17 January 2011

How should you address God?

An article at the BBC this morning discusses the impact the King James Bible has had upon the English language, enumerating the number of phrases that have come into our language from that source (257 to be exact, according to one scholar), and the number of new words (about 40 - much fewer than the thousand or so introduced by Edward deVere).

What I found most interesting in the piece was this bit about forms of address used when speaking to God:
Has the KJB kept Christian language stuck in the 17th Century? "We thank thee, O God, for the manifest blessings that thou hast vouchsafed unto us," is one example of such a passage.

"It's the last thing the translators would have wanted," argues Simon Jenkins, editor of the Christian website shipoffools.com. "Ironically, at the time, 'you' was a more formal way of addressing someone, and 'thou' was more familiar, but they decided not to use any special grammar for God. He was 'thou' just like everybody else.

"But when I was being brought up, people were still talking to God as 'thou''. it's hopelessly antiquated and alienating. The translators made the right decision at the time, but what the church later did with it doesn't convey that intention at all."
More at the BBC.


  1. Interestingly enough, I first learned this in a religion class during college. I garentee that most people aren't aware there are "formal" and "informal" English, just as there is in French.

  2. In German using the informal case where not appropriate is an insult.Or at least it was when I studied German. "Du" was reserved for family, close friends and pets. Use with a stranger was either an insult or a sexual proposition.

  3. @jaundicedaye: I guess, it's some days ago, that you learnt German, is it? In present-day German, we are much more used to the "Du" - even for distant friends or people you don't know at all. It depends on the situation, e.g. in a student's café, on a party, among colleagues (depending on the branch, not in banking, i presume :-) ).
    God has always been addressed with the familiar "Du", even in history, never with the "Ihr", as it was in use for kings and lords in former times.

  4. Wouldn't referring to It in the 3rd person be best? Like snooty waiters, "What would Sir like?"

  5. Edward Devere - isn't he the college grad that learned how to be a genius in school? Why didn't they offer me those courses?

  6. But when you have "th" and "y" in older English texts, you also have to worry about the possibility that it was pronounced the same way.



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