In the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, there is a distinct type of English present (this passage from Job 1:7-12):

And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

8 And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?

9 Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?

10 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.

11 But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.

12 And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.


There are specific words used from (old? middle?) English, like unto, thou, whence, comest, fro, hast, and the ending certain words with -eth, like feareth, and escheweth.

There are modern writings that tend to imitate this style of writing, as an example, this "Ten Commandments of Writing an IMAP client":

  1. Thou shalt not assume that it is alright to open multiple IMAP sessions selected on the same mailbox simultaneously, lest thou face the righteous wrath of mail stores that doth not permit such access. Instead, thou shalt labor mightily, even unto having to use thy brain to thinketh the matter through, such that thy client use existing sessions that are already open.

Which brings me to my question: I'd like to critique this writing style and refer to it, but I don't know what it's called. What is the type of English used in the KJV called, and (if it's the same — or even if it isn't), what's the writing style used to parrot the KJV writing style called? It can be referred to in a single word or a phrase — I'm just interested in making sure I use the right terminology in referring to it.


6 Answers 6


The KJV is written in Early Modern English (not Middle or Old English).

Styles that imitate this use archaic English, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as:

Belonging to an earlier period, no longer in common use, though still retained either by individuals, or generally, for special purposes, poetical, liturgical, etc. Thus the pronunciation obleege is archaic in the first case; the pronoun thou in the second.

Archaic is how dictionaries like Lexico (also by Oxford) describe unto and shalt.

(You’ll also see some words marked obsolete in the dictionary. The difference between archaic and obsolete is that obsolete words aren’t used anymore.)

  • 12
    Good! I'd also note that the KJV featured some uses considered archaic even at the time of publication, as Barber discusses in his book. (A few examples: the use of words like "verily," of older idioms as opposed to more modern ones, keeping the thou/you distinction rather than reverting to a generic you.) In comparison, the Geneva Bible published 50 years before is often easier for modern English readers to follow, since it uses fewer archaisms and less Latinate diction. Oct 28, 2019 at 18:50
  • 3
    The KJV was published 1611. The advent of modern English doesn't have any one date, but it was 1550 at the latest. While it is "hard" to read at times, it is not "impossible," which Middle or Old English would be. +1 for a definitely correct answer.
    – Michael W.
    Oct 28, 2019 at 21:45
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    The thou/you distinction was still in pretty common use at the time the KJV was written. It was just at the very start of the process of disappearing then, and didn't become (nigh) ubiquitous until the early 1700s, I'd say. "verily" definitely wasn't archaic for the time. It's archaic now, but not obsolete.
    – Noldorin
    Oct 29, 2019 at 3:12
  • 4
    I'd publish a list of obsolete words but to do that I'd have to use them. Then they wouldn't be obsolete anymore. Oct 29, 2019 at 4:21
  • 1
    This wouldn't fit the Writing.SE, but Literature.SE, Christianity.SE, and Linguistics.SE would all be good places -- possibly each would have a different slant on the answer as well: examining it as a piece of writing, as an expression of faith, and as an expression of a specific point in the English language. Oct 30, 2019 at 13:40

Supplementary to Ray Butterworth's answer:

If you speak of this as the 'Biblical' style, and the modern parodies as 'Mock-Biblical', people will understand you.

As @Laurel says, the underlying English dialect is Early Modern English; but you need to realize as well that the Authorized Version is a translation which seeks to reflect both the various styles employed in the Hebrew and Greek originals and a literary tradition of Biblical translation stretching back two hundred years in English (and beyond that to the 4th-century Latin Vulgate). The 'Biblical' style was already established and familiar to its readers when the AV was first published: both the AV and its Catholic competitor the Douai-Rheims translation were stylistically based on the earlier work of Tyndale (1525), which hearkens back to Wycliffe's Middle English translations.

The theological authority of the AV carried over to its style, which dominated religious translation and expression in English for the next three centuries. The style was followed not only by translators of the Hebrew-Greek scriptures and works from other religious traditions such as the Quran and the Upanishads, but also by new works claiming religious authority, such as Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon and Aleister Crowley's Thelemist texts.

The Biblical style is so widespread that it's immediately recognized by virtually all English speakers, and is thus eminently suited to parody.

  • 8
    AND there are certain stylistic or rhetorical quirks from the original Hebrew preserved in many translations. These include the device of beginning successive sentences with AND for one. For another, there's the special Hebrew tense pattern/structure that in the Vulgate works out to pairs like expectans expectavit, so a progressive element like a participle combined with a perfect/praeterite/past echoing that but completed: Awaiting, I awaited scenarios.
    – tchrist
    Oct 28, 2019 at 15:22
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    @tchrist Oh, yes .. And some of those were not 'preserved' but introduced by the translators under a misunderstanding of BH grammar. That and, for instance, the initial wa- particle, is usually not and but a morphological prefix marking a particular conjugation of the verb. Oct 28, 2019 at 16:13
  • 1
    Yes. The 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which together with the AV is often seen as one of the glories of the English language, relies in same way you describe upon its predecessors - the 1549 and 1559 versions - in the use of Biblical English. The interesting thing is that the German reformer, Martin Bucer, who, invited by Thomas Cranmer, to advise the English church on its liturgy, didn't actually speak English. But it seems clear to a lay person, such as me, that it borrows from the same Biblical English.
    – WS2
    Oct 28, 2019 at 16:45
  • @WS2 For your rereading pleasure, please see the final section on “Special Effects” at the end of this posting for a particularly well-regarded and “authentic” recreation of the language of the AV/KJV in modern literature, here specifically the language of the Psalms.
    – tchrist
    Oct 29, 2019 at 13:58

The King James Bible was written in the same place and at the same time as Shakespeare's plays, but the styles of these two works are very different.

