The Value of “Thou,” “Thee,” and “Thy”

(This post had its origins in a question on a previous post.  I thought it was worth making into a front page article.)

We use the Authorised (King James) Version for our Bible translation in our church.  There are many factors in choosing a Bible translation.  I’m not going to speak to them all in this post!  But I would like to address one thing that many people cite as a reason to use a more modern translation — the use of antiquated words such as “Thou,” “Thee,” and “Thy.”

Certainly, these words sound strange to the modern ear.  We don’t go around using them in daily conversation.  Wouldn’t it be better if we just went to using “you”?  Well, there would be something to be gained in that.  If we want modern readers to understand the Bible, it would help to use words that modern readers know, wouldn’t it?  But something would be lost, too.  So I’d like to take a post to briefly show the value of these old words, and why I’m persuaded their presence in the Authorised Version is a plus rather than a minus.

Peter, or All the Disciples?

For comparison purposes, I’d like to start by giving a few verses in the New King James Version, which doesn’t use these old words (or the old word “ye”).  Starting with John 13:37:

Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake.”
Jesus answered him, “Will you lay down your life for My sake? Most assuredly, I say to you, the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times.
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.
In My Father’s house are many mansions;if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

To whom is Jesus speaking in His prophecy of the denial?  To Peter, apparently, but then He goes on with, “Let not your heart be troubled.”  Is He still speaking to Peter, or is He speaking to all of His disciples?  And if to all of His disciples, then was He speaking to them in the previous sentence and telling them that they would all deny Him?  He mentions many mansions, so maybe He is talking to all of them, but then He says, “a place,” not places, so maybe He is talking to only Peter.  Which is it?  Jesus says “heart” (not “hearts”) so maybe He really is speaking to Peter alone throughout the passage, right?

Forget everything you know about these verses and just look at them in the NKJV translation, which uses the modern “you.”  Can you answer these questions from looking at the verses?

The answer is obvious in the Greek — but the NKJV translation doesn’t let us know that.  The modern “you” could be speaking to one person or a group of persons, could be the subject of the sentence or the direct object (“You hit the ball” or “the ball hit you”).  And in fact, since Jesus said “heart” and “a place,” a person reading the NKJV could easily think Jesus really is just talking to Peter.

What the Old Words Mean

The Authorised Version answers all of these questions clearly — as long as you know what the different old words mean.  If you don’t know what they mean, the following can help you understand the AV (KJV) better, and get insight into the original language text which the modern translations can’t provide.

  • “Thou” — this is you in the singular, referring to one, not many.  It is the subject of a sentence.  “Thou anointest my head with oil” — the one God (singular), “Thou,” is the subject, telling us who is doing the action.  The modern equivalent is “you” — we would say, “You anoint my head with oil.”
  • “Thee” — this is also you in the singular.  However, it is the object of the sentence, the person receiving the action.  The Jewish leaders asked Jesus, “Who gave thee this authority?”  They were talking to one person, and referring to Him as one who had (or had not) received an action — the giving of authority.  Again, the modern equivalent is “you” — we would say, “Who gave you this authority?”
  • “Thy/Thine” — these two words have an identical meaning, differing only in form.  They are similar to “a/an” in that the form varies depending on what follows — if followed by a vowel sound or at the end of a sentence, “thine” is used, otherwise “thy” is used.  These words are the possessive form of “you.” When the Father said to Jesus, “…until I make thine enemies thy footstool,” the words identified the enemies as Jesus’ enemies, the footstool as His. These words are singular, addressed to one person.  The modern equivalent is “your” — we would say, “…make your enemies your footstool.”
  • “Ye” — this is you in the plural as the subject of the sentence (like “thou” above, only more than one person).  “Ye believe in God” — multiple people are doing the action (believing).
  • “You” — this is you in the plural as the object of the sentence (like “thee” above, but more than one person).  “If it were not so, I would have told you.”  More than one person would have been told.
  • “Your” — this is your in the plural (like “thy/thine”, but more than one person).  “Let not your heart be troubled.”  The heart of more than one person is in view.

Let’s use a table for easy reference:

Old Singular Old Plural Modern Singular Modern Plural
Subject (does the action) Thou Ye You You
Object (receives the action) Thee You You You
Possessive Thy/Thine Your Your Your

When you see these old words, they may seem strange to you at first, but they are actually very helpful.  On rare occasions in modern English, there may be doubt as to who is doing the action and who is receiving it.  There is no doubt in the original Greek, and these old words remove that doubt in the AV, if you understand them.  And in modern English, there is often doubt as to whether “you” or “your” addresses more than one person.  Again, in the Greek, there is no doubt, and the AV uses these old words to let you know what the Greek is saying.

Back to the Peter / Disciples Question

The questions I asked above immediately become clear in the AV.

Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.

Peter and our Lord are addressing only each other here.  Peter says he wants to follow “thee” — one person, the Lord, is receiving the action of being followed.  Peter wants to follow Him “for thy sake” — we would say, “for your sake,” but we know by “thy” that Peter is talking only about Jesus’ sake.  We would have known all of that from the context, but the next verse, we get some help we didn’t get in the NKJV.

