Thees, Thous, and Wot Nots

AV-1611

He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? (Luke 10:26)

One of most common complaints or criticisms I hear about the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) is that Elizabethan English is just too difficult to understand. I even heard one well-known preacher declare from the pulpit that the KJV was just a “stupid translation.” That is a rather sad pronouncement coming from a supposedly well-educated cleric. I suggest that such comments demonstrate the reader’s educational privation rather than a problem with the KJV.

The KJV is the first English translation I ever owned, and I do not recall ever having a problem understanding it even in elementary school. Now, I will admit that reading it aloud presented problems in vocalizing the archaic language, but that did not impair my understanding of it. However, to be precise, The KJV is not truly Elizabethan English. It can better be described as “biblical” English. At the time of the KJV translation (1611) no one used thee, thou, thine or ye in common English. If you read Shakespeare, you will not find these words used, only “you” or “yours.”

So, what is up with the unusual language? The KJV translators wanted to convey the original Hebrew and Greek as accurately and literally as possible.

They were so concerned about it that they even took over the very phraseology of the Hebrew and Greek. We find in our [KJV] Bibles, all kinds of Hebrew expressions and concepts that are not natural to the English way of speaking. In fact, it can even be said that the English of the King James Version is not the English of the 17th century, nor of any century. It is an English that is unique, for it is Biblical English-an English formed by the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible. It is Biblical English because the translators were more interested in being faithful to the originals than in making their translation in the street language of the day

That they sought an accurate translation is further indicated by the fact that they italicized every word that did not have a corresponding word in the original … Moreover, to insure the fact that the reader understands the meaning of certain original words, they added 4,223 marginal notes that gave the literal meaning of the original words, and 2,738 notes with alternate translations. The result is that in the King James Version we have an accurate translation that puts the others to shame.[1] (Emphasis mine)

One writer noted that, “Our culture doesn’t think like this today. I believe it is a problem when we start talking about translations that we are so obsessed with the ease for men, rather than translating the Bible in a respectful, elevating fashion out of reverence for God.”[2] I suggest that “our culture” has become lazy when dealing with the Word of God. Paul in writing to Timothy exhorts his protégé to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The Greek word translated “study” is spoudazō which means to be “diligent,” to “make an effort, endeavor, labor.” One is not supposed to read the Bible as one does a dime store novel. It demands one’s full attention, and thought. It must engage one’s mind fully. One must meditate on the Word and wrestle with those things that seem difficult to understand.

The verse I just quoted, 2 Timothy 2:15, uses the archaic word “shew.” That stumps many modern readers, but why? Most modern dictionaries still list the word. In fact, one can go on the internet to Dictionary.com to find the definition. It simply means “show.” How hard is that? One of my favorite old English words is “wot.” It is only used ten times in the KJV, so even there it is rare. The first time it is used is in Genesis 21:26: “And Abimelech said, I wot not who hath done this thing: neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to day” (emphasis mine). Wot does that mean? (Pardon the pun.) Again, the word is still listed in modern dictionaries. Here is the definition from Dictionary.com: “first and third person singular present of wit,” or “to know.” So, in our previous verse, we can substitute “know” for “wot” and it would read: “And Abimelech said, I know not who hath done this thing…” Once we know that, we should no longer have a problem with it.

Present tense verbs that end in “th” in the KJV cause some people grief, but these too have an easy fix. In most cases, all one need do is substitute “s” for the “th.” The first such occurrence appears in Genesis 1:20: “And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven” (emphasis mine). Take the present tense verb “hath” and substitute “s” for “th” and you have the modern English verb “has.” There is nothing difficult about this. Again, one can still find the old spelling in modern dictionaries. With a little “study” these “roadblocks” can be smoothed out.

