Traditional English versus Common English

The Holy Bible in Traditional English

My wife and I home educate our children. Today, I just gave them their first lesson in Traditional English, or what some people call "King James English" (that's not a proper term but whatever). Traditional English is proper English, wherein the second person pronoun is expressed very particularly, and this is absolutely NECESSARY when translating the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into English. It's also necessary when translating Latin Church documents into English as well. Modern Common English does not have these second-person pronoun equivalents, which makes Common English translations of the Bible inferior to Traditional English, and yes, this stuff really does matter.

Now I should make it clear here, when I say Traditional English, that doesn't mean the language is somehow "more holy" than Common English. It's not. Nor does it mean that one version of English is better than another. It just means that one form of English (Traditional English) is specifically geared toward dealing with the ancient languages from which our religion comes (primarily Hebrew and Greek and secondarily Aramaic and Latin). I should also point out here, this is not a Protestant "King James Only" website. There are multiple Bible versions that use Traditional English, and this author does not limit himself to just one. Nor do I believe modern Common English translations are somehow diabolical. That's just silly. Granted, some Bible translations are better than others, but that's how it's always been, throughout English history, and in multiple different languages. Personally, I find myself partial to both the King James Bible and the Douay–Rheims Bible for study purposes. For casual reading however, I prefer the Revised Standard Version -- Catholic Edition.

Traditional English translations of the Bible include the following...
  1. Great Bible (1539)
  2. Geneva Bible (1557-1560)
  3. Bishops Bible (1568, revised in 1572 and 1602)
  4. King James Bible (1604-1611, revised in 1769)
  5. Douay–Rheims Bible (1582-1610, revised in 1750)
In addition, Traditional English is used in various editions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, as well as the recently released Catholic Book of Divine Worship. (The Book of Divine Worship is currently under revision as of the date of this essay. The revised Mass and Occasional Services have already been released.) These, along with the above translations of the Bible, are standards of Traditional English in the Christian world.

Every English speaking child should be schooled in Traditional English. It's not hard. There are only a few rules, and not only will this give them a better appreciation of religious literature, but it will also improve their appreciation of Shakespeare and the English classics.

This short essay is by no means intended to be a comprehensive review of Traditional English, but rather a short overview of how the rules of the language work. First of all, we call it Traditional English because this is the form of English that was commonly used in the translation of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, as well as the Latin documents of the Church. This particular form of English was adopted specifically for this purpose, because Common English (the language spoken by the common everyday Englishman) did not have the proper second person pronouns to translate the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures properly. The same goes for Latin translations of the Scriptures, as well as Latin documents of the Church. Thus a specific set of rules was adopted for this purpose. When you understand them, the Scriptures come alive with very specific meaning that is often missed with modern Common English translations of the Bible.

With the rise of Traditional English came a golden age of English poetry, plays, songs and literary classics. In truth, nobody ever really spoke in the "thees and thous" of Traditional English exactly as it's written in the older English translations of the Bible. To be sure, people did use some of that in common speech, here and there, but for the most part, it never really was exactly as we read in ancient literature. There is the issue of accent too. Around the time of Shakespeare, Englishmen spoke with an accent that would sound very Scottish to us today in the modern world. As a result of this, much of Shakespeare's plays actually rhymed, and were filled with colourful plays on words that are often lost on modern audiences.

For a brief time in English history, there was a class war between the usage of Common English and Traditional English, Common English eventually prevailing because it was seen as more aristocratic than Traditional English. This is the exact opposite of what one would think today, but as I often say, the truth is stranger than fiction, and when it comes to history (especially English history) you just can't make this stuff up.

So today, Traditional English has fallen into disuse and neglect, probably for two reasons. The first is that ridiculous class war they had in England some centuries back, wherein Englishmen got it in their heads that the word "you" sounds so much more sophisticated than the word "thou". The second is probably because of general laziness. It's easy to move a language in a downward trend, with less rules to follow and more ambiguity, while as it's harder to move a language in an upward trend, with a few more rules and greater clarity. Sadly, as a result of this, many modern English speakers are intimidated by Traditional English. The "thees and thous" seem too confusing, and as a result, they avoid it entirely. Who suffers as a result? We all do, and most especially our language suffers. Shakespeare and the English classics fall into neglect, unappreciated for the masterful works they are. The older Traditional English translations of the Bible sit forgotten on the shelves, collecting dust, while our newer Common English translations may give us a cursory understanding of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, but they often leave us in the dark concerning their specific meaning in many cases. Sometimes those cases are very important. More than a few doctrinal errors (outright heresies) are the product of Common English translations. So it behoves us to learn a little Traditional English, and teach it too our children, both for their good and ours. It is, after all, part of our English language and heritage.

