Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why the Ye’s and Thou’s

Back in Jan-Feb 1992, I reprinted in The Baptist Waymark an article from the Plains Baptist Challenger by Bruce Cummons about the use of thee, thou, ye and you. In it Cummons noted that “One of the most criticized characteristics of the King James translation of the Bible” – the use of old English pronouns thee, thou, thy, and ye – is actually “one of the strongest points of the Authorized Version.”

Whether friend or foe, many do not know what to make of such “thee” and “ye” terminology. Unlike modern English, in the original languages of the Old and New Testaments second-person singular and the second-person plural pronouns* are distinguished. Today we do not distinguish them, so that when we speak or write in singular or plural, we choose the word “you.” 

“Where are you going?” Without context we cannot know whether this question is asked of one or many. However, Cummons notes, “in old English there exists a difference just as there is in Greek and Hebrew. As a result the old English used in the King James Version gives far more precise translation than would modern English. In our King James Bible, thee, thou, thy and thine are always singular. You, ye, and your are always plural.”

He follows this with a helpful rule: “If the second person pronoun starts with a “t” (in the English translation), then it is singular. If it starts with a “y”, it is plural. This information helps us to better interpret God’s Word. The thee’s and the ye’s are used also for accuracy and directness of translation...”

It is further worth noting that the words are used based on whether they are nominative, objective or possessive. For example, “ye” is used when it is the subject of the sentence, and “you” is used when the object. Other examples and a chart: 

“Thou art the man” – “thou” is the subject of the sentence.
“What is that to thee?” – “thee” is the object of a preposition.

Use of pronouns in the KJV

My (or mine)
Our (or ours)
Thy (or thine)
Your (or yours)
Their (or theirs)

[Note: I have heard some claim that one of the differences is between “familiar” as opposed to “formal” – as “tu” and “usted” in Spanish. I have found no basis for this claim and it would certainly obscure one’s understanding when reading the King James Version of the Bible. Because of this familiar versus formal dichotomy, some modern translations keep “thee” and “thou” when addressing God and “you” when addressing human beings. This is not based on the original, and is not a correct translation (and causes confusion). I have also read that by the time of the KJV translation in 1611, these singular forms of “thee” and “thou” had already been replaced in conversation by “you” – meaning the KJV translators chose to be “archaic” in order to preserve the singular or plural of the original languages. I cannot verify that, but do notice that in their “To the Reader” the translators seem to use “thee” as singular and “you” as plural.]

In speaking to God in Psalms 51:17, David uses “thou” – “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Cf. also Psalms 63:1 – “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;”

*Pronouns are words that stand in place of nouns. The person or persons TO WHOM the speaker is speaking is called second person (singular or plural based on how many).

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