E. J. Wilson D.O.

When one is given the task of translating scripture that was written in another language, one must decide on the target language. It is not enough to say whether the target language is, for example, English or Chinese. In some languages, there is more than one form of written language. For example, in Norway there are two acceptable written forms of the Norwegian language: Bokmål and Nynorsk. And even in English, there are orthographic and lexical differences between British English and American English. And there are also various dialectical differences within those two groups. But most importantly, for the translation of scriptures, is the choice between the archaic language of the King James Bible (hereinafter referred to as “Elizabethan English”) and what we in America sometimes call “Standard American English.”

The choice, therefore, in the case of translators working with English, is one between attempting to translate into the plainest possible language, in order to give readers, the greatest likelihood of understanding what the original writers meant, or choosing instead a form which is identified somehow as “sacred” by the majority of readers, and therefore most likely to be viewed by them as actual scripture.

The King James Legacy

Because the King James Bible has so long been associated with religious life in the English-speaking world, translators of scripture have often tried to emulate the language contained therein. For example, both Agnes Lewis 1 and F. Crawford Burkitt 2 both used that archaizing technique, working on translations of the Syriac versions of the Gospels shortly before and after the beginning of the 20th century respectively. This was also the choice of Joseph Smith in writing the Book of Mormon in the early part of the 19th century. This practice was probably a wise choice in those days, because the language of the KJV was so closely tied to the idea of religion that any translation into the then current vernacular would most likely have been rejected, because the lack of “thee's and thou's” would have meant that the emotional response elicited by those words – conditioned by the long association with the KJV – would have been missing.

Let us now examine the issue of why those archaic words elicit an emotional response associated with religious feelings. That response has led us to assume that language is somehow “holy.” But was it really holy in the beginning? In fact, it was not. In the beginning is was the street language of the time.

When the early English translators, such as John Wycliffe in the 14th century and William Tyndale in the early 16th century, began their work, they were not trying to put the scriptures into a “holy” language. On the contrary – if any language was considered holy at that time, it was Latin, because that had been the language of scriptures for over a thousand years. But the common people could not read Latin, so Wycliffe and Tyndale were intent on rendering the scriptures into the common language of the people of all classes. Admittedly, Tyndale in particular was instrumental in modifying English usage, and that was because in his translation he was influenced heavily by Greek syntax, and after his Bible translation became widely disseminated, these changes in syntax became part of the spoken vernacular.

The “thee's and thou's” in Tyndale's text, were not put in there because he was trying to use an “elevated” language. They were merely part of the spoken tongue at the time. As in most European languages, there were separate pronouns for addressing one person (i. e. 2nd person singular) and for addressing more than one person (2nd person plural). “Thou” was used when talking to one person if the pronoun was in the subjective case, e.g. “Thou art my king.” When talking to one person, if the pronoun was the object of a preposition or a transitive verb, then the appropriate form was “thee,” e.g. “I have seen thee at the well.”

When talking to more than one person, “ye” was used for the subjective case, as in “What come ye out to see?” If the pronoun was the object of a proposition or verb, then “you” was used; e.g. “I show unto you these things. . . .”

Why did “thou,” “thee,” and “ye” Disappear from the Spoken Language?

Over time, languages tend toward simplification, which often expresses itself in loss of case endings in nouns (cf. Latin which has several cases for nouns, whereas languages which are the descendants of Latin, generally lost all case inflections, e.g. Spanish and French). In some cases, however, there is also a reduction in the number of personal pronouns. For example, modern English lost three of its four personal pronouns (ignoring the possessive pronouns) so that “you” is now used for both singular and plural; and also for both subjective and objective cases. But there was another phenomenon that influenced the loss of “thee” and “thou,” while preserving the plural form “you.”

During the Middle Ages, and influenced perhaps by the changes in the upper classes resulting to a great extent from the European Renaissance, a movement toward greater and more widespread polity developed, resulting ultimately in the ideals of the Middle Ages that involved the concepts of chivalry and the eventual development of the Romantic movement in German lands and elsewhere. With these developments was a concurrent shift in the use of personal pronouns in an effort to be more polite in addressing other people (imitating the Hofart where the movement started). Thus, attempts were made in several European languages to avoid the use of the normal personal pronoun for second person singular (English thou), because this was considered to be the lowest form of address. After all, a person addressed his dog with thou!

