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Old English Inflections

Inflections lost or softened

Old English (OE), which is essentially German; or, as some call it, Anglo-Saxon (AS), was highly inflected; but, after 1066, as a result of the mixing of Norman French with the native English, many of the Germanic inflections were lost or softened. An example is the German (OE) suffix -en. This inflection designates a pair: an ox, teamed with another ox, forms oxen. Few of these inflected words survived the Norman (French) washout; but there are yet some found in the KJV.

Inflections typically dramatize the base word, revealing gender, or the immediacy of the time, or possession. For example, in modern German, the inflection of the definite article, emphasizes the noun’s gender: Die (female), Der (male), Das (neutral). Comparing to Modern English, this same definite article is simply The (no gender revealed, washed out). Today, we commonly inflect a word with an apostrophe to show possession, and add an -s as a suffix to show multiple objects, and so on; but, some of the original inflections have dropped out of our colloquialisms.

Now to certain examples:

In Acts 13:36, the KJV translators chose to reach back and use a certain OE variation of sleep:

“For David…fell on sleep….and saw corruption…”

Fell on sleep is an OE inflected term; it has since been replaced by a ‘softer’ a sleep or asleep. It’s interesting that here they used an OE expression, when they had been using the more modern form:

“And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60).

Why? Why did they do this, here and only here? There are no mistakes; God reveals truth to those who study with faith and confidence. The inflection “on sleep” is more emphatic than simply “asleep.” And, by reviewing the context, it is

surely more dramatic! Fleshly corruption of the patriarch David occurred; He fell hard on death and was consumed. That’s the brutal truth. However, by contrast, and according to the promise of Scripture, Christ did not. Such a stark contrast! The more dramatic “on sleep” is fitting and dovetails perfectly with the theme.

The account of Steven’s death (Acts 7) was not to emphasize the corruption and fullness of his death, it was only part of a bigger narrative: the softer and modern asleep is fine. Besides, unlike the Old Testament David, he died after the appearance of the incorruptible Jesus, with aclear view of the resurrection. So, while the Bible was truly written in Early Modern English, there are some words and forms from earlier centuries employed to paint a clearer picture in our mind. Fascinating!

Old English Inflections

Here are a few more examples. This inflected word emphasizes the immediacy of the time, the dramatic events of the moment:

“Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing” (John 21:3).

Notice “I go a fishing.” Was Peter a hillbilly? (Well, what you a thinkin?!!)

Again, an OE inflection was brought back into a Modern English Bible. Why? Recall, inflections modify words and often emphasize moods or time. In this case, the immediacy of the disciple’s decision is revealed: “They went forth, and entered into the ship immediately…” (John 21:3). Immediately! If it were recorded as ‘I go fishing,’ then the immediacy, the emphasis of the right-here and-now would be lost.


And another:

“By faith Jacob, when he was a dying…” (Hebrews 11:21).

Notice he was a dying. Also note in the next sentence, “…when he died...” is not inflected. Again, we ask ourselves, ‘what are they showing us here?’ The answer is similar to the ‘a fishing’ recorded in John 21: The inflection, a dying, dramatizes the immediacy, the timing (and the mood) of his death. His death was the next thing to do, there was an urgency to complete the blessing, for his time was about to expire:

“And the time drew nigh that Israel must die…” (Genesis 47:29).

Notice the time didn’t draw near; it drew nigh. (Nothing else, nothing between he and his death). There is a sense of urgency or immediacy in Jacob’s desire to bless the children. His dying should be inflected! A dying. He couldn’t postpone it to another day!

Truly, Old English (and Middle English) contributes to this Modern English Bible (the KJV). And, instead of seeing these terms with a doubtful eye, or dismissing them as erroneous, consider the happy challenges of unlocking the overt code of the KJV, and the blessing of clear revelation!

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