Computer models and the readability of the KJV

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
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An increasingly popular claim among some King James Only circles is that computer models have proven the KJV to actually be more readable than modern translations. They insist that all the people who have chosen modern translations over the King James Version because they wanted a Bible that was easier to read have been misled. The KJV is, they say, the more readable Bible because it scores at a lower reading level on computer models like the Flesch-Kincaid scale. I believe most if not all of the King James Only advocates using this argument are sincere and really believe what they are saying, but they have misunderstood the data for lack of knowledge on how these computer models work. The fact of the matter is, the KJV is much harder for the average modern reader than pretty much any modern translation. One does not need a computer to tell them this. They simply need to pick up a KJV and pick up a modern Bible and give both an honest read.

How the Tests Work

These computer models don't actually "read" the text. They can't gauge how comprehensibly the words are assembled into meaningful sentences. Instead, the models assume that the document is written in comprehensible modern English. Taking this for granted, they count the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word and, using a carefully designed equation, plug that information in to assign the document a score. Documents with many words per sentence and many syllables per word are scored at a higher (i.e., more difficult) reading level than those with only a few words per sentence and a few syllables per word. They do not take into account vocabulary, grammar, syntax, punctuation systems, or any number of other factors that influence the ease or difficulty for a real flesh-and-blood person to read a document. Take, for example, the following sentences:

  1. Seventeen enormous blubbery walruses parachuted over seventy excited violet ostriches
  2. Abject, bethink thy ways lest thou fall by botch and ague.

Both sentences have a similar number of words. So, which is more readable? Even my five-year-old could understand sentence one. She would not stand a chance at sentence two. Yet, based on the standards used in the computer models for determining reading levels, the second sentence is more readable. Why? Because it is composed of only one and two syllable words while the first sentence is made up of mostly three-syllable words with even one four-syllable word. Yet, "parachuted" is actually clearer to us than "ague." We understand "violet," but we're not so sure on "bethink." We know what "enormous" means, but if we use the word "botch" at all, we use it with a completely different meaning than it holds in this sentence. So, while the methods used in the computer model would assign sentence two a lower (i.e., easier) reading level, clearly sentence one is actually the more readable.

Similarly, phrases like "her hap was to light on," (Ruth 2:3, KJV) are self evidently less clear than "she happened to come to," (NASB), even if the computers seem to disagree. The KJV's "the wicked doth compass about the righteous," (Habakkuk 1:4, KJV) is obviously not as readable as "the wicked surround the righteous," (NASB). The computer tests were not designed to detect obscure vocabulary or obsolete expressions.

As an example, I ran the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) through the Flesch-Kincaid test in both the KJV and the West Saxon Gospels of 990 AD, which are written in a much earlier form of English. They scored as fairly equally readable. Yet, everyone reading this article would agree that the KJV's "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth," (Matthew 5:5) is infinitely clearer and more readable than the West Saxon Gospels' reading of "Eadige synt þa ðe nu wepað. forþam þe hï beoð gefrefrede," (Matthew 5:5). The computer models have no idea that all those words are now nonsense to modern English readers. They are not designed to actually read the content. Dr. Mark Ward similarly points out:

"the Swedish translation of the book of James has a Flesch-Kincaid score of 6.3, while the KJV score for that same book is 7.3. But even I, dumb as I am compared to a computer, can tell you that the KJV is easier for twenty-first-century Americans to read than the Svenska Folkbibeln."1

The point here is not to say that the computer models are deceptive, inaccurate, or useless. The point is simply that they were not designed to compare modern English with Elizabethan or other earlier forms of English. They assume the text is in modern English and go from there. If used in that context, they can be a valuable tool in comparing contemporary books to one another, but these tests cannot accurately evaluate the KJV, much less compare it to modern translations. Again, the tests assume modern English.

Grammar and Syntax

The problem with evaluating the readability of the KJV goes beyond just the matter of vocabulary. It's not just an issue of the words. What order the words go in to make a sentence or how those words are then used in various expressions also greatly influences our ability to read it. Thus, for example, consider the phrase:

"For then will I turn to the people a pure language," (Zephaniah 3:9, KJV).

There are no strange terms here. Each word is quite familiar. Yet, this is phrased in such a way that it is hard to work out the precise meaning. It is certainly not as readable as:

"For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language," (Zephaniah 3:9, NKJV).

Likewise, take the verse:

"Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil," (Psalm 37:8, KJV).

Again, we know all the words, but the way they are put together here is so alien to the way we speak today that it is hard to make sense of it. In contrast, we have no trouble reading it as:

"Cease from anger and forsake wrath; Do not fret; it leads only to evildoing," (Psalm 37:8, NASB).

"Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil," (Psalm 37:8, NIV).

The words are only slightly different, but they are put together using conventions of grammar and syntax that make much more sense to us. The KJV is not wrong here, but it is certainly much less readable. As conventions for word order, sentence structure, and rules of grammar have changed over the last 400 years, expressions that would have been plain and clear in 1611 are now much harder to read, and the computer models used to determine reading levels cannot detect these issues. That's not what they were designed to address.

The same can be said for punctuation. Things we take for granted today like quotation marks were not in common use in the 17th century and thus are not present in the KJV. What's more, symbols we do use today like semi-colons and commas had a different range of meaning then than now. Thus, while these marks as they are used in the KJV made total sense in the Elizabethan era, today they are not always helpful and sometimes become outright misleading. Nothing in the Flesch-Kincaid calculations or similar computer models takes such things into account.

Even naming conventions seem inconsistent by today's standard. Is the prophet named Jeremiah, Jeremias, or Jeremy? In the KJV, it depends on which verse you are reading. By the 19th-century, this type of thing was already confusing to readers, so much so that Joseph Smith (the false prophet and founder of Mormonism) mistakenly believed from his reading in the KJV that "Elijah" and "Elias" were two different biblical prophets!2 To be clear, the KJV's naming inconsistencies do not constitute an "error." It was Smith's misreading of the KJV that was in error. Still, they do represent an unnecessary complication in readability. By cleaning up the naming conventions, modern translations avoid even the possibility of these kinds of reading mistakes. By itself, this would be a very small matter. But combined with so many other challenging elements, it helps to make the KJV even more difficult for the average English-speaker on the street today.

Conclusion

Computer models are not equipped to compare the KJV with modern translations and tell us which is more readable, nor do we need them to! We can simply pick up a few Bibles and read them ourselves and it will become quickly apparent which ones are easiest to read. The fact of the matter is, many people today are choosing to shift from the KJV to a newer translation precisely because they couldn't make sense of the KJV and found the modern translations more readable. Telling them that they do, in fact, understand the KJV better because the experts or computer models say so is not very convincing. Whatever the "score" is, one translation clearly makes more sense than the other. There are good reasons a Christian might read the KJV. It is still one of the translations I use myself! But it is not more readable, at least not to the average 21st-century layman.

  • 1. Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018) Kindle Locations 895-897
  • 2. Doctrine and Covenants 110:12-14