The king’s English.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 July

How to properly speak in Elizabethan English.

A lot of Christians—myself included—are big fans of the King James Version of the bible. A lot of ’em even worship the KJV, but let’s not go there today.

When I was a kid I memorized a lot of verses in this particular translation. As I got older my churches and AWANA preferred the New International Version, so I’ve got a hodgepodge of translations in my brain. But I like the KJV, and still quote it regularly. Often because I prefer the way they translated a verse; often because I like the old-timey English. To a lot of people it sounds formal and authoritative. I just think it sounds cool.

The KJV was first published in 1611, but the language it uses was old-timey even then. It’s English as it was spoken in the 1500s; arguably even the 1400s. Some verses are no different from the way William Tyndale originally translated the New Testament in 1525. They weren’t striving for English as it was spoken—unlike modern translators like me. They were striving for formal, historical, classical English. Problem is, language evolves. English especially. In the four centuries since the KJV was published, some of those words significantly changed meaning. That’s part of the reason we need to retranslate the bible on a regular basis: The scriptures never need updating, but the English definitely does.

Still, many Christians love the Elizabethan-era English—the stuff I call “the king’s English”—in the King James. And sometimes try to use it themselves. Like in prayers: They love to pray King James style. Makes it sound formal. So whenever they address God, it’s all “thee” and “thou.”

Three problems with the way they do this:

  • They barely know the current rules of grammar, so of course they mangle the Elizabethan rules. They get the pronouns and verbs wrong all the time.
  • They think “thou” is the formal way of saying the familiar “you.” It’s actually the other way round. “Thou” was how you addressed friends and family; “you” was how you addressed nobles and superiors. Just like French’s tu and vous, or Spanish’s tu and usted. Regardless, it’s entirely proper to address God with the familiar “thou.” He’s our Father, remember?

  • Speaking of tu in Spanish and French: That’s actually the proper way people in 1611 pronounced “thou.” It rhymes with “you.”

I should point out the KJV doesn’t actually do formal address. Read it again: Everybody gets addressed as “thou.” Slaves and kings, employees and bosses, prophets and pagans, God and the devil: Everybody gets the same pronoun. “You” is only used for plurals. The KJV never bothered to use formal pronouns, because there’s no such thing as a formal pronoun in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Technically, English ditched the informal pronoun and addresses everyone formally. Kinda as a compliment; like how “ladies and gentlemen” addresses everybody, not just nobles. “Thee,” “thou,” and “thy” faded out of use; even Quakers (who used to address everybody with familiar pronouns, because we’re all equal in God’s eyes—which used to really bug nobles) don’t bother to use “thee” and “thou” anymore. The formal pronoun became our only pronoun.

But since old-timey prayers and psalms address God as “thou,” Christians leapt to the conclusion that’s special language for how to address God, and thus the formal and informal pronouns swapped places.

If you wanna still use “thou” to address God, of course he doesn’t mind. And if you wanna speak the rest of your king’s English properly… well, you’ve come to the right place.

Respect, versus unnecessary formality.

One caveat: God doesn’t mind us using “thou” to address him… unless we’re showing off. Don’t do that.

There are gonna be those Christians who insist, or even demand, we show God respect through weird actions like the king’s English. Fr’instance capitalizing God’s pronouns. I got out of that habit years ago, but I’ve been rebuked more than once for daring to not capitalize every single reference to the Almighty. Don’t I owe him my existence, life, salvation, love, allegiance, everything? And all he asks of me is I capitalize his every pronoun…

Er, no he doesn’t. He commands no such thing. In fact, since God adopted me as his son (same as he adopts every Christian), I don’t have a formal relationship with him; I have a familial one. He’s my dad. We call him abbá/“my dad.” Ro 8.15, Ga 4.6 Yeah he’s the king of the cosmos, the creator of all, almighty and all-knowing and greater than everything. But he’s Dad.

Our head priest Jesus knocked down every barrier between us and the LORD. He made it so we can enter God’s presence as daughters and sons, with all the boldness that princesses and princes are permitted. God ripped in half the veil which separates us. What’re we doing, putting it back up with formal language?

Still, in some churches we’re gonna deal with less-mature Christians who insist we address God formally. Not because they’re hypocrites: They don’t know any better. They’re grateful for God’s forgiveness, but they’re not yet comfortable with their new Dad. They worry they don’t respect God enough; that none of us do. They pray this way as a reminder to not take God’s grace for granted. I can understand all this, and don’t mind accommodating them. Don’t wanna make ’em stumble. Ro 14

At the same time, we gotta nudge such Christians into recognizing God’s their dad. Formal address may sound like respect, but really it separates us instead of bringing us close. God wants us close.