Shakespearean style requires a much larger vocabulary to understand and uses much more complicated sentence structure. The Biblical style is mostly simple words in easy to follow sentences. Shakespeare's works contain 31,534 different words, while the Old Testament and New Testament contain only 10,867 and 6,063 different words each (and a large number of those are proper nouns naming specific people and places).

So the style you refer to is not simply because of where and when it was written. Referring to it as "Elizabethan" or "Early Modern English" is misleading.

I'd simply call it "biblical" style.

And I'd say the given quotation is written in "mock biblical" style, especially since it is such a poor attempt at copying biblical style:

  • Until recently "alright" didn't even exist as a word.
  • "doth" is third person singular, but here it is used with a plural subject.
  • many verbs appear in modern form and aren't conjugated with "-t" (2nd person) or "-th" (3rd person) suffixes.
  • Could the difference in style be put down to the difference between prose vs. poetic forms at the time?
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 30, 2019 at 13:07
  • Doesn't poetry commonly use a much larger vocabulary that prose though?
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 30, 2019 at 14:05
  • The vocabulary in the old testament (in Hebrew) is also very limited.
    – Ian
    Oct 30, 2019 at 15:24
  • It also makes the mistake that always drives me nuts with faux archaic English and uses "thinketh" as thought it were an infinitive.
    – Casey
    Dec 2, 2021 at 1:33

How about Elizabethan?

Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death on 24 March 1603. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor.

Just for fun, check out this article for ways in which you can become conversant in Elizabethan English. Here's a fairly long excerpt:

2Sounding Funny Is Fun! (No, really, it's actually a blast)The biggest changes from our modern tongue come in the vowels. You remember kindergarten, right? A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y? In the English language, the vowels are the most flexible sounds, bending and morphing around the consonants they are framed with. In Elizabethan English, the vowels are the sounds that are the most different from our modern accent. Some pronunciations stay the same (we love those!) and some change.

Let's start at the top. We'll give the letter - or the sound - and examples of how that letter sounds in our modern accent, then explain the differences: Vowels A - cat, hat This version of the a, the short a, is basically the same. It is drawn out a bit, held onto just a little... caaat, haaat. A - father, walking This short a changes to a flat a like in "pant". So father rhymes with rather, walk sounds like whack. A - take, make, stable This long a becomes an eh sound. So take sounds like tek, make sounds like mek, stable like steble. Funny huh? E - head, dead The eh sound of these words becomes an ay or ai sound. So head and dead rhyme with braid. I and Y - lie, die, my, by The long i sound becomes an uh-ee sound. If you say my really really slowly, it sounds like m-ah-ee... instead, we're going to say m-uh-ee. This isn't oi like Yiddish! Lie sounds like l-uh-ee, die sounds like d-uh-ee, my sounds like m-uh-ee, by sounds like b-uh-ee.I - hit The short i stays the same (yay!) and rhymes with it. O - come This one becomes much darker and rounder... almost au sound.

You can almost throw in a uh sound too. So come becomes coom, of becomes uh-oov.U - cup, cut The short u sound combines with the "oo" sound, like "coop". If the short u and the oo sound had babies, that's what the short u should sound like. So cup becomes coop, cutbecomes coot. Let's add an R 3The r in Elizabethan English is more exaggerated, a hard r, but isn't quite the pirate "ARRRR!", or a rolled r. It's a consonant you can really chew on... never be afraid to lean on it and draw it out a little. ER - mercy This sound rhymes with air, and the r is emphasized. Mercy becomes maircy, terse sounds like tairce, curse becomes cairse. OR - Lord This takes on a very round mouth shape and the short o is almost an "oo" sound.

Lord becomes loord, ford becomes foord. The Diphthong! Diphthongs are not what happens when women wearing low rise jeans and thong underoos sit down. Rather, they are vowel combinations... In modern English, we usually shorten diphthongs to one quick sound... Elizabethan English usually uses both letters. After all, why would you put both in if they weren’t to be used? There is one exception, but that will be pointed out below. AI - fair In this case, both letters are pronounced. The a is a short a and the i is like the Elizabethan i. The r is hard, and a little exaggerated (but not rolled or the pirate rrrrrr). So "fair" becomes fah-ay-err. AY - say Pronounce both letters - so saay-ee. EI - either This is the diphthong exception. It becomes an "ay" sound, so either becomes ayther. OU - mouse Pronounce both letters, so mouse becomes muh-oose. Not "moose"... round out the ou sound and make it darker. House becomes huh-oose. OW - brown This is very similar to the OU - the W is afer all, a double u.Brown becomes bruh-oon. . . ..

