Thee, Thou, You, Ye in the KJV

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A friend of mine read from the preface to his KJV on 'thee' and 'thou' and 'you' in the KJV. According to that preface, 'thee' and 'thou' are used exclusively for singulars and 'you' and 'ye' exclusively for plurals. I'd always been told that 'thee' and 'thou' were the familiar second person pronouns and 'you' the formal, with 'thee' and 'ye' as the subjective and 'thou' and 'you' as the objective. Does anyone have real information on which of these accounts is correct or if somehow there's something to both of them?

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A semantic shift took place where the former second person singular pronouns "thee" and "thou" took on the semantic component of formality. People assumed, as they often do, including today, that older sounding English was more majestic. Notice this th... Read More


Jeremey, the preface is correct, as far as indicating the meaning of those pronouns as intended by the KJV translators and according to language usage in their time.

However, as the general populace of English-speaking people lost usage of thee, thou, and ye, but continued to use the KJV, a semantic shift took place. The obsolete forms took on a new semantic component of sacredness, formality. So it then sounded more holy to pray to God, using "thee" and "thou" rather than the new second person singular "you" which had spread from being just second person plural to also include second person singular. Since, then, there were competing forms for the meaning of second person singular, i.e. thee, thou, and the new you, and since the obsolete forms sounder more holy to English speakers, the new "you" came to sound too familiar to be used in prayer to God.

Very interesting changes in our language, with interesting semantic shifts. Even today there are English speakers who believe they are honoring God more by praying to him with "thee" and "thou." But, historically, those words never had the semantic element of formality to them. They only got that semantic component after people stopped using "thee" and "thou" in normal speech and writing and used "you" for both singular and plural.

Whoops, sorry I typo-ed your name, Jeremy.

But what I've heard is that 'thee' and 'thou' are less formal and more familiar, with 'you' and 'ye' as the formal and that the semantic shift reversed it. Is that just wrong?

I agree with Wayne. I've never heard the thing about 'thee' and 'thou' being less formal and I'm inclined to suggest that's just wrong.

In Wayne's post and his subsequent comments, it seems to me that Wayne is more confident about some things related to this question than he is about others, but he still sounds pretty unsure. Now that I've made the question clearer, the information at that post addresses the original question better than the comment here.

It seems to be a complicated issue; your account agrees with the OED, so you're in good company (according to it, the formal/informal difference originally derived from the plural/singular difference).

The use of “you��? was in fact the formal way of address, it would be used to address kings, or used to ask a special person “would YOU marry me?��? “Thou��? was less formal, and used for common situations. 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. This is a wonderful truth that Jesus Christ has brought us into familiarity with God, it would be unjust to use "you" which was the more formal address, this would be a slap in the face to the close, Father/Son relationship that Christ came to give us. But the use of these words are far more than just a matter of being archaic, the use of archaic words are far more accurate than what our modern English allows.

They're more precise. They're clearly not more accurate, or there wouldn't be such confusion about them. Precision is about how fine-grained the meanings can get, and you can get them if you insist on using these terms with their no longer existent senses. Accuracy is how well the sentences used in the translation reflect what the original language said, and now that these English words don't carry the same sense it has become simply inaccurate to use them the KJV way.

"But what I've heard is that 'thee' and 'thou' are less formal and more familiar, with 'you' and 'ye' as the formal and that the semantic shift reversed it. Is that just wrong?" - Well in Shakespeare, Thee and Thou are used in all of the formal parts of text. So I'm guessing it is wrong.

I've heard the opposite about Shakespeare, though. I know he uses 'thee' and 'thou' in intimate settings in Romeo and Juliet, so there's no way it's formal there. I'm not sure about genuinely formal settings, and I'm not sure the formal settings are exactly the ones we expect them to be.

Check out the wikipedia answer:

and the site of "Take our WORD for it":

Also, the Quakers (Society of Friends) formerly used "thee" for everyone because they believed we are all equal. (It was the word used for talking-down-to - such as masters to servants.)

Yes, the wonderous OED! Would that I owned one or even that I had decided one day earlier than today to look this up, for my neighbors who moved out yesterday took their OED with them. Thank you for sharing the OED insight on this, Brandon.


The wikipedia answer is very likely correct on this topic.

In "old english" (pre 12th century) the words "thee", "thou", etc were primarily used to differentiate between singular vs plural pronouns.

Enter the "middle english" period (up to about mid-15th century) and the words took on the other meanings you aluded to. It was indeed "thee","thou","thine" for INFORMAL and "you","your" for FORMAL use. The informal use was for between close friends (we could use the modern slang 'mates') and the more formal/polite use was for speaking to royalty or people of a higher social status.

By the time the 17th century came around (1600's, when the KJV was translated), these words were no longer in common everyday use.
The use in the KJV Bible was influenced by William Tyndale's translation, in which he chose to use these archaic pronouns to preserve the singular vs plural pronouns in the text (ie. the original meanings). This was carried over into the KJV in much the same way - and is consistent throughout the whole translation. There is no distinction in the KJV over formality vs informality or God vs man with regard to the use of such pronouns. They are used equally of both God and man in the KJV.

The idea that "thee" and "thou" etc are somehow more formal or even "holy" has come about since these words have disappeared from our common everyday vernacular. Many religious people stuck with the KJV and formed the belief that the words were more respectful and 'holy' due to their use in the KJV Bible. I use "holy" in inverted commas because it too has changed its meaning in english. It originally meant "separate" but now is more often used to mean "sacred".

The english language has changed over time and these words are just a small example of many words and phrases which have phased in or out of common english.

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