Pick your battles wisely. If there are more important things to deal with than the use of the king’s English, by all means concentrate on the priorities first. Go ahead and pray their way.

Proper king’s English.

But if we’re gonna pray in the king’s English, we need to do it right. Which a great number of English-speakers don’t do correctly. They’re not familiar enough with it to know, “Oh, that doesn’t sound right”—they just figure if you say “thou” and “thy” and end a few words in -eth, that’s all you need do. So you get messes like, “O LORD thee be-eth so great,” even though these very same people know all the words to “How Great Thou Art.”

So first of all, learn the correct pronouns. All the ones you’re not so familiar with, I made red.

2ND SINGULARthouthytheethine
1ST PLURALweourusours
2ND PLURALyeyouryouyours
3RD PLURALtheytheirthemtheirs

There’s not a lot of new pronouns to learn. Just second-person pronouns.

TODAY’S: Your so-called friends left you in that broken-down car of yours.
KING’S: Thy so-called friends left thee in that broken-down car of thine.

They’re unfamiliar, so it’s gonna take practice getting them straight.

Now, verbs. Most novices mangle the verbs by putting -eth at the end of absolutely everything. “I goeth here; thou goeth there; she goeth there too; we all goeth there.” Sounds really King James-y, don’t it? But to someone of King James’s day, you’d sound like a foreigner, like English definitely wasn’t your first language. The -eth ending only happens in the present tense, and only with third-person pronouns. And don’t forget the second-person pronouns, which end in -est.

For our example I use the verb “go.” And of course “be” is irregular (as it is in just about every language, thanks to overuse); its only difference is “art” in the second-person singular.

2ND SINGULARThou…artThou…goest
3RD SINGULAROne…isOne…goeth
1ST PLURALWe…areWe…go
2ND PLURALYe…areYe…go
3RD PLURALThey…areThey…go

Past tenses, future tenses: All the same as today’s. “He wenteth” isn’t even close; it’s “He went.” It’s not “Thou will goeth,” it’s “Thou wilt go” (or “Thou shalt go,” depending on how commanding the statement is).

TODAY’S: She walks where he walks, so you watch where you walk.
KING’S: She walketh where he walketh, so thou watchest where thou walkest.

And if you wanna fiddle with subject/verb order a little bit, and sound a little bit more like Yoda, you can easily get away with it in the king’s English. Even though they didn’t do it all that often in the KJV; that was more of a Shakespearean practice.

YODA’S: Walketh she where walketh he, so watchest thou where walkest thou.

If you look though the KJV for examples, you’ll find most of the time they follow the rules of grammar as I’ve described. There are exceptions. ’Cause bear in mind that in the early 1600s, English was evolving into present-day English, which meant people were dropping the -eth and -est and “thou,” and already beginning to sound like we do. So the KJV isn’t absolutely consistent. Much as KJV-worshippers might like to imagine it’s grammatically perfect too, no it’s not.

That’s it for grammar. The rest of the king’s English is just out-of-date vocabulary. Like these:

ANON At once.
ASSAY Attempt.
BEWRAY To highlight.
BROID To braid.
CAREFUL Full of care and worry.
COAST Border.
CONVENIENT Appropriate.
EARNEST Collateral.
ENSUE To chase and overtake.
ERE Before.
FAIN Gladly.
FAINT Discouraged.
FLUX Dysentery.
FURLONG An eighth of a mile.
HALE To drag.
HALT Disabled.
HAPLY Maybe.
IMPLEAD To legally accuse.
INCONTINENT Lacking self-control.
INSTANT Persistent.
LET To prevent.
MEAT Food (not just flesh).
MEET Appropriate.
SCRIP Wallet.
SEVERALLY Separately.
SHAMBLES Butcher shop.
STUDY To strive.
SUFFER To allow.
TROW To suppose.
USURY Interest of any kind; not just excessive.
UNTOWARD Perverted.
WONT In the habit.
WOT To know.

There’s way more. Lots of words which people assume mean the same as they they do today, and they don’t. “Suffer the little children” Mk 10.14 doesn’t mean make ’em suffer; it means permit them, ’cause Jesus loves the little children.

If you write out your prayers, practice by translating them into the king’s English. Save ’em for those few occasions when you need a King James style prayer. The rest of the time, don’t worry about it.