For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Words like “begotten,” “whosoever,” and “perish” would have gone right over their heads. Even “believeth,” though based on a familiar word, had a peculiar appendix dangling from one end.
So I changed it on the fly.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him won’t die, but will have everlasting life.
Best I could do in a pinch. Then I wondered: Who is still printing Olde English on children’s coloring sheets in the 21st century?
The translation on the girls’ sheet came from the King James Version, of course. The King James Version uses “Olde” English. Not really Old English, which is practically a foreign language, but Olde English: recognizable English but with some old fashioned habits.
Many of my favorite hymns speak Olde. I like to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” in the car of a morning. “Thy Faithfulness,” not “Your Faithfulness.” I’ve tried modernizing it, but “Your” just doesn’t sound as good. Likewise, “You are worthy, you are worthy, you are worthy O Lord/To receive glory, glory and honor…” just doesn’t work as well as “Thou art worthy…”
My grandfather Buck—Buck was his name and Buck was what everybody, including his grandchildren, called him—spoke Olde but only when he prayed. God was “Thee” and “Thou,” never a mere “You.” God “hath” the whole world in his hand, never “has.” We had the sense, listening to Buck as he blessed Grandma’s cooking (which was always superb and needed no blessing), that to address God as “You” would have shown the basest of disrespect. “Thou” and “art” and “hast” helped Buck feel reverent toward his Lord.
So on the one hand, the persistence of Olde into modern times creates confusion. It befuddles kids who are just getting to know the Bible, and that’s not a good thing. On the other hand, many people feel an inalienable attachment to Olde—their very sense of worship is bound up in those ancient words.
Did you know that the King James Bible sounded archaic even when it came out? That’s right. On the very day that the King James Bible was published, its thees and thous and hasts and spakes were already out of date, and had been for at least thirty years.
The King James version was published in 1611. Transcripts of court sessions from as late as 1575 show that “thee” and “thou” had all but fallen out of use. In 2009 we expect King James English to sound old fashioned. But it sounded old fashioned even in 1611.
This raises the question: Why did the translators of the King James Bible use old fashioned language? The answer, according to Alister McGrath, is that the translators were instructed to follow the English of an earlier Bible, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, as closely as possible. Unless they had a good reason to change the translation, the King James translators kept the words of a 1568 text.
But it doesn’t stop there. The translators of the Bishops’ Bible, likewise, were instructed to base their work on the Great Bible of 1539. But this translation, in turn, was adapted from Tyndale’s 1525 translation.
Therefore, the King James Bible, though released in 1611, reflected the English language as it was spoken in 1525.
It seems that Olde has an almost viral resilience in the midst of the ever-changing English language. Christians tend to respect authority—especially the authority of Scripture. Therefore, when the question of whether to change the words or to keep them the same arises, we tend to opt for the former option. The conservative option. The reverent option.
So what shall we do? Jettison Olde English and make things easier for ourselves and our children? Or cling to the old ways and teach our children to do the same?
The answer is obvious. After all, who are we to change the course of history?
So let’s all learn to speak Olde! That’s right. It’s fun. It’s quaint. It keeps us in touch with the past. By garn it’s the right solution.
And I’ve found that it’s really quite simple. You only have to learn two kinds of things: (1) the second-person pronouns and (2) a few verbal endings. In all about eight new words.
Thou, Thee, and Friends
In Olde you don’t just say “you” or “y’all.” There are a wealth of second-person pronouns—”thou,” “thee,” “ye,” “thy,” and “thine.” Here’s how it works.
If you are talking to a singular person, like your buddy Thom, and he’s the subject of your sentence, then you use “thou.” Like this: “Thom, thou lied to me.”
But if you’re speaking to Thom and he’s the object of the sentence, you use “thee.” “Thom, I hate thee.”
“Thou” is the subject, “thee” is the object. So you do not say, “Thee art an ape.” Rather, “Thou art an ape.” Nor do you say, “He smote thou.” Rather, “He smote thee.”
Got it so far? Good.
Now for plurals. If you’re speaking to several people at once—say, the members of your bridge club—then you use “ye” and “you.” Yes, that “you”, the old familiar “you” which in modern English works everywhere.
Examples. “Ye must play better or we shall surely lose.” Yes, “ye” is used as the subject when the people being addressed are plural. “You” is for a plural object: “They beat you.” Note that “you” here is specifically the plural object—not the generic modern you. “Ye art fools, and the other team shall defeat you.”
Almost done with second-person pronouns. There are only two others, “thy” and “thine.” These are the possessives. You use them when somebody owns something. So, “Thom, thy girlfriend hath betrayed thee.” It’s Thom’s girlfriend, and Thom is singular, so we use “thy” instead of modern “your.”
For plural people you use “thine.” “Ye play thine cards as if ye were drunk.”
That’s it for the pronouns. Here’s a chart to help thee keep it straight.
If all you learn is the Olde ways of saying “you,” thou art well on thy way to Olde mastery. However, in order to truly talk the talk, you must also learn the Olde verbal endings.
Learnest Thy Endings
It’s quite simple. Generally speaking, you use verbs just as you usually would. So, “I say that we stay” would be quite correct.
But if the subject of the verb is second person then you stick “-est” or “-st” onto the end of the verb. So:
“Thou dost the right thing.”
“Ye goest wherever ye wishest.”
“What dost thou sayest, Willis?”
Simple as that. Just remember second person = -est and you’ll be fine.
Finally, if the subject of the verb is third person (he, she, it, they), then you add “-eth” or “-th” onto the end. Thus:
“Lo! he hath a gun!”
“He hateth me, I just know he doth.”
“Surely by now he stinketh.”
And that’s all you need to know about Olde English! Of course, there are lots of other little details such as the variant forms of “to be” (e.g. “art” instead of “are”) and peculiar forms of words (e.g. “spake” instead of “spoke”). But what you’ve just learned will enable you to better understand the King James Bible and some of the older hymns. It will also enable you to hold forth in style at Scarborough Faire and other Renaissance festivals around the country.
Time to start teaching the girls!