It’s useful to know a little Biblical English (the way English is used in the King James version-- or KJV, sometimes called the Authorized Version-- of the Bible) even if you never plan to read it.
If you want to listen to or sing traditional hymns, or to listen to prayers in English, you will at least need to recognize ‘Thee,’ ‘Thou,’ and ‘Thy.’
Read on. It isn’t as hard as it looks.
There are a few important—but simple to learn-- differences from the ordinary English you hear in English-speaking cities or read in the news or on the Internet.
The biggest differences are the use of second person singular pronouns and verb endings, and different verb endings for most third person singular verbs in the present tense.
In current English we have only one pronoun for addressing another person or people. Whether speaking formally or informally, to one person or several, we say “you.”
'You' is also the 2nd person object pronoun. In addition to “You are my friend/s,” we can say “I see you” or “I want to give you a present.” Possessives are ‘your’ and ‘yours’: “Is this your pen or mine?” “It’s yours.” See English Pronouns for a little more grammar explanation and many more examples.
If we want to make it clear that we are talking to more than one person, we have to add extra words like “all of you.” (In the southern U.S. they solve this problem with “y’all,” and in California we say “you guys” in informal conversation, even when girls are involved.)
The King James Bible makes it easy to tell if someone is talking to one person or many. ‘You’ is only used for plurals—and the subject form of you is changed to ‘ye.’
Singular forms are ‘thou’ (pronounced like ‘now’) for the 2nd person singular subject pronoun and ‘thee’ for the object pronoun. The possessive adjective is ‘thy’ and the possessive pronoun is ‘thine.’ (It’s also used as a possessive adjective before vowel sounds, for example “thine eye.”)
(In the examples all the old forms mentioned anywhere on this page are bolded—not just the ones mentioned in each section.)
• Exodus 20:12-13 “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 13 Thou shalt not kill.”
• In Matthew 5:20 Jesus uses the plural forms, speaking to His listeners as a group: “ For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
One reason for using thee and thou in translating the Bible is that they are a clearer, more accurate translation of the original Greek and Hebrew. In many passages it would otherwise be unclear who is being addressed. For example, in Luke 22:31-32:
• “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: 32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.”
Without distinguishing you and thee, we would not know that Jesus said that Satan desired them all, but that He had prayed specifically for Peter.
Many people still use ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ in prayer to address God respectfully. Others, especially younger people, use ‘You.’ Traditional hymns almost always use ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ in speaking to God.
Note also that in English we capitalize the name of God, and often pronouns referring to Him, when speaking of the Creator of all. When speaking of other gods that people make, like those worshipped by the peoples of Canaan, we do not capitalize ‘god.’
If an English speaker writes about the Creator as ‘god,’ he may well be trying to shock his readers. That might be carelessness, but it is likely to be a deliberate statement of disbelief and disrespect—so it is worth taking care.
Second person singular verbs end in –st or -est (usually) in the present tense (and in the simple past: wast, didst, hadest, sawest).
In the King James Bible, third person singular verbs in the simple present tense end in –th or –eth instead of –s or –es (the current endings for that tense.)
Some modal verbs (which are not conjugated in modern English) also use the 2nd person singular endings: canst, couldest, mayest, mightest, and shouldest. (For will and shall, see the next section.)
• Matthew 5: 36-37 “ Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. 37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
• Jeremiah 3:5 “…Behold, thou hast spoken and done evil things as thou couldest.”
• Luke 12:58 When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison.
• Luke 1:4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.
• Genesis 3:11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
• Matthew 18: 12-13 “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? 13 And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.”
(This is written in the English subjunctive tense, following the ‘ifs.’ That’s why it uses ‘if a man have’, ‘one… be gone’, and ‘if so be that he find it’ instead of using 3rd person singular present tense ‘has’, ‘is gone’, and ‘finds.’ 'Verily' means 'truly.'
The subjunctive tense is much more common in the KJV Bible than in ordinary speech, but we still use it occasionally. We might say “if I thought he were really going to do it” instead of “I think he is going to.” It shows doubt or a hypothetical-- not actual-- situation.)
Notice also that when ‘do’ is used as a helping (auxiliary) verb, its endings are –st and –th. When it stands alone, the endings are –est and- -eth.
• Luke 13:34. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!
• Matthew 6:3. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth…
• John 3:20. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
• John 7:51. Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth? (More subjunctives, for ‘hear’ and ‘know.’)
‘Will’ is the common 1st person future auxiliary, ‘shalt’ for 2nd person singular (though ‘wilt’ is also used) and ‘shall’ (usually—though not always—see the examples) for 2nd person plural and 3rd person. It’s just the opposite of more recent use.
(In current use, ‘will’ is taking over, and ‘shall’ is used less and less.) ‘Should’ (as well as ‘if’) may be used as a subjunctive. When that happens in the 3rd person singular, the main verb loses its ending.
• Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave* unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (*cleave- here means hold tightly.)
• Genesis 3:3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
• Matt. 7:4-5 “How wilt thou say… then thou shalt see clearly…” v.9 will he give him a stone? but v.11 shall your Father… give good things to them that ask him.”
We now use whoever, whatever, in (or of) which (for wherein or whereof), and wherever (for whither.) See the examples above as well as these.
• Matthew 7:12 12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
(Now we would say "Whatever you would like men to do to you, do the same to them." "Ye would" means 'you would like' or 'you want.')
• Matthew 19:9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
The KJV uses ‘yeah’ or ’nay’ when we would say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
There are several more differences in verbs in Biblical English. For example, the KJV uses ‘spake’ instead of ‘spoke’ for the past tense of ‘speak.’ Instead of ‘to hit’ or ‘to harm’ it uses ‘to smite’ (past tense ‘smote’) for everything from God sending plagues on Egypt to nations attacking other nations.
‘Lest’ means acting ‘in order to avoid’ something bad happening.
Numbers 22:6 “Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.” (‘Peradventure’ means ‘maybe’; wot’ means ‘know.’)
Acts 12:23 “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost” (died,)
Mark 13:5 “And Jesus answering them began to say, Take heed lest any man deceive you” (or: 'Be careful that no one deceives you.')
Mark 14:2 “But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people.” (to avoid an uproar, or ‘so that there would not be an uproar.’)
There are many more old or even archaic words. If you ever want to read the KJV, you will probably need to keep a good dictionary handy.