THY (Our Father, Word by Word)

March 30, 2011 | 33 comments

Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed Be

“I like your new glasses, ” I said in Spanish to one of our friends from Mexico the other day. My grasp of the language is rusty enough that I always have to think carefully as I speak, and one word I was sure to get right was “your.” In Spanish there is a formal (“su”) and informal (“tu”) version of the word, and with our friend I was sure to say “su.” Though I am very familiar with her, having known her since I was a toddler, we are not quite close enough that it would be appropriate for me to say “tu, ” and thus I use formal address when I speak to her.

It was stunning, then, when I came across a Spanish translation of the Our Father and saw that the word “thy” is translated as “tu.” Informal.

In English we don’t have formal and informal words, but there is an old tradition of addressing people in high places differently: in fact, when subjects addressed royalty, they didn’t typically say “thy” or “your” at all. If someone were to ask a queen if she wanted tea, they wouldn’t say, “Would you like your tea now?” but rather, “Would Her Majesty like her tea now?” Not speaking directly to her would be a sign of deference to her high position.

And so it is a shock that not only are we allowed to address the King of all, the Creator of every single thing that exists, directly, but that we are encouraged to refer to him in a casual way. I wouldn’t speak to my Spanish-speaking neighbor down the street using “tu.” He’s not a close friend. And yet this is how I am told to speak to the One to whom I owe my entire existence.

I believe that it is with this word, this informal “thy, ” that the shocking message of John 15:15 hits home. For Jesus turned our entire understanding of our relationship to God on its head when he told us, “I no longer call you servants…Instead, I have called you friends.”


What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “Thy”?


  1. priest's wife

    I’m glad you brought this up- because we don’t speak with Thees and Yhous anymore, many people assume it is formal- nope!

  2. NoraB

    Yes…certainly something that differentiates the Christian framework for relating to the Almighty – Isn’t a more correct translation of “Abba” Daddy? Wouldn’t it be great if we could really understand that, deep in our souls? I had an interesting conversation with my RCIA partner, as she was trying to understand not only how to think of God the Father as a loving Dad, but also how he sees us. “More like a very sweet, tho sometimes errant toddler, I think, than a rebellious adolescent.” was my best guess. A loving Daddy, “tu” would just scoop a toddler up after a bad fall, knowing that little one will get more steady over time.

    • Magnificat

      In my native language there is a clear distinction between formal and informal “you”. From early childhood I was used to “thy” in “Our Father” and it was so normal to me: we don’t address our earthy fathers informally, why should we do this with Our Heavenly Father who loves us even more?
      But I had my moment of amazement, when I found out that “Abba” is in fact “Daddy”. Can’t think of it enough.
      Language is a fascinating tool. I have Bible in several languages and often compare translations, and usually I’m blessed with so many aha moments. I can only imagine what happens with people who know Biblical languages :-)).
      On the other hand, it makes me think how hard and responsible job it is – translating anything important, God’s Word especially.

  3. Melanie

    I thought I’d emerge from lurkerdom to just mention that it’s the same in German, which also distinguishes between a formal ‘Sie’ and an informal ‘Du’. It throws me a little every time I hear or say the Our Father in German, because it really brings home that familial closeness we are supposed to have with the Most High.

  4. Selah

    Thank you for this post.. it does address a very valid issue. I have heard the arguement before, but not quite as direct nor as clear as what you have stated. I personally believe that God is relational and desires a relationship with us. He not only wants us to acknowledge that he created all, but also that he desires to just talk with us.. almost like an old friend you have known all your life. You know the one you can talk to about anything (from your current relationship, to intimate issues, and parenting). There is nothing that he wants more then to have a relaxed dialouge with us.. his creation.It is mind bloggling to say the least, but at the same time I find it comforting. That the creator of the world would want a relationship with me.. WOW! Instead of trying to “fix” everything myself I can go to the one who created it all for help. What a wonderful circumstance. At least that is what I understand from John 15:15

  5. Cassi

    This is a great idea for a blog series. I’m a college student that taught a program called Totus Tuus ( ) last summer and we actually taught on the Our Father and split it up word by word as well. I wish I was an involved blogger then and you were writing these they would’ve been so helpful!

