Thee, Thou, Thy: Preference or Principle?

Frontispiece to the King James Bible, 1611, sh...

Frontispiece of the 1611 King James Bible

The LORDE is my shepherde, I can wante nothinge. He fedeth me in a grene pasture, and ledeth me to a fresh water. He quickeneth my soule, & bringeth me forth in the waye of rightuousnes for his names sake. Though I shulde walk now in the valley of the shadowe of death, yet I feare no euell, for thou art with me; thy staffe & thy shepehoke comforte me. (Psalm 23:1-4, 1535 Coverdale Bible)

A year or so ago, I ran across an article by a gentleman who claimed that pronouns like “thee, thou, and thy” are more appropriate for Christian worship than the Modern English pronoun “you.” Reading it carried me back to an occasion almost twenty years ago when I sat in a meeting of our denomination’s Synod as a presbyter attempted to argue that it is more reverent and respectful for us to use Middle English pronouns when we address God in prayer and praise than to use Modern English words.  

Then, as now, my reaction was, where does this idea come from?  

Does it actually fit the available data to argue that thee, thou, thy, thine, etc. are pronouns that reflect greater respect for God than “you” does?  

Thee, Thou, etc. Are the Proper Pronouns to Use When Addressing Persons to Whom We Owe Honor and Respect; You is for Talking to Equals or Inferiors

The obvious place to go to test this idea is the King James Bible. The KJV (the Bible version of my youth) is probably the most influential literary work in English, closely followed in importance by the works of Shakespeare (who died only a few years after the publication of the KJV). Where better to look in order to sort out this thou/you question?  

Eschewing my Bible study software, I took out my low-tech paper copy of Strong’s Concordance to examine some evidence.  

Genesis 3:11-19 – And he [God] said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

This certainly doesn’t support our hypothesis: the Creator is addressing Adam, Eve, and the Serpent with “thou.” After scanning some other passages in Genesis and finding no support for it, I decided to jump to a Gospel.  

Matthew 26:33-35 – Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended. Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples.

This too points in the opposite direction: Peter addresses Jesus with “thee,” and Jesus responds to his disciple in kind. Perhaps an epistle will save our hypothesis?  

2 Timothy 1:3-6 – I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day; Greatly desiring to see thee, being mindful of thy tears, that I may be filled with joy; When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also. Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands.

Paul addresses Timothy with pronouns that (according to our hypothesis) are supposed to be reserved for those to whom we owe respect – not our equals or our inferiors.  

Looking around the internet, I found this link from retired English instructor Michael Cummings, who claims that thee, thou, etc., were used to address one’s inferiors. Our hypothesis seems to be taking it on the chin.  

Still, one can find anything on the Internet — so I decided to hold out for a more authoritative information source. Remembering that I once received Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage as a gift, I turned there, hoping for an authoritative answer, and lo, there it was. The entry on “thou” reads, in part:  

“Thou was once the common form of the second person singular pronoun. In other words, it was once normal to address another person as “thou.” In the period of Middle English, however, thou (and the related forms thee, thy, and thine) was gradually replaced by the plural you (and your), first in addressing a person of high social rank (as in “your Majesty”) and later in addressing a social equal. Thou was used only in speaking to a person of inferior social position, such as a servant, and it was eventually superseded by you even in this use.”  

Apparently, the writers of the KJV did not think they were using special pronouns in addressing the Lord God – they were using pronouns of familiarity. Our hypothesis is backwards: if anything, the Elizabethan pronoun of respect was “you!”  

So Where Did We Get This Idea From, Anyway?

How have a not-inconsiderable number of 20th- (and now, 21st-) century Christians come to believe (and argue) that one shows the highest respect for God by addressing him with “thou?” Lacking time to research this peculiar error closely, I must offer what I hope is an educated guess.  

It seems likely that the King James Version, though it does not actually use “thou” in this way, must, by virtue of its great success, partly bear blame for this misconception. The beauty of the translation cannot be denied; the KJV managed to remain the de facto ecumenical translation of the Bible in English until (arguably) some time in the 20th century. The “thees” and “thous” of the King James (which go all the way back to the 14th-century Wycliffe version) influenced the set liturgies of many English-speaking churches. Many people came to associate the language of the KJV with the way one talks to God.  

So although I haven’t been a Methodist for decades, I can still remember: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed against thy Divine majesty. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us.” I haven’t used that liturgy in years, but there are still echoes of the King James in my head when I read modern Bible translations (this may explain why I like P.G. Wodehouse so much).  

Perhaps because of the influence of the KJV on Protestant liturgy and poesy, many Christians associate “thee” and “thou” with worship language, so much so that we have come to deceive ourselves into believing that they are the most respectful ways to say “you.”  

But surely not all the blame can fall on the KJV. After all, the goal of the translators of the KJV was to prepare a translation of the Holy Bible in the vernacular. They made this plain in their preface when they wrote,  

“Now what can be more available thereto, than to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they can understand?”  

The KJV, which we perhaps assume dropped into the scene out of nowhere, was really the seventh of a series of English translations done over less than a century, each of which had among its goals the improved availability of the Bible in the common tongue.  

It would be instructive to know why the translators of the KJV decided not to follow Coverdale’s rendering of Psalm 23, with which this post begins. When the KJV translators started their work, fewer than 70 years had passed since Coverdale, the first printed English Bible. My own hunch is this: they did not follow Coverdale closely here because English orthography had changed and because 17th –century English people did not know what a “shepehoke” was.  

A major emphasis of the Protestant Reformers was their commitment to having worship and the Scriptures in the “vulgar tongue.” God’s Word does not change, but language does. The translators of the KJV understood this, and although they were instructed to hew as closely as possible to the wording of previous English Bible translations, they sought to produce a Bible that did not use hopelessly archaic language.  

What we sometimes do with the language of the KJV makes it into something it was never intended to be: specialized, non-idiomatic language for talking to God.  

Thus, our hypothesis ignores the facts. There is no ground for arguing that these pronouns were used in the KJV because they denoted reverence for God. Somehow, in our collective imagination over the centuries, we fabricated that idea out of whole cloth. If anything, the use of “thee” and “thou” might even have reflected an implicit understanding of God’s great condescension in revealing Himself to us through his written Word and through the Living Word, Jesus Christ.  

We don’t use “thee” and “thou” to address others (not counting the Quakers), except in jest or in poetry, and we haven’t done so since before the American Revolution. On what ground should we be made to feel obliged to address God in that manner? Surely not on the basis of the KJV, which uses the familiar pronouns of the age in addressing God?  

Yet one still sometimes encounters the argument that these forms should be used in order to honor God. The great danger here, I think, is that of making a preference into a principle. If someone says, “I think the language of the KJV is majestic, and there is a specialness in the use of archaic pronouns,” that is a sentiment with which I am in substantial agreement. But to move from saying, “I love the sound of archaic language” to saying, “Christians who don’t address God with ancient pronouns are not paying him sufficient honor,” makes preference into principle, and this is dangerous: surely we should not give our preferences the kind of authority that belongs to God alone.  

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2 Responses to Thee, Thou, Thy: Preference or Principle?

  1. J Spear says:

    “Thou” is always a subject pronoun: “Thou art my God.”
    “Thee” is always an object pronoun: “In Thee I put my trust.”
    There is no number implied by either of the words, singular or plural. They may be used for either one person or for a group: “Thou shalt not kill” is ambiguously addressed to each of us as individuals and to all of us as a group.
    I believe that Calvin said the scriptures should be addressed to the believer “in the language of the heart.”

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