One of the things I like best about the biblical English employed by the KJV is the distinction made between the singular and plural form of the second person pronoun. In modern English (and, by the way, in Elizabethan English) the second person pronoun is “you” whether singular or plural. That is not so in the biblical English of the KJV. The reason for this is that the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, make the distinction. In writing about this, Dr. Henry M. Morris said, “[We] forget that “thee,” “thou,” and “thine” were used to express the second person singular, with “you,” “ye,” and “yours” reserved for second person plural. Today we use “you” indiscriminately for both singular and plural, thereby missing the precise meaning of many texts of Scripture.”[3] The first example of the second person singular is found in Genesis 2:16: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat” (emphasis mine). This is significant to know, because here God was speaking directly to Adam – ONLY. Eve had not been created at this point. Why is that important? Because in Genesis 3:1-6 we see Satan attack the one who had received the command indirectly – Eve. God did not give the command to both Adam and Eve, although it was meant for both; He gave the command directly to Adam – singular. We then see the first occurrence of “ye” in Genesis 3:1: “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” (Emphasis mine). When Satan approaches Eve, he knows about the commandment God gave and he knows that the commandment applied to both of them, so we see the plural form of the second person pronoun – ye.

Now, when the reader knows this, the reader’s understanding of Scripture increases. Some may argue that that in modern English, context will determine whether the second person pronoun is singular or plural, but that is not always the case in Scripture. For example, as one reads on, one will find that sometimes the “nation” of Israel is addressed in the singular (using thee, thou, thine), and sometimes it is addressed in the plural (using, ye, you, yours). Understanding the biblical English provides the insight to know whether God is addressing the nation as a unit or as individuals. This is important because God deals with nations as a whole, and He also deals with the individuals that make up a nation. So, “thee” or “ye” makes a big difference in understanding Scripture that most modern Bible translations ignore.

The beautiful prose of the King James is a treasure which should not be lost. It has been acclaimed widely as the greatest example of English literature ever written. Apart from a few archaic words which can be easily clarified in footnotes, it is as easy to understand today as it was four hundred years ago. This is why the common people today still use and love it. It is the “intelligentsia” who tend to favor the modern versions. The King James uses mostly one and two-syllable words, and formal studies have always shown its readability index to be 10th grade or lower.[4]

Many years ago, someone convinced me that the New American Standard Bible (NASB) was the best literal translation. Today the same is said of the English Standard Version (ESV). I concur that those are good translations. I also agree with the one who said, “The best translation is the one you will read.” Besides the points presented here in defense of the KJV, there are many other good reasons to prefer the KJV over all other translations. Dr. Henry M. Morris offers a fair analysis of several modern translations and presents his reasons for preferring the KJV in an article entitled “Should Creationists Abandon the King James Version?” listed in the end notes below. I would encourage the readers to read and consider what Dr. Morris has to say. It convinced me to once again take up the good old King James Bible. Once again, the best translation is the one you will read, and as my good friend, Dr. James J.S. Johnson, often repeats, “The worst translation is the ‘Closed’ Bible.”

Notes:


[1]  Seven Houck, “The King James Version of the Bible,”  http://www.prca.org/pamphlets/pamphlet_9.html#translat

[2]  Kent Brandenburg, “King James Version: Elizabethan English?” http://kentbrandenburg.blogspot.com/2009/10/king-james-version-elizabethan-english.html

[3]  Henry M. Morris, Ph.D., “Should Creationists Abandon The King James Version?” http://www.icr.org/article/should-creationists-abandon-king-james-version

[4]  Ibid.

17 Comments

Filed under Apologetics, Bible, Christianity, Religion

17 responses to “Thees, Thous, and Wot Nots

  1. Great post, Ernie … and so clearly ministered! The first time I read the KJV, I was 9 years old and felt the presence of the Holy Ghost. When I was in the ministry, I used to preach that other translations were valuable “study” tools, but the KJV had the “breath” of the Holy Ghost upon it. Blessings!

