The Language of the KJV
The KJV is not written in modern colloquialism. There are indeed many archaic elements
to the language, but many people exaggerate the extent of the KJV's archaicness.
Whenever a portion of the KJV does not sound like modern colloquial English, many
readers are quick to criticize it as an archaism. However, much of the KJV’s peculiar
style is due to the KJV’s faithful translation of the underlying Hebrew and Greek
texts. In the national bestseller, God's Secretaries, Adam Nicolson observes, "These
scholars [working on the KJV] were not pulling the language of the scriptures into
the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Version are
just as much English pushed towards the conditions of a foreign language as a foreign
language translated into English" (211). The push of English towards Hebrew and
Greek is for the sake of accurately conveying the meaning and style of the original
scriptures. This page describes some of the ways in which this push towards Hebrew
and Greek style and grammar produced the distinct language of the KJV. For additional
help, a basic guide to the more difficult language of the KJV is available on this
website at this link: Language Guide
Things that are not mere archaisms
Second-person pronoun distinction:
Perhaps the first thing that many people identify as an archaism in the KJV is the
use of "thee’s" and "thou’s." The KJV uses these pronouns in order to distinguish
between the second-person singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) and the second-person
plural (ye, you, your, yours). The Greek and Hebrew make this distinction.
This distinction is crucial for a close reading of the Bible. See Galatians 6:1
for example: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual,
restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also
be tempted." By paying close attention to the pronouns, we see that the restoration
of a faulted individual is the responsibility of not just one person but of many
("ye" which are spiritual) but each individual must examine his own integrity (considering
"thyself"). We cannot extract these helpful teachings on communal responsibility
and individual responsibility from this passage unless the distinctions in pronouns
are translated. Other passages where the distinction in a pronoun's person is important
are Exodus 4:15, Exodus 29:42, 2 Samuel 7:23, Matthew 26:64, Luke 22:31-32, John
3:7, 1 Corinthians 8:9-12, 2 Timothy 4:22, Titus 3:15, Philemon 21-25, to name a
Many modern languages such as French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese retain
this distinction between singular and plural second person pronouns. Moreover, although
"thou" and "ye" may be archaic, they are not unfamiliar. We do not use these pronouns
in colloquial speech, but we still use them when we sing hymns (even contemporary
praise songs) to God and to the congregation. We sing "Be thou my vision" in the
song titled thus, and "Prepare ye the way of the Lord" in the song, "Days of Elijah."
At every hockey game Canadians sing their national anthem, "O Canada," which mentions
"thy" once and "thee" four times in one stanza. The song became the official Canadian
national anthem as recently as in July 1, 1980 and remains a national favorite.
Canadian children do not have any problem understanding the meaning of "thy" and
"thee." Although "thou" and "ye" may not be parts of colloquial speech, they are
certainly not obsolete if we still use them in songs, prose, or the Bible when there
are good grammatical, metrical, or stylistic reasons to use them.
Imperatives with subjects:
Imperative statements are commands. For example, "Praise the LORD" is an imperative
statement. In modern imperative statements the subject is often not stated. One
could say, "You, praise the LORD," but it is customary to omit the subject. If the
KJV were to state the above, it might say, "Praise thou the LORD" or "Praise ye
the LORD." Such structures may seem peculiar to the modern reader. Most modern grammar
books might say that it is unnecessary to indicate the subject in imperative statements
because the subject is always "you." However, this rule is not wholly accurate.
There are two kinds of "you" – the singular "you," which is "thou," and the plural
"you," which is "ye." This distinction can be important. For example, Psalm 104:35
says, "Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD." In this statement, the
speaker says to his own self (his soul), "Bless thou the LORD." Using "thou," his
imperative statement to "bless" is addressed only to his own soul. However, the
speaker follows up with "Praise ye the LORD," which is an imperative statement addressed
to others. In this passage, the speaker begins commanding himself first, but he
concludes by commanding others. We do not get this fact when the imperative statements
do not indicate the person. For example, "Bless the LORD, O my soul! Praise the
LORD!" in the ESV reads as if the speaker is telling his soul once again to praise
the LORD. In the ESV the speaker seems to conclude the psalm with the focus on himself
whereas in the KJV the speaker clearly concludes the psalm with the focus on others.
Thus the use of personal pronouns in imperative statements serves a grammatical
and semantic purpose.
The vocative case is used when addressing a second person in a non-imperative statement
with a noun instead of the second person pronoun "you." An example is in Matthew
6:9 which says, "Our Father, which art in heaven." Today we are less inclined to
say "Our Father, who ARE in heaven." It seems more natural to say "Our Father, who
IS in heaven." The peculiarity of the KJV is based on the faithful translation of
the vocative case. This is not an archaism but a faithful translation of the Greek
which has the vocative case.
