[Part 2] I picked up one of Bill Bryson's old books, Mother Tongue, which gives a comprehensible and entertaining account of "English and how it got that way." This is of interest to Mormons, of course, because antiquarian formulations of the King's English live on in contemporary Mormon culture by way of the King James Version, the Book of Mormon, and Mormon prayer-speak. For deep background, go read the Wikipedia article English Language and related entries. I'll give a general summary up to the KJV in this post (pulling most of my material from chapter 4 of Bryson's book), then consider KJV grammar, BoM grammar, and prayer grammar in later posts.
1. Development. Modern English conjugates verbs but doesn't decline its nouns or inflect its adjectives. So the form of the verb changes with subject (I write, you write, he writes) and with tense (I write, I wrote, I have written) but the form of the noun doesn't change whether it's a subject (The book is long), an object (I read the book), something possessed (my book), or the focus of a command (Drop the book!), and adjectives don't change for plurals (we say red cars, not reds cars). This invariance of nouns and adjectives is a real advantage for English.
But it wasn't always this way. Old English, the language of Beowulf, inflected its verbs and nouns, but after the Norman conquest English became the language of peasants and commoners, while the Norman dialect of French ("Anglo-Norman") became the language of the rulers and the aristorcratic class. As a result, English got simpler, incorporated many Anglo-Norman words (e.g., jury, felony, marriage, sovereign, parlaiment), and became (by the 12th century) Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Maybe "streamlined" is a better term for the process.
Rather than being displaced by Anglo-Norman, English rather surprisingly persisted, then reasserted itself, and by the late 16th century emerged as Modern English. Thou knowest, I am sure, that Shakespeare and the King James Bible are examples of Early Modern English. We can read Hamlet or the KJV and have a pretty good idea of what is being said, although footnotes or a glossary are often handy.
2. Details. Dialect features competed for inclusion in "national" English, and the dialect spoken in London generally truimphed. But the southern practice of ending present-tense verbs in -th (loveth) displaced the London practice of ending in -n (loven). Later, the northern practice of ending these verbs in -s or -es (loves) prevailed.
A jumble of pronouns emerged. They was borrowed from the Vikings who settled in England. Until about 1600, his was used for possession where we now use its. Thou for second person singular (along with related forms thee, thy, and thine) was in decline, but lasted through Shakespeare and the KJV. Quoting Bryson: "Originally thou was to you as in French tu is to vous. Thou signified either close familiarity or social inferiority, while you was the more impersonal and general term" (p. 64).
Thus the Early Modern English of Shakespeare and the KJV was still a language in transition. That allowed Shakespeare a great deal of poetic license but caused KJV scholars a good deal of anxiety and made for many awkward constructions. As we shall see in the next installment.