This article is about the language we use when addressing God in prayer. Should we still use the old forms (i.e. thee, thou) out of respect?

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1998. 3 pages.

Once More: Thou / Thee / Thy / Thine and Standard Usage

The hard facts can be tough when you're dealing with emotions.

Newsweek, December 19, 1994, p. 51

It is generally accepted that the Old Eng­lish language period ran from approxi­mately 500 to 1100 A.D. As most contemporary Germanic languages still do, Old English, the ancestor of Middle English, used δu for the second person singular. (The letter "δ" is pronounced like our voiced "th"; ywill still find this peculiar letter in today's Icelandic writing.)

About a thousand years ago, the first line of the Lord's prayer looked like this in Old English: "Faeder ure, δu δe eart on heofonum." In Luther's German translation of the New Testament (1522), this address reads, "Vater unser, der du bist in Himmelen." In Norwegian it is, "Fader vår, du som är i himmelen."

By now, the reader will have noticed that in the tradition of a number of Ger­manic languages, including Old English, God is addressed as du or δu ("thu"). Gradually this δu evolved into the "thou" of Middle English (1100-1500) and took with it the special implication of familiarity into the Modern Period of English. In other words: from its very beginning it conveyed an informal mode of speech, as among intimate friends.

Once more:   Thou / Thee / Thy / Thine and standard usage

At this point, I assume that several readers will now shake their heads in disbelief and say: "How could that pos­sibly be?" It is my guess that this dis­closure may have come as a mild shock for some, or may have made them feel uneasy. This is what usually happens when our emotions are put to the test.

But if we take the trouble to check out the usage of a few dozen "thou/thee" references in Robert Young's Analytical Concordance of the Bible, based on the King James Version (KJV), we shall dis­cover that the translators let David and the patriarchs address God by the use of "thee" and "thou."

Also relevant to this discussion are the references to Abraham as God's friend: "...the seed of Abraham my friend" (Isaiah 41:8, KJV). In the New Testament we find "Abraham believed God ... and he was called the friend of God" (James 2:23, KJV). This friendship is expressed in familiar address. Abra­ham speaks: "My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee..." (Genesis 18:3, KJV). The Lord speaks to Abraham: "At the time appointed I will return unto thee..." (Genesis 18:14).

Notice that the mutual pronoun us­age here is on the same footing, so to speak. In other words: in the KJV (which most of us hold dear) the usage of "thou/thee" expressed a degree of fa­miliarity (informality or intimacy) which you will find reflected as well in the older versions of the Lord's prayer

So it should not surprise us to learn that in Shakespeare's days, around 1600, "thou" was also used by a master to his subordinates. In Shakespeare's play Richard II, for instance, King Richard II says to Norfolk, his inferior in rank, "...for thee remains a heavier doom" (Act 1, Scene 3, 148). The king, being the supe­rior, uses the informal address.

Norfolk, however, answers his king: "A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,/And all unlook'd for from your Highness' mouth" (154-55). Notice, he doesn't say: "from thy Highness' mouth." In deference to his king and lord, and as a matter of courtesy, the Duke of Norfolk uses the formal form of address, as befits his lower station in this particular setting. And there is little we can do about this usage of English in those days of long ago. This is the way English was spoken, once upon a time.

Now, someone may ask: where, then, does the pronoun "you" come from? To get an answer, we have to re­turn to England of about a thousand years ago. At that time, Old English had a formal plural pronoun that was writ­ten ge. It was the equivalent of the medieval Dutch formal pronoun ghi (= gij). In discussing these things, it is im­portant to know that the Old English ge was pronounced as "ye." This phonetic trickery did survive in present-day Swedish in genast, pronounced "yea­nast" (= soon), and genom, "yeanom" (= through).

Not surprisingly, in the course of time ge became written as it was heard: "ye," which still later became "you." Greatly compressed, this is what the Eng­lish linguistic records show. As a relevant aside, I would like to add that in some English dialects "thee" and "thou" can still be heard (for example, in the York­shire countryside) but always in an infor­mal or sometimes discourteous fashion.

