thou WAS Believe on me: WTF?

James Harbeck jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA
Sun Sep 2 23:07:52 UTC 2007

James Landau's post came through with a lot of HTML formatting marks
on it, making it hard to read. But if I read him right, his angle is
that although "thee" and "thou" were informal or intimate personal
forms in the past, they are now used more or less exclusively for
formal purposes and, thus, in modern usage, _are_ formal.

This is a good decriptivist approach and is hard to gainsay prima
facie; it's quite true that people (outside of Yorkshire, anyway, and
a few other places) think of "thou" as very formal, in the way
archaisms quite often are, and current usage determines current
meaning. The problem here is an exegetical one. The King James
Version was made with the intention that the address to God be done
using the singular intimate form; if God had been in a distant
high-and-mighty position, God would have been "you". The falling out
of use of "thou" has left its common appearance in only a few places,
one of which (perhaps the main and certainly, for many or most, the
most important) being the King James Version of the Bible. A loss of
understanding of the original intent has allowed attitudes towards
God as being distant and high-and-mighty to affect the interpretation
of "thou" rather than being corrected by it. And now, in a
circularity of effect, the presence of "thou" bolsters and justifies
this attitude towards God.

So we can say that the modern usage of "thou" is a formal one, and I
can't really argue that it's not, because it obviously is for most
people. But those who hold that it is used for God because it is
formal, and who justify their formal approach to God with its use in
the Bible, most certainly are in error. _They_ may use it for God to
be formal, but their entire position rests on a mistaken and circular
argument. The fact is that the use of "thou" in the King James Bible
is _not_ a modern use. It is a seventeenth-century use, and it is an
error to treat it as a modern one. And the error may be corrected by
changing their understanding of the word "thou".

Of course, there are many other things in the Bible that are usually
interpreted quite grossly out of proper context; this is far from
being a unique case! But that doesn't change the facts. Any
"Bible-believing Christian" (a term taken on by many of the more
right-wing and evangelical Protestant groups ) certainly ought to
know _what_ he or she is actually supposed to believe, no? Otherwise
it's like making a recipe but misunderstanding the measurements --
sort of like the cook who thought "one clove of garlic" was one
_head_ of garlic.

James Harbeck.

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list