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What happened to the “-est” and “-eth” verb suffixes in English? How were they once used?

With all this rapture thing going on now, I noticed that through the Internet, the English version of the Bible has sentences like:

Howbeit we know this man whence he is: but when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is.

So what's up with all these words ending in -eth? Are they correct grammatically and what's the difference between this and their usual use like "knows", "comes" etc.?

  • 1
    It changed to 's', by the way, what is your native language?
    – Thursagen
    May 21, 2011 at 0:39
  • Maybe God has a lisp? It would explain his objection to serpents and Sodom.
    – mgb
    Jun 1, 2011 at 2:45

4 Answers 4


Someone may correct me and come up with a non-facetious current usage, but in general the -eth ending is archaic.

Some people think old equates to established equates to authoritative, so they feel more comfortable with things like Bibles using archaic language.

New Bibles tend to use more modern language, but there's always a rump of die-hards. Plus lots of people still have very old Bibles - either because they're likely to be more robustly bound, or because they don't actually use them much anyway.

  • 1
    interesting :D so basically this is a older version of the english language, but religious people continue to use it because it sounds cooler
    – Alex
    May 20, 2011 at 15:18
  • @lex: Certainly not cooler! If anything, the modern slang use of cool implies pretty much the opposite! Anyway, apart from dialectal timewarps like the Amish community in US, religious people don't actually use these archaic forms. They're just more likely to persist in Bibles than anywhere else nowadays. May 20, 2011 at 15:30
  • 2
    coolness is very much a matter of context and taste. I know plenty of people who would agree that (in the right context) the language of the KGB is pretty badass.
    – PLL
    May 20, 2011 at 15:34
  • 2
    @Alex, that form survives because of the enduring popularity of the King James Bible, which dates from 1611...no modern English versions do not use archaic forms.
    – JeffSahol
    May 20, 2011 at 15:38
  • @PPL: Current associations for slang coolness are, as you say, pretty wide-ranging (but most usages are actually exceptionally vague, IMHO). Anyway, I still think those who are more [tolerant?] of these archaisms wouldn't think they were being cool. Not would most others apply that word to them. May 20, 2011 at 15:55

They are the archaic form of those words.

The suffix -eth (also -th) is classified like this in my NOAD:

suffix - archaic
Forming the third person singular of the present tense of verbs : doeth | saith.

ORIGIN Old English -eth, -ath, -th.

I remember there was a similar question treating the same topic (although from a slightly different perspective) but I haven't found it yet.

EDIT - Found it: What happened to the “‑est” and “‑eth” verb suffixes in English?

  • 1
    In Shakespeare (c 1600) "-(e)s" is more common, but "-(e)th" is used as well, with no obvious pattern to the choice.
    – Colin Fine
    May 20, 2011 at 14:21
  • 1
    By the way, thanks also to Kosmonaut for that nice answer :D @Colin Fine: So it's like a transition time between the two usages?
    – Alenanno
    May 20, 2011 at 14:33

There is not a single English version, there are many English versions (to illustrate, here is an example which shows a comparison, NIV is from 1974-78 and KJV is from 1604-1611).

The history of English translations of the Bible is quite rich and very interesting linguistically.

If people quote an older version you will have various examples of archaic language constructs from different eras.

Quoting particular translation might be significant in cultural context of the quote (and of course in linguistic and religious context), as there are changes in translations which are more or less significant.

Just for illustration: in the comparison from the first paragraph one translation uses word charity and one uses love - this is quite significant, especially since the text proclaims it more important than both hope and faith. In this case, one can argue that even the essence of certain texts is changed between versions and quoting particular version might have more substance to it than superficial attempt to imply credibility or value through use of archaic language.

  • And of course the worlds also change outside the text. The meaning of faith and charity have changed in the last half century from it's KJB meaning to "live-aid" so the modern reading of that phrase would be that it's more important to buy good-cause records than believe in God.
    – mgb
    May 20, 2011 at 15:49
  • @Martin Beckett, example was only to illustrate. I stumbled over it when looking at the etymologies related to Gk. agape (see that it was not a straight-forward translation even initially - etymonline.com/index.php?term=charity).
    – Unreason
    May 20, 2011 at 15:55
  • yes was just making the point that translation isn't just about removing antiquated language - language is a moving target.
    – mgb
    May 20, 2011 at 16:07

It appears you're quoting from the King James Bible, which is just one English translation. Granted, it's a very famous translation and was the best translation of its day, but the English is archaic. For a long time, it was the only option, and even today some circles consider it to be the English translation.

There are a variety of English translations of the Bible today, varying from strictly literal to paraphrases. If you want to read a fairly simple English translation that's easy to read, I'd recommend the GNB (Good News Bible), also known as the TEV (Today's English Version). A less-simple version would be the NIV (New International Version).

You might get considerable debate on those recommendations, as people can be very passionate on the subject. You can search and view many different translations at Bible Gateway.

  • Have to give +1, essentially we gave the same answer in the same time. :)
    – Unreason
    May 20, 2011 at 15:02
  • The KJV was not the first translation into English (indeed, much of it was based on Tyndale's translation), so it was never the only option. It may, perhaps, have been the only option available in certain areas. Still today, some people think it's the only valid English translation. (Some people refuse to accept that it's a translation at all.)
    – TRiG
    May 23, 2011 at 18:56

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