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Thee and Thou—and the Great Pronoun Famine

“I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”
—John 17:14-16, KJV

Long, long ago, and in a country on the other side of the sea, they made a modern-language translation of the Bible that we call the King James Version or the Authorised Version. Of course, because of the passage of time, it isn’t modern any more. Some of the pronouns have become so archaic that many people don’t know what they mean or how to use them.

Language changes with time, as you know. When I was little, our teachers used to caution us against saying that things were swell. Shortly after that, swell was replaced by nifty and then by keen. Today, things are neither swell nor nifty nor keen (not even peachy keen), they are neat or cool, or even rad or phat. Most of you can remember such changes, because slang is the part of language that changes the fastest.

Religious language is the slowest to change. The most familiar example of this is in the Roman Catholic church: at one point in its history it switched from Greek to Latin because that was the language of its people, but it continued to use Latin centuries after it ceased to be a spoken language. (When the Roman Church switched to vernacular languages, it paradoxically became more conservative because that was the reason for changing to Latin in the first place!)

Back then, the English language had a full set of personal pronouns, and here they are in a handy table. It shows English personal pronouns as they existed at the time of the King James Bible. The ones that differ from today are darker and in italics.

Singular Plural
Subject Object Possessive Predicate Subject Object Possessive Predicate
I Me My Mine We Us Our Ours
Thou Thee Thy Thine Ye You Your Yours
He Him His His
She Her Her Hers They Them Their Theirs
It It His His

Notice that the word its hadn’t been invented yet. The word his was the possessive form of both he and it.

The word thou (and its forms thee, thy and thine) were used wherever we would say you to indicate only one person, and ye and you were only plural in meaning. We lost the singular, so we stretched the plural to include the singular, and that makes a lot of stuff ambiguous. It’s particularly troublesome if you are upset at a store when you are trying to return defective merchandise. You say, “Your policy is mean-spirited,” and the employee says, “I didn’t make the policy,” and you say, “I don’t mean you personally, I am talking about your store.” Awkward.

You has slipped over into thou’s position and primarily has singular meaning today. We have to improvise a plural form to clear up the ambiguity. We haven’t settled on a solution. My grandmother used to say you for one person, and youse (rhymes with use ) for the plural. To one person, she’d say, “If I had known you was coming, I’d have baked a cake,” but if she was talking to a group, she’d say, “If I had known youse was coming, I’d have baked a cake.” In restaurants in my area, they use you guys as the plural of you. They say, “Are you guys ready for dessert?” even if it’s a woman addressing a group of women at a table. The southern states of the United States are famous for using y’all as the plural of you. People trying to fake a southern accent say “y’all” to an individual, which a true southerner would never do. “You are a person,” but “Y’all are a group.”

Eventually, English will develop a second-person plural pronoun, but until we reach a consensus, the great pronoun famine continues.

In the King James Bible, when Jesus says thou or thee, He is talking to one person, and when He says ye or you, He is talking to a group. Here is how the second-person pronouns were used in sentences:

Thou wast in the next room. (one person, subject)
Ye were in the next room. (several people, subject)
I saw thee in the next room. (one person, object)
I saw you in the next room (several people, object)
That is thy room. (one person, possessive)
That is your room. (several people, possessive)
That room is thine. (one person, predicate possessive)
That room is yours. (several people, predicate possessive)

Notice also that ye was used instead of you whenever it was the subject of the verb, and that thou took an st ending on the verb, much like he, she, or it takes an s ending today. (Incidentally, the th ending on verbs was pronounced s in King James’ day. After that, the spelling eventually followed suit.)

Because today the pronoun thou and its forms are no longer used, many people misunderstand their meaning and misuse their forms, so when they try to use thou in an extemporaneous public prayer, they mangle the grammar badly enough to send knowledgeable people into hysterical giggles. Why do they try to use thou? Because they only encounter it in old translations of the Bible and they think it is somehow holy and ethereal to use it. In fact, thou was the pronoun that was used to address an adult friend, a spouse, a child, a dog, or a pig, and since it was had the connotation of intimacy, it was used to address God.

Before long, the word you crowded out thou altogether, and people started addressing even pigs and cows and chickens with the word you, which would have caused great mirth among our ancestors. You might say to your pet dog, “Hey, dog; do you want to go out?” but to our ancestors that would sound like “Mr. Dog, Sir, would you like to go out?” They would have said, “Dog, dost thou want to go out?” which is appropriately informal.

The use of thou and its forms in the King James Bible seem to us to be formal, sublime, ethereal, and holy; but to the translators and original readers, if it had any connotation at all, it connoted a cozy familiarity. After all, formality ill-befits a Savior who addressed God as Daddy (Abba), and enjoined us to do the same.

The first edition of the New American Standard Bible retained thou and its forms as the pronoun used in addressing God. It does this because you expect holy language to contain thees and thous. But in doing so, they give you a completely wrong impression about the tone of many passages, including the one I quoted above. In Greek, Jesus is not using any special religious pronoun, just the normal, familiar form of address. That is why the lastest edition of the New American Standard Bible no longer uses thou.

Should you use thee and thou in prayer? In my opinion, only if you know how. If you feel the need to speak in ungrammatical, stilted, and archaic English to God, then I would reexamine the relationship. How would you like to have a friend who only speaks to you in archaic, flowery language, and gets so tangled up in it that they never pull it off, and ended up forgetting what they were trying to say? To paraphrase Paul, I’d rather say five words that make sense than a thousand words that are fancy, because I might end up saying something I didn’t mean.

Take this test to see if you should use thou. Change the emphasized words as needed. Then compare your answers with the answer.

Modern English

Yesterday, I saw you and your friend John getting into a car. Were you going somewhere with him? I saw you sitting behind the wheel, so I thought you were the driver. Was the car his or yours? I didn’t know you had your license.

Proper Use of Thee and Thou

Yesterday, I saw thee and thy friend John getting into a car. Wast thou going somewhere with him? I saw thee sitting behind the wheel, so I thought thou wert (or thou wast ) the driver. Was the car his or thine? I didn’t know thou hadst thy license.

Special Note:

In order to show that all people were equal before God, Quakers continued to use the informal pronouns thee and thou longer than anyone else. Actually, they stopped using thou and used thee as if it were a subject form, and they combined it with the third person singular of the verb, which is ungrammatical. So what would be “thou findest the truth” in historical usage became “thee finds the truth” in Quakerese.