This is extremely important to note, so I will repeat it. Thou was not in any way, shape or form a special, elevated word; it was a word that was so common (in the derogatory sense), that it was not to be used in polite company! In Germany several possibilities were tried: in the 18th century, Lessing used the word Er (literally “he”) as a form of address to a single person. 3 Later on, when Joseph von Eichendorff wrote his Marmorbild in 1817, he used Ihr (lit. “you” plural) as the 2nd person singular. This is an important development, because it mirrors the phenomenon that took place in English, viz. viewing the 2nd person plural as more polite than the 2nd person singular. 4 This very same process took place in French, so that the original 2nd person singular tu is replaced by the plural pronoun vous when addressing people who merit more respect (e.g. people older than oneself, strangers, people in higher social stations etc.). Likewise, in English, the 2nd person plural replaced the singular form – at first in polite speech only, but eventually in all speech.

During the time of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the language used in the KJV was best represented in the writings of Shakespeare, who also lived into the reign of James I – hence the language of the KJV may appropriately be referred to as “Elizabethan English.” And in Shakespeare's writing, the use of “you” as a polite form of address for a single person (i.e. the 2nd plural form being used for 2nd singular address) already appears. For example, in Henry V we find the Archbishop of Canterbury addressing the king using the 2nd person plural pronoun. 5 So the honorifics were already changing during that time. But if that is the case, why is that not reflected in the KJV? The answer is that the KJV translators were translating exactly what they saw in the Hebrew and Greek, where there were no such honorifics in terms of the personal pronouns used. In Hebrew, if one was speaking to a single being – whether it was one's pet, or deity himself – the same 2nd singular pronoun was used, and this was then reflected in the KJV usage, which attempted to be as literal as possible. Thus the English in the KJV was not in any way considered to be “sacred language” or any other form of elevated language when it first appeared. On the contrary, it was the language of the common man. But as time went on, and the pronoun usage in the common parlance changed, the language of the KJV began to sound more and more strange, and this archaic sound eventually was assumed to be in some way of special religious significance because it was no longer heard anywhere but in church, or when one read the KJV. Hence the perception that persisted into the early days of American nationhood, that this Elizabethan language was in some way “sacred.”

The Problems Created by the Usage of Archaic Language

The first problem with the use of Elizabethan English is the fact that no one today can use it correctly. In our LDS meetings, we constantly hear people end sacrament talks or testimonies by saying “in the name of thy son . . .” while looking directly at the audience. They have no idea that the word thy means “your.” And because it means “your,” it can only be used appropriately when speaking directly to Heavenly Father, i.e. in prayer. It also cannot be used in blessings or confirmations. I once was presiding over a baptism and the missionary who was performing the confirmation closed the blessing part with “in the name of thy son . . .” I explained to the missionary that this sister did not have a son by that name and made him do it over. He did, and said the same thing. In all, it took him four tries to get it right. Furthermore, people who do try to use thee or thou frequently have no idea which one is supposed to be used as a subject and which is to be used in the objective case. So, we have people saying things like, “We are grateful that thee are here with us today. . .” Where I live, in the mission field, this causes considerable embarrassment to new converts in particular.

There is also a problem with vocabulary that interferes with the comprehension of the message. For example, meat in the KJV does not mean what it does today. It simply meant “food.” And example of this is I Kings 19:8 and another is Matt. 6:25. In the first case, the Hebrew word clearly means “food” and not “meat” in the modern sense, and in the second case the Greek word likewise means “food” and not “meat.” When the KJV translators wanted to give the sense of animal muscle being used for victuals, they said “flesh” as in the “fleshpots of Egypt.”

Another commonly misunderstood word is “suffer,” which often means “permit” in the KJV. Likewise, the word “coasts” is often used when referring to landlocked locations, which obviously have no beaches, and thus no “coasts” in the modern sense. They concept they are trying to translate is that of “boundaries.” Hence, if anyone were to try to translate scriptures into Elizabethan English today, he would necessarily not only have to become expert in the grammar, he would also have to change much of his vocabulary to be consistent with the archaic meanings of many English words. This would, in turn, lead to the same types of confusion that occur with the King James Version.