  2. Great Article on KJV – let’s feast on God’s Word and more than we Feast on anything else.

    • James J. S. Johnson

      Well said, Adam. Or should I say, “thou hast said it well, verily.” 🙂

  3. Super post, Ernie! I’ve always preferred the KJV. As a youngster in Girl’s Auxiliary we had to memorize large portions. Now I’ve never been an English whiz nor a great technical brain, but, aside from very difficult passages, I’ve never had any trouble with that translation. The confusion for me comes it reading new translations…some of those translations steer folks in a different way than what the KJV teaches.

    • Thanks, DiAne. The main problem with most modern translations is the source text for the New Testament. Most modern translations rely on the Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament whose compilers were liberal theologians. The KJV and NKJV rely on the Textus Receptus (the “received texts”). Not only that, the the translators of the KJV had a very high regard for Scripture, which is why they went to such extremes (the “Thees, Thous, and Wot Nots, etc) to render the translation as literal as possible. Thanks again for the encouragement! 🙂

  4. Kelly

    Great background “apologia” on the KJV. It’s language has impressed me as especially reverent. It is however wonderful to know that God can reach hearts with a saving knowledge through any direct translation – even spoken biblical truths. As imperfect as any human delivery might be, God’s Word does not return to Him void!

  5. Phil Slate

    The King James was also my first Bible. For poetic reading it can’t be beat, but for study I still prefer the NIV or the AMP.

    You hit the nail on the head when you said that the best is the one you will read.

    God Bless

    Phil Slate

    • James J. S. Johnson

      Yeah, a Bible that is open and studied is more likely to be revered and obeyed — rather than an absolutely perfect translation that is left closed, on a bookshelf somewhere.

  6. Although the KJV is not the translation that I read this post was very informative and has explained many of the meanings of “archaic” words that I assumed were simply spoken by Christians in the 16th century. So thank you.

    • Thank you, Michael. As I tried to explain in the post, all of those archaic words can still be found in modern dictionaries. So, in a way, it’s no different than going to your Hebrew and Greek dictionaries to get the original meaning of words. In fact, you would do that anyway when studying the any other translation. The main reason for my choice of the KJV is the source texts for the New Testament. Dr. Morris’ article, to which I linked, goes into greater detail about that. Thanks for your comments.

  7. I agree with you about the importance of distinguishing between the singular and plural forms of “you.” My first New American Standard Bible back in the mid 1960s was a hardback New Testament before the Old Testament was ready to publish. This NT used a superscript “pl” or “s” to distinguish the plural you from the singular you respectively when it was not clear from the context. You can still find these NAS NT versions occasionally in used bookstores. At some point NASBs stopped including this very helpful info. It was gone from the full NASB that I got in 1971.

    • Thank you for the comment, Dr. Pelletier. I actually like the NASB. The last time I looked at mine, I seem to recall it still used the thees and thous, but other words and spellings were modernized. The reason I went back to the KJV was due to reading Dr. Morris’ article on the KJV. Up until then, I thought all translations used the same source texts. I have sinse learned that is not the case, and I firmly believe in divine preservation of the text, that being the Textus Receptus from which the KJV (and Geneva Bible) was translated.

  8. Dwayne Cartwright

    The KJV was my Bible at age 20 when I acknowledged Jesus Christ as my Lord. I believe with no reservations that God, the Holy Spirit, my Comforter has and continues to impart Truth fom His Word.

    Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
    John 16:13 KJV

    • Amen, Dwayne! There are many good translations (and many not so good) out there, but for me, the KJV is the best of all. It is far from perfect, but it is an excellent translation. I prefer it for the source texts from which the New Testament is translated – the Textus Receptus. Except for the NKJV, all others use the Westcott-Hort Greek, which employs the “older and better” texts preferred by the Gnostics of the early Church period. As a result, you will find in those translations portions of, if not complete, passages omitted from the New Testament that are included in the KJV. To their credit, they do footnote those deletions, but how often does the casual reader refer to footnotes? Still, there is enough truth in those translations that a lost person can be led to Christ. 🙂

      Thanks for reading, and thank you for sharing your comments.