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The Bible through the Ages

Professor Jim Law studies the evolution of French using Bible translations.

Language grows, shifts, morphs, and stretches itself into new shapes over time. These changes aren’t a bad thing; they’re just the result of the shifting needs and desires of the speakers of a language. But these changes can make it tricky to accurately understand what a text from a few hundred years ago was trying to say. Assistant Professor Jim Law (Historical Linguistics) is conducting research into changes in the French language using one of the few texts that continues to be read and translated over time: the Bible.

“No text has been translated as early or as often as the Bible,” says Law. This makes it the perfect sounding board to test for changes in language. Studying various historical texts would have been useful, but since the words and meaning shift from one text to another, it becomes difficult to look for linguistic changes. The consistency in intended meaning in the Bible allows Law to dig into the specific changes between translations. He says, “My main research interest is on how the vocabulary of a language changes—why we replace words with other words and why words changed their meanings.”

Since Law is looking at a variety of older Bible manuscripts, he needs to digitize them to facilitate a large-scale comparison between translations. Law says, “My ultimate goal, and it will take a few years, is to make up a parallel corpus where you can pull up a particular verse and see how that verse was translated in the 13th century, how it was translated in the 15th century, how it was translated in the 17th century, and compare.”

A page from the Bible, the top part is an illustration of each day of the Creation, and the bottom image is a big illuminated letter C showing God looking down from above as the Bible is written.
A page from the French Bible. The top image is an illustration of each day of the Creation, and the bottom image is a big illuminated letter C showing God looking down from above as the Bible is written.

Law has recruited students from his class French 432: History of French to help translate sections of text. The process has been tricky due to how Old French was written. Three straight lines in a row could be one of a dozen letter combinations containing m, n, i, v, or u. The way certain letters were written would change based on what letter came before or after them. The initial translations will have to be done by hand, but later on a translation algorithm will help Law and his students on their way to making a corpus.

Regarding student involvement, Law says, “I've gotten a lot of comments from students about how rewarding it is to analyze a text that they’re already so familiar with and that’s already so meaningful to them. Realizing that this same text that is so important in their lives was also important in the lives of people in France, hundreds of years ago, is impactful.

Law says that the research could take up to four years to complete, but that he’s ready for the challenge. Next time you pick up a book of scripture, take a moment to ponder the significance of the words on the page. The stories in between the lines are just as rich as the ones at the surface.