Most of the consonants stay the same. There are a few, however, that do change. C - precious Modern English has turned the "cious" letter combination into "shun". We're going to turn the c into an s, and then say the rest of the letters. Precious sounds like preh-see-uhs, musician sounds like myu-zih-see-un. G and V - speaking, ever 4The G that appears at the ends of words can be dropped. Likewise, the V in the middle of words can often be dropped as well. This is especially appropriate for lower class characters. Speaking becomes speakin', listening becomes listenin', ever becomes e'er, evenbecomes e'en. Lower classes might even drop the v in heaven, making hea'en.H - hoop Every H is spoken (think Pygmalion, which was retold as My Fair Lady). Hoop is never oop, but always spoken with the letter H. Hand, heavy, hark, all use the H. K - knight

Modern English has turned the leading K in words like knight and knife silent. At this time, it was sometimes spoken, especially by the lower classes. Knight becomes kuh-night, knife becomes kuh-nife. R - art Remember the R from "lord"? Same deal... lean on it a little! Chew on it and enjoy it... R's are very fun to say. Arrrt! (Ok, that's a little piratey) S - compassion The double S, and sometimes single S, has become a sh sound in modern times. However, back in the day it was spoken as a hard s... instead of compashun, we're going to say comp-ah-see-ion, and instead of surely pronounced serly, it becomes soor-ly. T - righteous Like the S, sometimes a T isn't a T - it's a CH. Nowadays we say richus, but in Elizabethan speak we'd say each letter and get ri-tee-ous. Pastures goes from paschurs to pas-toors.

  • 1
    Seems to me the sound changes are pretty much irrelevant to the literary style. Oct 28, 2019 at 14:17
  • True that. I did, however, preface the lengthy excerpt by saying "just for fun." Don Oct 28, 2019 at 19:24
  • 1
    @alephzero James' panels undoubtedly had excellent ears for the cadences of the spoken language; but the literary style persisted through subsequent sound changes and through spoken realization in scores of dialects. Oct 28, 2019 at 23:50
  • 1
    That article doesn't work in my accent. For example, the "a" in "father" and in "walking" are very different from one another!
    – CJ Dennis
    Oct 30, 2019 at 5:57
  • 2
    Upvoted this, although I think technically its an anachronisim to call art produced during the reign of King James "Elizabethan" (technically its supposed to be Jacobean). Still, its just an off-by-one error. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 30, 2019 at 13:03

There is not one "writing style" for the King James Bible, per se. It was written by at least dozens of authors over thousands of years in multiple different languages, none of which were English. Due to the different authors and different languages they used, there are many writing styles within the Bible (regardless of version) and they are quite different from each other, even within a given version.

The language into which the King James Bible was translated is Elizabethan English, which is from the early portion of modern English. The works of Shakespeare also fall into this period of English.

Actual Old English and Middle English are much farther from what we'd recognize as English today, with the former's usage ending around the 11th century and the latter's usage ending around the 15th century. The King James Version of the Bible was translated and published in the early 17th century, with work beginning in 1604 and publication in 1611.

  • 7
    The first paragraph doesn't describe the King James Bible (‘Authorised Version’); it describes its sources.
    – gidds
    Oct 29, 2019 at 9:25
  • 4
    @gidds I would say that it describes both. The King James Bible is not a new work that merely cites sources, but rather a translation of an existing work (or a collection of existing works, depending on how you want to look at it.) The 'writing style' is, thus, more a function of the original authors and the languages in which they were writing than of the translators and their language. As a result, the writing style varies significantly from one part of the KJV to another.
    – reirab
    Oct 29, 2019 at 15:39
  • But the elements of the "style" identified in the question are language differences arising from changes in English over the last 308 years. The disparate styles present in the source are not responsible for that, and style differences from one part of the bible to another are not relevant to the question.
    – phoog
    Oct 30, 2019 at 5:43
  • @phoog The question asked about 'writing style,' but, as you note, the highlighted differences are language differences, not writing style differences. Thus, I answered both questions and tried to point out the distinction.
    – reirab
    Oct 30, 2019 at 5:56
  • 1
    Regretfully, I feel I have to bestow a rare downvote here. This post drastically undervalues the contribution of a translation and translators (and their source selection) to how a Bible translation reads. This fact is easily evident to anyone simply by going to Bible Gateway, picking a verse, and then changing the dropdown for translation several times. In the process, it does a grave disservice to amazing (arguably never since equaled) work that was done by the KJV translators.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 30, 2019 at 12:43

Early Modern, or Elizabethan, English, is also commonly called “Shakespearean,” although William Shakespeare’s writing is less formal and more humorous. You will often, for example, see the speech patterns of Marvel Comics’ Thor called “Shakespearean English.”

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