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Thees and Thous

posted on July 02, 2014, under Conference by

by Lee Bennett

You’ve almost certainly heard it before. A group of people are discussing their favorite Bible translation, and at least one person will inevitably share that they don’t care much for the King James Version. When asked why, the answer is often the same: “I don’t understand all the thees and thous.”

Naturally, it goes much further than two words. There is, indeed, a considerable amount of language that hails from centuries ago. Yet, however stereotypical the response may be, people genuinely do get hung up over what the King James Version means when the words thee and thou are used.

Ready for a brief grammar lesson?

The first week of June 2014, Florida Conference employees participated in the annual Week of Spiritual Emphasis. Ernie Bursey, Ph.D., Professor of Religion for the Department of Health and Biomedical Sciences at Adventist University of Health Sciences, shared this year’s presentations. During the week, he explained that modern language uses the pronoun you regardless whether the intent is singular or plural. If someone says, “You are welcome,” the statement is equally correct whether the speaker is talking to one person or one hundred. This, however, has not always been the case in the English language.

In modern English, the pronoun you not only can carry a singular or plural meaning, it can also be used as either the subject or object of a sentence, such as, “You have the cup,” or, “I gave the cup to you.” In the early 1600s, however, when the King James Version of the Bible was written, you only had one part of speech—a plural object.

To be clear, this means that the English which was spoken in the 17th century had no such sentence as, “You have the cup.” And while it was grammatically correct to say, “I hath [have] given the cup to you,” such a sentence would never have been spoken to an individual. Rather, the speaker would have been addressing two or more people. In other words, the speaker is saying he gave the cup to a group of people.

So, how did a speaker refer to just one person? Here’s where the thees and thous came into play. The correct object and subject forms of the you pronoun were, “I hath [have] given the cup to thee,” and, “Thou hast [have] given the cup to me.”

Consider the following chart:

A visual chart comparing modern-day you/your(s) to King James-era thou/thee/thy/thine.

As this breakdown shows, the words thee and thou had very specific meanings. Likewise, the meanings of thy and thine were also specific as the singular possessive form of your(s). For example: “This is thy cup,” and, “The cup is thine,” would have addressed a single person. Had the word your(s) been used, the speaker would have been addressing multiple people.

As for the sentence that would not have been correct in King James’ days, “You have the cup,” correct grammar of the day would have been to say, “Thou has the cup,” if a single person had it. Otherwise, the sentence would have been, “Ye have the cup,” if it was owned by a group of people.

This is a very important distinction when reading the Bible. According to Dr. Bursey, “When we apply this principle of reading the King James Version, we discover how often the audience is a group instead of an individual. This can lead to a corrective in our Western world with its strong emphasis on the individual.”

Therefore, now that thou can be sure whether the speaker/writer is addressing one person or many people, challenge thineself to re-read thy favorite passages in the King James Version. As Florida Conference employees discovered during the Week of Spiritual Emphasis, knowing this distinction could have a significant impact on thine understanding of God’s Word.

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