Monthly Archives: February 2012

Teach Thyself Olde Englishe

You often hear people say they don’t like the King James Version of the Bible because of the archaic language—the thee’s and thou’s.  But this is the very reason—at least one of the reasons—I love the KJV.  (There are also reasons I don’t like it, but that’s a story for another day.) The Bible has hidden riches that it takes the usage of the pronouns thee and thou to find.  In subsequent posts on A Mending Feast I hope to bring some of these riches out, so felt I needed to lay this groundwork first.

In modern English we use the pronoun you for both singular and plural, but in the KJV thee and thou are always singular pronouns and you is always plural, a distinction none of the modern versions is able to give us.

So even if you use one of the modern versions I highly recommend becoming familiar with the KJV.  Read it slowly, and carefully, and pay close attention to this usage.  I have found the following article helpful.  It was put together a few years ago by Ron Bailey of Reading, England (one of the best Bible teachers around, in my estimation).  Some of the content, particularly the chart he uses, is from: http://dan.tobias.name/frivolity/archaic-grammar.html

Teach Thyself Olde Englishe (by Ron Bailey, 2005)

Why should anyone bother with such an archaic concept? Well, some may just be curious, but there are occasions when the switch from thou to you is quite significant.

For example: “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32 KJV).

In this setting the Lord includes Simon in a larger group of those whom Satan had desired: you; but assures him of His personal prayer on his behalf: thou.

Or moving in the opposite direction: “And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? And he said, Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain” (Exo 3:11-12 KJV).

In this setting the Lord is speaking personally to Moses with the repeated pronoun thou, but His promise is that not only Moses but all the people (ye) will serve God upon the mountain.  It is not really possible to convey these ideas in modern English, and as the languages that God used to convey His revelation, both Hebrew and Greek, had thou and thee as well as ye and you it is sometimes good to get as close as we can to the original ideas.

This chart should help you to sort it out a little better:

Subjective (nominative)

Objective (accusative)

Possessive (genitive)

Verb Ending

Irregular Verbs

1st Person Singular

I me my, mine 1 none am

2nd Person Singular

thou thee thy, thine 1 -est art, hast, dost, shalt, wilt

3rd Person Singular

he, she, it him, her, it his, her/hers, its -eth is, hath, doth

1st Person Plural

we us our, ours none are

2nd Person Plural

ye 2 you your, yours none are

3rd Person Plural

they them their, theirs none are

Chart notes:

1. My/mine and thy/thine were used similarly to a/an; my and thy preceded a word beginning with a consonant sound, while mine and thine preceded a word beginning with a vowel sound.
2. Note that ye is the nominative and you is the accusative, which is counterintuitive given that thou/thee go the opposite way. When town criers yelled, “Hear Ye!” the ye in question is the subject, not the object, of the hearing. Also note that using ye in place of the, as in, “Ye olde candye shoppe,” is incorrect; this derives from a mistaken interpretation of an archaic spelling of the using a former runic letter later replaced by th; this letter kind of resembled a lowercase y, and when printing was invented, early printers, lacking the already-obsolete letter in their movable type, sometimes used a y for it when transcribing old documents.

Familiar and Formal Forms of Address

To further complicate the use of pronouns, English in the period in question made a distinction in second-person pronouns depending on whether you were addressing somebody in a familiar or formal mode. This concept is familiar to students of other languages that have such forms of address, like the distinction between tu and usted in Spanish. Actually, the usage of vous in French best parallels the forms of address in medieval English.  It’s a second-person plural pronoun that’s also used in the singular when addressing somebody in a formal way.

The singular pronouns thou and thee were considered “familiar,” meaning that they were appropriate for use among close friends and family.  When addressing somebody who was not so close, however, the use of thou or thee implied that you regarded them as being of lower social class than you were, and hence was definitely inappropriate when addressing your social superiors.  People could be punished for contempt of court for addressing a judge in this manner, for instance.  To address somebody outside the circle of familiarity in a respectful way, especially when they were of higher social class or in a position of power, ye and you were used, even though the addressee was singular rather than plural.

This is the opposite of what we often expect. Some people like the sound of thee because they think it makes God sound more majestic and dignified. In fact, thou is much more intimate than you in King James Version English, and you would have been much more dignified and majestic.  Thee brings you “closer” to God than you did. This is one of the reasons that thou has survived in romantic poetry.  During Sir Walter Raleigh’s trial one of his accusers became exasperated with him and tried to humiliate him with the phrase “I, thou thee, sir.”  It is quite unintelligible to modern ears, but his accuser in refusing to give Raleigh his proper courtesy pronoun of you, was relegating him to the position of a servant boy who would have been addressed as thou.

The Quaker use of thee and thou was a refusal to give to ordinary people the status that you implied. They regarded the use of you to a single person as assisting the single person’s pride and aspirations to grandeur, and would not be part of this. They refused to doff their hats for the same reason. Eventually, with the rise of more egalitarian philosophies in contrast to the rigid hierarchies of feudalism, having two different forms of address was regarded as excess baggage, and you reached its modern usage with no distinction of familiar or formal, singular or plural, or nominative or accusative. This was already true by the time that the King James Version was translated, so the translators use of thee, thou,
ye was a conscious but already archaic choice.

Ron Bailey, 2005

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