  6. Esther

    I am a student of Hungarian, in which there is also the personal “you.” Our Hungarian brothers and sisters also address the Lord–the Almighty–informally, as a friend.

    It’s also of interest to me, that both in Spanish and Hungarian (probably many other languages as well) there is a plural “you.” Many times we forget this when studying the Bible in English, because you just sounds like you. 🙂 But much of what is written in the epistles was written to “you” plural, to the church as a body of believers. It’s helpful to remind myself of that from time to time.

  7. Allie

    I love this! I have an interest in linguistics, and just seeing how much more deeply you can express some things in other languages that English has no facility for (and vice versa) is fascinating. And what a great application of it here!

  8. Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    I end up really thrown by the informality/intimacy, too! When people suggested that I ought to try prayer as part of my explorations of Christianity, I had to explain how totally disconnected I felt from God (since I don’t believe he exists) and that prayer therefore felt like awkward playacting (just try being intimate with someone you don’t think exists!). I tried a couple workarounds, and none of them did much for me. This may be the funniest one though, so I thought I’d share it:

    I had to suggest to my boyfriend that he offer a heads-up to God in his own prayer, so that I was not presumptively addressing someone to whom I had not been formally introduced.

  9. sara m

    In a college English class I took many years ago, the teacher told us that the only time we still use the informal word for “you” is when we talk to God. She said it in such a lovely way and it was so surprising to hear anything about God in my secular city college, during a night class filled mostly with students who didn’t want to be there. Though I was comfortable reading the King James version of the bible, it was news to me that that is what “thy” meant.

  10. Barbara

    Martin Buber writes about this, God as the “eternal Thou”. Way back when poetry used to address the lyrical beloved as “thou” as well. The term implies paradoxically both familiarity and reverence.

  11. Alexandra Kent

    That is a really nice thought! I think I remember one time that St. Therese of Lisieux and one of her sisters were talking about this very same thing. Saint Therese asked one of her sisters which she preferred when talking to God, the formal or informal, and her sister responded the informal and Therese agreed.

    I suppose that we take it for granted in English, as we lack the formal versus the informal, but it is nice to remember that for some people there is a huge difference that can really highlight their relationship and make it more personl. I will try to keep this in mind when praying. Thanks!

  12. Teresa

    How funny, I am currently volunteering in a Catholic-Mexican orphanage, and just recently I have been bothered by the informal adress in the Padre Nuestro. Of course the 6 year olds weren’t able to explain it, so GRACIAS!

  13. G. Scott

    In many languages, this differentiation is evident. It used to be the case in English. “Thou” was the informal, personal, while “you” was formal. Perhaps it’s why the phrase is “Thy” will be done and not “Your will be done.”

    In Polish, there is the same differentiation. Oddly enough, though, the formal voice makes use of the third person and the title “Pan” or “Pani,” which in this case would be translated “Mr.” or “Mrs.” So when you’re talking to someone formally in Polish, you say, “What does Mister think?” instead of “What do you think?” In other words, you address individuals in third person.

    “Pan,” however, literally translates to “Lord.” This caused me a great deal of confusion, living in Poland and learning the language, hearing God referred to in Mass as “Pan Bog.” “Mr. God?” I thought. I later learned the original meaning, and “Lord God” made a lot more sense.

    However, although the Poles use “Pan” as “Lord” and “Mister,” the pray to God in second person. So they used a formulation that in everyday speech is formal (“Pan”) with the informal person of the verb.

  14. Fred Astaire

    The word “Pope” comes from Papa, also an informal, loving, familiar term of address. We are just full of love here in the Catholic Church!

  15. Jason

    I had thought about this a lot when I realized that God was spoken to informally in the Spanish Bibles. (Apparently, though, in Paraguay “tu” is more formal than their formal you, “vos”, but less formal than “Usted”, although my wife can’t think of an example that she uses it other than for God). Then my Austrian aunt said it was the same way in German (as has been mentioned).

    I always thought Thou was very formal and that’s why we used it to address God. For the people I know who pray that way, it’s done out of respect. I think it’s pretty funny that it’s *basically* only used because of the King James Bible. I found out later that “thou”, as you said, isn’t formal at all. So the irony is that without realizing it, the folks I know who are trying to be so formal with their prayers are actually being quite informal! 🙂


  16. David

    Another interesting difference for me is that in English we ask the Father not to lead us into temptation. The translation from Spanish is that we ask the Father not to let us fall into temptation.

