Thee and Thou

“I have given them Thy Word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. Sanctify them in the truth; Thy Word is truth. As Thou didst send me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”
—John 17:14-16, NASB

The previous edition of the New American Standard Bible (from which I quoted above) retained the use of the archaic pronouns thou, thee, thy and thine.

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. 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. (Paradoxically, when the Roman Church switched to vernacular languages, it actually became more conservative because that was the reason for using Latin in the first place!)

The same phenomenon occurred with thou, and its forms thee, thy and thine. This used to be the second person singular pronoun in English; it was used wherever we would say you to indicate only one person. Here is how it was used in a sentence:

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 and the spelling gradually followed suit.)

Because today the pronoun thou and its forms are no longer used, its meaning is misunderstood and its forms are misused, so when people try to use thou in extemporaneous public prayer, they mangle the grammar badly enough to send knowledgeable people into hysterics. 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 one person informally; you was used to address a single person only when the speaker wanted to be polite or formal. Just as a king referred to himself as we and not I, the king was addressed as you and not thou.

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 this one. 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 end up forgetting what they were trying to say? To paraphrase Paul, I’d rather speak five meaningful words with my mind, than to speak a thousand meaningless words out of a mistaken desire to be reverent.

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.


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