnus, elephants, moose, chinchillas cats, reindeer, could all be properly be called 'bulls' and yet in common usage, when we talk about being 'gored by bulls' everyone knows what you are talking about unless you talk about herding them.

Almost certainly and in the spirit that the comment was made, this was a point of trivia as if to say "ooh look, isn't this interesting?" but equally there are people in the world who would use something like this as a point of ridicule.
I think that questioning everything is a noble pursuit; even more noble though is to bother to find out the answers to those questions because merely asking them without caring what the answer is, is altogether pointless. Despite this, posterity will serve Him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!


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