We would think Jesus is probably talking to Peter if the next few verses didn’t make us wonder, and the AV confirms it.  Jesus addresses Peter as “thou” (singular) and “thy” (also singular), and then goes on, “I say unto thee” (again singular, Peter is the one who is receiving the action) that “thou” (singular, Peter) will deny Him.  Jesus is speaking only to one person, Peter, in this verse.  Peter and the other disciples would have known this immediately from the Greek Jesus was speaking.  We only know it definitively if we know the Greek or if we have an English translation that uses the old words.

Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

Previously, Jesus addressed Peter alone, but in the very next verse, He makes a transition. In the AV, “your” means plural, so when He says “your heart” He is speaking to more than one person — all the disciples.  As one, they are troubled in heart, so heart is singular, but He is addressing all of them, so He uses the plural form of the possessive, “your.”  A modern English translation obscures it, but Jesus’ disciples would have recognised His transition at once.

He goes on to say, “Ye believe in God” — again, the plural.  And in the next verse, when He says, “I would have told you” and “I go to prepare a place for you,” the use of “you” in both cases again reflects the plural.  In these two verses, Jesus is talking to all His disciples, not just Peter.

The Purpose of Translation

A translation is, more than anything, supposed to carry over the meaning of the text in the original language into language which the reader can understand.  The use of old words which have dropped out of current usage is usually a disadvantage.

In this case, however, the old words do a much better job of conveying the meaning of the original language text.  For the average person, it is much easier to learn the meaning of “thee, thou, and thy” than it is to learn Greek or Hebrew, and these old words give aspects of the original language text which the modern “you” and “your” cannot.

The passage I’ve used for an example in this post is a familiar one.  Few people today would misinterpret it, and if they did, no great doctrine is at stake.  But other passages, perhaps less familiar, might be at greater risk of a misinterpretation by someone who doesn’t know the original languages and is using a modern translation.

If we encourage people to read the Bible for themselves (and we certainly should), the use of modern translations which use only “you” and “your” comes with a cost.  These old words, when understood properly, are not just archaic oddities, but are valuable aids in proper interpretation for a person relying on a translation.  They convey more facets of the original language text than do the modern words.  They are a benefit, not a detriment, to the translation we use.



About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Bibliology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Value of “Thou,” “Thee,” and “Thy”

  1. While I prefer some other English translations over the KJV, often for language clarification or easier to understand, I’ve long wondered why we didn’t keep all these “you” words. Years and years ago I learned the meanings as you state them, which makes the context much easier than trying to figure out whether the context of “you” is plural or singular.

    I wish the English kept these words.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hi, Glenn. I wish the English had kept them, too. The context often tells you whether it is singular and plural, but not always (as in the example I gave).

      I keep telling myself I’m going to do a “which translation” series, but haven’t tackled it yet. Few people give much thought as to whether there are any Biblical principles that should shed light on the question. It seems to me that before answering the question we should first ask if the Scripture gives us any principles that apply, and then look to which translation best fits those. It’s been pretty busy days for me, which is why my blog has been quieter the last six months than it was, but this topic is one I want to get to.

  2. Brian says:

    This is a nice primer on the use of these words in our Authorized Version and why they are still useful words when translating from the original language into English. The dropping of the noted singular 2nd person pronouns in our modern day translations certainly comes with a bad price for some portions of Scriptures when both the singular and plural are used in close proximity to each other and the context does not make clear who is who. A little teaching then goes a long way when the difference of singular and plural is noted in our AV. Thanks for the posting.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Thanks, Brian. I suspect a lot of people, even those who use the AV regularly, don’t know these words.

      The modern translations do what they say on the cover — put it in modern English. This is one way in which the older English was far better. The more a translation can convey of the original, the better.

      On Sunday, I was at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. I have a lot of appreciation for what Peter Masters has done there, and the stand he takes, but he did something that I think is unfortunate. In their hymnal, they took out the Thees, Thous, and Thines except when they were addressed to God.

      To me, that is a mistake. It effectually treats these words as names of God, and does not help people understand what they really mean. It can actually lead to more confusion.

      It seems to me if we are going to use the AV then we should welcome hymns that use language the way the AV does. It helps people internalise the meanings if they sing it as well as read it in their Bibles.

  3. Congratulations Pastor Jon! Well said and so simply!!! So good that I’ve re-posted on our site too!
    Blessings, Angus

  4. It was a few months ago that I realized that the “ye” was plural and it helped me understand the passages a little more. I appreciate your writing that further explained this for me.

    One thing I struggled with the KJV is that the pronouns for God are not capitalized like the New American Standard Bible that I used to read. I had to reread a passage several times to understand who was being talked about. But there is value in that, same as some of the language not being totally clear in today’s language. There is nothing wrong with reading Scripture over and over to digest its meaning. 🙂

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Yes, that’s an interesting translational decision. The Greek / Hebrew does not always make it clear to whom the pronoun refers. In those cases, the translator, by capitalising the pronoun (or not doing so) makes a decision based on context, etc. But that is an interpretive question, and ideally, a translator should not be in that role.

      But in some cases, the original language does make it clear, and then using capitalisation helps the reader avoid an error that would never be made in the original. So sometimes it would be better to do it, and sometimes it would be better not. All in all, I think the KJV approach is better, but there are drawbacks either way. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all knew Greek and Hebrew? 🙂

Comments welcome! (but please check the comment policy)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s