  17. Louise

    I was shocked the first time I realized that the Our Father in other languages uses the informal “your.” At the time I was bewildered and found it to be rather presumptuous. But now I have come to an understanding of why this form is used, and it is truly awesome. As you mention in your post, He has “called [us] friends”…how incredibly amazing is that? Thank you for this post, and for the entire series — really beautiful!

  18. Joanna

    While I agree with the observation in general, I don’t think it can be supported by various translations of the word used for “you” in the New Testament. If I still remember my long ago Greek course, both classical and Koine. Greek distinguish between singular and plural “you”, but unlike French or German, the two forms have nothing to do with degree of formality, intimacy or equality vs inequality; they just indicate number, like the distinction between “is” and “are”. Don’t know anything about modern Greek.

    BTW, I love your blog–especially the reading list.

  19. Liesl

    short and sweet, but this really resonates with me… i actually just published a post on Christ’s friendship with us right before I read this… so I had to go provide a link to this post!

  20. Julie @ The Corner With A View

    I love noticing grammar cross-overs and translations; isn’t it wonderful that our God wants to be so intimate with us?

  21. Laura

    Ha, I guess spanish being my first language, I never really gave it a second thought to adressing God informally, not only in the Our Father, but in every circumstance, which makes total sense to me 🙂

  22. SusanE

    When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I use the word “your” instead of “thy.” That’s the way we said it in my post-Vatican II, Catholic school days, and it’s held fast in my mind. I find it much more natural and intimate. Although I try not to be too obvious about it when I pray aloud, it makes people around me uncomfortable–as if I’m being disrespectful not using the word “thy.”

  23. Ed

    People address their parents, spouses and best friends as “tu”.
    Why should it be any different with God?
    In fact we should be even more informal with God, i think, because God lives in us – and He wants us to become closer and closer to Him.
    And, yet, we should never lose our fear (healthy fear) of Him, either. Paradox, i know. But always hoping that He will raise us to life in Him (please God), in The Trinity, after mortal death, where there will be no longer any fear-of-God – only complete, fulfilled union.

  24. Kat

    I love this post, Jennifer. God wants us to have a personal relationship with Him. I believe He is about relationship, not religion. He is after our hearts. Works and deeds mean nothing if we are not in a heart to heart relationship with Him. He wants us to desire his face and not just his hand. To know Jesus is to know real love, real life, the real God.

  25. AgnesRegina

    As a Spanish-speaker, I think I can explain… The thing is that in Spanish, formerly “tu” was the formal and “su” the informal, in the same way that in English “thou” used to be informal and “you” formal. (You never hear of anyone saying “THY majesty” in addressing a King/Queen – always “YOUR Majesty!”) At some point they flipped. But the Spanish translation of the prayer, for example, still shows the old sense of the “tu.”

    (Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is the explanation.)

    • AgnesRegina

      On the other hand, I like your idea too, Jen – that we use the (modern) informal because of God’s love and friendship for us. I think it’s a beautiful way to look at it.

  26. Teresa


    We have a plural “you” in Texas as well. (Just waiting for the rest of the English-speaking world to catch up.) It’s impossible to translate Latin correctly without it!

    • Esther

      That’s true, y’all do! And it’s quite useful. 🙂

  27. Ciska @ This Journey of my Life

    In my native language, Dutch, we also have a distinction between formal (u) and informal (je). However, in contrast with every comment above, we do use the formal ‘u’ in the Our Father. Using the informal ‘je’ is considered to be rude and disrespectful to God. Very few people use it. In fact, in the Netherlands, there are many people who even regard it as disrespectful if you don’t write God’s name in all capitals. In many bibles you will see LORD and GOD instead of Lord and God. Personally I feel that is taking it a bit far, but I do prefer the formal ‘u’ instead of the informal ‘je’ when adressing God.

  28. Lorena Oconnor

    He not only wants us to acknowledge that he created all, but also that he desires to just talk with us.. (Apparently, though, in Paraguay “tu” is more formal than their formal you, “vos”, but less formal than “Usted”, although my wife can’t think of an example that she uses it other than for God). That is a really nice thought!

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