The KJV preserves lexicographical and syntactical Hebraisms (William Rosenau, Hebraisms
in the Authorized Version of the Bible, Lord Baltimore Press (1902)). Many readers
mistake these Hebraisms for archaisms. Most contemporary translations, in an attempt
to make the Bible sound more familiar to readers, dilute the Hebrew style of the
Bible. Much of the peculiar language of the KJV is due to its faithful mimicry of
the Hebrew language. Expressions such as the Hebraic anticipatorial accusative ("God
saw the light, that it was good" Genesis 1:4) and Hebraic double prepositions ("Abram
went up out of Egypt" Genesis 13:1) are examples of Hebraisms. Acclaimed Greek teacher
John H. Dobson, author of Learn New Testament Greek, 3rd ed, Baker Academic (2005),
invites his students to pay close attention to the Hebraic influence in the Greek
New Testament. Due to his apparent preference for dynamic translations, he does
not seem to prefer the KJV. However, he acknowledges that the KJV "follows Hebrew
style more closely than a modern translator would normally do" (305).
In the New Testament, the KJV often follows the Greek word order more closely than
most translations. These can also be confused with archaisms. For example, Matthew
17:19 says, "Then came the disciples to Jesus." This syntax, which has the verb
preceding the subject, may seem peculiar to contemporary English-speaking audiences;
but the word order in the KJV follows the Greek word order ("τοτε προσελθοντες οι
μαθηται τω ιησου"). Mimicking the exact style and structure of the Greek can sometimes
preserve what is emphasized in the Greek. Another feature common in the KJV is the
historical present tense. The KJV often uses the present tense to describe past
action: e.g. "Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John" (Matthew 3:13).
This is because the KJV faithfully translates the Greek which is also in the present
tense. Greek writers used the historical present tense to add emphasis to important
past actions. The historical present tense has the effect of making past narratives
more vivid. Modern translations unfortunately blur this effect by translating the
historical present tense in the simple past tense.
More accurate equivalents:
Sometimes an archaic word in the KJV is more accurate in translating the Hebrew
or Greek than a modern equivalent found in modern translations. For example, "bewray"
at Matthew 26:73 seems archaic. The verse reads, "And after a while came unto him
they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy
speech bewrayeth thee." The modern ESV says, "After a little while the bystanders
came up and said to Peter, "Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays
you."". "Bewray" is not merely the modern equivalent of "betray". "Bewray" is a
more nuanced word which has the connotation of "divulge" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
So "bewray" in its full implication means "to betray by revealing". What happened
in Matthew 26:73 was that Peter's Galilean speech "revealed" his association with
Jesus which in effect "betrayed" (implicated) him. The Greek word at Matthew 26:73
is δηλον which is translated as "evident" in Galatians 3:11 in both the KJV and
ESV. Clearly the word has the connotation of revealing something, not just betraying.
When faced with an "old" word in the KJV, it is fruitful to confirm whether the
old word is more accurate before brushing it off as a mere archaism.
The Bible is God's "testament" or "covenant" to humanity. As such, the Bible is
a legal document. Not to mention that some books of the Bible are literally legal
documents. The phrase "legal document" might not connote the same warm and fuzzy
feeling as would the phrase "love letter" (as some might describe the Bible) but
the truth is that the more intimate we are with someone, the more we enter into
meaningful legal agreements with that person. A marriage is a legal covenant. Family
inheritances are conferred through wills and trusts. Any flirt can write a "love
letter," but only a true lover will issue a legally binding marriage certificate
or a will to bestow one's assets. The Bible is not just a "love letter" - it is
God's covenant signed by the blood of his Son. Thus the Bible employs many legal
words that we may not use on a daily basis: thereof, thereby, therein, hereby, herein,
whereof, whereby, wherein, wherefore. These words are accurate legal terms which
incidentally remind us that the Bible is indeed a collection of two "Testaments."
These words are not archaisms because they are still used in legal writing.
British words and idioms:
Some words and idioms may seem archaic to a North American, but they may be very
familiar to the British or citizens of other commonwealth nations. There are millions
of readers outside of North America who understand these British words and idioms.
For example, the words "plaiting" (1 Peter 3:3) may be unfamiliar to North Americans,
but is familiar to the British. Moreover, some British words may become familiar
to North Americans through popular novels or movies from Britain. For example, "schoolmaster"
(Galatians 3:24-25) is more commonly used in Britain than in North America. However,
with the success of the Harry Potter novels (albeit their controversy among Christians),
the word "schoolmaster" has become familiar to North American children. As advocates
of modern translations say, language is always in flux. If that were true, however,
a word that becomes "obsolete" might become standard again with its use in just
one popular novel or movie. We must be careful so that we do not deem a word as
being obsolete too readily.