Let's begin with the basics. It all starts with a little thing called a pronoun. A pronoun is a word that substitutes a noun. It usually applies when talking about people, but it can apply to an animal or object too. We're all familiar with pronouns. I use them all the time. I bet you do too...

First Person Singular Pronouns
  • I          (subjective, usually at the beginning of a sentence)
  • Me      (objective, usually at the end of a sentence)
  • My      (possessive, subjective)
  • Mine    (possessive, objective)
First Person Plural Pronouns
  • We     (subjective, usually at the beginning of a sentence)
  • Us      (objective, usually at the end of a sentence)
  • Our    (possessive, subjective)
  • Ours   (possessive, objective)
That's simple enough. These first person, singular and plural pronouns have carried over between Common English and Traditional English very well. There is virtually no difference between them. The same is true for third person pronouns...

Third Person Singular Pronouns
  • He/She/It     (subjective, usually at the beginning of a sentence)
  • Him/Her/It   (objective, usually at the end of a sentence)
  • His/Hers/Its  (possessive)
Third Person Plural Pronouns
  • They      (subjective, usually at the beginning of a sentence)
  • Them     (objective, usually at the end of a sentence)
  • Theirs    (possessive)
Once again, the transition between Common English and Traditional English is almost flawless. There is virtually no difference at all.

Now, where Common English and Traditional English really deviate is over second person pronouns. This is where Common English really falls short in comparison to the ancient languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. All of these languages had very specific pronouns for the second person singular, which differentiated between the second person plural. For example; when saying "you", these ancient languages would have a very specific pronoun for the singular version of you, as in "just you" (one person), and the plural version of you, as in "you all" (more than one person). But in Common English we just say "you" and there is no way to know, especially in writing, if you're talking to just one person, or to a group of people. People in the southern American states (otherwise known as the Deep South or Bible Belt), they have tried to correct this Common English deficit by creating the word y'all which is just a contraction of the two words "you all". Many people in the northern American states look down on this vernacular as backward or uneducated, but in reality, what southern Americans have done is really quite intelligent. They've recognised a significant deficit in Common English and have supplemented it with a short, grammatically accurate, and gender-neutral contraction. That's pretty darn smart if you ask me, and it's a lot better than what their supposedly more sophisticated northern American counterparts do when they say "you guys", whether the intended audience is male, female or a mixture of the two. I don't know about you, but if I were a woman, in a group of women, and somebody called us using the words "you guys", I would feel a little awkward about that. I would much rather be called with the contracted pronoun y'all. As a man, it doesn't bother me quite as much, except when someone calls "you guys" in reference to my family: wife, son, daughter and myself. I could care less for my son and I, but for my wife and daughter, I do feel a little annoyed. I would much rather people use the more courteous, gender-neutral, and much more sophisticated contraction y'all. It may not sound all that sophisticated to the northern or western American ear, but at least it respects the gender of my wife and daughter.

This is where Common English and Traditional English really part ways. Let's examine the problem in Common English a little more closely...

Common English Second Person Singular Pronouns
  • You      (subjective, usually at the beginning of a sentence)
  • You      (objective, usually at the end of a sentance)
  • Your     (possessive, subjective)
  • Yours    (possessive, objective)  
Common English Second Person Plural Pronouns
  • You      (subjective, usually at the beginning of a sentence)
  • You      (objective, usually at the end of a sentence)
  • Your     (possessive, subjective)
  • Yours    (possessive, objective)  
Did you notice anything? There is no difference at all in Common English between Second Person SINGULAR Pronouns and Second Person PLURAL pronouns. This is a HUGE deficit in Common English. We encounter it in every day speech, but we're so used to it, we almost never notice it. However, the creation of the southern American y'all and the northern American "you guys" is a tacit recognition that there is a problem in Common English. Now let's take a look at the second person pronouns in Traditional English...