Many people, especially of the older generation, have always assumed that the usage of "thee/thou" is purely for­mal, or even gold-plated formal, and that "you" is informal, or inferior to "thee." In 1951, I, too, believed that "thee/thou/thine" stood for reverential formality; after all, the venerable King James Version used them, did it not? But I had overlooked the fact that "thy" was used informally. In Luke 8:30 we read (KJV): "What is thy name? And he said Legion." In Matthew 1:20 the an­gel speaks: "Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife."

Once more: Thou / Thee / Thy / Thine and standard usage

Contrast this usage with "you": "For the poor always ye have with you" (John 12:8). "Blessed are ye when (men) shall revile you" (Matthew 5:11). "For I say unto you..." (Matthew 5:20). The use of "you" in these cases is plural.

But a wrong evaluation of the old pronouns should be excusable, the more so since relatively few of us were ever set the arduous task of tracing the linguistic pathway of English all the way from Old English to Modern English.

As said before, I think we all love the KJV with its stately and grand cadences, and (as we perceive it now) its some­what quaint, obsolete usage and diction. It sounds beautiful, and it is, and we can hardly overestimate what it has done for the development of English literature.

But saying that the "thee/thou" pronoun usage in the KJV bespeaks greater reverence than the (later) gen­eral usage of "you" does not accord with historic linguistics of pronoun usage in English. To sum it up: it can be rightly said that when the informal/intimate usage of "thee/thou" slowly lost ground in spoken English, a few centuries ago, the formal "you" gained general accept­ance at the same pace. With the loss of "thee/thou," the distinctions of the Eng­lish address forms slowly faded away, and the use of "you" became more and more prevalent and generic.

This remarkable linguistic process ran counter to present trends in other Germanic languages, where this move­ment is reversed: the informal pronouns are intruding on the formal forms of address. Many people of Dutch origin still remember that the Dutch language has je/jij (informal, second person singular), as well as the formal u/gij, both of which forms can be used in the singular and plural. The use of the informal jij is mak­ing more and more inroads in Dutch contemporary speech and writing, also in classrooms and in certain worship services, which trend I find regrettable.

Fortunately, we do not have to worry on that score in English. "You" and "your" have established themselves as the universal standard: the polite as well as the informal pronouns for all occasions. We simply cannot turn the linguistic clock back, no matter how hard we try.

It is understandable that some of the readers, at this point, still feel that the usage of "thee/thou/thy/thine" is the definitive or at least the preferred form for being reverential in prayer and wor­ship services. But feeling so does not make it so, because it flies in the face of the verifiable facts.

It should be clear by now that the use of "you" cannot be validly inter­preted as showing disrespect to our Lord. The newer pronoun usage merely reflects the development of inexorable linguistic changes which all living lan­guages are heir to.

On a personal note, and to all my brothers and sisters who at this point still feel dubious, if not squeamish, about the newer usage: by all means do con­tinue using the "thee/thou/thy/thine" forms of address since this, evidently, seems to meet a strong personal emo­tional need. We should be at ease with our language usage in our prayers, and not be perturbed because of imagined linguistic barriers. The Lord knows the hearts of His children, and He under­stands all their languages.

Yet there are those among us who experience difficulty with the use of such archaic, inflected forms as "thou hearest and understandest our peti­tions" or "thou shalt have peace." Granted, intellectually we may be able to learn these obsolete forms well enough, perhaps as a linguistic curiosity. But many (orthodox) contemporary Christians will perceive this pronoun and verb usage as quaint or obsolete and, therefore, as lacking in personal emotional resonance.

Once more: Thou / Thee / Thy / Thine and standard usage

Finally, let us not judge our brothers and sisters in the Lord on this issue. If it is felt that a Christian's freedom of using standard (contemporary) pronouns in our prayers is too heady for our taste, then my advice would be: it's better not to use "you/yours." We should not put new wine in our old wineskins, because then they may split. The more the pity if this were to happen in our daily per­sonal devotions, wouldn't you say? (see Luke 5:37, 38). So, let us listen to Paul: "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind" (Romans 14:5, KJV).

I hope that this contribution (some time down the road) will help allay most misgivings about the admission of "you" for religious use within our Re­formed community. But I don't expect it, at least not for quite awhile, as these things are known to take time.

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