Preservation of ambiguity in the original languages:
The KJV uses "which" to refer to people. This is considered problematic by some
critics. However, there is good reason to use "which" instead of "who" where the
context is unclear as to whether a thing or a person is being referred to. For example,
1 Peter 1:23 says, "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible,
by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." The clause, "which liveth
and abideth for ever" could refer either to "the word" or to "God." The clause could
be saying either that the word of God lives and abides for ever or that God lives
and abides for ever. The ambiguity is present in the Greek and so the KJV makes
Supposedly archaic words that are preserved in jargons:
Some words that are deemed archaic are actually still used frequently by some segment
of the population as terms of art. For example, "let" (Romans 1:13) is considered
to be a prime example of an archaic word in the KJV ("let" in this usage means "hindered").
However, the term "without let or hindrance" is used in the passport notes of Britain,
Canada, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Thus people
who work with immigration, such as border guards, lawyers, policy makers, and many
educated people are familiar with the term "without let or hindrance." This makes
"let" a jargon rather than an archaism. Also, anybody who plays or watches tennis
will know that a "let" is called when a stroke does not count and hinders the gameplay.
Thus a word such as "let" may be infrequently used today, but it is not entirely
Some constructions that may seem archaic are actually constructed as such for poetic
effect. The phrase "...all the places where David himself and his men were wont
to haunt" (1 Samuel 30:31) is not common speech, but the rhyming phrase "wont to
haunt" is more poetic than "accustomed to go" (NASB). Also the phrase "despise dominion"
in Jude 1:8 does not consist of the most "up-to-date" vocabulary. The ESV says "reject
authority". However, "despite dominion" is an alliteration. In fact, the entire
line "...these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil
of dignities" is a five-fold alliteration of the letter D. This is KJV poetry at
its finest. The letter D is a plosive, a consonant produced in the mouth by a strong
sudden stoppage of airflow. It is the most fitting consonant in a verse such as
Jude 1:8 where the speaker is shooting out words of condemnation like bullets from
a machine gun. While a Bible does not have to have rhymes and alliterations to convey
the message of God, poetry helps memorization.
Things that are actually archaisms
Archaic spellings and forms:
The KJV has some archaic spellings and forms of words such as "spake" and "shew."
These can certainly be updated without changing the meaning of the text. They serve
no special grammatical or semantic purpose. However, their meanings are not difficult
to ascertain from the context and from their close resemblance with their modern
Familiar archaic words:
Some words have an archaic flavour, but are nonetheless familiar. These typically
do not cause any comprehension problem for a reader. For example, "thou" might seem
archaic, but its meaning is known to the typical reader. After reading the KJV habitually
these archaic words begin to sound as natural as any other modern word. Words such
as "thou" (singular 2nd person pronoun) and "ye" (plural 2nd person pronoun) are
certainly more familiar to an English speaker than the Hebrew and Greek equivalents.
By reading the KJV instead of a modern translation, a Christian can benefit from
the grammatical distinction between the singular and plural second-person pronouns
without learning Hebrew or Greek.
Unfamiliarly archaic words that can be discerned by the context:
Many archaic words in the KJV can be discerned by the context. Judges 3:21-22 says,
"And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and
thrust it into his belly: And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat
closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly;" "Haft"
is archaic, but there is no problem figuring out that it is a part of the dagger
that is opposite to the blade. These archaic words cause no problem in comprehension;
moreover, they may appear often in passages that do not have much theological significance.
Unfamiliarly archaic words that cannot be discerned by the context:
That leaves us with archaic words that are unfamiliar that cannot be discerned by
the context. Such words could cause problems with comprehension. However, such words
do not appear in the KJV as often as one might expect. For example, in the Gospel
of John the only unfamiliarly obsolete words are "listeth" (John 3:8) and "wist"
(John 5:13). "To list" (related to "lust") means "to desire," and "to wist" (related
to "wise") means "to know." There are some books with more archaic words than just
two, but many of these words can be understood by the context.
However, even an unfamiliarly archaic word can become familiar again. For example,
before the outbreak of the swine flu (H1N1) many children in North America may not
have known the meaning of "swine." Thus the NIV and ESV use "pigs" instead of "swine."
Now, however, with the amount of hype around the swine flu, there is no child who
is unaware of the word and its meaning. Thus even unfamiliarly archaic words that
cannot be discerned by the context may be better off being learned rather than replaced.