Traditional English Second Person Singular Pronouns
  • Thou      (subjective, usually at the beginning of a sentence)
  • Thee      (objective, usually at the end of a sentence)
  • Thy        (possessive, subjective)
  • Thine      (possessive, objective)
Traditional English Second Person Plural Pronouns
  • Ye        (subjective, usually at the beginning of a sentence)
  • You      (objective, usually at the end of a sentence)
  • Your     (possessive, subjective)
  • Yours    (possessive, objective)  
Wow! See the difference? What we have here is absolute clarity in the second person pronoun, especially between singular and plural usage. Singular second person pronouns start with a T, while as plural second person pronouns start with a Y.

What you'll immediately notice is the second person singular rhyming with the first person singular: me and thee, my and thy, mine and thine. This accounts for the explosion of poetry, music and theatre after the adoption of these terms for Traditional English. Linguistic artists and performers love this stuff.

Now try something just for fun. Try using these second person pronouns in regular Common English speech. It takes some practice, but not a whole lot. Once you get use to the proper objective and subjective case, it will get much easier. However, you'll start to notice something. The verbs don't sound quite right. The Common English verbs tend to clash with the Traditional English pronouns, and there is a reason for that. So what the authors of Traditional English did was dress up the verbs a little more carefully...

Common English Verbs
Present Tense Third Person
Past Tense

Traditional English Verbs
VerbPresent Tense Second PersonPresent Tense Third PersonPast Tense

Now granted, this can be a little more complicated, which is why it was almost never used in common everyday speech. However, when translating from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin into English, it is essential. This is how we know in the Scriptures who is giving and to whom. Remove these from the translation, and the text becomes more ambiguous. Again, a number of new doctrinal errors (heresies) can be attributed to Common English translations which don't pick up on this.

The following is an example of why this is all so important from a religious perspective. Below we have a popular passage from the New Testament which is constantly misinterpreted due to Common English translation...
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” -- Matthew 16:17-19 NIV (emphasis mine)
I've highlighted the word "you" in this passage to illustrate a point. In Common English, you cannot tell if the "you" is singular or plural. Now the context should seem pretty clear. Jesus is talking to Peter. But when I was an Evangelical Protestant, this interpretation was unacceptable, because it seemed that Jesus was vesting too much authority into one man, and that might lend to the Catholic understanding of the Petrine office of the papacy. So this is what was commonly done. Our pastor, or group leader, would say that when the word "you" is used in the highlighted portions above, Jesus was really speaking to all of the apostles, and he was telling them that they all had this authority. This in turn means the passage applies to all Christians in total, and Jesus is speaking in a broad and general sense. When we bind spiritual forces on earth, they are bound in heaven, and if we loose them on earth they will be loosed in heaven. Thus, you'll sometimes hear Evangelicals in prayer says such things as: "I bind this spirit of depression in the name of Jesus, and loose the healing of God." I've even heard some Evangelicals invoke the "keys" when doing this. This is actually a fairly common Evangelical misinterpretation of the passage.

Now let's look at that passage again in Traditional English from the King James Bible...
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. -- Matthew 16:17-19 KJV (emphasis mine)
You can clearly see here from the second person singular pronouns "thee" and "thou" that Jesus can only be speaking to one person -- Peter -- and he cannot be speaking to anyone else. This eliminates all misinterpretation of the passage. Only Peter is given the "keys" to "bind" and "loose", nobody else. So when properly interpreted, using a form of English designed to interpret the case of Greek pronouns, we get an interpretation of the passage that strongly supports the Petrine office of the papacy.

Then we have another example with this verse, when Jesus said to Peter...
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,  but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” -- Luke 22:31-32 ESV (emphasis mine)
Now the Common English translation of the original Greek here does not specify exactly who Jesus is talking about when he says "you". The impression one gets when reading this particular Common English translation is that Peter is the sole object when Jesus says the pronouns "you" and "your". Thus the typical Protestant interpretation is that Jesus is prophesying that Peter would fall, denying him three times after Christ's arrest, and then be restored later. That's it. There is nothing really significant in this passage, other than the fact that Jesus is telling Peter he knows the future. But there's a problem here. Jesus is so much more specific with Peter in the following verse, where he specifically tells Peter that he will deny him three times. Why such a vague reference in the previous verse then? Is Jesus just repeating himself? The answer is in this Traditional English translation from the Douay–Rheims Bible...
And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren. -- Luke 22:31-32 DRV (emphasis mine)
Whoa! What just happened here? Jesus just switched pronouns in the middle of a passage. He went from second person plural to second person singular. This is something that is easily rendered in Greek, but Common English misses it entirely. Thankfully Traditional English picks up on it. Remember from above, the pronouns "ye" and "you" are always second person PLURAL. While the pronouns "thee", "thy" and "thou" are always second person SINGULAR. Jesus is talking about two different people here. The first "you" is Peter plus the group of apostles. The second "thee" and "thou" is Simon Peter himself.

