So how did early modern English (the development of which was reviewed in Part 1) actually work in the King James Bible? What forms of grammar and language were used by the translators of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)? My primary source in the following discussion is chapter 11 of Alister McGrath's In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Doubleday, 2001). We're working up toward looking (in later posts) at how KJV language got carried forward into the Book of Mormon and into Mormon prayerspeak.
The KJV Translation Method
In retrospect, the KJV was a cultural milestone that gave permanent eloquence to the English language. But the translators who gave us the KJV had no such purpose in mind: they were just trying to create an accurate and usable translation of the Bible. The translators did not follow a fixed word translation style, but were free to employ different English words for the same Hebrew or Greek word if context or style would make that a better rendition of a word or phrase into English. This gave translators the freedom to avoid some otherwise clumsy phrasings.
On the other hand, the approach was quite literal in rendering Hebrew idioms and word order into parallel English phrases, however odd the result. It appears less odd to us now than it did to 17th-century readers: "As a result of centuries of use, many Hebraic phrases and idioms have become so common in normal English use that most modern English speakers are unaware of their biblical origins" (p. 259). For example, to lick the dust, sour grapes, to stand in awe, like a lamb to the slaugher, and many other phrases are all familiar to us now. Not all such literal renderings of idiomatic phrases have become familiar, and the unfamiliar ones offer some of the more puzzling phrases we all run across from time to time in the KJV (see here for one example).
Archaic Forms of Speaking
Surprisingly, these forms "were already becoming archaic in the standard English of the first decade of the seventeenth century" (p. 265). But it was a conservative translation and adopted much of the wording and style of earlier English Bible translations, so the KJV sounded a little odd even to its first readers. There are three main archaic forms retained in the KJV.
1. Thee and Thou. The second-person singular pronouns used in the KJV are thou (as a subject), thee (as an object), and thy or thine (as a possessive pronoun). Once upon a time, these were simply the singular forms, with ye, you, and your being the plural forms. But the French conquest of England gradually imposed French pronoun practices on English, so using the plural you (like the French vous) became a sign of respect, whereas thou was used within families, toward social inferiors, or even as an insult. Even more interesting is the pronunciation of ye. "[T]here is substantial evidence to suggest that they [ye and you] were pronounced virtually identically" (p. 267).
So why did the KJV use thee and thou to refer to God? It is suggested this was out of respect, and that modern religious speech should likewise adopt this practice of addressing God with thee and thou. McGrath rejects this proposal for two reasons (p. 268-69). First, the KJV uses thee and thou for Satan and human beings as well as God, so it was just reflecting standard speech of the 16th century (a century before the KJV was published), not some special form of respectful speech. Second, using thee and thou to address another was, if anything, used to express disrespect to an inferior, not respect to a superior. McGrath suggests that thee and thou were retained in the KJV because those were the forms used in earlier English Bibles and because the KJV translators were instructed to retain as much continuity with earlier versions as they could.
2. Verb Endings. In the KJV, the second-person and third-person present tense verb endings are different. So thou sayest and he sayeth appears where, in modern English, we would use you say and he says. There are also some irregular forms that tax the modern ear, such as thou hast (for the modern you have) and thou didst (for the modern you did). Interestingly, a close reading of Shakespeare, roughly contemporary with the KJV, shows he used both -th and -s endings for the third-person. Shakespeare also used the variants hath and doth for the third-person case. Kids, try this on your next high school English essay to start a fun conversation with your teacher.
Again, pronunciation is distinct from orthography. "[T]here is strong evidence that, while the older "eth" ending continued to be written, it was pronounced as if it were "-s" (p. 272). So maybe all our laborious "eths" in Sunday School are misguided? English, you may have noticed, is not phonetic, so the language can change pronunciation, even dramatically, while written words remain unchanged. As a result, how we pronounce Englsih words often has little to do with how we write them, probably the most challenging aspect of the language to foreigners. So new and knew sound alike despite the clear presence of a "k" in the second word, and a similar and unexplainable mystery consonant appears before the "n" in words like pneumatic, gnarly, and mnemonic.
3. The Missing Its. In modern English, confusion between it's (the contraction of it is) and its (the third-person neuter possessive pronoun) seems to be the number one grammatical error people make. The apostrophe just throws people. I'm sure this secret was confined to high school English teachers until blogging took off, but now we all know. Here's a surprise for you: the KJV does not use its as a possessive pronoun. Its was still something of a newfangled invention in the early 17th century, and using it in the Bible of all places would just have been off-putting to too many readers. So there ain't no its in the KJV.
So how did the KJV get by without an its? Sometimes it just used his, as in the following: Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? Other times it used the term thereof, such as in: A cubit shall be the length thereof. Using LDS.org, I did locate one and only one verse in the Bible using its: That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land. (Lev. 25:5). Now there's a trivia answer that will impress your friends someday.