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The word "thou" (and similar variations of the Latin tu in other languages) was used between people for informal speech, and talking to people of lower standing.

So why did people use it (most prominently, in the King James Version of the Bible) to address God? If anything, I'd think speaking in humble deference to one's deity would definitely require one to use "you".

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Nov 17 '16 at 1:05
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In most languages an informal pronoun is used to address God. In German they use the informal 'du', for example. It's meant to signify a personal relationship with God, as in the way you would talk to your father.

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    Similarly in Spanish, the tu form is used: Dios mío, Dios mío, ¿por qué me has desamparado? Has is in the tu form. Thou is not intended to be formal, but to be intimate. – Paul Senzee Jan 14 '15 at 0:38
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    Jesus addresses Satan with thee in Matthew 4:10 (KJV), and throughout Matthew 4:1-10 Jesus and Satan address each other using thou. Are we meant to believe that Jesus and Satan are using thou for any reason other than they were addressing one person? That is, the meaning of thou in the KJV and earlier English translations of the Holy Bible simply means you singular. – Alan Carmack Oct 19 '16 at 15:13
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To sum up what I was suspecting and what is suggested in one of the comments and (I believe) in one of the answers, God is referred to as thou (and its related case forms) because that is the only 2nd person singular pronoun used in KJV. The only possible case where a single person is referred to in the second person is Titus 2:7–8. The other epistle addressed to a single person (Philemon) uses only thou. All the dialogue involving Jesus or the apostles appears to use thou regardless of who is being addressed.

I don't know if we have any actual bible scholars on the site, but it'd be nice to have their opinion.

  • What does the g in 2sg mean, out of curiosity? – Joe Z. Mar 31 '14 at 14:05
  • @JoeZ. 2nd person sinGular. – jlovegren Mar 31 '14 at 22:41
  • Ohhhh. I thought s was "singular" and then g was some other thing. – Joe Z. Apr 1 '14 at 1:12
  • @Joe Sometimes it is. The abbreviations msg, fsg, and nsg, for example, refer to the masculine/feminine/neuter singular genitive when talking about languages where such designations make sense. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 14 '15 at 1:06
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    In Titus 2:7-8, the you is plural you. (Greek περι ὑμων). Additionally, as it happens, the majority of Greek manuscripts have περι ἡμων (of us), which is almost assuredly the better translation. The Latin Vulgate has nobis (of us). See also "the Syriac, all the Arabic, Slavonic, Vulgate, Itala, and several of the primitive fathers. This reading makes a better sense, and is undoubtedly genuine." (Clarke's commentary). – Alan Carmack Oct 19 '16 at 16:37
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I would like to know when the invention to address one person as several persons for reasons of respect came up. The poster assumes that this polite form of address was common in earliest times. But that may be an erroneous view and the polite forms of address may be a relatively late invention. I have never had reason to study this problem in detail but I think in the connection with the posted question this problem should be studied first.

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    PS I see it is not easy to find out via Internet how the people of the Bible addressed God, but I think they used the pronoun singular and that was no sign of disrespect. – rogermue Mar 26 '14 at 19:56
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Honestly, I have no idea what you are talking about.

First, English is a creole. What pronouns that had been conveniently imported in English and then formalized for normal usage long ago, would no longer carry any connotation of disrespect of the source language.

2ndly, in formalized medieval English, thou is nominative singular to the accusative plural you.

Biblical Hebrew and Greek express accusative, genitive, possessive, nominative cases in their own distinct ways. Bible translators are required to be obsessive in accuracy in reflecting these subtleties. Therefore, legacy notions of disrespect that a pronoun might have had is less important than the accuracy of portraying the case of a pronoun.

You have to understand, the anal attitude towards extracting interpretation even in the minute characteristics of a word is a Jewish tradition that the early Christians, and modern day fundamentalist Christians seek to inherit.

Therefore,

  • Nominative: Singular = thou; Plural = ye
  • Accusative: Singular = thee; Plural = you
  • Genitive: Singular = thy; Plural = your

Since that is how the Bible had been translated into English, more for accuracy of language than for legacy nuances of disrespect, and speakers of modern English who wish to reflect the biblical accuracy of cases of pronouns in their liturgical practice have no care nor knowledge of those legacy nuances.

In so much that, even the translators of the Quran would use medieval English pronouns to exploit the availability of more case-distinctness.

Indeed, French speaking people are the most annoyed bunch of people at the English language, due to our disrespectful, twisted, pidgin use of French words we had imported into the English language. If you do have a beef about our using words with a legacy of disrespect, which none of us are aware of, you might wish to explore our mangling of the French language first.

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    I can't make head or tail of this answer, most of which seems to be irrelevant to the question. I find the question clear, and one which has often occurred to me. Even if English were a creole (which I dispute) how is that relevant to the question? Thou was indeed in use for intimates and subordinates in Middle and Early Modern English, corresponding to tu, du etc in other languages; and for a Modern English speaker who knows it only historically it can indeed seem strange to address the deity in that way. – Colin Fine Mar 26 '14 at 11:44
  • An effective way to say you don't like a concept - is to explain you don't agree with it and then backpedal to say you don't understand the concept. – Blessed Geek Mar 28 '14 at 0:19
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    My best guess is that this comment states that thou (etc.) were used because they were the literal translation of the singular 2nd person. (The cases are irrelevant, and of course the translations also used the correct declension.) But it goes on to claim that because Bible and Quran translators are "required" (by whom?) to be obsessive, they also use thou because the distinction between nominative and accusative is retained with thou and lost with you. I find this dubious. – Andrew Lazarus Jan 14 '15 at 7:19

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