Allow me to illustrate using my own personal translation into Common English...
And the Lord said: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have all you disciples, that he might sift all of you like wheat,  but I have prayed for you personally that your faith may not fail. And when you personally have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” -- Luke 22:31-32 SEV (Schaetzel English Version)
Then Peter goes on to say he will never deny him, and Jesus responds with that famous passage that assuredly Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crows. So what are we to make of this? Jesus just told Peter he prayed for him. Then he told him he would fall. Are we to assume God the Father did not answer Jesus' prayer? Are we to assume Jesus' prayer was a fail? No. It's quite the opposite really. The clarity comes in the Traditional English rendering of the plural followed by the singular pronouns. The last sentence is the give away. The prayer of Jesus didn't apply to before Peter's fall. It applied to after he had been restored. Jesus knew Peter's faith would fail, but he prayed that after he was restored, it would never fail again. He didn't do this for the other apostles, just Simon Peter. So from this passage of Scripture we know that Peter really would be the one apostle most qualified to strengthen (confirm) his brethren, because by supernatural grace, granted by the prayer of Jesus Christ, his faith could not fail again. So here we have yet another Biblical passage strongly supporting the Petrine office of the papacy. Peter, and by extension his successors, would be protected by a special divine grace that would make it impossible for him to lose faith, or officially teach anything contrary to the faith. Jesus didn't ask this for any of the other apostles, and their successors. So they, or their successors, could have their faith fail, and even teach something contrary to the faith. Not so for Peter and his successors. Peter, and his successors, exercising the Petrine ministry, would be protected by this prayer of Jesus, and therefore able to strengthen (confirm) the others. Such an interpretation of this passage would be virtually impossible using a simple Common English translation without adding words that aren't there in the original Greek, because it completely misses the Greek pronoun case. However, Traditional English picks up on this Greek pronoun case and gives us a greater degree of clarity.

My entire religious life has been about the search for clarity. By that I mean clarity in Christian doctrine, practice and Scripture. Common English is fine for speaking around the house and out in public. In fact, it's one of the most versatile languages in the world. It's also the third most widely spoken language in the world, behind (1) Mandarin Chinese and (2) Spanish. It's actually a great language, with a lot of history, a nearly perfect mixture of German and Latin. Yet if we want to understand it fully, we need to understand this aspect of it. Traditional English is what made our understanding of ancient languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin) more precise, and it's what gave birth to our golden age of music, poetry and theatre. For the next few years I'll be working with my children on Traditional English, so that by the time they get into high school grade levels, they'll be able to read Shakespeare and the English classics with understanding and appreciation. They'll also be able to decipher the Traditional English bibles and liturgy with ease.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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The Lab Manager said…
I'm not much of a Christian, but I've watched many a documentary about the Bible and its translations over the years.

As I see it, we will probably never know the full truth. Even the best scholars of King James's day probably made some errors when translating the Greek and other texts. One issue as your post hints at is that language sometimes has words that have cultural connections. I'm sure some of the words today in modern English will have no connection to those in the future. Likewise with translating ancient text.

As for Shakespeare, I never got excited about him in English class. Then I found out later when you read some history, his plays were for the common proles. Maybe Stephen King and the like will become great literature in the future. :LOL:
Howard said…
My understanding is that the ordinary speech at the time the King James and Douay-Rheims Bibles were translated still included "thee" and "thou".

Also, I don't much like the way you have described even the everyday English pronouns. Take, for example, your distinction between "your" and "yours". I'm not at all sure what you mean by "(possessive, objective)", but it seems to mean the possessive pronoun (acting like an adjective) for a noun in the objective case. That's not how it is really used, though. One might indeed say, "Your car is in my way," but certainly not, "I dented yours car." About the only time "yours" is ever used is as a predicate adjective: "This car is mine, and that car is yours." Oh, and "mine" used to also be used exactly the same way "my" is used, but when the next word started with a vowel sound, much like we still do with "a" and "an". That usage has dropped out of everyday English, though.
ALG Bass said…
The DRC is good, but this shows why we need a King James Version - Catholic Edition.