Indeed, we see examples that arose in the writing of the Book of Mormon because of the difficulty of trying to put a message into an archaic language (which Joseph Smith probably did because of reasons given above). The “mistakes” in the Book of Mormon or D&C may reflect Joseph Smith's idiolect 6 in some cases, but his misunderstanding of Elizabethan English in other cases. As an example of the former, In I Nephi 17:30 we read: “And not withstanding they being led . . .” Now, since we are dealing with a gerund in that phrase, the grammatically correct wording would be: “And not withstanding their being led . . .” But the latter usage was obviously not part of Joseph's idiolect. Does this mistake detract from the message? Not in the least. In fact, for me, it strengthens my testimony to see that the Lord does indeed use the weak things of the earth to break down the mighty and strong (cf. D&C 1:19).

There are also numerous instances of singular verbs being used with plural nouns and vice versa in the Book of Mormon, and these may also be a result of Joseph's idiolect, but as an example of difficulties caused by trying to imitate Elizabethan English, we may site I Nephi 17:19. When Nephi's brothers are berating him, they first address him as ye, but in the same verse also address him as thou. The latter is correct, because they were talking to only one person. There are many more instances of such pronoun confusion, but in all fairness, I must admit that even in the Hebrew of the Old Testament there seem to be occasional vacillations between the singular and the plural forms of the second person pronouns. Nevertheless, in Joseph's case, this seems to be mainly due to his unfamiliarity with Elizabethan grammatical rules. Again, this does not diminish the value of the Book of Mormon, for the doctrine is indeed perfect, and the mistakes are those of the man, not of God. But we cannot condemn Joseph for making a few mistakes, because the Lord often (perhaps always) choses the weak things, and in this regard, even Nephi admitted his weakness in writing (II Nephi 33:11).

In this context, it might also be mentioned that there are now many languages in use in the Church, and many of them have no archaic language in which sacred writings have been handed down, and therefore no concept of a “holy” language. Therefore the Lord can only speak to them through their current, daily language. 7 This in itself, militates against the idea that he would give a holy language to one group of people and not to other groups.

Why the use of Plain Language is a Scriptural Concept and a Timely Desideratum

Nephi states: “For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. . .” [II Nephi 31:3]

Many years ago I was listening to tapes of General Conference talks that had been given in the early 1970's. In one of the talks, the speaker said that is not enough to speak so plainly that people can understand you, you have to speak so plainly that they can't MISUNDERSTAND you! He went on to say that that is one of the principles inherent in the Book of Mormon. This is the way the Lord speaks to us. The second half of the verse quoted above says, “. . . For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” 8

This statement is of crucial importance, because it tells us that a man does not have to be a grammarian to be a prophet. Indeed, it means that the Lord speaks to each person in a way that he will best understand, and that means that he speaks to him (or her) not only in that person's language, but in their particular dialect (a “poke” in West Virginia or Kentucky may mean what folks in Ohio would call a “brown paper bag”), and even in his or her own idiolect (mentioned above). But for practical reasons, the closest we can come to that ideal is to present scriptures to people in the most common and acceptable form of their national language. In fact, this has been happening in recent years. For example, the proclamation on the family was not written in archaic form, but rather in Standard American English, i.e. the English currently in use in the US.

This brings me to the real intent of this scribbling. We know that additional scriptures will be brought forth in the future, and of those, we may expect the writings of the 10 tribes to be coming forth in the not too distant future (II Nephi 29:13). Indeed, Elder Oaks suggested in a 2005 conference address that they might even come out of the earth in the same manner as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Therefore we will have to translate them into English as well as other languages, and having done a fair amount of translating of scriptures (e.g. the two oldest Syriac versions of the Gospels), I can attest that translating these things into modern English already present many challenges, and trying to simultaneously render them into an archaic style of English would seriously increase the difficulty of translating and also create numerous, otherwise avoidable, problems in understanding for the future readers of those accounts. Like the Declaration on the Family, all future scriptures must be as clear and as understandable as possible.


1. Some pages of the Four Gospels re-transcribed from the Sinaitic Palimpsest with a Translation of the Whole Text, London:C. J. Clay and Sons, 1896
2. Evangelion da-Mapharreshe (2 volumes), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904
3. cf. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Minna von Barnhelm, Act 1, Scene 2.
4. In German, however, this form did not become a permanent part of the German language, and today the word Sie (lit. “they”) is used for politely addressing either one or more people.
5. Act I, scene 1.
6. i.e. the vocabulary and word usage unique to that individual.
7. The most obvious exception is Arabic, where Qur'anic Arabic is viewed as sacred.
8. Italics mine